Fairy Tale Friday: The Frog King

August 7, 2009 at 12:00 am 5 comments

In olden times when wishing still helped one, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone on her face.

(Warning: Sorry, this post’s theme is a little PG-13, thanks to one Dr. Bruno Bettleheim and his feelings on frogs as symbols. Only click through if you feel like you can handle it!)

Lately, I’ve been reading The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettleheim, about fairy tales and how they can help children unconciously work out psychological issues through fantasy and, despite the unrealism of the tales, actually help children adjust better to the real world.

I was happily reading along the other day, contentedly pondering children and the search for identity, when I stumbled across this line: ‘Why in fairy tales the frog often symbolizes sexual fulfillment is discussed later, in connection with the story “The Frog King”‘ (p. 231).

Um, pardon? Frogs and sexual fulfillment? No way, I thought.

The basic story, for those who don’t know it, is that the princess drops her favorite golden ball into a well, and a frog agrees to get it for her if she promises that he can come be her companion, eat from her plate and sleep in her bed. The princess agrees without thinking, but when the frog comes to collect, so to speak, the princess is disgusted and runs away. Her father, however, says, ‘He who helped you when you were in trouble ought not afterwards to be despised by you,’ and makes the princess fulfill her promise. However, the princess is so disgusted by the frog’s request to join her in her bed that she throws him against the wall. Promptly, the frog turns into a prince ‘with kind and beautiful eyes,’ and naturally the princess is more welcoming after that.

According to Bettleheim, this story works on several levels, the first of which being that hatred can be the beginning of love (a la Pride and Prejudice). The second is that initial erotic contacts may not be, and in fact do not have to be, pleasant, but perserverance leads to better things. And third, that a highly developed conscience (represented by the father, in this case), can lead to a happy and healthy sexual union.

And why a frog as a sexual symbol? Well, silly, because a frog induces disgust as a negative emotion, not fear — therefore, the use of the frog is sort of a signal that one need not fear sexual relations, but disgust is perfectly natural, especially for children.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about Bettleheim’s theory. It all makes sense, I suppose, and it all sounds like something my Child in Victorian Literature professor would say (if our lecture on Fagin in Oliver Twist is any indication). But I’m not sure I buy that a story like this one can really help children work out sexual anxieties on an unconscious level and, even if it does, if that translates to conscious actions.

Then again, I’m not a pyschology expert, and I can be terribly conservative when it comes to reading sex into children’s stories. So I’m going to throw this discussion open to the readers: Do you think “The Frog Prince” is mainly a story about sex? Do you think it can help children work out sexual anxieties? And, as a side note, now that you know this story can be read in a sexual way, would you ever be able to read it to your children with a straight face?

Comment away! ;)


Entry filed under: Children and Young Adult, Fairy Tale Friday.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. neuroticmom  |  August 7, 2009 at 9:45 am

    I am confused she throws the frog against the wall and he turns into a prince and she still “gets him” I would think somehow the lesson would be she throws the frog he turns into a prince she falls in love but he rejects her – more see what you gave up because you didn’t keep your end of the bargain or am I reading this all wrong?
    Also I would never have considered a frog a sexual symbol I am ready to gag just reading this post – you know me and frogs :( If the frog thing didn’t turn me off so bad I would read this book just to figure out.

  • 2. KT  |  August 7, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Aw, well, it’s a talking frog — does that make it better?

    Yeah, I think it may be an unusual version. I used the Pantheon Grimm version here, but one of the versions Bettleheim referenced actually had the little girl follow through on her promise to let the frog into her bed, and then the next morning she found the prince there. That makes more sense, I guess, though maybe the wall-throwing is supposed to indicate that she felt badly about treating the frog that way after he became a prince?

    • 3. neuroticmom  |  August 7, 2009 at 2:38 pm

      but really after throwing him she should not be rewarded with a handsome prince ~ we will have a frog throwing epidemic :(

      • 4. KT  |  August 7, 2009 at 4:09 pm


      • 5. Kim  |  August 7, 2009 at 8:48 pm

        That’s an interesting image.


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