The Frog King or Iron Heinrich part 4

09Jun10

What follows is my take on a difficult part of a wonderful fairy tale. It is by no means “received wisdom” and there is no right and wrong. I’d love to hear comments and arguments.

We’ve looked at the story of the princess and the frog up to the point where the frog has turned into a prince and the prince and princess either have spent the night together or become husband and wife, depending on which version of the fairy tale you read. Of course, he blames the enchantment on a witch and only the princess could free him. What happens next?

image from .eri on flickr

Faithful Heinrich arrives with the prince’s ornate white carriage to carry the happy couple to the prince’s kingdom. A point is made in the story that Faithful Heinrich helps them into the carriage and rides behind them to drive.

Faithful Heinrich had been so saddened by his master’s transformation into a frog that he’d had to have 3 iron bands placed around his heart to keep it from breaking apart. As the carriage drives toward the prince’s kingdom the happy couple hear the crack of  metal breaking behind them and worry about the carriage coming apart. Faithful Heinrich tells them,

“No, my lord, the carriage it’s not, /But one of the bands surrounding my heart, /That suffered such great pain, /When you were sitting in the well, /When you were a frog.”

They hear two more bands cracking and are reassured that it is only Iron Heinrich’s heart set free because of his master’s happiness and redemption.

Several things leap to mind here. First, taking the story at face value, where was Heinrich all those years his master was consigned to eat flies? How does he know to show up just then?

More to the point, though, is the feeling that this part of the story is just and add-on, that it’s cobbled together and takes place after the action of the story is done, so why is it in the fairy tale at all. Old Heinrich wasn’t even as much a part of the story as the witch, whom we simply assumed because of the existence of the talking frog.

This is a story about a princess growing up and getting married at its heart, and we have seen the princess’s father here in two roles: he demands that she keep her promise to the frog, and when the princess kills the frog and the prince emerges he “wills” their marriage, that is, he blesses the princess’s adult loving relationship with the prince.

image from EnDie1 on Flickr

Let’s stay at this level for a moment and look at the prince and his servant, Heinrich, whose heart was breaking because of his master’s enchantment.

I’m sorry, but this is not the love of a servant for his master or retainer, this love that stays wounded through years of enchantment, through the time when the boy is stalking a princess and forcing himself into her bed. Love that causes a heart to expand with love and pride at an adult relationship, a marriage, isn’t the love of a servant: it’s the love of a parent.

One way to think about Iron Heinrich is that he might be the boy’s father watching through his stormy frog phase of adolescence, and feeling free to love him again, feeling his heart heal and expand with pride and love at his son’s emergence as an adult.

Pretty good, but I don’t buy it.

Mostly, I still don’t think that the prince’s dad carries enough emotional water to force his way into a story that already had a happy ending.

from Borders.com

And some little things keep bugging me. First, why describe the carriage? Did we have to know how ornate and beautiful it was? Why did Heinrich have to help them into the carriage and ride behind to drive?

I’m going back to trying to understand the whole story from the point of view of the princess. This is her story of going from a little girl playing with a ball to a married adult woman, after all. And we’ve seen that her dad has guided her along and blessed her marriage, but we haven’t seen dear old mum . . . or have we?

Carriages are containers for people, and they’re places of transition. I think here, the carriage is a womb. Iron Heinrich helps or places the prince and princess into the carriage and is behind them (and above them), and the carriage is ultimately his. The deep love of Heinrich for the prince is, I think, a stand-in for the love of a mother for her child who was really the one imprisoned by her immaturity.

I think it was the heart of the princess’s mother that was swelling with pride and love and breaking those iron bands, and the iron bands themselves were the bands of a pre-oedipal child to her mother. Mom, too, was blessing her child’s passage to adulthood.

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2 Responses to “The Frog King or Iron Heinrich part 4”

  1. Hi.

    I enjoyed your presentation of Frog Prince. As you already said: there is no absolute truth behind the fairy tale, so we can really explain it in many different ways. If we are commenting the ending scene where Iron Henry looses his bands, we can notice the princess, the heroine of the story is actually unimportant. The scene goes only between the prince and his servant.

    She is out. Even the carriage is more important, as you already noticed. From this point of view the carriage can really represent a womb, and if a frog represents a sexuality and the story talks primarily about responsibility (brothers Grimm were pretty obsessed with this term), we can read a story as a metaphor of sexuality. It is a mixture of joy, disgust, responsibility and it can lead to pregnancy (carriage takes place instead of the princess).

    Being officially a dramatist myself I can add this addition to the story is relatively boring and unnecessary. I don’t think Grimms were thinking about the roles of parents in the process of growing up, finding a partner and so on and on…

    We should not forget they were collectors from beginning and they were authors only after that. I am sure they were familiar with more than one version of Frog Prince and they certainly heard another German version where the problems with a transformation to a prince were not finished.
    He has to leave his bride and he gives her a handkerchief with his name. If his name changes the color this means he is dead or unfaithful. And this happened. So she went after him (disguised) and he on one occasion heard breaking sound when he was in a carriage.

    Than the dialogue is very much the same as in Frog Prince we are most familiar with. And in the end (after third break of the band around her wounded heart) the prince realizes his mistake, remembers his wife and happy ending follows.

    I believe Grimms were just gluing two versions of this fairy tale together (wouldn’t be the first time), but they did it without the sense of drama, so the ending is not as satisfying as it would be if the story ended before Henry entered…

    Just adding my two cents here:)

    Thanks for some cool ideas. Keep it up!

    • I agree with you that the Iron Heinrich part of the tale has a tacked-on feel to it. In fact, Bruno Bettelheim’s wonderful discussion of The Frog Prince (King) doesn’t even look at the Iron Heinrich part of the tale because he does consider it an unnecessary and tacked-on ending.
      On the other hand, the Grimms give a second version in their notes on The Frog King or Iron Heinrich and cite references. They call it “one of the oldest [folktales] in Germany.” I don’t think the Grimms did the condensation of the two stories. If they were two stories condensed, it probably happened earlier.
      Dramatically, it ain’t great, but I think there’s an element of psychological truth that has enabled the survival of the tale in its Frog King + Iron Heinrick form.


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