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the frog king

Return to the fairy tales - book one


A retelling by J. Kearns

I think if I was a young woman and a frog was insisting I keep my promise to let it sup and sleep with me, I might also try to find a way to get out of the agreement.

nce upon a time there was a story called, "The Frog King", which was also called "Iron Henry." I've read the name Henry means "home rule." This is somewhat how the story went.
A princess possessed a wondrous golden sphere. How she got it, I don't know. Maybe it was a gift. Maybe it was part of the Royal Treasury. I've seen painted pictures of Kings and Queens holding in one hand a scepter, as a symbol of their authority to rule, and in the other hand a sphere surmounted by a cross. Certainly, the princess would have come into possession of such a marvelous thing as a golden sphere because she was who she was, which was a princess, but if the sphere was intended to be a plaything of hers, or should have been guarded and carefully kept locked away, like other wonderful treasures, we'll never know. The fact is, the princess treated this amazing gold ball as if it was a toy, even though it wasn't a toy ball. Toy balls are made out of rubber so they can bounce. You throw them on the ground and they bounce. The harder you throw them, the higher they bounce. One plays games like catch and dodge ball with toy balls. Have you ever tried throwing a metal ball on the ground? Well, if you did it certainly wouldn't bounce. So, how did the princess amuse herself with this marvelous golden ball? She would throw it up in the air and catch it. Because this precious golden sphere didn't bounce like normal toy balls she had to be careful to always catch it. This is how she played with the sphere, tossing it up a little in the air and then catching it. It was wonderful fun to play so lightly with something so marvelous. It was wonderful to throw the golden sphere into the air, to watch the gold gleam with reflected light, to watch it briefly suspend in the air--watch it float even if just for a second--and then wonderful to be so nimble as to always be able to catch it. There aren't many people who can entertain themselves with golden spheres like this. There aren't many princesses.


This princess, one day, went for a walk in some woods that were on the castle grounds. One can imagine that princesses don't wander very far from their castles if they go outside for a walk. Close to home, the princess felt safe and carefree. She was very practiced with tossing the golden sphere in the air and catching it, and as she walked she invested all her attention on the sphere, hardly watching where she was going. Her surroundings didn't catch her eye at all. She was entranced by the golden sphere, which so beautifully reflected on its polished gold surface the world about her that she found herself pretending that her world was actually all made of gold, and then that she possessed the whole world in that sphere, preferring this to the simple knowledge that the sphere was reflecting back to her the world in which she lived. This was how marvelous the golden sphere was. It was entrancing to watch a world colored all gold, to have it in your hand to keep, and even to toss it casually up and down like it was nothing more than a toy with which to entertain one-self.
In the shadowy forest there was a cool well. Like the golden sphere, it was a rather special well. Its waters were reputed to have healing powers. Perhaps the well's water held special minerals so that it made the water like a medicine. The princess sat down on the ground beside the well, which had no wall around it, and continued to play. Up into the air she tossed the ball and caught it. Higher and higher she tossed the golden sphere. Up she tossed it, smiling, breathless, captivated--oh, how high it went, how pretty it was, how awfully clever she was that she never let it fall--and down the ball came, but this time out of the princess' reach so that as she leaned forward to catch it, oh my, she reached her hand out so far she lost her balance, she fell forward on the ground and still it was not enough. The ball fell to earth, promptly rolled down into the well and disappeared. The well was so deep, there was no seeing to the bottom of it. The marvelous golden sphere was lost.
"Oh, no!" the princess cried. That celestial orb, the sun, might as well have fallen into the well and drowned, that's how stricken the princess was.
At the well's edge there rested a beautiful clear glass which people would fill with the water of the well and drink, hoping the water would aid their health. The well's water was supposed to be so pure that it was as transparent as the glass, but as the princess peered into the well, crying bitterly, all she could see was a clouded, murky darkness. "I'd give anything," the princess said, her tears falling down her cheeks into the well, "if only I could get my ball back. I would give anything: my clothes, my precious stones, my pearls, anything in the world!"


