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On Frogs

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This poem was first published in issue 19 of Gramarye, the Journal of the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. ‘Gramarye’ is an archaic word meaning mystical or magical learning, related to the word ‘grimoire’, which refers to a spellbook. Frogs in folklore seem to be strongly associated with magic, and the poem alludes to probably the most well-known example: the Frog Prince of the Brothers Grimm faerytale, who is turned into a human by a princess’s kiss or, in some versions, by sleeping in her bed. Suppose, though, that this prince was not under the spell of a malevolent witch or magician, but that of age and booze? Suppose that his transformation back into a prince was a matter of perception (his own and that of the princess) at the very moment she makes a move on him – a matter of reconnecting with the sexual potential of his own body?

More on the relationship between frogs and sex in a moment. Staying with magic, one of the other intertextual references in the poem is to a Japanese woodblock print by Utagawa Yoshitora, titled ‘Nikushi the Frog Spirit Conjures up a Magical Battle of Frogs at Tateyama in Etchū Province’. The purpose of this feat is to teach sorcery to two heroes; the poor frogs are only given life, self-will and (presumably) feelings of murderous rage for the purposes of demonstration. They are lowly, ridiculous creatures. This is also the reason for their inclusion in the Froschmäusekrieg, originally called the Batrachomyomachia (the battle of frogs and mice), an ancient Greek parody of epic war stories. The frogs lose rather badly to the mice, who have names like Slice-snatcher and Ham-nibbler – but really, the point of the story is that the feud is comically pitiful, the violence inconsequential. 

In Francis Ponge’s short poem ‘La Grenouille’, or ‘The Frog’, the combination of pitiable weakness and perverse beauty is much to the fore. His frog in the rain is called “an awkward Ophelia”. Her legs are “pretty”, her muscles long and elegant, and she is “gloved in waterproof skin”. “Her wild mouth” moves the poet to let her go, since she is also scrawny, easily grabbed, panting nervously. Why this strange eroticism?

My frog poem was written at about the same time as an academic paper called ‘Frog Leaps In: Haiku and the Struggle For and Against the Natural World in Japanese RPGs’. The title refers to the most famous of all haikus: Matsuo Bashō’s ‘old pond’, a brief snapshot of the moment a frog dives through the surface of the water. In the paper I quote Susumu Takiguchi, a Bashō scholar, who notes that in Asian culture a frog is a symbol of spring, of merriment, colour, noises, life and sex. A living, breathing fertility charm.

The abundance of visible frogspawn in ponds toward the end of winter likely has something to do with this, but could it also be connected to the frog’s very ugliness? Like frogs, human sex organs are considered to be comically grotesque – or just grotesque – in perhaps the majority of contexts in which they are displayed. Sex and birth are matters we continue to be squeamish about, in part because of their sliminess. In another poem, Phoebe Pettingell’s ‘Frog Prince’, the prince has always been a frog, because the mother recalls him as a baby, “croaking and splaying”, “come from my sloughy darkness”. The process of sex leading to birth is referred to as a “bleak transformation of passion / into such repulsive matter”, and the frog’s indifferent stare characterised as hostile, comparable to the frustrated bafflement of a newborn. The anguish of the poem, however, is that the frog has not become a man – the love of the mother somehow has not had this dignifying effect, but been sucked from her nevertheless. A frog is a man brought low, or one never raised up.

I think there’s something to be said for appreciating the frog as he or she is, though. I like that in Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘The Frog’, his eye is said to match “exactly the bubble / in my spirit-level”, lending the creature, albeit briefly, the poise of an architect. Muldoon alludes also to its sexual potency, reporting that the entire population of Ireland spawned from a single pair busying themselves over the course of one night. This, by the way, is a genuine historical account, as given by William Thompson in The Natural History of Ireland

But the idea of the frog as lusty hero has been taken up much more enthusiastically by video game developers, starting in 1981 with Konami’s Frogger, in which the player must guide a pack of plucky frogs over busy motorways and rivers, sometimes stopping to pick up another pink and blue frog along the way (as one does). Inevitably, the game also serves up many ignominious deaths: your frogs may be crushed under the wheels of a vehicle, or swallowed by an alligator or snake. Somewhat humiliatingly, they may even fall off a log and drown. 

In 1993, Team17 released Superfrog, a platform game starring the frog prince, now powered up by Lucozade and charged – in the manner of so many other protagonists of video games in the early 90s – with rescuing his princess. At the conclusion of the quest, Superfrog is rewarded with a kiss, as well as a faceful of cartoon breasts, only for the princess to turn into a frog as well.

The most memorable frog in video gaming, however, is surely the aptly named ‘Frog’, who joins the player’s party of heroes part way through Square’s 1996 role-playing game Chrono Trigger. “I am no pet. I am an accomplished swordsman, green as I appear,” he declares – and he is indeed the size of a full-grown human, dressed in armour and a cloak, albeit with an aptitude for water-based magic. What is perhaps most unfroggish about Frog – what makes him a memorably tragic character – is his impeccable chivalry, his gentlemanly mannerisms. There is some sense (even if the game never so much as alludes to it) that he must work to overcome his lewd and bestial nature. He is heroic in the same way Francis Ponge’s frog is beautiful – that is, in defiance of the shamefulness that is attached to being muculent, fragile and full of desire.