unsettling wonder

Household Tales: a Grimm Read Throughillus-043

The Frog-King, or Iron Henry 

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t seems at first glance that this tale is the usual fodder for the child or the academic. The Frog Prince is the most recent of the Grimms tales to fall into Disney’s clutches, and it’s hard to take this tale too seriously after watching Jim Henson’s devastating–if endearing–deconstruction.

But it this tale is surprising. In fact, it’s mesmerizing. There is a dreamlike quality to this familiar old tale, which is strangely juxtaposed with a robust ethical reality far more unrelenting than the most persistent of villains.

The tale begins prettily enough. There’s a king with a castle and a wood and three daughters.  Daughter One (beautiful) and Daughter Two (beautiful too) vanish in a puff of storytelling, getting no more than a nod in the opening sentence. One can only assume they went off to annoy Cinderella.

This tale is about the third daughter, ‘so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone in her face.’

In odd correlation to the bedazzled sun, the princess has a beautiful golden ball that’s ‘her favorite plaything.’ She drops this golden ball down a deep well in the forest, and bursts into tears. Up pops der Froschkönig, and ‘Good morning, ma’am,’ says he, ‘permit me to be your heroic rescuer—at a price.’ The princess agrees with delight, and what was that about a price?

The price is companionship, food, sharing a life, and a bed. The princess promises, breaks her word, and finds herself discomfited when the frog comes calling the next day.

The Frog

So far, so familiar. The beast lover/loathly lady trope is one of the most familiar in literature. There’s a request granted at a price. There’s a promise made and forgotten. There’s the beasts return, with an army, or with impatience, or with tears, and a forced reconciliation. From the Arthurian cycle through to Anderson, this story appears and reappears in various forms.

The frog pleas for the princess to ‘love me and let me be thy companion and play-fellow, and sit by thee at thy little table, and eat off thy little golden plate, and drink out of thy little cup, and sleep in thy little bed.’ It is this request, and the princess’s glib “oh, sure, sure” that form the tension of the tale.

There seem to be two ways of reading this tale. One reading sees this request as highly erotic and suggestive. The frog has, in effect, propositioned the princess with imagery so provocative as to be almost obscene. Even ignoring that this is a frog talking, this reading is, needless to say, more than a little disturbing. The plot of the story, as the frog and the king together force the princess to keep her word, seems at best misogynist and at worse, worse than abusive.

But—this is a frog talking. And it may be safe to assume that, as a frog, he has as little desire for the princess than she has for him. It’s an old question but true—what if Gatsby just liked tobacco?

If, as I suspect from the general childishness of her actions, the princess in this story isn’t much more than twelve, the frog’s takes on a different dimension. These are all the sorts of play a child enjoys with a favorite toy or obliging pet—make-believe dinners, child-size kitchens, cuddling a velveteen tiger while drifting to sleep.

The frog is thus attempting the role of a lost puppy or stray kitten, gazing big-eyed at a child and mewling , ‘I can has home wiv u?’ The princess’s disgust becomes, then, nothing more than an understandable aversion to slimy amphibians that live in mud. The emphasis in the story becomes not sexuality, but on the importance of keeping a promise, and — to use a phrase from Jean Vanier – showing hospitality to the stranger.

Finding sexuality in these tales isn’t wrong, necessarily. But it isn’t always needed. The oversexed fairy tale may be as big a travesty as Disneyfication. True, that may be part of it, I can see how you pull out those themes, but—it’s just—that’s not what reading the tale is like.

The Ethics of Unethics

Reading this story in Grimms’ original telling—or as close as I can come—three beats in the story struck me:

  1. The ethical center. This would be nearly pointless without the following two beats, but it gives the tale a cohesion it would otherwise lack. The king says, sternly and specifically, ‘That which thou hast promised must thou perform,’ and ‘He who helped thee when thou wert in trouble ought not afterwards to be despised by thee.’ These are laws unbreakable, what Chesterton called ‘The ethics of elfland.’ One gets the sense that these laws are not mere as-you-know-Bob-the-moral-is, but burned into the grain of the universe.
  2. The unethical resolution. Thought the princess broke the spell with a kiss? Who’d want to kiss a frog? ‘Then she was terribly angry, and took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall. “Now, thou wilt be quiet, odious frog,” said she.’ Frog go splat. (Imagine that scene in a Disney movie—Belle picks up a shovel and batters the Beast to the ground.)

    What happened to the ethical center I just talked about? Is she repulsing his advances and protecting her honor? Is she just being a willful child? Or, more subtly, is the frog using his loathly appearance to secure his freedom. He must make her kill him, to provoke violence to allow redemption, transformation, grace. Or maybe he was just lucky.

  3. Iron Henry. He’s not in any of the films. But he’s in the title. The cursed prince’s faithful retainer—who was so grieved when the prince was cursed, he had the blacksmith bind his heart with iron bands, so it wouldn’t break. Here, beside the redemptive inconstancy of the princess, is faithful but helpless devotion. He returns to his restored master with joy—he has been bound with him, and can now be free. But his joy is not for himself. His joy, like his pain, is his master’s.

    Who is he? In contemporary literature, he seems to reappear as the patient dwarf Quondo in Thurber’s The White Deer. He is a troubling, haunting figure. It feels like he has entered this tale from wandering long in his own. This tale is richer and more troubling because of it.

The Fabric of Story

Ultimately, the tale reads with much of the disjointed surrealism of a dream. “Yeah, there was this princess, see, and this frog—he wanted to be her pet, she had a ball, and there was something about a king, and then the princess threw the frog against the wall, and he became this guy—oh, and Iron Henry came in, and he was happy because the frog was a prince again…”

Why do things happen the way they do? Because they do. The move in discordant patterns to the accompaniment of a music we cannot hear.

