The Frog Queen
A morally ambiguous story, overview of Wondrium episode themes, and win a yearlong Wondrium subscription / a DVD set of my series on storytelling!
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a young, beautiful, carefree princess who loved to play with her golden ball.
One day, she inadvertently tossed her golden ball into a nearby pond and began to cry.
A frog emerged from the pond and offered to fetch her ball—but only if she promised to be his friend forever.
The young princess eagerly agreed.
The frog leapt into the pond and before she knew it, the princess once again had her golden ball.
The princess thanked the frog, and then immediately turned away to walk home—without any intention of keeping her promise of friendship to the frog.
While at the castle eating dinner that evening with her father, the king, they heard a knock at the door.
At the door was the frog, patiently—and persistently—awaiting his friendship with the princess.
What is the meaning of this? the king implored his daughter.
After hearing his daughter’s story, he admonished her: “You must honor your promises. You cannot just say anything you want when you want something.”
She obliges, and lets the frog inside. The frog joins them for dinner, and follows the princess up to her room.
When the frog asks to sleep on the princess’ pillow next to her, that is a bridge too far. Enraged, she hurled the frog against the wall to his death.
But to her surprise, the frog instead transformed into a handsome prince. The princess and prince immediately fell in love, got married, and live happily ever after ruling over the Prince’s kingdom.
The ambiguity of stories
When I first heard this story—codified for us and popularized by some of history’s most famous storytellers, the German Brothers Grimm, called The Frog King—I had a number of thoughts.
First, I found it deeply unsatisfying that the princess gets a happy ending even though she attempts to break her promises and tries to murder an animal who only wanted to be her friend. Stories should show us the consequences of wrong action, and the benefits of right. That she lives happily ever after despite her poor life choices didn’t seem fair.
My disgust at the princess and her actions had the effect of making me recommit to honoring my word to others, even when I might not want to. It also caused me to find ways to be extra kind to animals, especially those aspects of them that might not be deemed desirable in the eyes of the world.
Second, when I discovered that some people actually sympathize with the princess—and find the frog both repulsive and his persistence of friendship invasive—I laughed.
Anyone who read my last Civic Renaissance post on storytelling and freedom will understand why. You might as well call em The Frog Queen, as my mother has in the past. I have enjoyed a lifelong love for and fascination with frogs, and shared a time where my passion for amphibious life led to an early childhood trauma: a car accident that might have rendered me immobile for the rest of my life.
It had never occurred to me that people would find a frog’s clammy, sticky, warty skin repugnant.
To me—don’t ask me why—this was part of their charm.
This story also reminded me of the ambiguity of stories.
What we bring of ourselves to a story helps us interpret it. Someone who didn’t like frogs might see the princess as a hero.
Someone like me, who likes them a good deal, might see her more as a villain.
It’s also possible that the “happily ever after” ending was tacked on later— or “Disney-fied”—as is so often the case with many of the stories we know.
The way we interpret stories differently from others also illuminates those around us: In seeing how others view stories, we gain windows into who they are. In this way, stories can cultivate our curiosity. For example, with the author in the New Yorker article, linked above, who empathized with the princess, I was left curious about her story and her life that would cause her to have that view.
This is how stories can unite us, and help us have deeper, richer community. They can be a bridge for conversation and dialogue—so urgently needed in our divided days.
This ambiguity is also what makes great stories fun and worth revisiting throughout our lives as children, and then as adults. We bring to them new aspects of who we are, which allow us to symbolically interpret them and make them relevant to our own lives.
What do you make of this story? Do you empathize with the frog or the princess?
Are there stories you remember being told growing up, and have revisited as an adult through a new lens and with new insights?
Write to me with your thoughts and let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Storytelling and the Human Condition
Stories have great psychological power.
Understanding stories and their power is a central theme of my series for Wondrium, formerly The Great Courses, called Storytelling and the Human Condition.
I hope you choose to invest in your understanding of the power of stories, and enjoy my series for FREE here.
I’ve also shared the list of themes covered over the twelve episodes in the series below to give you an overview of what to expect.
(Read to the end to discover how to win a year of Wondrium and a DVD of my series!)
1 The Power of Stories
Begin your journey by considering the universal appeal and power of storytelling. Here, you will meet your expert, Alexandra, and explore the thesis of this course—that the human condition is defined by the greatness and wretchedness of mankind, and that stories help us better understand and thrive within this duality of our nature—through putting into dialogue two works called The Human Condition by Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi and Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt.
2 Origins and the Meaning of Life
Who are we? Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? These are questions that virtually every human society has asked—and answered through story. Examine several of the earliest creation stories such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish or the creation story from the Book of Genesis, and put them in conversation with one another to see how these stories reveal how these cultures view the nature and purpose of humanity.
