Witches turn people into frogs. Everyone knows that. It’s traditional. Some authors have even turned it into a joke – Terry Pratchett exploring the hard physics of transformation in his Tiffany Aching novel A Hat Full of Sky is genius fantasy – but this week I’m exploring the origins of the legend by comparing four different fairy tales that introduce us to talking frogs. If they prove anything, it’s that frogs are a resourceful lot, and they also attract the lost possessions of royalty like iron filings to a magnet.
Version 1: The Queen’s Ring
Taken from the 1985 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’s collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses, this story introduces us to a beautiful but deeply depressed queen who is walking alone in the meadows around her palace wondering what has become of her husband. He went away to war and for months she has had no news of him. At last, tired out by her restless wandering, the queen finds her way to a well where she sits to rest. It is a favourite place with her, the place where the king gave her a beautiful diamond ring as a memento of their love and one last kiss before he rode away to war. Lost in memory, the queen slips the ring from her finger and presses it against her cheek, begging it to tell her where her husband is. Instead it slips from her hand, falling into the well. Horrified, the queen sobs like she has lost her husband all over again.
Her tears do not go unnoticed. A curious frog climbs out of the well and inquires why she is so upset. Apparently too upset to worry about trifling things like frogs who can talk, the queen tells it about her ring. The frog offers to retrieve it for her if she will provide a favour in return, and the queen, rather rashly, promises it anything it wants if it will only find her ring. The frog duly returns with the ring in one webbed hand and claims its favour – a kiss from the queen, on the mouth. She is completely taken aback. Of course she doesn’t want to kiss a slimy frog. She phrases her feelings with more care, grateful for its assistance, explaining that she will kiss no one but her husband. The frog is unmoved by this connubial loyalty. No kiss, no ring. It is prepared to jump back into the well, taking the queen’s ring with it; she relents, lifting it so that she can kiss its cold mouth.
But then she’s not kissing a frog any more, she’s kissing a man, a man with her husband’s laughing voice who is putting his arms around her. After the war, he tells her, when he was riding home, a mist descended and he was separated from the rest of his men. When the mist cleared, he was alone in front of a small house in the forest where a beautiful girl sat spinning silver thread. She was happy to offer him a night’s lodging, but in return for a kiss, and the king won’t kiss anyone except his own wife. The girl leaps up, turning into a raging witch. He’s no king, she screams, he’s nothing but a cold-blooded frog. No sooner has she said that then that is what he is, and until a beautiful woman kisses his new shape of her own free will, he will stay that way.
It is a long way back to his own kingdom with legs so short. On his way he sees many lovely women and perhaps one of them might have taken pity on him – but he has never kissed anyone but his wife the queen, and he will kiss no one else. So he makes his slow and painful way back to his own kingdom, where his wife was waiting by a well. With that, the king puts the diamond ring back on her finger and together they return to their palace. The story concludes with a happily ever after, but I could see that anyway. This couple took their vows pretty seriously. For wetter or for worse…
Version 2: The Friendly Frog
This fairy tale is taken from the 1999 Puffin Books anthology Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales but was actually written by Madame d’Aulnoy, a prolific contemporary of Perrault. Her story also begins with a king at war. Fearing for his wife, he ignores her protests to remain with him and hides her away in a forest stronghold where his enemies cannot possibly find her. Once there, however, she broods on the loss of her home and husband to the point where she decides he must be trying to make her suffer, though he writes many letters to explain the situation at home. Eventually the queen decides she’s been exiled long enough. Pretending she wants a chariot for hunting, she formulates an escape plan and orders a grand hunt to be commenced. Instead of taking her back to the king, the horses go wild and run away with her, overturning the chariot and pinning her foot underneath. Not exactly the escape she had planned.
