Universal Quest, Fairy Tale, Jung

The Princess and The Pea – a Jungian Tale

 I have not browsed the net to discover if my take on The Princess and the Pea is already common thought. My interpretation has been with me for some thirty years and more. I like it. I want the fun of laying it out myself! I was farming when this occurred to me – likely coming or going from feeding cattle in a far field. Jefferson was right about farming and gardening – the mind has opportunity to go on its own adventure! (Aside from philosophical musings, attention to sciences of soil, plants, animals, and nutrition come with farming and gardening, along with opportunity to study economics, power structures, natural relationships and dynamics, beauty, life and death!  But these are not immediately relevant to this writing.)

Moving on to “The Princess…” :  I re-checked plot details at a few sites. The story is briefly told, develops and closes much more swiftly than I remembered from my childhood hearing.


A prince wants to marry, but his bride must be a real princess, the right kind of princess. (He meets ‘real’ princesses, but none are ‘quite right’.). One dark, stormy, rainy night there is knocking at the castle door. The stranger at the door is a thoroughly disheveled, wet and storm-tossed young woman. She claims she is a princess. The young woman is invited in, but her claim to be a princess is not taken at face value. The queen decides to test her. She reasons a real and deserving princess will be sensitive to discomfort. The young woman is fed, and given a bed for the night. A bed is specially made up to test for ‘princess sensitivity’. A pea is placed under the first mattress, and 19 mattresses piled atop. The queen reasons a real and deserving princess will notice. The following morning the princess is asked how she slept. “Badly!” she reports, “most uncomfortably! There was a lump in the mattress and I could not sleep well all night!” Since only a very real and deserving princess could possibly be made uncomfortable by a pea under 20 mattresses, she was recognized, the prince married her, and all was well.


The verified story is much as I remember. But not quite. In my version, there is early explanation for the princess wandering about at night in a storm. She is trying to get home, and is lost. I have no idea whether the story as told me when a child gave explanation for the princess being out alone, or if I supplied this myself without realizing it. (Or, as a child, insisted explanation be given – equally likely!) I was no more smitten by this story than others – mostly Grimm tales – I heard as a child. By the time the story came to mind to me as a musing young adult, the princess as “lost traveler attempting to get home” was in the tale.

For me, the tale is a metaphorical one in which an individual searches for, and discovers “whole self”. As metaphor, the princess is the central character, and is a “seeker”. She is “lost in storm” and “trying to find home”. Storm is metaphor for personal uncertainty, home is metaphor for individual base, center, essential self. Mattresses are metaphor for ‘layers’ that must be removed for essential self to become clear. When layers are lifted, a single symbol of ‘re-birth’ is found. The pea represents a beginning. It contains promise and potential for all that can develop from the individual now that (she – could be ‘he’) has gone through a process of self-discovery.

The story appears on the surface to tell a tale of ‘boy and girl meet and marry’. But I believe it does not have to be ‘tweaked’ much to become a tale representing quest to discover essential self, “universally ever-present anima and animus”). Essential feminine and masculine essences, whether one is male or female.  By the end of the tale, the questing princess has “met” her “other part”. Her ‘gal’ reality (active and upfront anima) has united with her ‘animus’ component.  “Marriage” is the union of these within her. Her quest is accomplished.

The prince also is “not complete”, knows “something is missing”. Since he does not undertake a quest, he does not play the full-out role of ‘questor’ in the story.  He is shadow representation – a hint only.  His part is a support role for the telling of universal personal quest.  The king and queen likewise are not terribly relevant, although each plays a ‘gatekeeper’ role that could be explored. Individual quest, experience of ‘storm’, ‘impulse to find home’, are important here. In this story,  it ‘happens to be’ a gal who undertakes the quest. (Which is one reason it appeals to me. There are plenty of ‘guy quest’ stories.  This one helps confirm, validate, the universal urge to “quest”!)  Gender doesn’t matter.  The point of ‘universal human questing’ is that it is motivated by a deeper call than ‘ordinary concern with ordinary affairs – and it is, I keep wanting to point out, universal !


Elsewhere I confessed to “informal”, even “fast and loose” reliance on “actual detail. Readers are reminded an underlying principle of my blog: “Everything is model for everything else.” This is the way I often perceive events and dynamics that go with them. I would not call it an underlying principle otherwise! It bothers me not a bit that I have added a plot detail to explain the princess appearing at the castle door.  Focusing overly much on detail detracts from a skeletal framework of ‘essential quest’ I find in the story. I do not insist Anderson needed to be clear or accurate on all points.  I accept his tale as poetic.  Symbolism and metaphor work by hint.

Because I am inclined to a kind of “informality” in “analysis”,  it also does not bother me that I may be using Jungian teaching without full study. I, and a collection of friends, once circulated multiple copies of June Singer’s “Androgyny” among ourselves. (Amazingly, none of these are in my possession, and I purchased at least 2 of them!) The understanding I got from Singer’s exploration of ‘animus and anima’ lines up with the way I explain The Princess and the Pea. Every individual carries “both gender attributes” internally, in a deep, perhaps unacknowledged, potential capacity. This has nothing whatsoever to do with “sexual orientation”. The anima and animus are “soul components” if you like, universal, very deep. Jungian scholars might point out over-simplification in my understanding.  I accept they may find cause to do so.

