For homework this week, my son has to tell a traditional tale orally. The class has already done as a group the ones I would normally have suggested, so we have rehearsed together a six year old friendly version of the Princess and the pea…
Once there was a prince who had to get married.
His father had seized the throne and chucked out much of the old things of the kingdom, including the last of the previous royals.
(You don’t want to ask what happened to them, as the prince once had).
The people weren’t happy – they had loved seeing the little curly haired Princess Olivia whose family had been deposed.
But when you are crushed under the yoke of serfdom, one set of royals are pretty much the same as another and the folk traditions had more or less continued as they were and people just got on with things.
And here was the Prince’s problem – only a married person could rule. Since his father’s death, his mother had ruled as regent. But she could only do so for a little while. She was getting old and getting tired and wanted to go on holiday in Mustique for the winter months. He had to find a wife.
Every little girl in the kingdom, serf or aristocrat, was raised to believe that they were a princess. They all wore pink and had little tiaras that they popped onto their heads at every possible occasion.
“So I can marry anyone?” said the prince.
But the queen regent was having none of it. “You must marry a real princess”.
But how could he know who was a real princess?
The queen dusted off the palace library’s guide to etiquette and traditions of the kingdom. “A princess must be sensitive”, she read.
“How on earth can we test that?” asked the prince.
“Let’s put something small and hard under something soft and see who can feel it”.
“Oh. How will that test whether she’s compassionate?”
“Compassion? What’s that got to do with anything? What you need, my boy, according to this book is a girl with sensitive skin”.
“But mother, I don’t…?”
The prince sighed.
“Now”, said the queen, “I’ll make a list of all the eligible princesses from the nearby kingdoms in alphabetical order. You need to order twelve mattresses and a pea”…
So Princess Annabel came to stay. She baulked at the ladder in her suite and refused to climb it. Sensitivity to heights wasn’t what the queen ordered, so she was out.
Bulky Princess Bertha found and ate the pea.
If you wanted a princess who could pee through a dozen mattresses, then soggy princess Caroline would be perfect.
Princess Davina spilt ribena in the bed and Princess Elaine left in shame. Princess Fiona said thanks but she was happy with her husband, Shrek.
Princesses Gabriella, Henrietta and Isabella were off to America.
Princess Jasmine insisted on sleeping on her own magic carpet.
Princess Katherine was looking after little Prince George. The queen quickly crossed her off the list, not because she was already a queen-in-waiting but because she had only married into royalty.
And so it continued – every princess that was really a princess still had something wrong with her.
The prince suggested he be allowed to seek a wife among the kingdom’s commoners.
The queen refused to give up. The cry of the gulls was just at the edge of hearing, the white sand almost between her toes – she had to find the right real princess.
One dark and stormy night, there was a knock at the palace door. The head butler answered, and told the bedraggled girl there to go away.
As she turned to leave, he said “Wait. How did you get past all the guards in the grounds to reach this door?”
The girl pushed a curl out of her eye. “I just – it’s funny, I just sort of knew, like I had been here before”.
The butler squinted at her. “What’s your name?”
“Olive from where?”
“I don’t really know, sir. My family fell on hard times and we had to leave my hometown when I was very little. This was my first visit to the city, and I got lost on the way back to my lodgings”.
The butler looked again. Could it be possible? “Stay there”, he said.
The butler scuttled off to see the queen. “Ma’am? I may just have found you a real princess!”
The prince came down to breakfast the following morning, and found his mother in a state of some excitement.
“Oh darling, wonderful news, just wonderful. If my hunch is right, a real princess has just wandered to our own front door!”
“A real princess?”
“Oh yes. Banished from her home, raised in impoverished circumstances and now returned to reclaim her birthright. And she solves all our problems. If it is Princess Olivia in the pea suite, we have a true princess, and the whole nasty business of your father winning the throne by conquest can be overcome by a dynastic match as I had hoped in the first place…”
“Yes. Now, if she can just feel that pea…”
The prince headed down to the pea suite. Olive was by the fireplace, drying her hair with a towel.
“Olive, sir. I mean your majesty”.
“Sir is just fine. Olive”
“Yes, sir, Olive. On account of -”
“It’s Arthur, by the way, not that I would rule as King Arthur. I’m thinking of changing it to Henry. Less portentous”.
“Do you think so? I shouldn’t like to live my life worried about something as silly as that. But then I’m named after a bitter fruit with a heart of stone – imagine if that affected my personality!”
“You’re right of course. But King Arthur suggests magic swords and wizards and then where would we be?”
The prince laughed. “I like you, Olive. Listen, I need to tell you something”.
“Mother? Can I introduce Olive?”
The queen looked up from her kippers. “A moment, Arthur. Now, my dear”, she turned to Olive, “how did you sleep?”
“Thank you for your kindness, I should have had the most comfortable night ever with that many mattresses”, said Olive. “I have never before had to use a ladder to get into bed. Well, may be just once before, the night I slept in a hayloft -”
“As you left your home behind? Oh my dear how perfectly dreadful for you”, said the queen.
“Should have had?” asked the prince.
“Yes, sir. How could a dozen mattresses not be comfortable? And yet I have a pain in the small of my back”.
If the queen had not been queen, she would have punched the air in victory. “Arthur dear, would you leave the room please?”
The prince left and the queen immediately demanded to see Olive’s back. There was a small mark, purplish red, like a large pea.
A few weeks later, Arthur was crowned king.
His mother left the palace immediately taking only sunglasses, a bikini and a retinue of servants who had passports.
And Olive? She decided not to become a shopkeeper like her parents. The delicatessen business turned out to be less stable than her father had hoped, so he was retiring. But her sisters Rosemary and Flora promised to rebuild the business in the capital city if Olive became queen.
Olive liked making King Arthur laugh. They decided to date a bit before getting married to see that they really could get on in the long term. But they couldn’t help reflecting on the happy coincidence that her olive-shaped birthmark that gave her her name looked just like a pea if that was what you wanted to see…