When she opens her eyes at long last, she is no longer alone. A female giant is standing over her, wearing a lion’s skin and carrying a stone club. The queen is convinced this must be what lies on the other side of death, but the giantess just laughs. She is, she explains, the lion-witch. She is also lonely, bored and planning to take the protesting queen home with her as a sort of pet. With this explanation, she takes the form of a lion and carries the queen home with her down an endless stair into a vast cavern, where monsters dwell in a lake of quicksilver – but there is nothing more dangerous here than the lion-witch herself. Having recovered from her injuries, the queen is set her first task, the making of a fly-pasty. For a resourceful peasant, that might not be so impossible, even with a chronic lack of flies. The queen, however, has never made pastry in her life and is inclined to fall into despair instead of making a plan. She doesn’t even try looking for flies. Instead she starts sobbing about how much she misses her husband and how worried she is he’ll fall in love with somebody else.
She looks up, eventually, and sees someone who has more problems than she does – a frog who is being swallowed alive by a raven. This is enough to lift her from her depressed lethargy and she goes at the raven with a stick, scaring it enough to make it release the frog. It is very grateful to the queen. She knows this because it tells her so. Unlike the queen in the previous story, she doesn’t take the matter of a talking frog in her stride and demands explanations, which the frog duly provides. She is not, in fact, a real frog – she has a little fairy blood, a strong sense of curiosity, and a cap of roses that is supposed to protect her but got left behind at an inopportune moment, hence her encounter with a hungry raven. To thank the queen for her kindness, the frog then gathers together an army of her frog friends (six thousand of them, to be precise) to hunt down flies for the lion-witch’s pasty.
That’s not the end of their friendship, though. The air of the witch’s cave is toxic and the queen begins to build herself a hut for some protection against it. The frog reunites her army of followers and somehow, with mysterious architectural prowess for creatures who don’t actually possess opposable thumbs, they create a beautiful little hut. She doesn’t get to keep it for long. The monsters from the lake drive her out with their screaming and wailing and promptly move in the moment she’s out the door, so she goes again to the frog, who’s very sympathetic and quickly puts together an even better house that same night.
The queen needs its sanctuary more than ever now, because she has discovered she is expecting a child. Not that this induces any kindness from the lion-witch. The queen’s next task is to produce, from somewhere in this wasteland, a bouquet of flowers. She turns to the frog, who enlists the assistance of a kindly bat, who – with the loan of the magical cap of roses – returns shortly with a beautiful posy tucked under her wing. The frog is a very useful friend to have, but if you’re thinking she can conjure a similarly successful plan of escape, you’d be wrong. She goes through a few rites and announces to her horror-struck friend that actually, Fate says no. The queen will not escape. She’ll have a very pretty daughter though, the frog adds in a dismal attempt to cheer her up. It’s not all bad news!
Tell that to the king. When the war is over, he sends word to the queen, only to be told by her servants that she died in a hunting accident. He is overcome at first by his grief, withdrawing to the palace to mourn alone, but he’s a dutiful leader and pulls himself together to start rebuilding after the war. He doesn’t know that the woman he’s literally tearing his hair out over is not only alive, but has just given birth to their first child, a baby girl of extraordinary beauty. The queen names her Moufette and manages, with considerable difficulty, to convince the lion-witch not to eat her. Months go past. As the baby grows, the queen’s mind returns to her husband and her fears that he will have already replaced her. It disturbs her so much that the frog offers to make the long and difficult journey from the lion-witch’s cavern to Moufette’s father’s kingdom so that she can tell him the truth. She takes with her a message written by the queen in her own blood – the only ink she has to use in this place – and, in a strange little carriage made from tortoise-shell and lizard-skin, she sets off, accompanied by frogs and rats for servants, with snails for mounts. Which makes for a remarkable spectacle if you happen to see them passing by, but isn’t so good for speed.
