Frogs and Toads in Art and Storytelling

rederick Stuart Church (1842–1924) ~ Frogs and Mosquitos summer concert ~ Harpers

In stories, mice are to rats as frogs are to toads. Unlike hares and rabbits, toads and frogs are actually the same category of animal, but one has garnered a better reputation. I’ve heard ‘toad’ used as an insult, but I’ve only ever heard ‘froggy’ to describe the shape of someone’s mouth. Neither is especially complimentary, but frogs seem cuter.

not this one though?

The Real Difference Between Frogs And Toads

Wheras the categories of ‘mice’ and ‘rats’ encompass many different small mammals who may or may not be closely related to each other, toads are a subcategory of frog.

Generally speaking, whether we call an amphibian a frog or a toad will depend on a few visible markers:

MORE FROGGYMORE TOADLY
SKINmoist and slimydry and bumpy
BODYlong and leanshort and squat
EGGSin a massin a chain
HABITATwetterdrier
MOVEMENTleapycrawly

So how is this distinction useful for storytellers making use of anthropomorphised amphibians?

I’m thinking slime. I think flies, quick movements combined with general sloth. I think of The Frog Princess, literally and metaphorically ‘slimy’, imposing himself on a young woman knowing full well she doesn’t want him anywhere near her.

The Quack Frog

Toads As Mark Of Healthy Boyhood

Especially in nineteenth and twentieth century children’s books, boys and frogs are linked. The painting by Dirk Sargeant below is an excellent visual depiction of what I’m talking about:

The boy takes a natural and mischievous delight in these disgusting creatures, usually while a disapproving girl or woman looks on. In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White wrote a brother (Avery) who is the stereotypically perfect representation of rural boyhood — part of that requires a fascination with frogs.

Though the famous nursery rhyme below doesn’t mention frogs and toads exactly, they fit into the same category as snails:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
  Snips and snails
  And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
  Sugar and spice
  And everything nice [or “all things nice”]
That’s what little girls are made of

Toads are basically gross-out material, related to Bakhtin’s ideas about bodily discomfort.

The Posh Dandy Toad

I believe the underlying idea in this archetype is that the ugly middle-aged man tries to improve himself by dressing in a way his gentlemanly salary allows. The juxtaposition is the joke, and another take on ‘making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ or ‘lipstick on a pig’. The best-known example of this kind of toad is probably Toad from The Wind In The Willows, published 1908. The illustration below is also from around that time.

Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Jeremy Fisher was published in 1893, and it may have been Potter who ushered in the age of the well-dressed toad in children’s stories. Her publishers weren’t confident a slimy amphibian could be empathetic, so Potter was required to compensate for Jeremy’s ugliness by painting unusually beautiful backgrounds. It was Potter’s book which proved even a toady type thing can be sympathetic.

FROGS AS MULTITUDES

Like cats and rats, frogs are sometimes depicted in great numbers. When frogs and toads have a bumper breeding season, they really have a bumper breeding season.

WHAT DID AESOP HAVE TO SAY ABOUT FROGS AND TOADS?

Cute Frogs

Make any slimy thing cuter by giving them clothes. Extend cuteness further by depicting them in mid-action, putting on those clothes, behaving like humans. The cutest thing you can do with a frog is to make it behave like a child human.

FROGS AS AGILE ACROBATIC CARNIVALESQUE CHARACTERS

Header illustration: Frederick Stuart Church (1842–1924) ~ Frogs and Mosquitos summer concert ~ Harpers