There is a Chinese story in which a princess throws an embroidered ball into the air, and whoever catches it is fit to be the prince of the kingdom. In that story, a frog inhales a great breath, and draws the ball to itself so that he catches it and gets to marry the princess.
This is not that Chinese story. But, wouldn't you know, out of the waters of the well there suddenly appeared a frog's head. Had it attracted the ball to fall into the well as in the story of the Chinese frog? If it had, no one knows about this. All that we know is the frog appeared and did a strange enough thing as it is. It talked. It said, "Princess, why are you crying so bitterly? Are you ill? Have you come to drink of the water here with hope of regaining your health?"
It scarce occurred to the princess to ask what the frog was doing in the well, much less a talking frog. "Oh," she cried, despondent, "you ugly frog, how can you help me? My golden ball has fallen into the well."
The frog had evidently heard the princess say she would give anything to have her ball back, because it answered, "I don't want your pearls or your precious stones. I don't want your clothes. But, if you accept me as a companion--if you let me sit next to you, eat with you out of your golden plate, let me sleep in your bed, if you will love and cherish this ugly frog, then I'll bring your ball back to you."
What kind of deal was this? How did a frog have the audacity to make such a bargain with a princess? "This frog must stay here, in the water," the princess thought to herself. She knew this much about frogs, that they were amphibians and needed water. "I'll go ahead and say yes to this frog's ridiculous demand," she thought, "because, for all I know, he may be able to retrieve my ball for me, but there is no way this frog will be able to leave this well and make me do as he asks."
"Yes, for all I care, I'll promise everything," the princess said aloud. "Just bring me back my golden ball."
The frog stuck his head back under the water. Her breath held, with great anticipation the princess waited for the ugly, ridiculous frog to reappear. If he could retrieve her ball, what marvelous luck for her. And, sure enough, in a short time the frog popped its head up, the golden ball in its mouth.
Now, think about this for a second. That would have to be a pretty big frog to be able to carry, in its mouth, the gold ball with which the princess had playing. Unless that ball was very small, and I doubt that it was. When you were imagining the princess playing catch with ball, didn't you see it filling her palm? Now, how big did you imagine the frog to be? I bet you imagined the frog to be a small thing. But it wasn't. This was a great, big frog. This frog was at least the size of a small dog.


The frog threw the ball onto the land where the princess grabbed it up in her hand. Without so much as a word of thanks, overjoyed that she had her wonderful ball back, the princess ran off towards home.
"Wait, princess," the frog called after her. "Take me home with you like you promised!"
The princess ran on. Without a glance back, she ran on, away from the well, out of the forest, away from the grief she'd felt when she thought she'd lost her marvelous golden globe.
The next day, the princess was dining with her father, the king, when there was heard a peculiar sound coming up the marble steps outside: plop, plop.
Then there was a knock on the door.
"Princess, princess," a voice cried out, "open the door for me!"
The princess had completely forgotten about the frog, much less her promise to it. One can imagine her surprise, and then her fright, when she opened the door to find the frog there.
The frog sang to her,

Gentle one, gentle one
Remember you
The little pledge
You gave me
Beside the well?
My love, my love.

It was unfathomable! No, it was too absurd that she should have to keep such a weird promise as she had made to the frog, the princess thought, terrified, even as she slammed the door and rushed away from it back to the table where her supper was waiting for her.
Beside her golden platter, on the table, rested the treacherous golden sphere.
The princess' agitation was evident to the old king. He waited for the princess to speak first, to say who it was had been at the door, but she said nothing. Finally, he questioned her. "What has you so upset? Who was at the door?"
"You were right the first time. At our door is not a who, but a what," the princess replied. However rude she had been to the frog, she had never failed to ever answer her father honestly.
Again, there was a knock at the door. And the frog called to the princess,

Open the door, my honey, my heart,
Open the door, my sweet wee thing,
And mind the words that you and I spoke,
Down in the forest, at the well spring.

