Monday, May 08, 2006

Childhood Misunderstandings: "The Princess and the Pea"

Edmund Dulac, "The Princess and the Pea"
(London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911)
(Image Borrowed from Wikipedia)

When I was in the second grade, our class read "The Princess and the Pea." Everyone knows this story by Hans Christian Andersen, of course, but either Andersen based his story on a familiar folk tale, or the version that I read had been adapted for young readers, for there were some minor differences and -- for me -- a major misunderstanding.

As I recall the story in my school reader, there was a young prince -- handsome, of course -- who was on a quest searching for a real princess, without success. It seems that there were far too many young ladies living in castles with their royal fathers but who somehow weren't real princesses.

What's a real princess? I wondered. I was soon to find out.

According to the story, the prince had given up on his quest and returned to his own castle to mope behind the moat.

One night, during a terrible storm, there came a knock at the door, and when they opened the door, there stood a rain-drenched young lady who claimed to be a real princess but offered no explanation for being out for a walk in somebody else's kingdom on such a dreadful night.

The old queen mother allowed her in and gave her a bed for the night but decided to test her royal nature.

The queen took a pea, put it into the bed to be readied for the supposed princess, and covered it with twenty mattresses. The princess, knowing nothing of the old queen's actions, climbed up onto the twentieth mattress and fell asleep.

Or tried to.

Apparently, she could feel the pea through all twenty of those mattresses!

Indeed, the young lady slept so badly that the queen mother concluded that the poor thing had to be a real princess because nobody but a real princess could have such a delicate skin.

The prince was so charmed by her delicate condition that he offered her his hand in marriage, and was accepted.

And because the pea had been so important in bringing them together, the young prince had it taken from the mattresses and put into a bottle that was then placed in their bedroom on a small table to remind them of how they had met.

What a bizarre story, I thought.

I even found the tale a bit disgusting. Why? Because in my childish ignorance I profoundly misread the story. Here's how I misunderstood the crucial parts:
The queen mother took a pee and put it into a bed under twenty mattresses. Despite all those mattresses, the young princess could feel the pee. This impressed the prince, who married her and kept the pee in a bottle as a reminder of how the pee had brought them together.

Thus did I, in my orthographic incompetence, misinterpret "pea" as "pee" and therefore assume that the queen "took a leak." And I was profoundly puzzled.

How did the pee soak through twenty mattresses? I wondered. And how in the world did the prince manage to get the pee back out of those twenty mattresses and into a bottle?

I asked my teacher, but she didn't seem to think that getting the pea out of the mattresses and into a bottle would pose any special difficulty: "They just took it out," she explained.

Concluding that adults were either a whole lot stupider or a whole lot smarter than I was, I stopped trying to understand them or their school for about three years and only started paying attention again in the fifth grade because I abruptly decided that I'd rather be certainly smart than possibly stupid.

And now, you all know the secrete of my success...


At 10:05 AM, Blogger steph said...

secrete pee?!!

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...


Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:36 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

:D I always thought this story was sooooo annoying. I always retold it to SaurKid, with the Princess being a wily commoner who had the sense to figure that something was up when there were 20 mattresses to be managed, so she got up and banged herself about a bit to pretend the pea had disturbed her. But I never confused it with "pee". Ya got me beat, there.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Here's a song my girls used to sing:

Edelweiss, Edelweiss,
Every morning you greet me,
Small and White,
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me..

Blossoms of snow may your blue men grow,
Blue men grow forever

Edelweiss Edelweiss
Bless my home land forever

I guess it was about ET. It took me years before I realized their interpretation.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Saur, I would have preferred your story ... but no self-respecting commoner would put up with pee-stained mattress!

JJ, that's amusing. On a related note, as a kid in church, I used to wonder why we were singing about "Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear" instead of Jesus -- though I did feel sort of sorry for the poor beast.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:01 AM, Blogger Madman of Chu said...

A playmate actually told me this story after suffering the same orthographic confusion as the Gypsy Scholar, stating directly that the queen "took a leak" under the mattress. I of course, understood him to mean "took a leek," which radically altered the story's significance. "Well, the wait of the mattresses crushed the leek and she SMELLED it," thought I, "She didn't feel diddlysquat, the liar! Princess my eye!" When I heard the story told faithfully many years later it induced a state of shock from which I have only slowly begun to recover.

At 5:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Madman of Chu, that likely explains the madness ... but I'm glad that someone else is as crazy as I am.

My own madness is more normal now.

Jeffery Hodges

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