The Princess on the Pea

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 704
about the search for a sensitive wife

translated and edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2008


  1. The Princess on the Pea (Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen).

  2. The Most Sensitive Woman (Italy, Christian Schneller).

  3. The Three Delicate Wives of King Virtue-Banner: Which Is the Most Delicate? (India).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Princess on the Pea


Once upon a time there was a prince who wanted to find a princess, but she would have to be a real princess. So he traveled all around the world to find one, but there was always something wrong. There were princesses enough, but he could never be sure that they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not quite right. So he came home again and was sad, for he so much wanted to have a real princess.

One evening there was a terrible storm. It thundered and lightninged! The rain poured down! It was horrible! Then there was a knock at the city gate, and the old king went out to open it.

A princess was standing outside. But my goodness, how she looked from the rain and the weather! Water ran down from her hair and her clothes. It ran into the toes of her shoes and out at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.

"Well, we shall soon find that out," thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the bedroom, took off all the bedding and laid a pea on the bottom of the bed. Then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on the pea, and then twenty featherbeds of eiderdown on top of the mattresses.

That was where the princess was to sleep for the night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.

"Oh, horribly!" she said. "I hardly closed my eyes all night. Goodness knows what there was in the bed! I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It is horrible!"

Now they could see that she was a real princess, because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty featherbeds. Nobody but a real princess could be that sensitive.

So the prince took her for his wife, because now he knew that he had a real princess. And the pea was put in the art gallery where it can still be seen, unless someone has taken it.

Now see, that was a real story!

The Most Sensitive Woman


The parents of a prince wanted him to marry, but he said, "I will marry only such a woman about whom I can say with good conscience that she is the most sensitive woman in the world."

His parents answered, "Then go and find her!"

He went forth and came to a woman whose head was all bandaged up and who appeared to be suffering. "What is the matter with you?" he asked.

"Oh," she said, "this morning my maid was combing my hair, and she pulled one out, which is causing me great pain."

But the prince thought to himself, "She isn't the right one. I will seek further."

He went on his way and found another woman. Her entire body was wrapped with the finest linen, and she looked very sad. "What is the matter with you?" he asked.

"Oh," she said, "last night while I was in bed there was a little wrinkle in the sheet I was lying on, and it has made me sick."

But the prince thought, "She is not the most sensitive one either. There must be a better one."

He continued on his way and came to a third woman. She was sitting in an easy chair and had a bandaged foot. She was crying bright tears and was distorting her pretty face until one had to feel sorry for her. "What is the matter with you?" asked the prince.

"Oh," she groaned, "this morning while I was strolling in the garden a little breeze came up and blew the petal of a jasmine blossom onto my foot."

The prince thought about this a little while, and then said, "You are the right one, for there cannot be a more sensitive woman than you!" And he married her.

Did he do the right thing? Unfortunately the storyteller does not know, for she has run out of yarn.

The Three Delicate Wives of King Virtue-Banner:
Which Is the Most Delicate?


Then the king went to the sissoo tree, put the goblin on his shoulder once more, and started toward the monk. And as he walked along, the goblin on his shoulder said, "O King, I will tell you a strange story to relieve your weariness. Listen."

There once was a king in Ujjain, whose name was Virtue-Banner. He had three princesses as wives, and loved them dearly. One of them was named Crescent, the second Star, and the third Moon. While the king lived happily with his wives, he conquered all his enemies, and was content.

One day at the time of the spring festival, the king went to the garden to play with his three wives. There he looked at the flower-laden vines with black rows of bees on them ; they seemed like the bow of the god of love, all ready for service. He heard the songs of nightingales in the trees; they sounded like commands of Love. And with his wives he drank wine which seemed like Love's very life blood.

Then the king playfully pulled the hair of Queen Crescent, and a lotus-petal fell from her hair into her lap. And the queen was so delicate that it wounded her, and she screamed and fainted. And the king was distracted, but when servants sprinkled her with cool water and fanned her, she gradually recovered consciousness. And the king took her to the palace and waited upon his dear wife with a hundred remedies which the physicians brought.

And when the king saw that she was made comfortable for the night, he went to the palace balcony with his second wife Star. Now while she slept on the king's breast, the moonbeams found their way through the window and fell upon her.

And she awoke in a moment, and started up, crying, "I am burned!"

Then the king awoke and anxiously asked what the matter was, and he saw great blisters on her body. When he asked her about it, Queen Star said, "The moonbeams that fell on me did it."

And the king was distracted when he saw how she wept and suffered. He called the servants and they made a couch of moist lotus leaves, and dressed her wounds with damp sandal paste.

At that moment the third queen, Moon, left her room to go to the king. And as she moved through the noiseless night, she clearly heard in a distant part of the palace the sound of pestles grinding grain. And she cried, "Oh, oh! It will kill me!"

She wrung her hands and sat down in agony in the hall. But her servants returned and led her to her room, where she took to her bed and wept. And when the servants asked what the matter was, she tearfully showed her hands with bruises on them, like two lilies with black bees clinging to them. So they went and told the king. And he came in great distress, and asked his dear wife about it.

She showed her hands and spoke, though she suffered, "My dear, when I heard the sound of the pestles, these bruises came."

Then the king made them give her a cooling plaster of sandal paste and other things. And the king thought, "One of them was wounded by a falling lotus petal. The second was burned by the moonbeams. The third had her hands terribly bruised by the sound of pestles. I love them dearly, but alas! The very delicacy which is so great a virtue, is positively inconvenient."

And he wandered about in the palace, and it seemed as if the night had three hundred hours. But in the morning the king and his skilful physicians took such measures that before long his wives were well and he was happy.

When he had told this story, the goblin asked, "O King, which of them was the most delicate?"

And the king said, "The one who was bruised by the mere sound of the pestles, when nothing touched her. The other two who were wounded or blistered by actual contact with lotus petals or moonbeams, are not equal to her."

When the goblin heard this, he went back, and the king resolutely hastened to catch him again.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised March 29, 2008.