Hideous and So Beautiful:
Frogs, Toads, and Love
The motif of frogs as masters of transformation appears in perhaps the most famous frog tale in western culture: the story of the Frog Prince. The story is simple: A princess is wooed by a frog, who asks for a kiss. First recoiling in horror, the maiden eventually relents, out of sympathy or kindness, and kisses the frog. Suddenly, the frog is transformed into a handsome prince, and the couple are married, living happily ever after. Interestingly, this story has many early variations in which the frog or toad is female, and the young man must make the leap in order to discover his beautiful bride.
For example, an early medieval tale from the Piedmont region of Italy recounts that a father with three daughters -- the elder two selfish and the youngest good -- falls ill and travels to a famous healer's castle. Before he leaves, he asks each daughter what they want him to bring back for them. The two eldest each ask for jewelry, while the youngest asks for only a flower. Arriving at the castle, the father finds no one home. Dismayed, he readies himself to leave, but on his way out he sees a beautiful garden. Thinking he¹ll at least bring his youngest a flower, he picks a rose. Suddenly a huge toad appears and says, "Who gave you leave to pick flowers from my garden?" The toad adds, "You must pay with your life for your theft."
The only way the magic toad will pardon the father is if he will give his youngest daughter to the toad in marriage. Distraught, the father returns home, determined to sacrifice himself instead of his daughter. However, his devoted daughter cannot bear this, and so sneaks off that night and marries the toad. When she gets into bed with the toad, she finds him transformed into a handsome prince. The prince tells her she must never reveal the secret, and he gives her a magic ring, which will grant her whatever she wishes. Her sisters, expecting her to be miserable as the bride of the toad, become suspicious of her happiness, and press her for the truth. Finally, she reveals the secret, and the toad falls deathly ill. Weeping and praying for her love's life, the maiden remembers the ring, and wishes that her love may be healed. When nothing happens, she throws the ring into the lake in a rage; suddenly, the toad vanishes and her handsome lover appears out of the lake. The enchantment is broken, and her lover is returned to human form.
In each instance of the story, true beauty is hidden beneath a superficial ugliness. The hero or heroine must recognize that beauty, or make a leap of faith, so that the beauty may be revealed.
Toads were viewed in medieval Europe as a symbol of romantic jealousy, the embodiment of an ugly and poisonous feeling. Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, describes a character eaten up by jealousy:
"Nor ever is he wont on ought to feed But toades and frogs, his pasture poysonous Which his cold complexion do breed a filthy bloud, or humour rancorous, matter of doubt and dread suspitious, that doth with cureless care consume the hart, corrupts the stomacke with gall vitious, croscuts the liver with internall smart, and doth transfixe the soule with deathes' eternall dart."
Shakespeare, writing later, has Othello wracked by jealousy in toad form:
"O curse of marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon than keep a corner of the thing I love for others' uses."
Milton, in Paradise Lost, has Satan embodied as a toad to corrupt Eve's mind with jealousy. The ugly and presumably poisonous toad made it the perfect foil, the embodiment of the strange, the inexplicable, the pestilent, and the evil that humans felt both in themselves and in the world around them.