It takes her NINE YEARS to get there. And when she does, it’s to a scene of festivity, because the queen’s fears have finally been realised – the king’s getting married again. The frog is affronted on her friend’s behalf. She tells the king about his wife’s imprisonment and the birth of his daughter, providing as evidence the ragged letter written by the queen. He is ecstatic. In the middle of his eager questioning, though, a guest loudly denounces the frog as ‘scum of the marshes’, insisting that she is no more than an attention-seeking liar trying to hoodwink the whole court. She throws that back in his face with a display of fairy magic, turning her company into humans dressed so well they could have come from the greatest of courts. They keep changing, turning into dancing flowers, leaping waterfalls and gleaming boats, before finally returning to their original shapes as frogs and rats. The king drops his wedding plans. With a ring given to him by the frog to help him find his way, he sets forth alone to rescue his wife and daughter.
They’re not doing so badly, though. The lion-witch has for some years been permitting them to leave the cavern to hunt with her, and little Moufette’s aim is excellent. It is during one of these hunts, while the queen and her daughter are riding on the witch’s lion form, that the king sees them and recognises his wife. Though they are moving too fast for him to follow, he is guided by the frog’s ring to the cavern where they live. The lion-witch is aware of him. Fate organised this one too, but she’s not letting him in that easily, and constructs a palace of crystal at the centre of the quicksilver lake where she hides her two prisoners. The monsters surround it. This is phase two of her plan, phase one being to attack the king herself the moment he enters the cavern by launching herself at him in lioness form. This doesn’t work out too well. He is handy with a sword and furious about the loss of his family to boot. Cutting off one of her paws, he presses his advantage and pins her beneath the tip of his sword, demanding the return of his wife and child. She jeeringly points at the lake – if you want them, go and get them. She then disappears and the king is left to find a way to the crystal palace alone.
And it takes him a while. Three years, in fact, living off bitter fruits and sleeping on the hard ground, spending each day running around the lake trying to catch the palace as it floats from one side to the other. The monsters seem to find it all a bit entertaining. Eventually, one of the dragons approaches him with an offer – it will help him rescue his wife and daughter, in exchange for a certain tit-bit to which the dragon has taken a fancy. Suspicious? Oh, yes. But the king’s spent three years getting nowhere and is so grateful for the help that right now he would give the dragon anything at all. With its assistance, they fight their way to the palace. The queen, who has had to wait a whole lot longer than three years, starts kicking down the walls and uses chunks of crystal to join the fight. Go, queen! At last the battle is won. The long-parted couple fly into each other’s arms, and…
…just like that, they’re home. In the king’s own palace, around a feast no less, with Moufette beside them and everyone in an amazed uproar at this extraordinary turn of events. Yay! Happy endings! The celebrations draw royalty from all over the world and among them is Prince Moufy, who falls immediately in love with Moufette. Well, their names match. That’s a good omen, right? And the king makes no objections, he will let his daughter marry anyone she thinks will make her happy. Of course, unless a lot more time has passed since their miraculous return than specified by the story, Moufette is only about thirteen years old. Apparently that’s okay in this part of the world, because the betrothal is quickly announced and Prince Moufy returns to his own country to make preparations for the wedding.
The prince has been gone for several months when an envoy arrives from the dragon. You didn’t think he was just going to go away, did you? He reminds the king of his promise and explains that the tid-bit he has in mind is Moufette, baked into a pie. The king is one of those people who takes honour very, very seriously and realising he’s actually thinking about this, the queen is sent into a state of livid shock. She pleads with the envoy herself, begging him to spare her daughter, but is met with polite, firm denial. She then faints and the princess, who is after all the one who may soon be eaten, is forced to pull herself together so that she could look after her mother.
The king doesn’t give her up after all, and the dragon offers an unexpected alternative. The princess will be spared if she will consent to marry his nephew, who is reportedly young, handsome and rich. Moufette’s parents think this sounds a much better option, but she’s having none of it. She will marry Prince Moufy or be a pie. Her determination is so immoveable that at last she is brought to a mountain top to await the dragon, surrounded by a company of mourners and her grieving parents. The queen wails aloud, accusing the frog of deserting her, but when the dragon’s envoy demands the mourners disperse, no one tries to resist. They decamp instead to a neighbouring hill-top so that they can at least see what happens to the princess. The dragon is already on his way – huge, blue, and overweight. That’s what happens when you eat too many pies.
