The Frog King or Iron Heinrich, part 1


from Wikipedia

I’m going through fairy tale withdrawal and The Frog King or Iron Heinrich is traditionally the first fairy tale in the Brother’s Grimm collection, so I’m discussing it. Bear with me. This will take three posts. As usual, I’ll start out with a brief retelling of the tale then talk about what points tend to be common between most versions of the story. In post 2 I’ll talk about what the story means. For this story, that naturally divides into two parts, one with the princess and the frog, the other with Iron Heinrich. Although I’ve read & love Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, I’m going to go about this on my own and ignore the fact that he, among others, has elegantly interpreted this fairy tale.

I should mention that The Frog King is the same story as The Frog Prince and that I haven’t seen the Disney movie, but if I do I’ll post on it, too.

IN OLD times when wishing still helped one, there lived . . . usually, a king with three daughters, the youngest of whom was really, really beautiful and spent time sitting next to a wall, playing with her gold ball. The ball falls into the well and the princess cries. Presently, a frog sticks its ugly head out of the water and asks why she’s crying. She tells the frog and offers it jewelry and riches if it will retrieve the ball. The frog asks instead for a promise that the princess will become his companion, allow him to “. . . eat from her plate, drink from her cup, and sleep in her bed . . ..” She promises, but thinks to break the promise even as she makes it. The frog retrieves the ball and tries to follow her home as she leaves, but she goes too quickly.

That evening at dinner there is a knock on the door, and the frog is heard calling out to the king’s youngest daughter to “open to me” as she promised. She is forced to tell her father what transpired and he holds her to her promise. The frog, to the princess’s disgust, eats from her plate and drinks from her cup and with some prompting from her father, goes up to her bedroom. She is filled with rage and throws him with all her might against the wall, but instead of seeing a broken frog, in its place stands “a beautiful prince with kind eyes.” They wed with the father’s consent. [SPOILER: He was enchanted by a witch. The princess alone could have released him.]

They leave in a white carriage for the Prince’s kingdom, followed by his faithful servant Heinrich, who had put three iron bands around his heart when the prince was enchanted so that his heart wouldn’t break into pieces. Along the way, the Prince and Princess hear the sound of metal popping and think something has broken in the carriage, but it is only the metal bands popping from around iron Heinrich’s heart, one at a time.

There are a lot of written versions of this tale dating from about 1810, some with three daughters each offered the frog’s bargain, and often the sisters are envious of the good fortune of the youngest. In some versions instead of retrieving a golden ball the frog offers to clear muddy water for the girl to drink, and Iron Heinrich’s appearance is truncated or absent in many of the fairy tales. So what is relatively constant across tellings and across cultures?

A princess (or widow or husbandless queen, but usually a princess, and usually the youngest) sits beside a well or fountain. She has an unfulfilled desire and makes a promise of companionship, usually involving sharing her bed, to the frog in return for her desire (for water or a ball.) She does not intend to keep the promise, but the frog shows up at her doorstep. She is held to the promise, often by her father. She does violence to the frog rather than sharing her bed. The frog then turns into a prince and they are married.

In the next post I’ll look at meaning.


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