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Once Upon a Mattress: How Beds Appear in Fairy Tales

Once Upon a Mattress: How Beds Appear in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are, more often than not, the first kind of stories we hear in our lives. Simple tales that blend the likes of magic and monsters from faraway lands with grounded morals, told both to entertain and to subtly educate children.

Every culture has their own array of stories, with many overlapping in both themes and narratives as they’re told to one person to the next, from country to country.

Regardless of the audience they’re written for or how audiences react to them, fairy tales are timeless stories that feature universal aspects of everyday life, such as trying to make a living, looking for love, and conveniently finding a giant’s house in a cloud where you planted a magic bean.

…I mean, find a great night’s sleep.

It’s always interesting to see how these fairy tales showcase sleeping as sleep plays a drastically diverse role in these stories, unlike the fairly one track ways that finding love is explored. Whether it’s as some form of grand test or the stage for a crucial moment, sleeping and beds have been shown in some weird and wonderful ways in fairy tales.


The Princess and the Pea: A Monument to Luxury

[caption id="attachment_9064" align="aligncenter" width="1760"] Image Source: plaisanter~ under CC BY 2.0[/caption]

Written by one of the grandfathers of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, The Princess and the Pea is a story that makes even the most spoilt of modern royalty look undemanding. It tells the tale of an incredibly picky prince who was having trouble finding himself a bride. He looked far and wide (or, you know, told others to look far and wide) yet continuously found himself being paired with women who he didn’t believe were princesses because of things like bad table manners or being too thin. Or too fat. Jeez man, make up your mind.

Then one dark and stormy night a mysterious lady turned up at the door, requesting somewhere to sleep for the night. For whatever reason, she tried to cinch a bed for the night by telling them she was a princess, because obviously a princess would be alone in the cold at night. Either way, they let her in and, to test her claim, the prince’s overbearing mother hatched a plan to test the stranger’s regal status.

The would-be princess was offered a preposterously magnificent bed, topped with over 20 mattresses, with a single pea hidden among the ludicrous amount of bedding by the aforementioned mother. Somehow she climbed into bed and upon waking the next day reported that she couldn’t sleep because she had been in great pain and was bruised by something in the bed. The prince declared that only someone accustomed to the finer things in life, such as a tower of mattresses, could have experienced pain from a pea, and so the two married.

Not only is this bizarre because someone could feel, let alone get bruised by, a single pea among a stupid amount of bedding but because she agreed to get married so soon! I mean, she didn’t even get to ‘sleep on it’! Eh? Eh?

…Okay, moving on.


Sleeping Beauty: A Quirk of Fate

[caption id="attachment_4740" align="aligncenter" width="900"]Sleeping Beauty Image Source: Henry Meynell Rheam [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons[/caption] 

I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve seen the Disney version of this tale, but what few images my brain can bring back up to the surface are starkly different from the original version. So Charles Perrault’s original narrative starts off with the king and queen of a country finally having a child, apparently after trying for ages. They decide to celebrate in style; with a christening! Because, you know, they’re always wild parties.

After this lavished event they invite seven fairies to a feast, asking each of them to be a godmother. One by one they’re offered golden plates and jewel encrusted drinking cups, each accepting them and thanking the king and queen by bequeathing the infant princess with magical attributes, like being good at breakdancing or knowing all the words to ‘Drop It Like it’s Hot’ off by heart.
…Okay maybe not that, but the original text says ‘gifted with song and dance’ so I’d like to think her abilities wouldn’t be confined to the time since, you know, they were magically imbued.

Anyway, before the seventh godmother can decide what to bestow upon the newly born princess, an additional fairy comes down from the castle tower and wonders why she hadn’t been invited. The king and queen say they thought she’d died, shrug it off and invite her to join them, though instead of gold crockery she’s given fine china and crystal.

Obviously enraged with these abysmal gifts, the old (and now evil, I guess) fairy decides to curse the princess with death (which, I’m pretty sure is called murder but anyway) when pricked by a spinning needle but the hesitant seventh fairy tweaks the curse to just a century of sleep. Fast forward 15 years and lo and behold, the princess falls into a hundred year slumber, so the seventh fairy decides to come back into the mix and, not only erect a forest throughout the entire castle, but put everyone else in the castle to sleep for a century as well.

As they say, the best way to solve a leak is with a flood. The bed in which the princess sleeps is made of solid gold by the bye (because of course it is) and eventually a brave prince comes to free her from her incredibly long nap. Weirdly enough this isn’t the end of the original story, as after they get married they have two kids and go to meet the princess’ new mother-in-law. Turns out she’s an ogre though, and she tries to get their royal chef to kill, cook and serve up her new daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Fairy tales are weird.


