The Princess and the Pea: My Sensory Diet Does Not Include Peas

Last week, I got accepted to pursue graduate studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. I start in the fall. One of the things that I’ll do in my Mythological Studies program is the archetypal analysis of fairy tales.  As I’ve also been seeing a Jungian analyst, and I’ve been a geek about these things for years, I’m not shy to say I’ve been playing with a fairy tale that’s bubbled up in my personal life.

With the psoriatic arthritis, I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I tend to lay under electric blankets on top of heaps of memory foam.  It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to understand why this reminded me of the story of the Princess and the Pea.

First, here’s the most common rendition of the tale:

The Princess and the Pea


Hans Christian Andersen


Once upon a time Image result for princess and the peathere was a prince who wanted to marry a princess; but she would have to be a real princess. He traveled all over the world to find one, but nowhere could he get what he wanted. There were princesses enough, but it was difficult to find out whether they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not as it should be. So he came home again and was sad, for he would have liked very much to have a real princess.

One evening a terrible storm came on; there was thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it.

It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! what a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.

“Well, we’ll soon find that out,” thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the bed-room, took all the bedding off the bedstead, and laid a pea on the bottom; then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on the pea, and then twenty eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.

On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.

“Oh, very badly!” said she. “I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!”

Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds.

Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.

So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess; and the pea was put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it.

There, that is a true story.

The copy from the reader’s digest anthology my grandmother gave me for the Christmas of 1982 – the set that still bear my Garfield the cat bookplates and careful cursive – says “a true princess” rather than a real princess in the tale. Otherwise, the details are all identical, right down to the numbers of mattresses and eiderdowns, and the single pea.

Other Versions, In Other Cultures

Marie-Louise von Franz says in The Interpretation of Fairy Tales that “Fairy Tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.”  They are stories of the soul’s journey toward wholeness – toward individuation.

If that’s true, then the archetypes themselves should carry across cultures. They should be the realities of human experience, and not just isolated to one frame of reference or language.

I found this link to be the most useful – Listing the Danish story above along with the Italian “Most Sensitive Woman” and the Indian story “The Three Delicate Wives of King Virtue-Banner.” More on that in a bit.

Other Interpretations

Of course, I’m not the only person to read this fairy tale with the psyche in mind.

My Brief Attempt to Analyse

In the first paragraph of the story, the thing that is missing is a “real” princess.  None of the princesses are real enough.  The story begins with the prince and his search.  (This is why I don’t mesh with MaggieAnn’s idea as the princess as protagonist.)  The prince – the masculine or the conscious ego – knows that he’s missing the feminine / unconscious and he goes to seek her out.   He meets many princesses — aspects of the feminine – but none of them are quite right.

Perhaps this is because none of them are his.  To me, this sounds like the process of projecting the subconscious onto people around us – they look and act like what we want, but until we accept that aspect of ourselves, they aren’t quite right. The thing that he doesn’t have is an accurate way to measure their “rightness.” He knows the other princesses are wrong, but he can’t articulate what right is.

It’s interesting, because this is articulated in the Italian “Most Sensitive Woman”. The prince goes out to seek his wife, but only will accept “the most sensitive woman in the world.” He uses this measure to judge each of the women he comes upon.

Without explanation of why she’s in a torrential downpour without protection or entourage, the princess arrives and knocks at the gate. It’s a terrifying thunderstorm.   I’ve written about the process of ego-death, and the fear that that stirs. It often comes with chest-beating and sobbing. It often comes with tears.

The water runs down her hair and down her clothes and into her shoes and out the heels. It’s interesting that the imagery of the cold water traces her entire figure. In a lot of symbolic interpretations, water has the same impact as a mirror – allowing the self to be seen. Perhaps this is a glimpse of the prince’s shadow self outlined in the door in the dark of the night.

The old king – perhaps a representation of wisdom – opens the gate to admit the girl.  The old queen – the wily subconscious intuition – devises a test.  This is the subconscious knowing how to prove itself to the prince without a doubt.

There is only one trial, only one test. The sodden girl must sleep upon the most luxurious pile of mattresses ever described… where they hide a single dried pea.

I’ve been thinking about the pea. A pea is a food. It’s not ever meant to be eaten just one at a time. It even grows in pods. So something that is meant to nourish – and something that is meant to be taken in a large group – is placed in a place meant to annoy, irritate and test the princess. It’s out of place, to be sure, but a very innocent and small item. In the “sensitive woman” story, it’s a jasmine petal that falls on the woman’s foot and injures her.  In the Indian delicate wives tale, it’s jasmine petals, moonlight and the sound of a mortar and pestle several rooms away.  None of these are things that any typical person would see as problematic.

In the morning, the princess is black and blue from having spent the night atop her luxurious trap of a bed. The Queen – subconscious intuition – has provided an accurate measure of the sensitivity that only a true princess could possess.  The Prince happily marries this woman, because she’s clearly the right one, just as the prince agrees that the woman whose foot has been injured by a petal is the right one for him.  In both cases, the truly aristocratic and worthy measure was sensitivity.

At it’s most basic, I think the whole thing can be summed up that the prince needed to get in touch with his sensitive side.  Of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification.  What he needed to get in touch with was the sensitive parts of himself that he had previously rejected. (What if the girl in the rain had been among the scores he had already sent away?)  He needed to have an accurate measure and understanding of that sensitivity, and he had to understand how it was valuable to him.

I’m sure I’m projecting a lot onto this – as I said, this is the story that is living in my psyche right now. There’s still something to be said about making sensitivity conscious.

