My last post was about water in fairy tales, with a particular emphasis on wells. It seems natural to focus this time on frogs, those liminal beings that exist where land and water meet, and require both.
An obvious place to begin would be with the Grimms’ “The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich,” also frequently referred to as “The Frog Prince.” I will get to it in a moment. Before doing so, I would like to divert your attention to “Briar Rose,” the Grimms’ version of a story also known as “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”
Long, long ago there lived a king and a queen. Day after day they said to each other: “Oh, if only we could have a child!” But nothing ever happened. One day, while the queen was bathing a frog crawled out of the water, crept ashore, and said to her: “Your wish shall be fulfilled. Before a year goes by, you will give birth to a daughter.”
From The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar
Tatar states that the desire for a child can also be interpreted as a phase of “renewal, transformation, and rejuvenation.” She cautions against putting too much emphasis on the appearance of the frog in the queen’s bath, mainly because earlier versions had a talking crab. However, one could argue that the Grimms’ final edits reflect long and widely held beliefs about frogs, creatures that “kept popping their heads out of wells, springs, rivers, woods, and so on to announce a forthcoming pregnancy. That is, they were often symbols of fertility.”1
“The Three Languages” is another fairy tale collected by the Grimms. In this, a count, dismayed by the stupidity of his only son, sends him to three wise men. The first teaches the boy the language of dogs, the second–the language of birds, and the third–that of frogs. Enraged, the count orders his servants to kill the hopeless son. They take pity on him, and the young man makes his way through the world, using, in succession, each of the three languages in three different circumstances, gaining good fortune along the way.
Frogs are a form of life developed earlier in the evolution of animal life than either dogs or birds … Thus, while at the deepest level frogs may symbolize our earliest existence, on a more accessible level they represent our ability to move from a lower to a higher stage of living. If we want to be fanciful, we could say that learning the language of the dogs and the birds is the precondition for gaining the most important ability: to develop oneself from a lower into a higher state of existence. The frogs may symbolize both the lowest, most primitive, and earliest state of our being, and the development away from it.
From The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim
Frogs begin life as water-borne eggs, hatching as tadpoles, sperm-like creatures that eventually sprout legs, become froglets, then lose their tails, becoming adult frogs. All but the final stage take place entirely in water. As a ubiquitous species, they have worldwide significance as symbols of metamorphosis. It isn’t exactly a gigantic leap to imagine a frog becoming a human being.
According to Zipes, “The Frog Prince” is “known and beloved throughout the world in many variants … We love this lascivious frog … Perhaps love is too strong a word. Let us just say that we have a fatal attraction to the frog and we don’t know why.”
For forty years the Grimms wrestled with how they wished to finalize the text, given religious and other social constraints. In similar stories, such as “The Well at the World’s End,” the princess cuts off the frog’s head. The Grimms settled on having her slam it against a wall, a rare display of rebellion in a fairy tale daughter. (The notion of kissing the frog to reveal the prince came later and is predominant in Anglo-American versions.)
“The Frog Prince” goes like this: The youngest daughter of a king is bored. She goes to a well at the edge of a wood to play with her golden ball. When the ball falls in the water, her weeping alerts a nearby frog who promises to fetch it if she will love him, play with him, and take care of him for life. This she promises to do.
Once she has the golden ball in hand, the princess skips to the castle, ignoring the pleas of the jilted frog. Later that evening, the frog knocks at the castle door. When the princess expresses how disgusted she is by the slimy creature, the king says she must fulfill her promise. She does the bare minimum for as long as she can, putting him in a corner of her room.
While she was lying in bed, he came crawling over and said: “I’m tired and want to sleep as much as you do. Lift me up into your bed or I’ll tell your father.”
The princess became really annoyed, picked up the frog, and threw him with all her might against the wall. “Now you’ll get your rest, you disgusting frog!”
From The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar
The frog (a prince in disguise) is instantly disenchanted by the violence. And of course, they get married.
In “The Frog Prince: Tale and Toxicology”2 David M. Siegel and Susan H. McDaniel share a biological argument for the why of the “special place” of frogs in fairy tales and folklore:
Early storytellers, it seems, may well have had direct or indirect knowledge of the hallucinogenic effects of a small innoculum of bufotenin following contact with frog skin … It is also consistent with the role of the frog as a messenger from another world, a being between levels of consciousness, between the physical world and the spiritual world.
Another interesting (and hilarious) point is made by Mari Ness in her piece “Wait. What Happened to the KISSING Part? The Frog King, or Iron Henry” for Tor.com. After pointing out that many versions of this fairy tale feature a violent act of rage on the part of the princess, she then states: “unless a frog flung against a wall counts as a marriage vow, the two are not exactly legally married. Also missing: the usual stuff about flowers, chocolates, that kinda thing.”
Just as a tadpole can’t help but become a frog (bearing hallucinogenic possibilities), the Grimms couldn’t bring themselves to nullify the passion and drive of their heroine, despite the theme of this amphibious tale, which many take to be: Keep your promises.
Frogs, it would seem, have the best of both worlds. As do princesses, some of the time.
- All images by Alexas_Fotos at Pixabay.com
- Zipes, Jack. 2008. “What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing: Memetics and Fairy Tales,” Journal of Folklore Research, Volume 45, Number 2, May-August 2008: 109-143.
- Siegel, David M. and McDaniel, Susan H. 1991. “The Frog Prince: Tale and Toxicology,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61 (4), October 1991: 558-562.