By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Frogs Asking for a King’, like Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes, is a children’s story that also carries a strong political message. Often included in editions of Aesop’s fables, ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’ is summarised below, accompanied by a few words of analysis.
Once upon a time, the Frogs were discontented because they had no one to rule over them: so they sent a deputation to Jupiter to ask him to give them a King. Jupiter, despising the folly of their request, cast a log into the pool where they lived, and said that the log should be their King.
The Frogs were terrified at first by the splash, and scuttled away into the deepest parts of the pool; but gradually, when they saw that the log remained motionless, one by one they began to venture to the surface again, and before long, growing bolder, they began to feel such contempt for the log that they even took to sitting on it.
Thinking that a King of that sort was an insult to their dignity, they sent to Jupiter a second time, and begged him to take away the sluggish King he had given them, and to give them another and a better one. Jupiter, annoyed at being pestered in this way, sent a Stork to rule over them. No sooner had the Stork arrived among them than he began to catch and eat the Frogs as fast as he could.
What’s the moral of ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’? One moral that’s often supplied is: ‘When you seek to change your condition, be sure that you can better it.’ Another might run: be careful who you’re voting for when making political decisions. For although ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’ can clearly be interpreted as a fable about making decisions of all kinds, the fact that it focuses on a group of animals asking for a king to rule over them suggests that it may have been designed to carry a more specific, politically-themed message.
The poet Tom Paulin once attacked the English poet Geoffrey Hill for titling his 1968 volume King Log, after this Aesopian fable. For Paulin, this was an indication of a right-wing tendency in Hill’s work, even an antidemocratic tendency, since the fable of the frogs asking for a king was about the failure of democracy.
In this interpretation, the fable has a very sinister meaning: let the people decide what they want, and most of them will vote for their own destruction. Now, who would ever imagine that a voting system would result in such self-destructive behaviour from an electorate?