A Sensitive (Sensory) Subject

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

sensitive (adj.) late 14c., in reference to the body or its parts, “having the function of sensation;” also (early 15c.) “pertaining to the faculty of the soul that receives and analyzes sensory information;” from Old French sensitif “capable of feeling” (13c.) and directly from Medieval Latin sensitivus “capable of sensation,” from Latin sensus, past participle of sentire “feel perceive” (see sense (n.)).
Meaning “easily affected” (with reference to mental feelings) first recorded 1816; meaning “having intense physical sensation” is from 1849. Original meaning is preserved in sensitive plant (1630s), which is “mechanically irritable in a higher degree than almost any other plant” [Century Dictionary].

One of the things I’ve mentioned is that I’m learning to embrace my sensitivity.  I’ve written about the experience of overstimulation, and I’ve even mentioned this story before in prior blog posts. I’m definitely more mechanically irritable than a lot of people I know, even if I’m not a plant.

While I knew that I processed things differently, it never occurred to me that there were ways to work with my nature instead of against it until very recently.  I came home and collapsed in an exhausted heap for years after having a too-stimulating work day.  I was in a near-constant state of overwhelm.  My body’s extreme stress reaction was as much to the modern “open workspace” office layout as it was to the actual workday stress.

As I learn more about “sensory diets” – ways to adjust sensory input to enhance focus and improve performance along with daily tasks and routines – it’s incredibly useful.  There are three categories of sensory inputs: Organizing, Calming, and Alerting.

In terms of my life before the arthritis, I would say that I most valued the Organizing function. This included housework, clearing visual clutter, heavy workouts, fidgeting with stress balls, and weighted blankets. A deep massage would fall under this category.  I did often feel scattered by the world around me, so the organizing inputs were necessary – but I may have given them too much priority. Now, in my new world, I use these to transition between one part of my day and the next, or to recover from unexpected interruptions.

Since the arthritis, I long for and cling to the Calming activities and inputs. Warmth. Cushioning. Softness. Sweetness. Good smells, Long, rhythmic, easy music. Dim light. No surprises. Nothing unexpected.  One of the things my therapist and I have discussed is that I’m less reliant upon sugar as a source of solace when I have other calming sensory inputs.   These were needs I saw as “too sensitive” and “lazy” and a “waste of time.”  Because I judged them so poorly, I didn’t value them or make time to prioritize them.  Now, I probably weight my day more with these than anything else. Aromatherapy for my office, my memory-foam-float naps, and lots of time petting spoiled cats.

I have habitually avoided Alerting inputs for the last several years. A pea under my mattress would be alerting.  This includes unexpected sounds, loud sounds, bright lights, interruptions, strong flavors, coolness or coldness, crunchy food.  This includes unexpected touches – which I tend to reflexively wince away from.  My old office was chalk-full of these suckers. Now, because I am structuring my day mindfully, I use these for the times when I actually need to be made a little more alert!   For example, right before I start working for the morning, I walk barefoot in the dew in my back yard and toss the ball for the dog.  It’s cold! And wet! Boy, am I awake!

So, yeah, I really don’t like peas. Not including them in my plan. But more than that, I’m noticing that the calming activities have been in my own shadow for a long time, and I’m embracing them.

Story Structure: East v West (Yin v Yang?)

I’ve been thinking about endings a lot lately. About twists, and how to end a story in a way that satisfies me, and satisfies my readers. I’ve been reworking and rewriting the ending of Salvaged, and I really wanted to get it right – not just in terms of the story, but in terms of the story’s structure.    I was not convinced – until much deliberation was undergone – that I absolutely positively HAD to end the book with a big fight scene. I held this internal argument that much of the character’s arc is internal, and her “long dark night of the soul” was perhaps enough.  It wasn’t. I wrote the fight scene. But not until after I did a lot of research on the subject.

East v West Story structures

What I found, when I started digging around for the structural bits about plot writing was that there are really only two major schools of thought about this.  Most of the Western story-tellers will act as if the Western escalating-tension arc is the only way to write a story.  I could go on a little feminist rant that ends with “down with the patriarchy!” but I think you get the idea.

There is more than one way to satisfy the needs of a moving forward plot and a twist at the end of a book.

Eastern “Haiku” Story structure

The technical term which I will not repeat is called Kishōtenketsu story structure.  The linked post does a good job of explaining the structure in terms of plot, but honestly, it’s exactly the same thing I’d learned about how to structure haiku. Two related lines, one unrelated line that makes no sense, final line that resolves the conflict in understanding between two and makes the whole thing feel complete.

I really want to try to write a story in this form. It’s common among Anime and Manga, of course, but less common in works that originate in the US.  I also think it’s more Yin, less confrontational, and possibly perplexing to an average reader.  I desperately want to dig into this arc. I just need to find the right story for it.

Alas, Salvaged is not that story.

Western “Male-ejaculatory arc”

Let’s talk about the narrative arc that is more common (and often touted as the only way to move plot forward) the standard rising-conflict 3 or 5 act arc (this outstanding piece is full of swearing and brilliant).    I felt like I learned more about this story structure from watching the film Gravity, than I have reading a thousand how-to articles.  Of course, there are dozens of fantastic examples of this structure, because it’s the predominant form of storytelling.

It requires there to be conflict – like actual trouble and problems and bashing in of skulls. There has to be a “winner” and a “loser”.  It is combative, war-like and sometimes violent.  Contrast this with the Haiku version that creates tension in the reader’s mind by introducing a non-sequitor element.

Art mirrors life mirrors art.

Metaphors we live by

This reminds me of the book Metaphors We Live By and the fact that English words and metaphors for argument are equally warlike and combative.  There are winners and losers of all spoken confrontations and debates in the ways that the English language wraps around the concept.

I really want to explore some stories where the nature of the thing is not war, but perplexity. That the resolution is not one of winning and losing but of understanding and clarity.  I think it might be a lovely brainspace to explore….