"This merits an explanation," the old king said to his daughter.


The princess told her father about how, the day before, she had taken a walk in the woods and accidentally lost her golden ball in the well there. "A frog stuck his head up out of the water and said he would get me my ball back if I promised to make him my companion, to sit with him, eat with him, and sleep with him in my bed, to love and cherish him. I said yes because I thought there was no way a frog could possibly leave its well to make me keep such a silly promise. But now, at the door, there is the same ugly, disgusting frog, and he wants to come in. Can you imagine?"
As if to punctuate what the princess had told her father, there sounded a third knock at the door. Even in the dining hall, the princess and her father could hear the frog sing,

Gentle one, gentle one
Remember you
The little pledge
You gave me
Beside the well?
My love, my love.

"You have made a promise," the old king told his daughter. "What you have promised, you must keep. Go, let the frog in."
Flabbergasted, in amazement the princess cried out, "You can't be serious!"
To which the king answered, "Which would you prove to me you value more, your honor or that golden sphere you play with all day long?"
We may side with the frog and think the princess was being unjust in her attempt to slip out of the promise she'd made to it, but imagine how you would feel at the prospect of having to share the rest of your life with a frog. For all intents and purposes, for sake of the golden sphere she'd used as a plaything, she was being married off to an amphibian when she should have been wed to a prince.
The princess obeyed the king and opened the door to the frog, which hopped in and followed her to her chair. The princess took a pail and put it over the frog so at least she wouldn't have to look at it.


After she had sat down again, the frog called out, "Lift me up onto your chair and let me sit next to you."
The princess pleaded with her father. "Certainly, you're not going to expect me, a high-born princess, to sit with a frog. If he touches this beautiful dress I have on, I'll never be able to wear it again."
"Gentle one, gentle one, remember you, the little pledge you gave me, beside the well? My love, my love," the frog croaked from beneath the bucket.
"I expect nothing less from you than for you to do what you have promised," the old king said. "Besides, by your own admission you have exchanged all your dresses and jewels for the golden ball and the frog's right to sit beside you."
The princess took the frog out of the bucket and sat it next to her. When the frog was seated next to her, it said, "Now, princess, push your golden plate closer to me so that I may eat with you."
"My, you are a bossy little thing, aren't you," the princess said.
"Let him eat," said the king."
"Please, no, " the princess pleaded with her father. "You can't expect me to eat my supper from the same plate as a loathsome frog. It's bad enough I must sit with it, but to eat with it? Never! Besides, frogs eat things like bugs, don't they? His constitution couldn't possibly handle what is served at a royal table. I'm doing him a favor by not letting him eat. If he did he'd get sick and maybe even die."
"Gentle one, gentle one, remember you, the little pledge you gave me, beside the well? My love, my love," the frog sang.
"I expect nothing less from you than for you to do what you have promised," the old king said.
"I'll have you know that if there's frog at a table, rather than a frog eating a person's food, it's usually frog legs which people are eating, and which taste very much like chicken," the princess told the frog, but she nudged her marvelous golden platter closer to the frog so that he could eat from it. "Maybe he will get sick and die if he eats the same food as I do. The better for me," she thought to herself.
When the frog had eaten all that it wanted, it said, "Now, I am tired. I want to sleep."


