Frog Went A Courtin by John Langstaff

Frog Went a Courtin

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Frog Went A-Courtin, a Scottish folk song from the 1500s, which was turned into an iconic picture book for children written by John Langstaff in 1955. There’s a brief history of the ballad included in the picture book which explains how the words of songs change and evolve over time. This case study is interesting because there is no true main character. This story is about a group of characters.

The illustrations are by Feodor Rojankovsky, who emigrated from Ukraine to America just as WW2 was cranking up. By that stage he’d already been a soldier in Ukraine and taken prisoner in Poland. If you’re familiar with Little Golden Books you’ll have seen his work elsewhere.

Frog Went A-Courtin won the 1956 Caldecott Medal.

First, a note on frogs in children’s stories.

Just so you know, in a picture book, frogs are the speedfreaks & grizzly bears are the stoners.

– @lilymandarin

Frogs and Aesop

Unless you’ve got a really unusual animal like a naked mole rat, when animals appear in children’s stories, you pretty much need to go back to Aesop’s Fables and then you’ll see why these characters are the way they are. Frogs don’t feature heavily in Aesop’s tales, but there are a number of them. Unlike foxes, which are always cunning, or hens, which are always naive and vulnerable, frogs have no clear personality archetype. In Aesop’s fables featuring frogs all of the following can be said:

  • Frogs have no natural ruler, unlike creatures of the jungle, who are ruled by the lion.
  • Frogs are quite vulnerable because they are obliged to stay near water.
  • Frogs can do silly things that lead to their own demise, but they are not natural tricksters.
  • Frogs are capable of doing good deeds. They can also be stubborn, brave, timid and mendacious.
  • Aesop used frogs when he wanted to set a story in or near a pond or in a well.
  • Amphibian frogs exist in contrast to mice, who live on land and are about the same size.

On this last point, the Scottish folktale Frog Went A-Courtin is therefore a direct descendant of Aesop, setting mice up to contrast with frogs. Or perhaps humans naturally see frogs as the ‘inverse’ of mice, Aesop’s cultural influence aside. Humans think quite differently about animals when we don’t have a formal (or cultural) education.

Bear that in mind as we get to the ‘opponent’ part of the story.

STORY STRUCTURE OF FROG WENT A-COURTIN

Story in a nutshell: Frog courts a mouse. No one says that anymore. Frog woos a mouse? No one says that either.

Mouse must ask male relative for permission to wed frog, as she is considered chattel. That’s how women were treated in the 1500s and in many parts of the modern world.

Mouse seems happy about it anyway. Mouse recounts her wedding plans to Uncle. Uncle Rat gives consent. The wedding itself doesn’t go exactly to plan, as a variety of creatures turn up. This creates a carnivalesque and cumulative story within the wrapper story of the courting. Finally the baddie turns up — the cat.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Is Mr Frog the main character? The title suggests so. Mr Frog is a male bachelor amphibian whose life will not be complete until he has found a wife. So at first glance this looks like a romance, but in fact frog’s weakness (he needs to find a wife) only starts the story. He’s like a McGuffin character. (I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a McGuffin character, but we’ll go with it.)

In a true romance/love story, the finding of the bride/groom lasts the entire length of the story and the story stops at (or just before) the wedding. The MAIN part of Frog Went A-Courtin is the wedding itself, which makes this story a madcap farce. There is no true main character. This is an ensemble cast.

What is wrong with the ensemble? (What is their biggest weakness?)

I have to get something out of the way. I’m not sure if we’re meant to think this as we’re reading, though it’s inevitable to an adult, modern reader: This is a cross-species relationship. Also, how is a mouse related to a rat? They can’t breed with each other. Okay. Let’s ignore that for the sake of the story. We’re not supposed to consider these characters animals. They are humans in animal form, to lend the story a bit of madcap comedy. (Turning people into animals always lends a bit of madcap, though we’re so used to this now it’s no longer really funny in and of itself.) As for the frog in this particular frog story, he is heavily anthropomorphised. In other words, he’s basically a human. Man as frog simply gives a story a touch of madcap humour. This frog is the Every Man.

However! When we get to the battle scene (see below) we can no longer ignore the animal-ness of the animals, because that is integral to the plot. The cat would not be dangerous to those smaller creatures if it were not a cat.

To cut a long story short, in stories starring animals, sometimes the animals are people, sometimes the animals act as animals. Authors and illustrators use animals how they wish at any given time in order to suit the plot. That can happen. I do think it happened more in earlier eras of children’s literature. Olivia the Pig is always a little girl, for instance. She never goes rolling about in mud. Then again, Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a contemporary story, and he is both humanlike (as a highway robber) and ratlike (as his punishment, cleaning crumbs from the bakery floor).

Here’s another point about animal characters: When animals act like human and are then required to act like their animal selves, that means everything’s gone to pot. Something’s gone wrong. Someone’s being punished. When humanlike animals behave like animals suddenly, this will only happen from the Big Battle onwards, not before. This is a different take of Masks in Storytelling. All along, the animals were only sort of pretending to be genteel like humans. Then something bad happens and their untamed, wild side emerges.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER ENSEMBLE WANT?

They want to have a fun time at the wedding party.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

No one, until the cat turns up! A cat is the natural enemy because it is a much larger hunting animal.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

There is a sequence where Miss Mouse tells her Uncle Rat how she would like the party to go. This makes it funny when the wedding party does not go like that. Planning a wedding is a bit like planning a birth — it’s impossible to plan everything to the last detail because events will take their course!

BIG BATTLE

Obviously this is the part where the cat turns up. With no words, the pictures show us the cat creates havoc. The small animals scatter.

WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS LEARN?

