Stephen Mitchell,
The Frog Prince: A Fairy
Tale for Consenting Adults

(Crown/Harmony, 1999)

Stephen Mitchell, an American writer and translator well-known for numerous books of a mingled religious, spiritual and/or philosophical nature, takes a somewhat different course here in this modern retelling of the classic fairy tale "The Frog Prince." The book not surprisingly emphasizes the story's parablistic qualities. Mitchell sets his alternative historical version towards the end of the Renaissance (16th century) in a small French kingdom where there occurs one of the dreaded (even if by then it was infrequent) "Unusual Phenomena" -- the raison d'Étre of the stories of talking animals that are so common in the period's literature.

Inadvertently dropping her beloved gold ball in a well, a princess encounters the besotted male frog that retrieves it, a gifted creature who speaks to her in perfect French. In return for rescuing the favorite sphere, the frog strikes a bargain with the princess -- that she will love and befriend him, allowing him to eat from her plate, drink from her cup and sleep in her bed -- essentially a marriage. Certain that he is an enchanted prince, the princess has already begun to love the frog and readily accepts the arrangements which, after a series of trials, develop towards the happy ending of the "condensed version." This is how Mitchell refers to this common, basic bed-time story redaction that he expands into novella length by draping it in philosophical asides and spiritual insights.

"The Frog Prince," according to Mitchell, is enhanced by such amusing metaphysical explanations as the solemn assertion that a "hairline crack ... in reality" was responsible for Unusual Phenomena, and by droll historical ones such as stating that because knowledge of diving was unknown in Europe at that time, only the frog could recover the ball. All too frequently, however, Mitchell's constant asides, pondering the implications of every action and decision of the princess and the frog and their greater moral/spiritual meanings seem intended to stretch the narrative and often serve to distance the reader from the characters and their emotions. By contrast, the author's interpolations into the text, of references to his personally favorite subjects, the Tao Te Ching and the tenets of Eastern religions, are refreshing and relate the story to wider cultural contexts.

On the whole, Mitchell's version of "The Frog Prince" proves that even seemingly insubstantial source material can provide the inspiration for serious examination of how love can and does transform frogs and princesses alike, offering up a gracefully told, thought-provoking and appealing tribute to the original and a thoroughly delightful entertainment.

[ by Amy Harlib ]



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