You probably think you know the story: the girl, the well, the golden ball, the frog, and that kiss.
You’ve almost certainly heard the saying: “You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you can find your prince.”
What you might not know is that in the original German versions, and even the first English translations, the princess doesn’t kiss the frog at all.
And it’s not exactly clear when the two of them managed to make things, well, legal.
“The Frog King; or, Iron Henry,” also known as “The Frog Prince,” dates back to at least the 13th century, and possibly earlier. The tale appears in multiple variants and languages throughout Europe. The Grimm brothers collected at least three versions in German alone while assembling their Household Tales. They chose to start their collection with a version that emphasized two values they felt were especially German and important: obedience to parents, and keeping promises. The popularity of their collection helped make this version one of the best known.
In this 1812 Grimm version, after dumping the frog in the forest because, well, he’s a frog, and how important can a promise made to a frog be, really, the princess is forced to take the frog to her room. It goes remarkably well:
She picked up the frog with two fingers, carried him to her room, and climbed into bed, but instead of laying him next to herself, she threw him bang! against the wall. “Now you will leave me in peace, you ugly frog!” But when the frog came down onto the bed, he was a handsome young prince, and he was her dear companion, and she held him in esteem as she had promised, and they fell asleep together with pleasure.
If something strikes you as missing from that paragraph, you’re not wrong: in this version, 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. The next morning the two drive off together—still legally unmarried—to the great joy of the king’s servant, who feels the iron bands placed around his heart snap off with joy. His name is Iron Henry, and in some versions, the story is named for him, as if to emphasize that the really important part of this story is not the enchantment, or the princess, but rather that keeping a promise has—indirectly—saved the life of a servant.
Edgar Taylor, the first to translate this story into English, decided that his young readers would not want to read about frogs getting thrown into walls (he may not have known that many young readers or encountered many toads) and instead just had the frog sleep on the princess’ pillow and then hop away, which lacks something. Three straight nights of sleeping on the pillow of a princess, however, breaks his enchantment (quick, someone tell Duchess Kate to get in on this), allowing the two to marry and depart for his kingdom with faithful servant Iron Henry. The ending of this is somewhat similar to the other “Frog Prince” story collected by the Grimms, which features three princesses, not one, and again—no kiss.
Indeed, in almost all of the versions of the Frog Prince, the focus is not on the kiss, but on the promise made by the princess or the young daughter that she would play with or marry the frog. The girl only gives this promise because she wants something—her golden ball in more famous retellings, a drink of water (sometimes magical) for a parent in other retellings. She deeply resents the promise. Her parents consistently force her to keep that promise. In some cases—as with the Grimms—this is to emphasize the message that children must keep their promises. Not that we know exactly what would happen if the girl didn’t keep her promise—but we do know that she wouldn’t get to marry (or, run off in sin with) a prince, and that the prince’s servant, Iron Henry, would still have three bands of iron around his heart.
But in the other, more sinister stories, the parents are either panicked by the sudden appearance of the frog, or apparently desperate to keep the magical gifts granted by the frog. In many of these tales, after all, the parent is dying, either of thirst or illness, and can only be saved, or satisfied, by water from the well—water that can only be obtained after the daughter promises to allow the frog to sleep with her for a few nights. The daughter faces a stark choice: allow the frog—a magical, talking frog, at that—into her room and her bed, or face the anger or death of a parent.
Like other fairy tales of beastly marriage, this mirrors, of course, the choices many women in European society faced—with, that is, humans, not frogs. (At least I hope so.) And in many versions, these parents are not just demanding the willing self-sacrifice of their youngest daughters, but are actively, willfully abusive. In one, a daughter is savagely beaten; in another, a daughter is threatened with homelessness if she does not bring back water in a sieve. That leaves the daughter with two choices: a life on the streets, or a frog in her bed. Not surprisingly, she chooses the frog. These are not just tales of finding a true love beneath an ugly exterior, but, like many other fairy tales, stories of abuse, of parents who put themselves before their children, of children forced to make difficult or unwanted choices.
But unusually enough, in these frog stories, many of the daughters resist. Not their parents—but the frogs. They either run off as soon as they’ve gotten what they need, without fulfilling their promises made under duress, or, as in that Grimm version, harm the frog. And interestingly enough, for all that these tales are about obedience and bargains, these protests work. The most successful protagonist of all of these tales, after all, is the one who flings the frog against the wall and instantly gets a prince. In other versions, the daughters must endure the presence of a frog for several nights before his transformation.
What makes the flinging against the wall particularly remarkable is that this happens in the Grimm version, in a collection specifically designed to emphasize what the Grimm’s believed to be core German and feminine values—which did not, for the most part, involve women throwing anything at all. And it happens in a story that otherwise focuses on the importance of keeping promises, that insists that even unfair bargains (a lifetime of friendship and luxury for rescuing a ball from a well) must be kept.
Even if the bargain is made to a creature who, let’s face it, is not exactly the cuddly sort. The frogs may not be fearsome in the same way that, say, the Beast in the various versions of Beauty and the Beast and East ‘o the Sun, West ‘o the Moon might be, but promises to them must be kept, a strong message that even promises made to creatures of much lower status (like frogs) deserve the same attention as promises made to those of the same rank (like princes)—a powerful message indeed in 19th century Germany.
European folklore does have another variant—that of the frog princess, or frog bride. In Italian versions, three sons—usually, but not always, princes—head out to find their brides. The first two sons find either ordinary women or princesses. The third son finds only a frog. But the frog turns out to be better at sewing, weaving, and making polenta (it is the Italian version) than the two human brides. The second the frog is transformed into a lovely girl, the youngest son and prince learns to stop feeling ashamed of his frog bride, and introduces her with pride to his parents.
Which is to say, the beautiful human girl is a target of abuse, a daughter who can be sacrificed for the wellbeing and health of her parents. The ugly frog girl is a clever, skilled bride.
And in all versions, the frogs, not the humans, are the ones capable of transformation, of magic.
But, er, what about the kiss?
That seems to have been an addition to English translations, although exactly when it was added is not all that clear. It’s not in Edgar Taylor’s softer 1823 translation, for instance, or in many of the other 19th century English retellings and transformations. But somehow, by the 20th century, the kiss had turned into the best known, most central part of the story, to the point where readers opening Grimms’ Household Tales may find themselves startled by the versions they find there.
It’s only a guess on my part, but I suspect that The Frog Prince and other related tales became somewhat confused with some versions of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty, where the enchantment is ended with a kiss—from the girl in the first version, from the prince in the second. And somehow, what became important was not the promise, not the threat, not a parent forcing a child to obey, but the transforming kiss—the hope that yes, people, or at least frogs, are capable of transformation and change.
Children’s novelist E.D. Baker kept the kiss, but otherwise took a different twist on all this when she wrote The Frog Princess, a novel where the princess does try to help out the frog by kissing him—only to find herself transformed into a frog. This does mean that her wedding to an awful prince needs to be put on hold, which is a plus, but since adjusting to the life of a frog is not exactly easy, she and the frog prince head off to try to break the curse. It’s a short, amusing novel, and if not exactly deep, the first few chapters do allude to the restrictions placed on princesses, in a nice nod to the anger simmering beneath the earliest published versions of the tale.
Disney, less interested in anger, and more interested in humor, used this novel as a starting point for their own take on the story. But I like to think they also had the stories of the skilled frog princesses in mind when they started developing The Princess and the Frog.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.