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“That’s…IMPOSSIBLE! Nobody could feel a PEA beneath TWENTY MATTRESSES!!” “The Queen is almost as clever as the Fool.”
– Prince Richard and the Fool discovering the Queen’s implausible test and earning their snarky reviewer cred simultaneously
If you’ve ever been in community theater or took it up while in school, chances are you’ve been in either of the following productions at least once: Bye Bye Birdie, or Once Upon A Mattress. They’re frothy, light and fun shows that remain popular because they’re so easy to put on. Oddly enough, that was the main criticism Hans Christian Andersen received after penning the fairy tale Mattress is based on, The Princess and The Pea (my, it’s been a while since we’ve covered one of his narratives, hasn’t it?) Critics disliked the story’s laid-back tone and lack of morals and ripped into it like an old-school film auteur when asked about superhero movies. Despite the chilly reception, time was kind to The Princess and The Pea; when Andersen passed away, it was considered one of his most beloved stories.
As ol’ Hans tended to create his own fables as opposed to gathering them for posterity like the Brothers Grimm, I expected this to be a wholly original tale. Remarkably, there’s some precedence set by folktales spanning throughout Europe and Asia focusing on sensitivity as a mark of femininity. Sweden’s The Princess Who Lay On Seven Peas has the princess prove her pedigree by sleeping on, well, seven peas; she’s already aware of the test, though, thanks to being warned by her cat. An Italian story has a prince search for the most sensitive woman to make his bride, ending with him marrying a lady whose foot is injured by a falling flower petal. India’s variation, The Three Delicate Wives of Virtue-Banner, features a king solving a riddle about which of the maharajah’s wives is the most fragile. The earliest known story, however, is the medieval Islamic tale al-Nadirah. Though it’s likely all the previous stories originate from this one, the ending is less than happy. Princess al-Nadirah falls in love at first sight with the Persian king Shaupur I, betrays her father to him, and marries him – all while he’s in the middle of besieging her city, making this the first instance of Stockholm Syndrome before the term was even coined. She has trouble sleeping once they start sharing a bed, though. The culprit is a myrtle leaf found under the mattress. When Shapur asks how Nadirah can be so alarmingly delicate, she says it stems from how well her dad treated her. Shapur, appalled by how she could throw such a caring father under the bus, calls her out on her ingratitude and executes her. Well, there’s your morals for ya, backstab your family to bed a usurper and you get what you deserve.
Returning to the topic at hand, why has The Princess and The Pea grown into such a well-known fairy tale? What is it about it that makes it ripe for retelling? Some researchers believe it’s one of Andersen’s biting critiques of the upper-class; that the infamous mattress test pokes fun at the ridiculous measures taken by the nobility to prove their bloodlines pure. Others view it as another self-insert where Andersen expresses his longing to be part of the elite, and the extreme sensitivity he felt trying to fit in. As for me personally, the ridiculous and mirthful nature of the story is a nice break from some of Andersen’s more infamously dour tales. It’s endlessly optimistic, with the time-honored messages of not letting appearances deceive you and what’s on the inside that counts standing fully at the forefront – and it so easily lends itself to the romantic comedy genre. Today’s entry is the prime example of that. It boasts a lead in need of a partner who turns his worldview around, a love interest who’s more than what she seems, a comic relief best friend, a domineering mother figure and false-flag fiancées who provide obstacles, misunderstandings galore…the only thing that’s missing is a director’s credit for Garry Marshall.Continue reading