As he slowly flaps his way towards the mountain where the princess is waiting for him, the mistakenly accused frog is also winging away, riding on hawk-back to find Prince Moufy. She creates for him a three-headed, fire-breathing horse, a weightless sword and a coat made from flexible diamond, then sends him off at an impossible speed, so that he reaches Moufette before the dragon. With his killer steed, the prince draws first blood in the ensuing battle, and with the watching mourners cheering him on he fights the dragon down to the ground, where he finishes it off with his fairy sword. To everyone’s shock, a dandyishly dressed young man steps from the dragon’s severed neck and starts hitting on the prince. “How can I ever repay you, my gallant deliverer?” he declares, before explaining that he was enchanted by the lion-witch and it was on her command that he was to devour the princess. He pays his respects to the bemused princess and the whole scene descends into happy pandemonium.
To crown off the rejoicing, the frog flies down from on high and transforms into a majestic noblewoman. And the crowning is quite literal, because she is so impressed by Moufette’s constancy that she gives each lover a myrtle wreath and turns the dragon’s bones into an arch in commemoration of the event. The marriage takes place the next day. Between a fairy frog and a dragon prince, it must have been an interesting ceremony. Madame d’Aulnoy leaves it to her reader’s imagination. I don’t blame her.
Version 3: Cherry, or the Frog-Bride
Taken from the Dean&Son Ltd. collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this story is named after a young girl who is so fond of cherries that Cherry is what everyone calls her. When the king of the land sends out his three sons to see the world, all three happen to see Cherry standing at her window brushing her hair and fall madly in love with her. So madly that they all take out their swords and start fighting. The abbess of a local nunnery comes to see what is going on. Now, she has some unpleasant history with Cherry already, being very fond of cherries herself and none too pleased at the scarcity of supply. Blaming her for the fight instead of the brutish princes, she wishes the girl would turn into an ugly frog and end up under a bridge at the world’s end. Perhaps it is her good relationship with God, but no sooner has she wished it than Cherry disappears. The princes come to their senses, shake hands and go home without a second thought for the poor cursed girl.
The king, meanwhile, has decided he is too old to rule and arranges three trials to determine which of his sons would rule best in his stead. The first task is to seek out one hundred ells of cloth so fine in weave that it can be drawn through his ring. I have no idea how much a hundred ells of cloth might mean. Let’s assume it’s a lot. The elder two brothers ride off with large companies to seek out the finest of fabrics, but the third prince goes off on his own and for some reason chooses a dirty, depressing road. It takes him not to a weaver, but a certain bridge, where his sighs draw the attention of a kind-hearted frog. Though he’s quite rude to her, she offers him her help in the form of a length of fine, if grubby, cloth. He reluctantly thanks her and, having nothing better to show for his journey, brings it home to his father. When he draws it from his pocket to be compared with the offerings of his brothers, it is magically clean and goes through the ring without the slightest difficulty.
Well, the first task was at least humanly possible. The second task would imply that the king is having second thoughts about giving up his throne. He wants a dog so small that it can lie down in a nutshell. While the older brothers head off in a definite panic, the youngest returns to the frog’s bridge, where his problems are once again solved. He comes back with a hazel nut, and when his father cracks it, a white dog runs out so little that it can scamper around on the king’s palm. The king is thrilled with his new pet. Reconciled to retirement, his last task would seem to be the easiest – whoever brings home the fairest bride will be crowned in his place.
The elder two brothers have renewed optimism. The youngest, for once, does not. He doubts that the frog can produce a beautiful young woman the same way it has found him cloth and nut-dogs, but he goes to ask anyway. The frog tells him that she can help – only he must not laugh at anything that happens. Still not convinced that she can do what she promises, the prince returns home, followed by a peculiar little carriage made from an actual pumpkin, drawn by actual water rats. Take note, Cinderella, this is how girls without fairy godmothers get to the ball. At the last minute, though, magic does intervene, and the prince turns around to find himself facing a grand carriage. When the door opens, down steps the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen – and he has seen her before, because it’s none other than poor Cherry, restored to her own shape. The prince is awarded the crown and gets the girl. Hopefully her newly discovered streak of sorcery will be enough to defend her if her husband’s brothers decide to recommence the fight that started the whole mess in the first place.
