In Defense of Pea Princesses
August 17, 2021
It was 2:30AM yesterday morning when I heard it.
I’m a light sleeper under normal circumstances, but when I travel, even the tiniest noise is enough to jolt me awake. So when the smoke detector started chirping from its convenient location right outside my Airbnb’s bedroom door, my eyes shot open and my stomach sank past my toes and descended into the hell regions.
Which is where that smoke detector belongs.
Sometime around 4:00AM, as I balanced on a chair, phone instructions in one hand and half-disconnected alarm in the other, I started deliriously thinking about Pea Princesses and how everyone was really missing the point, even Hans Christian Andersen.
The Princess and the Pea is a pretty well-known fairy tale, considering it hasn’t been full-length animated feature Disneyfied yet. On a plot level, it’s about a prince in search of a suitable princess. He always finds something wrong with the princesses under consideration. They have bad table manners or they have grating voices or they were born on a Wednesday, ergo they aren’t REAL princesses and therefore not marriage material.
But one night, in the middle of a storm, a wet, bedraggled woman shows up on the castle doorstep. She claims that she’s a princess and asks for shelter in the castle for the night. The prince’s mother, the queen, decides to test the visitor’s True Princess Quotient…by sticking a pea under a pile of mattresses on the princess’s bed.
If she can feel the pea, she’ll prove that she’s delicate and discerning and, therefore, a true princess.
When the princess complains of a sleepless night and bares her bruised back, the prince and the queen rejoice because a Real Princess (TM) has been found! The prince and the princess marry and ostensibly live happily ever after.
Critics and scholars have spilled a lot of ink over what this tale means. Does it reflect Andersen’s personal brew of anxiety and admiration of nobility? Is it a tongue-in-cheek mockery of royal authenticity? A sincere celebration of sensitivity as a virtue?
As someone with intermittent insomnia and chronic pain, I’ve always thought there was something more to this story, but it wasn’t until we taught the first iteration of Rapunzel’s Circle last year that the pieces really fell into place. Thanks to a brilliant thread in our discussion forum (thanks Sue and everyone else who jumped in! #PeaPrincessesUnite!), this is now the fairy tale I turn to when sleep eludes me.
It’s a very particular brand of misery when you desperately want to sleep…but can’t.
And it can sound REALLY silly, even nonsensical, when you describe it to other people.
“If you’re tired, go to bed!” well-meaning people will say.
GEE WHY HAVEN’T I THOUGHT OF THAT BEFORE? Maybe it’s because my brain is ricocheting off the insides of my skull and select parts of my body feel like they’re slowly roasting over a spit?
But there’s nothing to see, to show other people, to explain why you’re staring at the ceiling at 3AM. Not even a pea.
Now, the Smoke Detector Incident featured a concrete catalyst – a whole tangible buffet overflowing with peas. But as I unscrewed and re-screwed the infernal device into the wall, re-examined the wires anchoring it in place, and watched approximately 80 thousand YouTube videos explaining how to silence or detach slightly different models of what I was looking at (none of which helped), I was still thinking about being a Pea Princess and how Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale really just doesn’t mean one thing.
To me, it’s about the frustration, pain, and occasional hilarity of things going awry and then doing your best under the circumstances. Asking for help when you need it. Fighting the pressure to perfectly conceal all your bruises when life leaves you a little battered. And trying to maintain a little dignity, even when you feel ridiculous.
After all, something real kept Andersen’s princess up. Honestly, a pile of teetering mattresses doesn’t sound real stable or comfortable. Maybe it WAS the pea. But… what was the pea? Maybe it was a migraine or fibromyalgia or a smoke detector.
Whatever it was, it was real.
My friend Shveta and I got the smoke detector shut off around 10AM. I’m not especially cute or coherent on 2 hours of sleep, but Shveta kindly made me breakfast and didn’t demand much in the way of coherence or critical thinking.
She let me be a Pea Princess.