By Matilda Vokes
Some say this tale is cautionary, others say it’s a moralistic story at heart. It’s been told as romantic, humorous, and as tragic. There are many, many stories, after all, of girls who make rash promises. I’ll let you be the judge of those. You can judge this tale, and the players within it, once you are done. Now, please let me tell you of a time long ago, when there was a young princess of a small kingdom who thought herself quite high and mighty. Being royal, she wanted for nothing and although the land was small it was, she thought, the most beautiful. Once her regal duties, which for a young girl was essentially greeting the various guests that came through the castle doors, and this she found rather dull, were finished our young heroine would slip away to play in the kingdom’s forests. And what forests they were; if the kingdom was small in population it was vast in trees, the woodlands thick and dense, coated in a green moss, endless branches invited the young princess deeper and deeper in. It was land that grew wild, that provoked a restlessness to discover, to see the unseen in whatever daylight could make it through the cloistered foliage. Even a frequent visitor, like our young princess, could not have mapped even a quarter of these forests who stood ancient and unchanging, incomprehensible to moving borders or new pathways. It was too easy to wander in and lose all sense of the court and the kingdom. Sometimes it felt to the young princess as though she could walk within the forest forever, forget about who she was, and never look back.
But let’s return to the tale at hand. One day, the young princess ventured a fair way in and began to play rather listlessly with her golden ball. Until, with one misjudged throw, one arm stretched too far, and one missed footing, our heroine found herself tumbling down into a ditch. Her face was streaked with mud, her knee grazed and worst of all her golden ball had fallen– or in that moment still falling– down a gaping hole by a particularly gnarled tree. The young princess timidly peered over the edge and discovered that the hole was, in fact, an old well, far too deep for her to ever reach the bottom of. With this loss, and her knee hurting, she started to wail uncontrollably, calling out for help in the gloom.
Help did not come in its most usual form. A frog, whose green skin was dull compared to brilliance of the forest, with a collection of warts growing upon his back and very bulbous yellow eyes, approached the young princess and asked her what the matter was. Naturally, she leapt to the matter dearest to her, offering any kind of money, or even her jewels and crown, if she could just have back her golden ball.
“I shan’t want your riches or your crown,” replied the frog, “but if you promise me that I can come in to your home, eat from your plate, and share your same bed with you, then I shall gladly find and fetch your golden ball.”
But no sooner did the frog return with the ball, now slippery with pond slime, had the princess disappeared into the twilight, her knee still smarting but her tears a thing of the past.
* * *
Some months later there was a knock at the castle door. Our young heroine had been enjoying her evening meal very much as she had a hopeful suitor present. This was becoming an increasingly frequent event, one which brought the much needed excitement to her days. As with many of the men beforehand, she did not wish to marry him, and would be glad when her parents refused. But it was undeniable that she greatly enjoyed the attention and the idea that many men of the highest rank were competing for her hand. More and more often she found herself dreaming of the man she would love, who would serenade her, adore her every feature and fulfil her every wish. She would picture herself walking through the wooded glades with this imagined man and even, if she would permit herself to fantasise that far, let him kiss her against the setting sun.
So, our young princess was utterly horrified when the servant announced that, of all creatures, a frog wished to settle business with her. A previous suitor had attempted to surprise her with a marching band, so she had firstly hoped it would be something of the same vein. Instead, the young princess found herself in the middle of a catastrophe: a slimy thing hopping into the room and demanding that his promise be fulfilled. At first, she loudly protested her innocence, in the hope the frog would be thrown out. When that failed, she attempted to bargain, offering all sorts of finery again, and also suggested she could throw her old ball back down the well if it made him happier. But the frog held firm to his original terms.
“Well,” the young princess said, once she had exhausted her options, “I simply refuse. I just won’t do it. After all, what sort of princess shares a plate” (as the other half of the arrangement was even more unthinkable to her) “with a smelly old frog?”
The King looked at her with solemn, disapproving eyes. “The kind of princess who is true to her word; the kind you were raised to be.” He answered, “You must keep your promise.”
As you might imagine, our young heroine’s mouth fell open in disbelief. Initially, she folded her arms, wondering why she was being spoken like a naughty child, why it was so important to be true to one’s word, and why would a frog be so keen to share her plate anyway. But in the end, she had to do as she was told. The frog was lifted to the dining table so he could eat from her plate. Her potential suitor left. She tried to remind herself that she didn’t like him that much in the first place.
The frog ate and ate and ate, which somehow made the princess feel worse about her matters, and she brooded on as he licked up the sauce greedily with his long thin tongue. Our young princess ceased to join the conversation, still feeling angry and upset and also quite foolish. She had never received so little sympathy before, and nor could she quite believe she had agreed to such a thing.