(I might mention I find a similar ‘quest’, allegory style, in the movie: “Thanks for everything, Wong Foo – Julie Newmar”. To me, the film’s story has nothing to do with “sexual orientation” and everything to do with “a quest to find ones essential self”. It’s light hearted. It has obvious quest elements. It offers specific points on “wisdom of self-discovery” – even numbers them! It has been difficult for me to ‘sell’ my take on the film to others – many start and stop with “sexual identity” as a concern. Yet for me, part of its inspiration is that it “joyously muddles”  “gender and sexual identity”, strips the viewer of cause to identify directly with characters, with deep good humor invites exploration of a deeper “essential self”!  …  follow-up on this: I’ve tried to find at least one web piece that takes this film’s story as ‘universal allegory’, applicable to quest regardless of gender.  So far, no luck!  The entire cultural take on the film seems solely interested in the fictional ‘facts’ of the story – quest of a drag “princess” to become a queen.  Summary that includes the “four steps to self-realization” is here at Wikipedia.  Even Wikipedia restricts the usefulness of the 4 steps to ‘becoming a drag queen’, but I stand by my interpretation of the story as a quest story with universal value. )

I do not mean to trivialize “historical fact”, “accuracy”, or “a need to honor deep and comprehensive study accomplished and presented by another.” I have long been a ‘generalist’.  My visual constructs while I read are ‘sweeping panoramas’ without attached names and dates. I have also long been a ‘spontaneous synthesizer’, inclined to borrow components and reassemble them, (a practice compatible with small scale farming!). In philosophical lines of thought, this inclination to synthesize, may result in – for instance – my take on The Princess and the Pea!

Folk tale as metaphor is not a new idea. Others have made this study. The tales appeal as fodder for deeper interpretation, like dreams.  They also are fodder for examination of cultural beliefs and practices – a representation of “unconscious, unexamined, beliefs” that guide day-to-day perspective, choice, for individuals and for entire cultures.


We are awash with symbol and effect of symbol – from tales we tell as ‘fiction’, to tales we tell as “truth”, to our response to advertising. Largely unconscious operators.

We are primarily unconscious operators not only ‘now’, but across time. Trans-generational and then some! Again, as a ‘non-student’ of, but interested in, insights that Jung brought to the table, there is his “collective unconscious” to be curious about. Beliefs, habits, rooted in archetypal metaphor make sense to me!

“Know Thyself” pops to mind. I think it behooves us to dig a little deeper to “know ourselves”. Consciousness as a field of inquiry.

My take on The Princess and the Pea is, for me, light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously nor to be dismissed as “completely off the mark.” I am completely comfortable with readers holding firm disagreement – a little sorry if they do, as they will (in my opinion) miss a ‘light-hearted’ experience.

I said early on that for all I know my interpretation of the story has been well explored by others. But if it’s new to you, or brings up a ‘lost thread once considered’, I hope it’s been a bit of fun.

(I did check out Hans Christian Anderson on Wikipedia and was astonished to discover that an analyst could work this story quite a bit based on his personal life.  Perhaps one or more have. I’m choosing, however, to hang in with my own more general use of the story – one that reveals universal ‘truth’ of the ‘essential human’ by offering metaphor of personal “essential self” quest. Maybe Anderson was “close to this quest” and confused by its calling. Not for me to say.)

To questing! – MaggieAnn


About maggieannthoeni

A description once given of me was "rooted in the earth while roaming the stars" - and this has felt 'right'. I believe in something akin to this for each of us. I am a passionate supporter of discovering the autonomous self while serving the whole as primary intent. I believe in discovery of innate principles, clearing the overlay of socialization that obscures this from us. I believe it is our responsibility to leave no one behind - most particularly to respond to suffering as best we can whereever we find it, whenever we are made aware. I believe in this for the insect as well as the most magnificent form of humanity. I believe in brother/sisterhood without boundary. I believe in righteous indignation when it is appropriate, but do not believe in an enemy. I believe in consciousness, in intelligence, in logic, in rationality, in emotion, in transcendence - and am convinced until we generally practice explore and honor all this in ourselves, we remain profoundly immature. (I believe real maturity is known and practiced by many young children, and not enough adults!)
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4 Responses to Universal Quest, Fairy Tale, Jung

  1. Amos says:

    I found your take on Princess and….reasoned, interesting, and psychologically sound. Thanks for sharing.

    • maggieannthoeni says:

      Thank you for your comment! It’s been awhile, I just re-read my post. For a first time ever, I’m tempted to muse a bit on the Prince. By skeletal version of the story he seems to passively hang about as if ‘stuck’ while waiting for a particular need in his life’s development to be filled through the efforts of others. Toying with what he represents as if he were ‘real’ like the Princess doesn’t seem to work. I think he needs to remain a potential internal ‘discovery’ for the Princess, eventually realized by her. I appreciate your comment, thanks again.

  2. Isadore says:

    Wheww! That was quite a stroll through the Jung-le, it would be interesting to read your take on Jack and the beanstalk.

    • maggieannthoeni says:

      I do like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk – I enjoy folklore, ballads, their stories and metaphors. Jack has not yet sparked analysis from me. But he certainly has for others! See: http://www.howardism.org/thoughts/001009.html, and/or browse : symbolism in Jack and the Beanstalk. I’m pretty sure there’s something posted about most of these tales – now that I’ve said my piece, I’ll check out possible takes on “The Princes and the Pea” (and leave readers to do the same if they like.) Thanks for the ‘nudge’!

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