Frog Went A-Courtin is not a complete narrative because the ending is left up to the reader. Or rather, the reader is invited to participate in the story to create a full narrative of our own. I believe the ending is left off because it would not be interesting.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Either that, or Miss Mouse got killed and eaten by the cat. Maybe that’s why the ending was left out. Jon Klassen did a similar thing in This Is Not My Hat. We surmise the little thieving scoundrel fish was eaten up by the big fish.

Let’s not dwell on this sad ending. Let’s say Mr Frog and Mrs Frog-Mouse lived happily ever after? And had beautiful frog-mice babies between them?

 

 

SOME MORE STORIES WITH FROGS IN

Because Aesop invented many uses for the frog, when you meet a frog in a modern children’s book you don’t know who you’re going to get. Frogs can be quirky and funny. They have the endearing habit of extending their tongue and catching flies.

Frog's Outing
Frog’s Outing — a Japanese picture book depicting a quirky, likeable frog character. Likeable frogs tend to have human eyeballs. Amphibian eyes are inherently off-putting to humans, as they look like the eyes of snakes.

On the other hand… frogs extend their tongues and catch flies. This is disgusting.

Frogs seem to have great fun. It’s fun to leap and jump like a frog, which is part of flight symbolism.

The Duck Tale by Virginia Bennett. Illustrated by E. Stewart. London – Ernest Nister New York – E. P. Dutton & Co. .c.1908.
“Les enfants et les bêtes” (1936) livre de lecture illustré par Armand Rapeno
The Princess Frog.1956. Artist – Nika Goltz. The frog in this fairy tale is a bit of a trickster. But then, he’s not really a frog but a prince. These stories must exist to coax daughters into marrying whoever is chosen for them, regardless of physical attraction. I suspect a lot of these men chosen for girls were much older, to boot.

SEE ALSO

The Many Versions Of Frog Went A-Courtin from Mama Lisa

Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson

Waltzing Matilda Desmond Digby

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. So far I’ve analysed picture books. Today I analyse a song using the same seven-step story structure, which happens to be Australia’s unofficial national anthem. I own Waltzing Matilda in picture book form, though it always scared me as a kid. Although the tune is upbeat, inspired indirectly by Celtic folk music, Waltzing Matilda is a tragic ghost story about theft, suicide and power.
Banjo Paterson wrote the lyrics in 1895. It’s widely believed the song was inspired by events that happened after The Great Shearer’s Strike of 1891.

The billabong which inspired the lyrics is thought to be near Winton, in Queensland. If you go to Winton today you can visit the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

WALTZING MATILDA LYRICS

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Up rode the troopers, one, two, three,
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, you scoundrel with me.

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong,
You’ll never catch me alive, said he,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.
Oh, you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WALTZING MATILDA

Waltzing Matilda is a narrative bush ballad, meaning it’s a complete story set to music. It includes all seven steps.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

A swagman. A man travelling through the Australian bush with a swag (a rolled up bed). An itinerant worker perhaps, between jobs.

What’s wrong with him?

The swagman’s weakness is that he farmhand or perhaps he is a homeless man out of work. He contrasts with the more powerful individuals, who have somehow managed to get their hands on land, using it only to benefit themselves. Most people listening to this song would identify emotionally with the swagman rather than with the aristocracy.

WHAT DOES THE SWAGMAN WANT?

He wants a rest from his travels. He sits down to make himself a cup of tea but he’s also hungry, so he kills a sheep which happens to belong to the wealthy landowner on whose property he squats. Sheep stations in Australia are absolutely massive, so you don’t necessarily know there’s someone on your land.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is the squatter. If this were an English story, he would probably be an aristocratic landowner, but squatter refers to farmers who didn’t necessarily have the papers to properly own their land. The squatter doesn’t want men killing his sheep, which may well be his only source of income even if he is wealthy by comparison. Importantly, the sheep may no more belong to the squatter than to the swagman.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The swagman’s plan is simple. He will kill a sheep and eat it. The simplicity of his plan is his downfall. He should’ve checked he wasn’t being tailed. (It’s likely he was being tailed, given the size of the area, and the low likelihood of randomly being caught.)

BIG BATTLE

Three policemen run after the swagman and apprehend him.

Rather than lose his dignity and his freedom, the swagman dives into the billabong. It’s unclear to me if he meant to suicide with this action — perhaps he hoped to get away somehow. In any case, death is the outcome.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Main characters don’t learn anything when they are dead at the end. Except occasionally they exist in the spiritual realm. There is an entire subgenre of books narrated by dead main characters, for instance. (The Lovely Bones seems to have started that trend.) Dead narrators seem to suddenly become a lot more emotionally mature, because they’re speaking from beyond the grave and have a more omniscient view of events.

But when main characters die, the reader does learn something. Young child readers learn that stealing can lead to terrible outcomes. Older readers can see that a person without capital can lose everything over very little (a meal), and we learn that some people can gang up on other people without just cause. We learn that life is unfair, basically.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this case, the swagman lives on as a ghost near the billabong. He’s achieved freedom from the law, but now he gets to rest by the same billabong forever.


Though my childhood copy of the story is illustrated by Desmond Digby in ‘old master’ style, the song has been more recently illustrated by Freya Blackwood. Freya Blackwood’s style is more oriented to a young audience. Notice the swagman now has a dog, which is not mentioned in the original bush song. However, it’s highly likely he was accompanied by a dog, helping him to bring the sheep down, then sharing the meat.

 

Waltzing Matilda Freya Blackwood

Anyone with an interest in the story which inspired the bush song can read a non-fiction account by Dennis O’Keeffe.

Waltzing Matilda non-fiction