I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,
And standing by these characters disclose
All that I seek....
~W.B. Yeats, EGo Dominus Tuus
The Princess and the Pea (The Real Princess) is the shortest of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. It's easy to write it off as a fairy tale that reflects nineteenth century projections of "sensitivity" onto women of the upper classes. But there is more than meets the superficial eye here: The Princess and the Pea is the story of the soul's longing for itself. It asks the simplest of questions: Who do I belong with and how will I know them?
One way of looking at fairy tales is to see each character as an aspect of ourselves:
The Prince, our questing, achieving self is lonely. It is always lonely, always set apart. Its quest is two-fold:
The prince wants a princess who is "like him", who can understand and share his experience. She must be authentic, a true self. He knows this about himself and he cannot compromise. This is no Cinderella story. There is nothing supernatural and little that is transcendant about it. The prince will not elevate a commoner to his level. He is looking for a princess, every bit his equal, yet not the same, to cure his loneliness.
The questing self looks outward. It travels the world, meeting many princesses. It projects its needs onto many and each princess displays her highest self. At his core, the prince knows that a true princess is more than appearance and pedigree. He hears a still small voice telling him that something is not quite right with each candidate. Against all reason, he heeds that voice and continues looking. He is not looking for perfection. He seeks what is essential, but unnamed.
Finally, he turns inward, returning home. The complex balance of inner tensions remains unresolved and unchanged until Nature herself intervenes with a great storm and a knock at the door. Sometimes change comes when one has given up hope and resigned oneself to one's fate. But when the knock comes, one doesn't ignore it, one sends someone to see who it is.
It is the Old King who sends someone to the gate. The king is removed from life's activity. He doesn't answer the knock at the gate. He does not go himself. He is a powerful and transcendant figure, nearly godlike. He dispatches a messenger to the gate.
Who is at the gate? The one we've has longed for but she wears a different face than we expected. She is drenched with water, age-old symbol of the unconscious and spirituality. She does not look the part of a princess, but she is exactly what he has been looking for. She announces herself. She is a princess.
But she cannot remain a princess in a vacuum. She must be recognized and acknowledged. If she is not recognized, we return to the surface of things, and the princess is only a needy vagrant at the door, a water rat washed in from the storm. Will she be believed, without the external trappings? Will he recognize her?
But she swears she is a princess. Are we to believe her? She must pass a test, and it is our mother-self who cares for us and looks after our best interests who sets the task. Like Psyche fulfilling Aphrodite's tasks, the princess must prove herself: She is insulated from experience by 20 plus 20 layers and yet she feels. Her sensitivity is more than a nod to nineteenth century conceptions of the weaker sex. The real princess feels experience intensely; even the smallest pea leaves her bruised. She cries.
And so she passes the test, for only a real princess can feel so directly despite all the layers of rationality, and social layers.
And the pea? That nugget of what is essential, but so often not perceived, or worse ignored, is sent off the museum, or the bottom of the jewelry box with loveletters, ticket stubs, and other relics of memories we treasure.
Hans Christian Andersen closes the tale with "And this is a true story." Yes, it is true, indeed it is truer than true. It is real.