After dinner she began to contemplate the frog’s second demand. She avoided him throughout the evening, especially as he had been hinting at his fatigue over dinner, claiming it was due to travelling for so far and for so long to find her castle. The young princess even tried helping the servants with their work to put off going to bed, until they dismissed her in a bemused manner. She had reached her wit’s end when she approached her mother.
“Mutter, please don’t make me,” our young princess begged, surprised as she felt real tears well up, “I’ve learnt my lesson, I would never break another promise, I won’t be rash or so high and mighty as to think I’m above my own word. Only don’t make me share a bed with him.”
The old queen only looked on as her daughter cried. It should not be thought that she looked without sympathy, but nevertheless, the queen stood firm with her husband. “You shouldn’t have made a promise you did not mean to keep. Your frog is here now, perhaps you should show him to your chamber.”
And sure enough, the frog sloped around the corner; his webbed fingers clutched the princess’ ankle, “Yes,” he said, “I’m rather tried. Would you carry me there?”
The young princess took him by her thumb and forefinger, walking with as slow steps as she could, and dropped him on the corner of her bed. He made ready to rest on her pillow, and despite greatly wishing against it , our young heroine saw no alternative but to lay down beside him.
* * *
The moment she saw morning break, with the first ray of dawn that entered her window, the princess jumped from her bed, thrilled that she could finally act with the disgust she held. Feeling this strange liberty and elation, she snatched up the snoring frog and threw him against the wall. Despite making a rather loud smack, this did not injure the frog. Instead, the strangest thing that the princess had ever witnessed happened: he began to transform. He glowed an emerald green, his body lengthened, hands unwebbed, eyes unbulged and the irises faded to brown. Hair sprouted on a human head. He was a handsome man, dressed in a stately fashion. The king and queen rushed in, hearing the princess’ scream of astonishment.
As you can imagine, it took some time for all to gather their senses, for the monarchs and princess to believe that this young man, who was certainly royalty, was also the ugly frog that had reached the castle last night, and for the man to believe he was, at last, no longer a frog. At first, they could only stare at one another in silence. Then the once-frog Prince began to explain his story.
“A fairy cast a cruel spell upon me. As punishment for my high manner, I was to be the most lowly creature, a frog, until someone kept their promise of unconditional kindness and generosity to me. For this I can thank your daughter,” as he found himself addressing the monarchs, “Once I return to my land, I will rule a prosperous neighbouring kingdom, and with your blessing I shall marry your princess, as she freed me from my loathsome state, and make her my queen.”
They readily agreed, knowing that one particular neighbouring kingdom was missing its heir, and that ‘prosperous’ was a modest description of it. The king and queen had not dreamed that their daughter would marry so well. Word was sent to the neighbouring kingdom and the prince’s old coach driver and dear friend, Heinrich, was sent to collect the newly betrothed couple.
The princess’ belongings were soon packed and her few personal servants made themselves ready for the journey.
Excitement about the upcoming wedding and subsequent coronation buzzed around the small kingdom, where news could travel fast. Heinrich arrived by the next day and, on seeing his lost prince, wept with happiness. The travellers piled into the handsome, eight-horsed coach and were winding their way out of the small kingdom when a great crack caused much alarm: the servants believing the coach was breaking and the prince, for his part, was much afraid of further witchcraft. The cracking noise sounded twice more, and the prince called out to Henry in panic.
“Do not worry,” was Heinrich’s reply “It is nothing, but iron bands fixed around my heart. I was so broken when I believed I had lost you, these were all that could hold my heart together. But it is whole now and filled with so much happiness from your return and seeing your bride that my heart has swelled with love, a feeling strong enough to break the bands that once caged it.” This soothed the distressed parties. And what was our heroine thinking while all sorts of commotion happened around her?
To be quite truthful, she was lost in thought, her mind bent on a track that would consume her beyond the journey to the neighbouring kingdom. The princess was thinking about the arc of her life, as a future queen with royal duties, a wife to a king, and doubtlessly soon as a mother to her own children. She thought about this, suddenly seeing it now as not so different from what she had always thought would happen to her. Was he not, after all, the most suitable, the worthiest and the richest of all her suitors? It was hard to disagree. In this reflection she understood that the life she would continue to lead, from girl to maiden to queen, had no sudden twist. That it was following the course that was laid out for her. Even if by unusual design, it was the path that all those around her had most hoped she could take. But our princess did not want to consider this for too long and tried instead to watch the trees as they rolled by, remembering how, as a child, playing among them had bought her so much joy.
About the Author:
Matilda Vokes has recently achieved a BA (Hons) in English Literature and Linguistics from Queen Mary. She misses ‘uni life’ so much that she is now writing essays for fun, and sometimes creative writing.
Image credits: “Encyclopédie d’histoire naturelle”