Thumbelina: A Medley of Nature

Another one of Andersen’s classic fairy tales, Thumbelina, originally known as ‘Tommelise’, is the story of a miniature girl being kidnapped and coerced into a forced marriage by a toad. Honestly, that’s the basis of the story. Thumbelina is a mysterious entity, more or less being born from a barleycorn. It’s not magical or anything, it’s just given to a woman by a beggar. Maybe they were a magic beggar? Who knows, they quickly get cut out of the story, which I feel is a shame.

Thumbelina’s birthplace is also her home, as the barleycorn grows into a flower (which is odd because I thought it’d grow into, you know, barley) that is big enough to house her. Within this flower house she places a walnut shell, which acts as her bed. Her adoptive mother could have probably just invited her inside and given her even a pillow to live on, but no, Thumbelina’s tiny so she needs to live in a flower outside.

Anyway, the aforementioned toad steals her from what we’ll charitably call her home and tries to get her to marry his son, for reasons. She escapes the world’s worst blind date but is soon met by the unforgiving elements. Unable to find her way back home, she stumbles around in the cold until a field mouse takes her in. For some other enigmatic array of reasons the field mouse is really hung up on the idea of his neighbour, a mole, marrying her. There are a lot of impromptu marriage attempts in this story.

Once again she flees this predicament thanks to a kind hearted swallow, who takes her to a faraway land that’s far away enough to not be in the grip of winter, like her country is. It’s there she meets, and inexplicably falls for, a tiny flower-fairy prince. The two marry quick smart and she gets a new set of wings, as well as a new flower to sleep in, presumably.


Little Red Riding Hood: A Setting for Deception

Red Riding Hood

A classic before even the days of classics, Little Red Riding Hood can trace its origins back to the 10th century. Originally known as ‘The False Grandma’ and written by Italo Calvino, most of the time the version we think of was written by either Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. This could be seen as a missed opportunity though, as prior to these versions Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother wasn’t replaced by a wolf but a werewolf, or even an ogre or a vampire.

Imagine that, oh what great big teeth you have; all the better to suck your blood with! One litre of blood, ha ha ha, two litres of blood, ha ha ha. Also worth noting is that in these original versions the wolf is one sick puppy, as he doesn’t just eat Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma, he actually cooks her flesh, finishes the dish off with her blood and feeds this macabre meal to Li’l Hood, who doesn’t seem to notice the taste, or the many bloodstains around the place. Jeez.

Alright, back on track then, because there are so many different versions it’s hard to definitively determine which one is ‘the real version’, though for the sake of actually having a happy ending I’ll say it’s the Grimm’s version. Even this version has two branching paths; one where the grandmother survives and helps Red Hood take down the wolf, and another where grandma isn’t so lucky and she’s eaten before she can be brutally avenged.

Either way, the main point is that the crux of this story takes place when the wolf is trying to fool Little Red whilst dressed up in drag in bed. The bed is the stage in which the story’s most harrowing point takes place, and it is used not only as a prop for The Wolf but as an extensive to his façade. It’s the ‘finishing touch’ to his disguise as a bedbound, unthreatening entity, and if the naïve little girl can’t tell from sight alone that the wolf isn’t her elderly grandmother then she’d be hard pressed to see any danger from something snuggled up in bed.


Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Representation of Choice

And finally, the tale about a home invader who’s both idiotic and picky. Never mind how or why a family of bears lives in a house, what’s more interesting is, you guessed it, the original version. Originally written by Robert Southey, this tale was first known as ‘The Story of the Three Bears’ and didn’t really have Goldilocks in it. Instead, there was an old woman who was, frankly, a terrible person. Cast out by her family for being a vagabond, the nameless old woman had just left the House of Correction, a place in those times where beggars and vagrants were sent to work.

Anyway, it was 12 years after this initial publication that Joseph Cundall added Goldilocks, as he explained to his children that there were ‘too many stories with old women in them’. She wasn’t originally called Goldilocks; Cundall just introduced her as a child instead of an old woman, and she went through names like Silver-Hair, Little Golden Hair and Silver-Locks before Flora Annie Steel finally had everyone settle on Goldilocks.

It was little tweaks and changes over subsequent versions that saw the classic ‘too big, too small, just right’ lines become synonymous with the tale, but originally it was just about some old woman breaking into a house. Nowadays there are a host of interpretations, meanings and subtext seen within the story, but the overarching literary element is a very much on-the-nose approach to the ‘rule of three’; an archetype of writing that establishes a pattern in order to firmly convey information.

Much like Goldilocks testing out the rule of three, we often need several references to make a decision about something. She tests out three beds, one being too big (somehow; how can a bed be too big?), one being two small and one being just right.

Here at Happy Beds, we can totally get on board with this need to find the right fit, especially with beds, though I’d personally say there’s no harm in getting one that’s ‘too big’ if you can fit it in your room.

Those were just a few of the times in fairy tales I found where beds and sleeping played large roles in the story. There’s bound to be plenty more, especially as there is a mesmerising myriad of earlier versions of texts, so if any spring to mind let us know about them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and chase three bears out of my bed.

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