The Frog Prince by James Norcliffe (Random House New Zealand, 2022), 302pp, $36
I suppose one reason I’m fascinated by Grimms’ Fairy Tales—or, rather, the Brothers Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), very few of which are actually about fairies—is because it’s the first book I ever read from cover to cover in German. At the time, I felt it was a good choice because I was already (I thought) familiar with the formulaic language of most of the stories (Es war einmal: Once upon a time). As it turned out, though, the experience taught me something about the nature of translation, which I’ve not been able to forget since.
Even to someone with German as rudimentary as mine, the first thing that struck me was that the stories had so obviously been composed by different people. Much is made of the wholesale alterations made to the original folktales by the moralising Wilhelm (and to a lesser extent Jakob) Grimm. ‘Mothers’ become ‘stepmothers’, pregnancies and murders are elided out. Far more striking, I found, were the obvious differences in sentence structures, word choices, and the overall approach between the various narrators. And I don’t just mean the few stories printed in dialect; ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ being the most famous example. Even the standardised German of the other tales shows unequivocal signs of these diverse voices.
But virtually all of this, I realised with a shock, was invisible in translation. It didn’t matter whether you were reading Edgar Taylor, Margaret Hunt, Ralph Manheim or Jack Zipes. In English, the stories all sounded much the same: stock fairy tales from the collective myth-kitty. In German, by contrast, they provided a little anthology of diverse idioms and cultures all lumped together under that blanket term Deutsch.
‘The Frog Prince’ is one of the most perplexing stories in the whole collection. And, since it’s usually placed at the beginning, it’s the first one most readers will encounter. Everyone’s familiar with the idea of kissing a frog so that he’ll turn into a handsome prince. It may come as a bit of a shock, then, that the princess in the original tale never does actually kiss her frog. Instead, she hurls him violently against a wall when he tries to hold her to her promise to let him sleep in her bed.
Nor, for that matter, is he a prince. The original title is Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich (‘The Frog-king, or Iron Henry’). So, he’s actually a king. And what’s all this about Iron Henry? What’s his part in the story?
No, he’s not the same person as Eisern Hans (‘Iron John’), the protagonist of another one of the Grimms’ tales, though there are certain common features—the golden ball, the deep well—between the two narratives. That story was used as the central plank of Robert Bly’s notorious masculinity self-help book Iron John: A Book About Men. Iron Henry is a type of faithful servant whose love for his lost master is such that he’s had to enclose his heart with three iron bands to prevent it from bursting with sorrow.
One of the many virtues of poet James Norcliffe’s first adult novel—he’s already written a number of others for children and young people—is the original solution he offers to the puzzles posed by this very enigmatic story.
Or, rather, one of the characters in his book, a young woman named Cara, has written a historical novella that suggests an answer: ‘The Frog Prince’ was, in fact, a fiction created by the Heller sisters, Mathilde and Helga, to attract the attention of the pale, scholarly Jakob Grimm, whom Mathilde, the elder of the two girls, had fallen for.
The Frog King story, as we have it, however, (according to Cara) was re-edited by Jakob’s overprotective younger brother Wilhelm to convert the compassionate princess of the original into the petulant brat of the version we now read. He also, for good measure, added faithful Heinrich to the mix to symbolise his own role as a benign presence in Jakob’s life.
But that’s just the beginning of the twists and turns in James Norcliffe’s book. The main level of the narrative records the abortive love affair of two young language teachers, David and Cara, at an international school in Northern France. The enigmatic Cara, author of the novella I mentioned above, chapters of which we encounter piecemeal as we move through the narrative, has been conducting an affair with young New Zealander, David. When he finally asks her to marry him—in a graveyard, appropriately enough—she abruptly disappears:
What he had always admired as Cara’s non-judgemental nature, her refusal to gossip, he now understood as secrecy, inexplicable privacy. Of course she had joked about politicians, celebrities, but they, not being in her orbit, were not really people, only names. The closer people were to her, the less willing was she to express an opinion. These things, along with her hopes and fears, he realised he had been forced to infer. Everything was always veiled. What misguided audacity had possessed him that he had actually asked her to marry him? He didn’t know her at all.
The precise relationship between these two stories, Cara’s and David’s, unfolding side by side, is the real riddle that drives Norcliffe’s story. It’s clear all along that David is a frog of the first order: he commits virtually every tactical error a man can in pursuit of an elusive Fata Morgana. He is, by turns, jealous, possessive, self-pitying, angry, importunate and futile. He is, in short (like most of us), a fool in love.
Cara, by contrast, has been trained by her upbringing to reveal nothing that might come back to bite her. Her defences are virtually impregnable. And the moment she drops them to allow David back in, his subsequent antics serve only to vindicate her stance.
It doesn’t help that an earlier fling with the amoral art teacher Angus has left her deeply suspicious of all male motives.
So how do the various layers of Norcliffe’s fiction co-inhere (to borrow a term from Charles Williams)? The princess in the Fräulein Hellers’ concocted ‘The Frog Prince’ earns the love of her handsome prince by showing him a hint of compassion. But the petulant princess in Wilhelm’s doctored text earns marriage to her Frog King without ever deserving it. David loses his princess by asserting property rights in her child (which he wrongly assumes to be his own). Cara is left with both child and independence, but in the final pages of the book, dreams of being sucked back down into the swamp as a female frog.
There seems no obvious—or at any rate simple—message to be deduced from all this. ‘Relationships are difficult’ perhaps, or the ever popular ‘a girl needs to kiss a lot of frogs before she finds a handsome prince’.
I prefer to see it as a test of our ability as readers. If you remove or dilute the regional peculiarities of the Grimms’ so-called fairy tales—as most translators are forced to do—you’re left with a kind of Disneyfied soup. If, however, you read with such fine-grained details in mind, you may end up marvelling at the particularity of each of them. These are, after all, the particularities that make our own love stories such an endless source of puzzlement to us, as well as, hopefully, most of the time, more delight than pain.
As far as this particular slice of life is concerned, David has failed, and Cara succeeded. Mathilde Heller fails to make an impression on Jakob Grimm, and Wilhelm succeeds in keeping property rights in his brother. Without knowing what will come next in each of their stories, it will never be possible to guess who will come out as the winner and end up holding the glittering prize.
JACK ROSS is the author of four novels, four books of short fiction, and six poetry collections, most recently The Oceanic Feeling (2021). He was managing editor of Poetry New Zealand from 2014–2019 and has edited numerous other books, anthologies, and literary journals.