should a certain
quite adorable princess
be walking in her garden
at such a time
and toss her golden ball
up like a bubble
and drop it into the well?
It was ordained.
Just as the fates deal out
the plague with a tarot card.
(Ann Sexton, “The Frog Prince” from Transformations)
And so the story goes that a frog heard her weeping and offered his assistance in fetching her favorite bauble on the condition that she promises he may sit at her dinner table, eat from her plate and sleep in her bed. Thinking (or not-thinking, depending on your perspective) the frog couldn’t leave the water, she agreed. “Anything for my pretty toy!” The frog makes good on his end of the deal and the princess learns that a promise made in vain is still a promise.
Princesses are problematic. My daughter puts on a swishy dress and dances through the doorway, “I’m a princess!” she exclaims.
Princesses, I’ve discovered, are the standard to which young girls measure femininity. It’s not surprising — I understand the appeal of these beautiful little waifs with the prettiest things and the catchiest of theme songs. I don’t recall if the princess phenomenon was such a force in my own adolescence, I only know that I view it now with skepticism at best and abhorrence at worst. I can, as a mother, only issue warnings, “Don’t kiss frogs.”
In Grimm’s version, she doesn’t kiss the frog. The frog enters her dining room and sits at her table. He eats off her plate. And finally, demands entrance to her bedchamber. The King holds his daughter to this strange pact, so she carries the frog upstairs. The idea of sleeping with the frog is so repulsive to the princess that she dashes him against the wall — and in that moment he turns into a handsome prince.
In other versions, the frog-tossing is removed, along with a good deal of the princess’s agency. English audiences were treated to a rendition where the frog sleeps in the bed of the princess for three nights — and on the third he transforms into the handsome prince. Of course she has to marry him now (good thing he’s suddenly handsome, and a prince).
The kissing scene seems to have been added later. And the fickleness and falseness of the young princess is replaced by a sort of courageous sympathy that is rewarded when her kiss becomes the impetus for the transformation. The frog gets what he wants. The princess gets what she wants. Is kissing a frog really so bad? Maybe so, if you’re a princess.
Which tale do we tell? The one where the princess uses her charm and beauty to exploit others? The one where the frog offers to help a crying woman so long as she agrees to sleep with him? The one where she is so remorseful about her poor decisions that she commits a rather terrible act of violence?
Should the King have sheltered his daughter from the consequences of her choice? To what end should we keep to a promise? What if he never turned into a prince? What kind of a prince can this frog really be? Why does he accept her, knowing that her vanity prevents her from seeing the true nature of others?
In the end I’m not sure what to tell my children. Except maybe we’re all frogs and we’re all princesses. We all use people. We manipulate. We tell lies. We regret the things we say without consideration. We give ourselves away without thinking. We are all capable of violent outbursts when we’re forced into a corner. And we all change. We transform. And we go on. Ever after.