By Dr Oliver Tearle
Beware of amphibians who can speak in verse. That seems to be the moral of ‘The Frog Prince’, though we’re not sure about that. ‘The Frog Prince’ is perhaps, of all the classic fairy tales, the one that most succinctly encapsulates the notion of ‘fairy tales’, ‘the fairy-tale ending’, and the spirit of transformation and ‘living happily ever after’ which pervades so many of the best-loved fairy tales.
But what is the meaning of ‘The Frog Prince’, and what are the story’s origins? Before we offer an analysis of the story’s key features, it might be worth summarising its content.
‘The Frog Prince’: plot summary
A young princess is playing with a golden ball by a woodland spring one day, throwing the ball in the air and catching it.
Once when she throws the ball up, though, she fails to catch it and it falls into the spring. She looks into the water but it’s so deep that she cannot see the bottom of the spring, and so cannot retrieve her ball. She’s so fond of her little ball that she sighs and says she would give all her fine clothes and possessions if she could get it back.
At this point, a frog’s head pops up out of the water, and the animal asks her what she’s after. She tells him that she’s lost her prized ball in the water, and the frog says he will get it back for her, if she promises to let him come and live with her, and eat from her plate, and sleep on her pillow at night. So desperate is the princess to recover her ball that she agrees to the frog’s request. (She also thinks it’s unlikely that the frog would be able to get out of the spring, so she won’t have to take him home with her.)
The frog disappears under the water and emerges a few moments later with the princess’ golden ball in his mouth. As soon as she’s taken her ball back from the frog, the princess runs off home, forgetting to honour her end of the bargain.
When the princess gets home, she thinks she’s safe from the frog, but that night, he turns up at the door, and speaks to her:
When the princess opens the door, the frog is sitting there on the doormat. Slamming the door in horror, the princess runs to her father, the king, and tells him about the promise she made, and that the frog has shown up on their front doorstep.
The frog knocks again at the door, saying:
‘Open the door, my princess dear,
Open the door to thy true love here!
And mind the words that thou and I said
By the fountain cool in the greenwood shade.’
Which is, let’s face it, the same material he’d already tried once to no effect.
Anyway, the king tells his daughter that as she made a promise to the frog, she has to honour it, so the princess reluctantly goes to the door and lets the frog in. She lets the frog eat from her plate, and then, that night, she lets the frog sleep on her pillow.
The next morning, the frog lets itself out the door, and the princess heaves a sigh of relief, thinking that she’s seen the last of him.
But no: that night, the frog returns, and once again eats from her plate and sleeps on her pillow. The next morning, he leaves again, but that night he returns, and spends a third night with the princess.
But the following morning, the princess woke to find herself gazing, not at the frog on her pillow next to her, but at a handsome young prince, who tells her that an evil fairy had cast a spell over him, which transformed him into a frog.
The only thing that could break the spell was if he managed to persuade a beautiful princess to take him out of the spring and let him spend three nights in her home. When this had occurred, he was magically changed back into a prince, and offered the princess his hand in marriage. She accepted, and they went to live in the prince’s father’s land, where they were married and lived happily ever after. And that, in summary, is the story of the frog-prince.
‘The Frog Prince’: analysis
Many of the ingredients of the classic fairy tale are present in ‘The Frog-Prince’: the beautiful princess, the handsome prince, the marriage at the end, the magical transformation, the evil fairy/witch, the importance of the number three, and the idea of undergoing a trial before the happy resolution materialises.
The notion that a kiss could transform a person from hideous monstrousness into a state of beauty and normality was popular in the Middle Ages. In his Travels, John Mandeville recounted the tale of the daughter of Hippocrates, who was turned into the ‘forme and lykeness of a gret Dragoun, that is an hundred Fadme of lengthe’, and was destined to remain in such an uncomely state until a brave knight ventured to kiss her and release her from her dragonhood.
And it seems that the tale of the Frog Prince had been known in Scotland since the late Middle Ages, although it would only be referred to in print by English writers from the eighteenth century onwards, and it was really in the nineteenth century, when the Brothers Grimm set down their telling of the tale, that the story became a firmly established fairy tale.
What is the meaning of such a tale, then? It’s difficult to say. We couldn’t find one. The fact that it’s been around for so long suggests that the notion of metamorphosis from the ugly (back) into the beautiful held some appeal to numerous nations and cultures.
Honouring one’s promises is obviously the moral, of sorts: if you make an agreement with someone, you shouldn’t renege on your promise. But beyond that, the fact that such a basic storyline has existed in a variety of subtly different forms (Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale being another prominent example, where the hag’s transformation seems, rather distastefully, to let the male protagonist off for rape) is a testament to its adaptability, suggesting the true ‘moral’ or meaning of ‘The Frog Prince’ was loose enough to be interpreted, and reinterpreted, by a succession of different storytellers.
And at least it guarantees frogs their place in the annals of literature (along with Aristophanes’ play).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Illustration of The Frog Prince by Anne Anderson (1874-1930), via Wikimedia Commons.