And yet—there’s the ethical center there. The stranger must not be turned away. A promise must not be broken. Whatever the absurdity or the horror of the situation, all will be well, all manner of things will be well. This is part of the fabric of the story, and it can’t be dismissed. Faerie turns on a certain spin, and to turn with it is to discover, beauty, joy, and hope. Only the princess could free the frog—because only she would have the courage to welcome him despite her fear, to hate him despite her obligation.

The princess learns this through the story. Iron Henry has known all along.

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5 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. It is a rare and wonderful thing when an author better articulates (and more quickly at that) a thought that his reader was still preheating his oven for. I found myself just beginning to see my conclusion concerning the legitimacy of perceiving a subtle, sexually charged universe in fairy tales like the one you summarized only to find that your passing insight was exactly where I was trying to get my arrow to land ( I actually heard the “thud” and the splintering of wood) all along.

    “Finding sexuality in these tales isn’t wrong, necessarily. But it isn’t always needed. The oversexed fairy tale may be as big a travesty as Disneyfication. True, that may be part of it, I can see how you pull out those themes, but—it’s just—that’s not what reading the tale is like.”

    I laughed out loud when I read it, and muttered, “THAT’s what I was trying to say.”

  2. Ha, I just read this one last night by chance! Excellent write-up!

    Rather shockingly, the Disney version actually does play up the sexual imagery a bit, to the point that you start wondering how they got away with a G rating. (“Just one kiss… unless you beg for more!”) That’s not even counting the seriously dark Voodoun imagery and (spoiler?) on-screen character death. (Not the one from Grimm though.) Henson’s is actually closer to the spirit of the original, I think, Sweetums and Kermit aside.

    Perhaps it takes somebody who tells stories to children (or the childlike) to really understand fairy tales. Only a boring old grown-up could see a talking frog and think “Hmm, must be about sex.”

  3. Welcome, Cole–to the blogsphere in general, and Paradoxes in particular. I appreciate your thoughts, and would actually be anxious to read more of them on these issues.

    Eric–interesting. There are actually two sorts of Disneyfication, I think. (And there could be a whole post on this phenomenon.) No surprise here, but they correspond to the two stages of the studio: with Disney, and after Disney.

    Walt Disney himself was a competent and capable artist, who delighted in a childlike sense of sweetness and wonder, a ‘love of innocence’, as someone put it. He truly loved fairy tales, albeit the saccharin Victorian sanitized versions. When you compare his work to what he worked from, he vastly improved and perfected that art form. Are they true to the original? No, not at all. Do they work as stories in their own write (sorry, John), evoking the wonder of innocence Disney cherished? Absolutely. They’re legitimate–even excellent–retellings. Personally, as a child I always found the stepmother from Cinderella much more terrifying than, say, the Joker. It’s just unfortunate that they’ve become standard, because they ain’t.

    After Disney’s death, however, and the travesty that was Eisner and the 80s, you saw a darkening of the tales, a loss of innocence. Not, however, a return to the grit of the original. This was an oily darkness, trendy and angsty, Belle griping that her life is so ‘provincial’. Also, you them hyping a plastic, Barbie-like sex in the female characters: contrast the childlike Snow White with the provocative Pocahontas. It’s very much a suburban, mass-media depiction of sexuality, all tidy and safe, an unlike either life or the tales. Also, it propagates the myth that beauty = sex appeal, which the tales themselves often violently disprove. This era of retelling isn’t particularly viable on their own merits, I think. (Shall we sponsor a ritual burning?)

    To conclude a surprisingly long reply, two C. S. Lewis references.

    One–I forget the exact quote or the source, but I’m sure my readers will know!–is when Lewis remarked with some asperity that, yes, of course no society ever thought it was acceptable for a girl to marry a frog–that was the point.

    The other, from Letters to Malcolm: ‘Poor Aphrodite! We have sandpapered all the mirth off her face.’

  4. Also, CSL wrote a letter with a review of Disney’s Snow White which can be found here (I’ll spare the cut-and-paste). He must have been in a seriously snobbish mood that day, I have to say.

    Of course, the studio closest to Walt’s vision today is Pixar, which oddly hasn’t tackled any classic fairy-tales yet (unless perhaps you choose to see Toy Story as an echo of Hans Andersen).

    We also have to consider Enchanted, Disney’s lighthearted but genuinely satirical deconstruction of its own “Disney Princess” brand mentality. Do you suppose this is a sea change toward or away from the ideals of the classics? Or perhaps both at once?

  5. Firmly away, Eric. Which is unfortunate. Ignore that every fairy tale reteller since a long time thought, hey, why not have the girl save the guy? The story seems to sneer at the asexuality of the early films, while–to its great credit–giving the male lead actually high moral standing (mostly).

    Enchanted, as I think you pointed out to me once, is an anti-tale.The overall point of the movie seems to say that, well, you know, fairy tales are cute but don’t really help in real life, unless you want to escape from something–ideally the rat race. Perhaps if Susan Sarandon didn’t have such a lack of empathy for her character, it would have worked a bit better. As it was, it seemed to exist simply to make fun of other, more artistic movies.

    The satire was delightful, and the music was fun, but the vapid moral (Everyone wants a happy after!) and the deconstructive plot stunt its potential. For the love of Pete, whatever happened to wonder? For that, you’re right–the best we’re getting right now is Pixar.

    Lewis’s review is hilarious. Sometimes we forget he lived in Oxford. Then he reminds us.

    (Sorry, you caught me while I was browsing Roger Ebert’s website!)

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