"Of course you're tired," the princess said. "It has been an exciting day for you, marrying a princess and all," she added with a wry side-ways glance at her father. "And you will sleep best out in the night air, on a nice lily pad in a pond. We have just the pond for you. You'll love it."
"Gentle one, gentle one, remember you, the little pledge you gave me, beside the well?" the frog sang. "My love, my love."
"Take the frog with you to bed," the old king said. "Didn't you promise to sleep with it, to love and cherish it? I expect nothing less from you than for you to do what you have promised."
The princess almost exclaimed to her father that he was becoming as repetitive and tiresome as the persistent frog.
"I'll be ill," she said.
The king replied, "A sorry day when keeping faith with yourself turns your own stomach."
"But, it's a frog!" the princess sobbed in disbelief. "It's a loathsome, ugly frog!" Her disbelief rapidly transforming into fury, the princess gingerly picked up the frog with her thumb and index finger. She quite forgot her golden sphere and left it sitting at the table.
All the way to her room, feeling between her thumb and index finger the frog gently puff its breath out and in, out and in, the princess fumed. Oh, how bitterly angry she was.
Wait, remember, this was a big frog. She couldn't have held it between her thumb and index finger. No, this was a large and heavy frog that the squeamish princess had to carry with both hands. You can imagine how she held it at arm's length. You can imagine the expression on her face, how it contorted with repulsion and disgust.
Once in her room, its door shut behind her, she stared at her bed, the frog still in both hands. The very idea--that a princess should have to sleep next to a frog! As she sat on her bed it was almost more than she could bear. "There's no way I'm sharing my bed with you, you nasty frog," she muttered. "And no one can make me."
"Gentle one, gentle one," the frog croaked, "Remember you, the little pledge you made me, beside the well? My love, my love..."
The princess' rage boiled over. Instead of laying the frog next to herself, she threw the frog--bang!--against the wall. "Now, you will have your peace, you ugly frog!" she yelled.
This may seem harsh--and it was--but consider that in some stories the princess cuts the frog's head off. In some stories the frog even asks the princess to take an old rusty sword from behind the bed and cut its head off in order to end its torture, after which he transforms into a prince or king. Still, what the princess did, as far as I can tell, was totally uncalled for. I know that I wouldn't want to be the friend of such a princess, especially not if I was a frog.


She could have just tossed the frog out onto the lawn and pleaded ignorance the next morning when it failed to appear at the breakfast table. But knowing the persistance of the frog, it would have sang all night beneath her window.
The princess imagined the consequences of slamming a frog against a wall must be messy. She covered her eyes, not eager to see the ugly result of her rage. She would let the maid clean it up in the morning. She would tell her father that the frog had become ill from eating people food and exploded.
However, low and behold, what slid down the wall into her bed wasn't frog guts but a handsome, young king. The old tales say he was her dear companion, just as promised, and she held him in esteem as she had promised. One would instead have expected, as with Beauty and the Beast, that the princess would have come to love the frog, despite its ugliness, and that her love would have transformed him into a king. But I guess it's more difficult to love a frog, and this story didn't require it.
"Enchanted by a sorceress, I was turned into a frog," the king said, "but you have broken the spell and released me and my kingdom."
"How wonderful," the princess said. And truly it was, for her, that a wonderful king had been released from a grotesque, unreasonable frog just by virtue of her becoming so aggravated by his ugliness and incessant demands.
The next morning, the young king's faithful servant, Henry, arrived in a splendid carriage drawn by eight beautiful horses, decorated with feathers and glistening with such a wealth of gold that it resembled the golden ball which had been the plaything of the princess. This faithful servant standing at the rear, the young king climbed, with his new queen, into the carriage that would take them to their kingdom.
After they had traveled a short distance, the young king heard a loud CRACK, and, turning to Henry, he called out, "The carriage is breaking apart."
"No, my lord, the carriage isn't breaking apart," Henry replied. "During your enchantment, I was in such grief that I had three iron bands bound about my heart to keep it from bursting with sorrow. The sound you just heard was none other than one of those iron band breaking."
Once again there was a CRACK, and then once again--CRACK--so that the young king thought truly the carriage was breaking apart. But it wasn't. The sound was that of the second and third iron bands springing from the heart of that faithful servant, Iron Henry.

copyright information

A retelling based on the Brother's Grimm "Iron Heinrich".


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