When the Grimm brothers published their Märchen anthology for the first time, they chose Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich — The Frog King or Iron Henry — to be the first story. My copy does not include their notes, so I don’t know why they made this choice. But I’m willing to bet that it was a deliberate decision. The first song in an album, the first course of a meal, even the first model in a fashion show . . . All of these create an impression that affects everything else that follows. And as the Germans say: Der erste Eindruck zählt. The first impression counts.
When you first read or heard this story of a king/prince trapped in a frog’s body, what was it that broke the enchantment? Did the princess kiss him . . . or did she throw him as hard as she could against the wall? I remember both from my own childhood. But I think the books with a kiss already outnumbered the books with a throw.
I also remember Eiserner Heinrich — Iron Henry — not because he also appeared frequently, but because I found him only once. And in that book (which was in English), he was called Iron John. It’s easy to understand why many modern retellings of Der Froschkönig have cut him out. He is not really essential to the plot and he seems to come out of nowhere. Besides, when a version changes the throw into a kiss, and turns this Märchen into a romantic love story, it makes more sense to end with the joy of a royal wedding. The joy of a loyal old servant belongs to a different tale. But the Grimm brothers thought that Eiserner Heinrich was so important that they added his name to the title.
Going Back to Grimm
As I wrote in the first Märchen Monday post on Aschenputtel (Link), I want to read the Märchen as Christian stories. This means that I will be looking for characters who represent Christ, Mary, the soul, and the devil — and for symbols that represent the sacraments. When animals appear, I will interpret them according to the traditions of Christian art.
So what does Christian art have to say about frogs? From the plague of frogs in Exodus to St. Teresa of Avila’s vision of poisonous toads tormenting souls in hell, amphibians are generally symbols of evil. The original Froschkönig isn’t a romantic figure. He isn’t a beast looking for a beauty to redeem him with love. He is a Königssohn — a king’s son — who “becomes sin” for his bride before she knows who he really is. (Look up “Pro nobis peccatum fecit” in Scripture — Link)
As we learned from Aschenputtel, every Königssohn in Grimm is Christ Himself. And since Christ is the Savior and not the saved, Der Froschkönig needs a symbol for the soul. I guess the Grimm brothers felt that the princess’s golden Spielzeug or plaything, which falls into the Brunnen or well, was not enough — even though every Brunnen in Grimm points to baptism. (The Brunnen in this Märchen also lies unter einer alten Linde — under an old linden or lime tree — a very meaningful tree in German Christian culture. Here it is also the Cross, where the sacrifice of the Königssohn gave power to all the sacraments.) Yet the princess’s toy stops being important very soon after the Froschkönig redeems it for her. This is why Eiserner Heinrich, the faithful servant named after the three iron bands over his heart, is so important.
Eiserner Heinrich started bearing the bands on the day the Königssohn was cursed to be pro nobis peccatum. And he was released from this bondage only after his beloved Lord was released from His own. The Resurrection was not just life for Christ, but also life for everyone who loves Him and waits for Him to come again.
German Language Notes
Both “Der eiserne Heinrich” (The iron Henry) and “Eiserner Heinrich” (Iron Henry) are correct. When there is a definite article (der, die, das) to tell us the case of a noun, an adjective before the noun can have a “weak ending.” But with an indefinite article or no article at all, the adjective has to have a “strong ending.” (Reference)
Next Monday: Der Wolf und die sieben jungen Geisslein
Read it here: Link