3 The Meaning of Suffering
As you will see here, storytelling has been a way that people across time and place have coped with the reality of human misery and dealt with the question of why we suffer. Here, Alexandra puts into dialogue two different kinds of stories and perspectives on suffering: the poem-made-song, popularized by African American singer Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”; and the famous tale of Job from the Hebrew Bible.
4 Guilt and Blame
Look at famous stories told by St. Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche to explore the ways guilt is presented in the stories we tell. As you will see, some prefer stories that convict and help them own up to wrongdoing, while others prefer stories that exonerate. Despite this, the human struggle with these concepts is universal.
5 Civilization and Barbarism
Stories can unite us—but they can also help create and maintain division. Engage with several works of art spanning the centuries— from 20th century Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, to arguably the world’s first story, The Epic of Gilgamesh—that offer reflections on why people have weaponized the language of civilization and barbarism to oppress marginalized groups and people. And consider how we might tell better stories in our own lives and world today that unite and affirm our shared moral status as members of the human community.
6 Building Character
We have long used stories to define and illuminate moral ideals and virtues, help form character, and give people a definition of excellence to strive for. Start this lecture with a look at the ambiguous relationship between myth and history and then dive into several works—from George Washington’s first biographer to the ancient Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch—and storytelling traditions that demonstrate how fiction can help us communicate important moral lessons.
7 Love and Sex
Explore stories of love and its many dimensions. From the tender letters and love story of Abélard and Héloïse in the 12th century to later stories of carnal passion like Madame Bovary, you will look at the ways disordered love—disproportionate or selfish love—makes for tragic stories that serve as warnings. As you will see, the human heart is built to love, but sometimes we crush the objects of our love—and destroy ourselves—if we fail to love people and things in their proper order.
8 Materialism and Earthly Attachments
It is part of the human condition to become overly attached to the things of this world, and that overattachment can cause great suffering. Here, you will consider another facet of disordered love: overattachment to possessions and power. Begin with a look at the life story of the Buddha, and then see how it connects to other stories of greed, power, and selfish desire, such as that of the award-winning HBO satirical drama Succession and other excellent stories from The Great Conversation.
9 Pride before Destruction
Unpack a foundational pitfall of the human condition: pride. Here, you will look at some of history’s most famous and memorable stories concerning hubris and the troubles it can cause, including tales of Anansi from West African mythology, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Aesop’s fables. Along the way, consider why we often delight in stories of other people’s humiliation—and how fighting the gravitational pull toward pride in our nature is central to the life well lived.
10 Adversity and Humor
Tragedy is a reality of the human experience. Yet humor is how people across time and place have grappled with the absurdity and pain of life. Consider why we laugh in the face of darkness and suffering and how we determine whether we are laughing at or laughing with others with a look at two very different stories told centuries apart—Bocaccio’s Decameron, a series of bawdy and comedic tales told during the height of Europe’s lethal Black Death, and Dr. Strangelove, a comedic film about nuclear annihilation of the world—that both confront adversity with irony and humor.
11 Death and the Afterlife
Death is one of the few certainties of the human condition. Explore how people have answered questions about the process and nature of death across history through stories. From Dante’s Inferno from the famous Divine Comedy, to Michael Schur’s contemporary sitcom about death, The Good Place, consider the many ways we view death and what may lie beyond.
12 Freedom and Self-Determination
Bring the course to a close with a look at the meaning of freedom and a consideration of how we can transform tragedy into triumph. Through the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American author, and the writings of Holocaust survivors Hannah Arendt and Viktor Frankl, you will see how storytelling can help us think more clearly about the role we each have to harness the exquisite power of storytelling to improve our lives, and make the world a better place.
My goal is to share this series with as many people as possible, so please, sign up for your free Wondrium trial to enjoy it!
I’m also giving away three ONE-year subscriptions to Wondrium, a $120 value, and three DVDs of the series—a $500 value!
Write to me at email@example.com and tell me which you’d like to win (either the DVD or the Wondrium subscription).
Thank you for being part of this community!
Frog 100%. I, too, was a frog-chaser as a kid. Need I say more?
It's striking how you highlight The Frog King story here. I frequently muse upon Bruno Bettelheim's take (remembered as "The Frog Prince"). Complementary and parallel to your moral interpretation, his classic - The Uses of Enchantment - approaches the story through a psychological - Freudian - filter. You each agree the princess has some growing up to do! The story in its ambiguity presents imagery and symbolism constructive for psycho-sexual integration. The princess cannot grow into her integrity as a fully mature, complete, adult woman until she accepts the frog (although she does so only in its guise as prince).
Plus, the duality in this one story parallels the duality you trace throughout your course!