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Tossing the Golden Ball

BY Catherine Svehla March 13, 2022

“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?

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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?


Discuss this MythBlast with the author and the rest of the JCF community in our dedicated thread in Conversations of a Higher Order.

Catherine Svehla is a storyteller, teacher, artist, and activist with a PhD in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She creates though-provoking story circles, workshops, and other tools to help people use a mythic and archetypal lens to transform their lives. Catherine is also the host of the Myth Matters podcast, an exploration of myth and story in contemporary life. Learn more at Keep the mystery in your life alive...
Myth or Dreams from The Hero with a Thousand Faces

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In his later work, Campbell would say, “Myth is other people’s religion, and religion is misunderstood myth.” Thus, in the opening paragraph of this piece, Campbell evokes in his midcentury American reader’s mind as foreign (and as stereotyped) an image of other people’s religion as he could: “the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo.” His point, elaborated through the rest of the piece, is to break down his reader’s “aloof amusement” at this outré figure and to show that, whatever the societal surface, all myth, dream, and religion flow from the same universal underground source. This is the subversive premise of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, even more radical than its laying out the structure of the monomyth, the Hero’s Journey® schema, for which the book is so justly lauded.

News & Updates

On March 14, many Buddhists mark the anniversary of the death of the Shan-tao. The evangelizing Chinese priest made his Pure Land metaphysics simple, even using pictures to appeal to the illiterate.

March 14 marks the first day of the year 554 as reckoned by Sikhism. Happy New Year!

On March 16, creation itself is celebrated in one of Zoroastrianism’s six seasonal Ghambars or festivals. Ghambar Hamaspathmaedem commemorates both the creation of human beings and the souls of the dead. The whole cycle of life.

On March 17, much to report: Purim festivals dot the land as Jewish congregations recall how Esther rescued the Hebrews; Muslims observe Laylat al Bara’at, a night of profound repentance in the lead up to Ramaḍān; the Irish respond to St. Patrick’s Day in ways secular and sacred; and from the 17th through the 23rd, the name of Amida Buddha is chanted throughout much of Japan during Higan-e (to reach the other shore).

Hola Mohalla, March 18, began as a commitment to military preparedness initiated by Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1680.  The festival in its modern form includes mock battles, music competitions, and stunts on horseback.

Closing out the week is Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors, so named because of ubiquitous amounts of colored powder and colored water dispersed through the crowds in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. March 18.

Weekly Quote

The wonder is that the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale—as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea.

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Myth Resources

SurLaLune Fairytales

SurLaLune Fairy Tales features 49 annotated fairy tales, including their histories, similar tales across cultures, modern interpretations and over 1,500 illustrations.
Also discover over 1,600 folktales & fairy tales from around the world in more than 40 full-text eBooks. A discussion forum is also available.

Featured Work

Pathways to Bliss

In Pathways to Bliss, Campbell examines the personal, psychological side of myth. Like his classic best-selling books Myths to Live By and The Power of Myth, Pathways to Bliss draws from Campbell’s popular lectures and dialogues, which highlight his remarkable storytelling and ability to apply the larger themes of world mythology to personal growth and the quest for transformation. Here he anchors mythology’s symbolic wisdom to the individual, applying the most poetic mythical metaphors to the challenges of our daily lives.

Book Club

“I’m looking forward to the discussion constellated around this month’s selection, Treasury Of Folklore: Seas and Rivers. The text is a nice little compendium of folklore with an ocean or river view: stories we grew up with, stories that condition our culture, stories that provide a context for meaning, and stories that are just plain fun. Sticking with this metaphor, February promises to be a riverboat cruise, stopping at these themes like ports of call, as we make our way downstream to the ocean of understanding. Hm, was that too corny? Anyway, you get the idea! Looking forward to our adventure.”

Mark C. E. Peterson, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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