As the existence of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Magic Animals implies, some creatures seem more prone to lives of enchantment and adventure than others and one fairy tale classic is the frog. Amphibians with attitude have been known to make prophecies, jump from the mouths of cursed girls and turn into royalty, but not many frogs can claim the resourcefulness of this African fairy tale’s titular character.
It doesn’t begin with him, though. The first character we meet is Kiman, who once glimpsed the daughter of the Lord Sun and the Lady Moon – or more accurately, the girl’s reflection in a pool – and has been determined to marry her ever since. She is described as being all ‘white and gold’, and while that might be referring to genetic luminescence, I’d very much like to know if it’s an original detail or if the description has been Anglicised. My guess would be the latter.
Having never spoken to this girl is not an insurmountable obstacle to Kiman, but her never leaving her parents’ celestial realm kind of is, so he’s been making the rounds asking for assistance from all the most powerful animals he knows. None are remotely interested in his one-sided love story. Eventually Kiman is in such despair he plans to drown himself in a pond. Fortunately for him, he has not quite exhausted all avenues of assistance. As he declares his intentions, Mainu the Frog emerges from the pond. “You haven’t asked me to carry your message,” he points out.
“How can you get to heaven,” Kiman says, ungratefully, “when people who have wings cannot?” Mainu just tells him to write a letter already. He then takes the missive in his mouth and travels to the well where the servants of heaven come to collect water. When they let down their jugs, Mainu hides inside one and is carried up to the palace of Lord Sun and Lady Moon. Once the water-carriers leave, Mainu hops from his hiding place, spits out the letter on a table and goes off to hide in a corner.
When Lord Sun enters for a drink of water, he is baffled. Having ascertained his water-carriers did not leave the letter there, he goes to consult with Lady Moon. Many hours later, all the water in the jugs has been used up and the water-carriers return to refill them. Mainu hides in one, returning to the well the same way he left. He tells Kiman he has delivered the message but does not as yet have a reply. “How do I know that you are not telling lies?” Kiman demands. He frets for six days, then writes another letter and has Mainu deliver that one too. This time Lord Sun writes back. “Kiman, son of Kimanze, you who send me letters about marrying my daughter. How can I agree before I know you? Come yourself, bringing with you the first-present. When I know you, I can say ‘Yes’.” A win for reasonable parenting!
He leaves the letter on the table and Mainu gives it to Kiman, who is over the moon, if only metaphorically. He tells Mainu to help himself to whatever food is in the house and sets out immediately to assemble an appropriate introductory gift. Mainu doesn’t like any of the food, but has a bit of milk and sticks around until Kiman returns in the morning with a bag of forty pearls. Kiman also writes another letter, explaining he cannot visit himself, being very busy assembling a suitable wooing-present. Clearly presents are a thing? Whatever Lord Sun and Lady Moon wish, he will do his level best to give. Mainu baulks at the pearls, but manages to stuff the bag into his mouth and the letter too.
This time Lord Sun and Lady Moon read the letter together. “Who is it comes with these things?” Lord Sun marvels. “I have never seen him. I don’t know his name or what he is like. But he has come a long way; he must be hungry and should be fed.” Lady Moon lays out a meal and they go away to consider their reply. Lord Sun wants a sack of gold as a wooing-present, a price Kiman is more than happy to pay. There is only one problem – Mainu is physically incapable of carrying such a burden to heaven with him.
Kiman is not good at handling difficulties. He threatens suicide again. Mainu tells him to calm down, asks for a piece of gold and goes off to look for a solution. He calls on a medicine man called Omari, who in exchange for the gold piece teaches the enterprising amphibian two spells: how to make big things small and small things big, and how to breathe blindness or sight into someone’s eyes. Hopping back to Kiman’s house, Mainu proudly demonstrates the first of his newfound skills. Instead of being happy, Kiman thinks of another problem. If his suit is accepted, how is his bride supposed to get down? Presumably not in the mouth of a frog…
“Have I failed you yet?” Mainu wants to know. Kiman admits he has not. Mainu has calculated for this exact obstacle and sets his plans in motion as soon as night has fallen in the palace. Searching through the rooms of sleepers, he comes to the girl Kiman is so desperate to win and breathes blindness into her eyes. Which is horrible for her, and frightening for her parents, who consult their family wizard on what’s best to do. “The maiden is promised in marriage,” the wizard declares, “but not married. The longing of him to whom she is promised has caused this mischief. Let her be given to him, and her eyes will open…I have spoken.”
Yes, we know you have spoken. Were you possibly bribed, wizard? Because your diagnosis really sucks.
The next morning Lord Sun has a rope of cobweb spun between heaven and earth so that his daughter can descend, a task which takes all day. While the construction of the rope is underway Mainu returns to Kiman and gives him notice. “Frog, I fear you are lying,” Kiman says. “And if you are lying I will have your life.” Stop being ungrateful, Kiman, and stop pretending you’re the hero of this story. You are not fooling anyone.
Mainu goes back to the well and waits. That night Lord Sun and Lady Moon descend, bringing with them a crowd of attendants and their blinded daughter. They then lose their good parenting points by leaving her alone beside the well instead of hanging around to meet her future husband. She bursts into tears. At this moment Mainu introduces himself and blows on her eyes, restoring her sight. He then leads her to Kiman’s house and looks on with satisfaction as they are married.
There’s a sub-section of fairy tales that are allegedly about idiots in love but are really about their exceptional assistants, including ‘Long, Broad and Sharpsight’ and ‘Princess Felicity’. They have the unfortunate side effect of turning the girl the theoretical protagonist wants to marry into a prize, as opposed to a person, but I love competent people and have all kinds of head canons about these support characters. Despite his unethical approach, I think Mainu the Frog deserves a spot on that list.