The Frog King or Iron Heinrich part 2


I just found David Elzey’s Exelsior File blog post on The Frog King or Iron Heinrich–check it out. David is also a VC-MFA in Writing for Children graduate, and interested in fairy tales.

Let’s look at the surface of the tale as we told it last post: A princess makes a promise involving her bed and companionship to a frog for something she desires with no intention of fulfilling the promise. She’s held to the promise, does violence to the frog and the frog becomes a prince and her husband.

It won’t be too surprising to anyone that among the layers of meaning here is a coming of age story, a story of sexual awakening–duh, she starts out as a child playing with a ball and ends up married–but there’s more here than that.

In the Brothers Grimm version of the tale, the Princess is playing beside a well or fountain with her golden ball and loses it in the water. The Princess is pretty much a child as we first see her, playing ball. That the ball is golden must mean it’s valuable. That’s reinforced since the Princess offers jewelry and riches for it, even the crown she wears.

So she’s a child playing with a valuable object beside a fountain . . . Metaphorically, that could be  masturbation, but again there are other levels. The playfulness and innocence of childhood is a valuable thing in and of itself.

Wells and fountains are magic. People leave coins, things of value, in them in payment for wishes granted. The Princess has lost a thing of value in the well and makes her conscious wish to have the golden ball back–she has wished the frog into being!–whether the ball represents childhood innocence or playfulness or the innocent and solitary sexuality of a child.

What about the frog? That brings to mind Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Near the end of the book as she reconciles with Mr.____ (Albert, I think was his name, but she always called him Mr.), she makes a comment about how men’s genitals just look like an old toad or an old frog. And that wouldn’t be too surprising an interpretation here given the dropping of a valuable object into a well or fountain by a girl on the threshold of becoming a woman. It also fits with the conditions the frog gives for returning the ball, fulfilling the wish: “become your companion . . . eat from your plate . . . drink from your cup . . . share your bed.” The frog demands an end of childhood whether it is a penis or a metaphor for adult sexuality, and her promise to the frog reads like a marriage contract.

image from

So why does she make the contract meaning to break it? Why is dad the one who enforces it?

Making the contract meaning to break it–it’s a contract with a frog, after all–that’s an element that’s present in virtually every version of this fairy tale. The Princess feels repulsed by the frog, but she wants the frog to return her ball from the well and she makes the contract under that duress. You can see a child who wants to play (with her ball) again and will promise anything to have it back, even though that promise changes everything, even playing with the ball. If she plays with the ball again, it will be with the frog as her companion, and the idea of giving up childhood to become a partner with a frog?!?

“I want what the frog can do for me, not the frog.” From a Freudian/developmental standpoint, the Princess wants to maintain her childhood playfulness and involve a penis/frog, without the commitment of adult sexuality and relationships. Jan points out here that the frog is awfully controlling and that historically once a girl marries her freedom is gone and she’s subjugated to her husband. That controlling nature of the frog also sounds awfully like a (pre-oedipal) mother’s voice. Breaking the contract? Maybe that’s a desire for freedom as well as ambivalence about becoming an adult and all that goes with it.

What about the king? Why is father/ king usually the one who enforces the promise the princess has made? This gets us into the manifest content of the morality tale, which has been made more obvious, I think, in the later versions and translations of The Frog King; there are rewards to keeping promises. If you keep the promise the frog will become a prince.  The king says “A promise made in a time of need must be kept.”

The king is cast as conscience. Developmentally one incorporates the perceived voice of one’s parents as superego or conscience. Think, too, about Leave It To Beaver and the whole 1950’s child-rearing trope of  “wait ’till your father gets home.” Jan points out that as conscience, women tend to think more in terms of relationships and context and are more flexible while us men seem to be more black and white (bleak and white?) and more rules-driven, less flexible. The king is a fitting symbol for a rigid conscience on that level. But he’s also her father, and what he’s telling the princess is that she must become an adult, both in terms of keeping vows and embracing adult duties, but also adult sexuality–the frog eating from her plate, drinking from her cup and sharing her bed.

I’m going to have to finish this in the next post, so I’m not sure whether there’ll be three or four Frog King and Iron Heinrich posts.


2 Responses to “The Frog King or Iron Heinrich part 2”

  1. First of all, sorry for reading these posts so much after the fact that you probably won’t even see my comment.
    And I realize you’ve moved on to read and think and post about other ideas. But your posts really got me thinking and I’m actually combining two of your topics… I’m still obsessed with discussing philosophy with children through literature. So what about the general idea of promises? In so many children’s fairy tales, there are examples where a promise is made with the full intention of breaking it. I seem to recall, as a child, that in general the sympathy is with the if, of course, she will break the promise. Who in their right mind would want to live with a frog in that way? It seems to be built into the concept. In fact, without that, there is no story, or at least the story can’t proceed according to formula. On the other hand, childhood is a time where things seem to be “black and white” and “a promise is a promise. ” There seems to be an ambiguous message. On one hand, our sympathy lies with the princess because really she has made a promise under duress and anyway, we just feel sorry for her. Under such circumstance, is there some kind of loophole for being absolved of her promise? (not the part about feeling sorry for her, but the part about making a promise under duress). And of course, as an adult, I might be able to say, so what about the ball. Get over it. But for children, losing a favorite toy can be devastating. I can recall having to rescue something from the toilet for my son..oh, never mind the disgusting details.
    On the other hand, is she justified in “using” the frog just to achieve her own ends and then does she have the right to try and break her promise simply because she finds the creature unworthy or repulsive? Under what conditions is it ok to make a promise knowing that you intend to break it? Then of course there is the frog, who should have been willing to be helpful and altruistic but instead took advantage of her vulnerability, etc.
    I don’t know.
    I feel like I need to revisit some of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales

    • The surface story is a morality tale: you must keep promises, even those made under duress, and there are hidden rewards for keeping such promises. This is a good tale to use to explore the philosophy of promises, and the questions you ask . . . is it ever right to make a promise you don’t intend to keep?, when can one be absolved of a promise made under duress? . . . are good ones. They broaden the focus.
      Looking for the answers for *this* princess in *this* story does narrow the focus, and leads to questions like what does the ball mean to the princess and what, precisely, is she promising?


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