Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Frog Princess

 So today we're going to talk about "The Frog Princess." This is a completely different story from "The Frog Prince"; literally all they have in common is an enchanted frog. The Frog Princess is found in a lot of different cultures, but I first encountered it as a Russian fairy tale, so that's the version we're going with today. Also, like. I just finished my post about "King Thrushbeard", and I feel like I've learned my lesson about the disappointments of actually rereading fairy tales instead of just going off my memory.  Today we are going to tell fairy tales the way they were meant to be told, the way they were told in the days of oral tradition: however the teller happens to remember them. (So don't anybody be coming in here and telling me I'm wrong, don't tell me I botched the details, don't tell me I just left out the entire second half; dude, I know. That's the point.)

We open with a scene sort of like the end of Robin Hood, where he shoots an arrow from his deathbed and tells the Merry Men to bury him wherever it lands? The king has his three sons shoot arrows, and they're supposed to find their brides wherever the arrow lands.

Now, how could that possibly go wrong?

Miraculously, no one is killed in this fun little bride search, and two of the three arrows actually happen to land somewhere in the general vicinity of an unmarried young woman.

Unfortunately for our third prince, the only living thing anywhere near where his arrow lands is a frog. So he goes home and explains the situation to his dad, probably hoping for a reasonable response, like, "Oh, that sucks, try again," or maybe even, "You know what? Bridal acquisition via a literal shot in the dark was a stupid and dangerous idea. Forget it. Go meet a nice girl the normal way."

But our king is not a reasonable man, so what he tells the prince is "Well, I guess you're marrying a frog."

And then he says that whichever son has the most impressive wife gets to be the next king. Like, dude. Just come right out and say you hate prince number three.

First task to impress the king: make him a shirt.

The first two girls work hard to sew nice shirts. And prince number three, he goes home and tells the frog what's up, but he's not really expecting anything, because she's, you know, a frog. In the morning he has to go and not present his dad with a shirt, and before he leaves the frog gives him an acorn, and she's all like, "Look, I made you a shirt," and he just sort of says "Thanks, honey," and pats her slimy little head, because, I mean, what are you gonna do? She's a frog. They don't even wear shirts. Why should she know the difference between a shirt and an acorn?

"You have to open it," she says as he leaves.

"Sure, honey," he says, humoring her.

So he gets home. His dad looks over the other two shirts, makes his judgement, and then it's our dude's turn. He takes the little acorn cap off, and--there's fabric in there? Okay, weird. He pulls it out and it's a beautiful shirt made of the finest linen. Round one goes to our now very baffled third prince. Round two: bake some bread.

Now our prince isn't super quick on the uptake here. I'd think that the combination of talking frog and beautiful human-sized shirt folded into an acorn without even wrinkling would naturally lead to the conclusion that something magical is going on. But instead, he decides that the shirt must have been a fluke and, woe is him, there's no way his frog wife is ever gonna produce a loaf of bread. Frogs don't even eat bread. And how will she operate an oven?

The prince's new sisters-in-law are a little smarter, and have worked out the magic angle by now, so they go to spy on the frog. They watch her just sort of pour the dough into the oven through a hole on top, and go home to do the same thing. But, like, they don't have magic. So that backfires.

Frog presents prince with a second acorn. He pats her slimy little head and says "Thanks, honey," because he's sure she did her best. You can't fit a lot of bread in an acorn; bread isn't nearly as foldable as linen. But it's the thought that counts. And if he had to marry a frog, well, out of all the frogs in the world, he figures he's pretty lucky to have wound up with this one.

The first two princes show the king their very, very sad loaves of bread, and our prince is thinking, okay, maybe I have a shot. My loaf of bread might be incredibly tiny, but the shirt was good, and this other bread is pretty crappy. So he takes the cap off the acorn, and a beautiful, full-sized loaf of bread. They cut it up, and it tastes great. Round two goes to our prince. Third round: impress the king at a banquet.

Now our prince is thinking there's really no way his wife is going to perform well at a fancy party, because, again, she is literally a frog. She tells him to go ahead to the banquet, and she'll catch up later. He goes, thinking he's probably going to be stood up, because how is a frog going to get herself across town?

His brothers tease him about his frog wife and how she stood him up, and he just sits there and takes it because he knows his frog wife does her best, and at least she produced an edible loaf of bread. There's a commotion outside; a frog is riding up the driveway in a cardboard box pulled by mice. Which is, okay, all kinds of embarrassing. But the prince loves his frog wife, he's sure she's doing her best. And as she reaches the palace, she transforms into a beautiful woman. At which point the king declares our boy the winner of this bizarre little contest and the heir to the throne, and he and his frog wife, now de-frogged, live happily ever after.

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Okay, fine, I can't just not read the original story. So just to let you know where I got it wrong: can't find evidence of that acorn detail, don't know where I got it. Possibly from a German variant called "Puddocky," in which the second task is to find a dog that can fit inside a walnut shell. And the entire last scene with the frog arriving is from the German version, not the Russian one, as well. Having jest reread them both, I can see the story that exists in my memory is a very jumbled combination of the two. 

Also, like, the frog doesn't do anything for herself in the Russian version? She has attendants the prince can't see who sew the shirt and bake the bread and everything, which is totally lame, and also cheating; the king said he'd leave the kingdom to the prince whose wife did the best job, not the one whose wife had the best servants. And there is a second half, in the Russian version, though the German version ends with the banquet. After that scene, in the Russian version, when the prince realizes his wife doesn't have to be a frog, he burns the skin, which in his defense, seems like the thing to do, based on folkloric precedence. But it doesn't pan out this time. Ends up being a more "East of the Sun West of the Moon" style screw-up, and he has to go on a quest to get her back. Which is actually kind of fun; you don't see a lot of gender reversal on the "I screwed up my SO's transformation spell and now I gotta fix it" quest. Anyway, he does that thing where he spares the lives of a bunch of animals and in return they help him out later. (I think the only time I've talked about that before is in "The Sea Hare".) Baba Yaga tells him our frog girl is now with Kaschey the Deathless, and how to kill him; it's one of those "you have to stab him in his heart, but instead of being in his body it's in an egg in a chest in a tower underwater or whatever" situations, like in "The Troll With No Heart In His Body". The animals help out with that, and then we live happily ever after, for real this time.