There was once a king who loved his servant and so forswore marriage to any woman. For a time this went well, but he needed an heir, and his wooers were not all easily swayed. Among them was a witch, who wanted no part of queenship, but hoped only to bed him and promised an heir for the night’s pleasure; and when even she was refused (she was a witch, and quite used to having her way) she fell into envy, and cursed the king with the shape of a frog.
“Thus you’ll stay until you’ve shared a woman’s bed,” she said to him: “though what woman would want you now I cannot say.”
The king returned to his palace as quickly as his frog-legs could carry him, and hid himself in the canopy of his bed. His voice was a man’s voice, still, and so he spoke to his servants from behind the curtain, saying that he was ill, and that they must not come near him. Only his Heinrich – for this was the name of the king’s beloved – was permitted to see him.
Heinrich loved him still, and cared for his king as well as he could; but the frog was ashamed to be what he was, and decided at last that he could bear it no longer.
“I will go to live as frogs do,” he said, “where I must not see the pity in your face another day. Perhaps I’ll find a girl who will share her bed with me and free me from this form, and then I’ll return to you, but I can no more pretend that I am still a man.”
On that day Heinrich’s heart broke into pieces, and in order that it might keep beating in his breast he bound it in place with three strong bands of iron.
The frog left the kingdom, and travelled from one place to another by streams and by brooks. Wherever he found a washerwoman or a girl fetching water he pleaded with her to let him share her bed, if only for a night; each time she ran from the river in terror or chased him away with shouts and sharp hurled stones. At last it seemed that there was no hope left. He found a well near the palace of a distant kingdom, a comfortable enough place for a frog to live, and there he stayed; and there, he thought, he might stay until he died.
There was a princess who often came to that well, the king’s youngest daughter; she would sit on its edge and play there with her favourite toy – a golden ball – tossing it up into the air and catching it again, and so passing the hours. The frog, who had given up hope, never spoke to her. But it happened, one day, that the princess’ golden ball fell into the water and past the home he had made for himself there; and so he crawled up to see whence it had come, and there found the princess weeping.
“Why do you weep?” he asked, and though the princess was startled to hear a man’s voice from a frog, still she answered him: “My ball has fallen into the well, and I cannot retrieve it.”
“I could bring it for you,” said the frog, with hope at last rekindling in his heart, “but only if you promise me this: that I may sit with you at your table and eat from your plate, that I may drink from your cup, that I may sleep this night in your bed with my head on your pillow.”
“Anything you like!” said the princess; and so the frog dove into the well and found the golden ball gleaming in the mud at its bottom, and carried it up to her in triumph. But she, in her joy that it had not been lost, carried it away without a backwards glance.
The frog knew where the palace lay, and followed in her footsteps. With a frog’s leaping gait he climbed the palace stairs, and flung himself against the door until, at last, the princess opened.
“Princess,” he said, “you made me a promise.”
There was fear in the princess’ eyes, now, but she knew the worth of a promise kept, and so she picked the frog up and carried him into the palace. He sat on the table beside her as she ate, and drank from her cup and ate from her plate; and when she had finished she carried him into her bedroom, and set him down – not on her bed – but in the farthest corner from it she could manage.
“I will not share my bed with you,” she said, “nor indeed with anyone. I thank you for helping me, but I cannot repay you as I promised.”
The frog felt hope die, again, and thought the well might be his home forever, and that he might never see his Heinrich again. “Please,” he said, “if only for a moment –” And he told her of Heinrich, and of the witch’s spell, and swore that he would do no more than sleep – and not even that, without her leave.
Only for a moment, the princess agreed.
When she swept him out of her bed the king was himself again, and overjoyed. He thanked the princess with all he had, and promised her honour and safe passage in his kingdom if ever she chose to come there, and sent word to Heinrich before the night was out. Heinrich came with a chariot to bring him home, and as they rode there was a sound as of something breaking; the king called a halt, in fear that the wheels had splintered, but Heinrich said to him: “My heart shattered when you left, and I laid three iron bands around it to keep it beating; now my heart is healing, and this was the sound of them coming undone.”