The Case of the Missing Kiss

So I’ve been studying Frog Prince tales. You know the one: princess meets frog, he does her a service, in return he asks for a kiss, she kisses him, and hey presto, he’s turned into a handsome prince. Right? Wrong. If you look at the Grimms’ version – tale #1 in the Children’s and Household Tales – you’re doing okay until you get to the kissing part. It’s not there. It quite simply doesn’t exist. The act that gets the prince unfroggified is one of gross violence: the princess chucks the frog against her bedroom wall (in the 1812 version, with a lovely onomatopoeic “Splat!”). That’s right, attempted murder. When he falls down from the wall – I’ve always had trouble visualising that bit – he’s a handsome prince with “friendly eyes”, and princess happily goes to bed with him.

That’s fine, you say. There’s other versions of that story that have the kiss in it, isn’t there? Well, not that I can find, at least the old tales. Ashliman’s Folktexts page on “Frog Kings: folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 440 about slimy suitors” lists twelve frog husband stories, and not one breaks the spell with a kiss. In fact, several of them, such as the Scottish “The Well of the World’s End”, end in even greater violence than the Grimms’ “Frog King”: the frog gets the princess to chop off his head, which has of course the effect of freeing the prince; in a Korean variant, the bride cuts open the frog’s skin. In fact, one wonders if the change in the story trope to attempting to break the spell with a kiss was a deliberate plant by the Froggy Liberation Front – girls going around experimentally kissing frogs in order to find a prince for themselves is a lot less detrimental to your average amphibian than being thrown against a wall. And just think of the messes we save ourselves.

So, setting aside the Froggy Liberation Front, where did the kiss come from? Heidi Anne Heiner, of SurLaLune Fairytales, says in her Annotations to the Frog King that the kiss first surfaced in English translations of the story, following Edgar Taylor’s translation from 1823. Taylor hasn’t got the kiss in there, though. In his version, the frog is freed from his spell by the princess letting him sleep in her bed for three nights. Ashliman points out that Taylor’s “translation” is, in fact, a mashup of two of the Grimms’ tales: “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” and “The Frog Prince”. The latter is a tale which was dropped from the Grimms’ collection after the first edition because of its similarity to the first story. In this, the princess’ problem is not a dropped golden ball, but the attempt to get a drink of clean water from the well. The princess’ two elder sisters fail, because they refuse to promise the frog to become his sweetheart; the youngest girl promises, and so the frog lets the water run clear again. Taylor’s version takes the first half of “The Frog King”, the bit with the golden ball, and the conclusion of “The Frog Prince”, and combines them into a somewhat more gentle tale. Ashliman figures that Taylor thought English readers of the 1820s would not accept the violence in the Grimms’ version.

Still no kiss, though. However, it’s interesting that the earliest English translations of the German tale already conclude with a sexualized version of the spell-breaking – I mean, having the prince, albeit in frog shape, spending three nights in the girl’s bed is suggestive enough. I wonder (and that’s just me speculating, I have no proof for this) if the true origin of the kiss isn’t a form of prudery – subsequent translators or retellers being uncomfortable with all this being-in-bed-together stuff, and changing it to a somewhat more chaste kiss which can be accomplished fully dressed and far enough away from the scene of the, ahem, marital act to keep young minds uncorrupted. In fact, even the Grimms moved away from their original telling to expurgate any references which might be suggestive of sex: in the 1812 version, the princess throws the frog against the wall by her bed, and he literally falls right into her mattrass; by the final version of 1857, the bed is no longer mentioned (Ashliman does a rather interesting side-by-side comparison of the two versions here).

However, there are later variants with a kiss. There is a charming Pomeranian story in a collection from 1891 called “De Koenigin un de Pogg” – “The Queen and the Frog” (you can read the English version here), in which a king goes off to war, leaving his wife behind. One day she drops her wedding ring down the well. The frog offers to fetch it back on promise of marriage. When he comes to collect on the promise, the queen tries to fob him off with the maid, but he insists it has to be she who opens the door, gives him food, and finally kisses him. She’s disgusted, but gets her maid to blindfold her so at least she doesn’t have to look at the ugly frog while she kisses him. And then there is a loud bang, and the frog turns into her husband! He’s been enchanted by a wicked witch out on the battlefield to be a frog until a princess kisses him better, and so he’s swum through rivers and lakes and puddles until he got home, because, he says, “he was pretty sure that only his wife would be willing to kiss him.” Aaaw, that’s so sweet. It’s quite possibly my favourite “Frog King” variant so far. However, it’s so close in storyline to the Grimms’ that it is almost certain that it was influenced by the older story; unlikely that this is an independently developed variant.

It’s rather interesting that the trope of the redeeming kiss is what’s stuck so solidly in the popular imagination. What is it that makes the kiss so popular that it’s almost taken on a life of its own?

There is one more amusing piece of research I came across in searching for the missing kiss: The Frog Prince: Tale and Toxicology” is an article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry by David M. Siegel, MD, and Susan H. McDaniel (American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 61.4 [1991]: 558-562.). The abstract says: “Bufotenin is a substance present in the skin of some common species of frogs, and its ingestion (such as would occur in licking or kissing a frog) can result in vivid hallucinations. This biological property offers an explanation for the portrayal of frogs in folklore as creatures of transformation, or as intermediaries with other worlds.” Apparently toad-licking for the purposes of getting high is a not uncommon practise in some circles. So what do you think – all those frog-kissing princesses, were they just seeing things? There wasn’t really a prince there, they just had hallucinations of one, and in fact married the frog in all his amphibian glory? But then, as long as they see him as Prince Charming, it’s all good. A little bit of delusion can go a long ways towards marital bliss.

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3 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Kiss

  1. In the popular conception of fairy tales, kissing seems to solve far more problems than it should (in real life it can even cause a few problems).

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I always thought the Grimm version of the story was hilarious. However, for some reason, I always saw the frog hitting the wall as being more akin to slapstick violence than animal cruelty.

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    • I think Disney has a few things to answer for with this “true love’s kiss” shtick.

      I actually didn’t like the Frog King story much as a kid, but not because I was bothered by the violence – you’re right, it’s not animal cruelty, it’s fairy tale violence, which is totally flat slapstick. I just thought the princess was such a mean jerk, I didn’t like her. Almost thought the prince deserved better than her. So I rewrote the story for a fairy tale project in grade 4; my version was about a cat prince (yeah, well, I was ten), who loses his crown, and a little dog gets it back for him, *and he keeps his promise to take the dog home*, upon which it turns into a beautiful white cat and they marry. I wish I still had a copy of that story around, I illustrated it quite beautifully, too.

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  2. I also was bothered by the princess when I was younger, who just seemed ungrateful and spoiled. I haven’t done too much research into the history of the Frog Prince, so this was really interesting, thanks for sharing all your research!

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