Version 4: The Frog Prince
This one is from the 1974 Children’s Press edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the concerns the most famous frog of them all. When a king’s youngest and loveliest daughter is out playing in the castle gardens one hot day, tossing her golden ball up and down beside a quiet little fountain, it falls from her hand and rolls into the water, which is so deep she can’t see even the glint of her favourite toy. She begins to cry. A voice rises from the water, asking what is wrong, and she looks around to see a frog watching her. She tells him mournfully about her ball and he agrees to retrieve it for her, if in exchange she will allow him to be her constant companion – eating from her plate, drinking from her cup, sleeping in her bed. It’s a creepy proposition and the princess, though she agrees, has no intention of actually doing as he asks. When the frog returns with her ball in his mouth, she runs off happily, leaving him behind without so much as a thank you.
But oh dear, promises are a dangerous matter in a fairy tale. They have a habit of catching up with you. The next day, while the royal court is at dinner in the great hall, a strange splashing sound is heard on the steps outside and a knock is heard at the door, with a voice calling for the king’s youngest daughter. She rises to open it, sees the frog, and slams it quickly shut again. When she returns to her seat, the king is surprised at her distress and wants to know who was waiting outside, joking jovially about giants coming to take her away. He is less sympathetic when the princess explains the story and insists she lets the frog in.
It’s not an enjoyable meal for her. She is forced to lift the frog up so that he can reach her plate and eat with her, though his presence is enough to almost make her sick. Afterwards he wants to go to bed. The princess begins to cry, horrified at the thought of the cold slimy frog in her own clean, safe bed. You’d think her father might draw the line here, but instead he totally backs the frog and the princess has to take her unwanted guest with her to her bedchamber. She tries to compromise by leaving him in a corner of the room. He won’t leave her alone, coming up to the bed and threatening to go to her father if she doesn’t lift him up. Furiously, she snatches him up and – in an act of startling cruelty – hurls him at the wall.
But it isn’t a frog who falls to the ground. It is a beautiful prince, enchanted by a witch to remain in that shape, in the fountain. It isn’t explained why throwing him at a wall was enough to free him, or how he managed to leave the fountain after all without the princess’s help. The power of a promise seems completely unlimited. The princess likes this version of her guest much better and the next morning, when a magnificent carriage arrives out of the blue, happily accepts that she will be whisked away to the prince’s own kingdom. With the carriage has arrived his loyal servant Henry, who grieved so much when his master was turned into a frog that he had three iron bands placed around his heart for fear it would break. As he helps the young couple into the carriage, it apparently having been decided in the night that they will get married, he is so full of joy that the iron around his heart splits apart.
Possibly I am being unnecessarily literally minded, but riding around with bits of sharp metal inside you? It doesn’t sound like a joy that is going to be very long-lived if he doesn’t get to a surgeon right now. Also, what is the king thinking at this point? The Grimms are in such haste to conclude everything with a wedding that they are marrying off a pair of volatile children who have only known each other for ONE DAY!
The frogs of these stories are each described as ugly at least once, which is strange, because I personally think frogs are pretty cute. Not cute enough to kiss, though, or take home to sleep on my pillow. Something I find intriguing about these four stories is how both female frogs appear to have a considerable degree of control over their return to human form and at least some command of magic. The male frogs, on the other hand, have to bribe the right royal into restoring them. And only one frog requires a kiss to be human again. In the same collection as this version of ‘The Frog Prince’ is one of ‘Briar Rose’, in which a childless queen finds a fortune telling frog in her bath who predicts the birth of her daughter. It just goes to show, you can find them anywhere.
This is the last Fairy Tale Tuesday of the year – I will be back with heroic birds and musical espionage on the first of January 2013.