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Tossing the Golden Ball

"The Frog King," 1912. New York Public Library, CC0 1.0

Myths do not ground, they open.

(James Hillman)

In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell revealed the myth of the hero's transformation and invited us to locate our lives in this myth. When you enter the metaphor of the hero's adventure, you discover new possibilities and meaning. Stories have the power to transform a wide range of life situations. Your response to a story can provide insight into the story, your culture, and yourself. 

Are we willing to be transformed by our myths? The fairytale "The Frog King" can be an experiment. Like Campbell, we'll approach this story as a hero's adventure. Here's the story in brief:

A beautiful young princess has a prized possession, a golden ball. She often sits by a deep spring in the woods, where she tosses the ball up into the air and catches it. One day the ball falls into the spring and is lost. She begins to weep. A frog comes up from the spring and asks about her troubles. He proposes to retrieve her golden ball if she will let him be her companion. "Let me eat from your plate, sip from your cup, and sleep on your pillow," he says. The princess can't imagine any such thing and yet she outwardly agrees to this bargain. She wants her ball.

The frog dives down and brings up the golden ball. The princess takes it and runs back to the palace, leaving the frog behind. The following evening at suppertime, the frog appears on the doorstep. He insists that the princess keep her promise. Now the king learns of the agreement and takes the side of the frog. She is compelled to follow through. 

Barely concealing her disgust, the princess lifts the frog to her plate on the table. She finds this revolting enough, but when they are alone in her room the frog presses her further. "Put me in your bed," he says, and threatens to call upon the king if she refuses. Pushed to her limit, the princess angrily throws the frog against the wall. Splat. A handsome prince emerges from the wreckage. Marriage follows. The happy couple return to the prince's kingdom, which brings great joy to his loyal coachman. 

Who is the hero?

Maybe the frog is the hero. The story's title steers us in this direction, and the princess seems like a brat: self-absorbed, ill-tempered, and deceitful. She obeys her father but her compliance is superficial. Worst of all, she tries to murder the frog in a fit of violent anger. She is not nice. And some of us actually like frogs.


At first blush, the frog is more likable and possesses more heroic potential. He's helpful and fulfills his end of the deal in good faith. His appeal to the king's authority may be a bit slimy, yet what other options did the poor guy have, given her refusal to behave as agreed? Granted, the princess was especially vulnerable when he found her weeping. She was desperate. His dive down to the bottom of the spring didn't cost him much, but what might their bargain cost her?

Flipping over the lily pads, so to speak, makes the initial character assessment a bit more complex. Maybe the frog was a bit of a creep. But does a hero have to be likable? And is this view of the princess or the frog definitive? It's easy to spin this story to cast aspersions on the princess or question the integrity of the frog. The characters are simple. They don't even have names, for example, and very little inner life. The relative lack of emotion and descriptive details allows us to provide them. What we attribute to the characters and their actions reveals our biases and fantasies. We can see ourselves.

Much of this is unconscious. Some of the spinning is intentional. The simple scaffold of a fairy tale leaves it open to manipulation. The history of this form reveals the propensity to tweak these stories in service to a particular worldview. In the case of "The Frog King," the violent splat in the story may have come as a surprise to you. In the more recent, popular version of this fairy tale, the princess transforms the frog with a kiss. 

Love is powerful, but is it a woman's sole power in the world? And does the kiss distort the story's structure? The princess may have had a spiritual awakening. Compassion is frequently the result of such a transformation. Does the action in the story support this conclusion? Is the kiss part of the story's logic or symbolic of a collective preference for peaceful women? What is the significance of your preference?

Where is the transformation in this story? The frog undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis. What about the princess? The most common interpretation is "she got married." Campbell takes this approach in Pathways to Bliss. (124-126) Marriage in the outer world is often transformative. Here, marriage is between two aspects of the psyche. In Pathways to Bliss, Campbell employs the Jungian terms animus and anima, the inner masculine and feminine, to describe this event. The inner marriage of feminine and masculine is essential to Jungian individuation. In this story, Campbell explains, it's part of growing up.

"Marriage" is a common metaphor for the union of opposites. I also read this story as a description of internal psychic process, but I have a difficult time separating "marriage" from the cultural ideas that have defined it—the belief that a woman needs a man and marriage to fulfill her destiny, for example. As for the transformation, I think it's the splat.

The splat. The moment that the princess acts in spontaneous accord with her nature, as Campbell would say. That moment of power. The splat reveals the true nature of the frog and the princess, two interlocked aspects of her psyche. The girl that refuses to act with decisive, even violent authority slides down the wall with him and there's no taking it back. The subsequent marriage would be confirmation of a lasting transformation. 

This brings us to the final stage of the hero's adventure, the return. At the end of this story, the newlyweds are on their way back to the prince's kingdom. The coachman's joy swells his heart and breaks the iron bands that bound it. The marriage will be important to the renewed life of the community, as well as the individual. But what will come next? We are left with the task of imagining the particular shape of the "happily ever after" that belongs to this story. What might this kingdom need?

Many of us long for a renewal of the kingdom these days. We feel limited by the dominant stories and yet, we unconsciously perpetuate them when we turn to myth for validation of our existing beliefs, and overlook their power to unsettle and open us. The co-evolution of myth, culture, and human needs is always and already underway, and we are all participants. The golden ball has fallen into the spring. How will you respond?



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