Andersen, Hans Christian. The Ugly Duckling. John Hassall, illustrator. London: Blackie & Son, n.d.

“The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen

“The Ugly Duckling” story is one most of us know. A mother duck is sitting on her nest and all but one egg hatches. The ducklings are adorable, but the mother continues to sit on the last, largest egg, despite being told by another duck to leave it. Of course, the last egg hatches, and the young one is very large and doesn’t look like the others, but he can swim and the mother declares “he is not so very ugly after all if you look at him properly.”

But his mother can’t protect him from all the abuse he endures from the other farmyard animals and even the girl who feeds the poultry, so he runs away.

One day he sees some beautiful white birds flying over head, but he does not interact with them. He is terrified by a hunter and his dog. He spends some time with a couple of families in their cottages, but each time must eventually leave. He is all alone for the horrible, harsh winter.

Then spring comes and he sees the beautiful white birds again. He flies to them, expecting them to kill him because he is so ugly, but they welcome him into their group. And he sees his reflection in the pond and realizes that he truly does belong with them. Even one of the visitors to the garden where he has ended up states that he is the most beautiful of them all.

To be born in a duck’s nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan’s egg. He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the new-comer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.

I never realized how much torture the poor “ugly duckling” went through, both at the hands of other animals, people, even the elements, but in the end he is truly, purely filled with joy. I guess a lot of the story is symbolic of events in Andersen’s own life, and it is his story. It’s not a fairy tale that’s found in various versions in different cultures. It’s an Andersen original.

I read a re-telling of this story recently, “Becoming Charise” by Kathe Koja in A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales. Charise is the “ugly duckling,” a smart, artistically talented girl who just doesn’t fit in with the kids at her school.

Too wild for the smart kids, too smart for the wild kids, as if school were one kind of puzzle, and she was a piece from another box. (pg. 126)

Charise dreams of attending Bayley Acadamy, a private school in town that she thinks she would love. And she gets the chance, but her Aunt Tamara, who does truly love her, realizes it’s impossible. Thankfully, a caring teacher helps Charise that she can become who she is no matter where she goes to school. She can do her best, even if she doesn’t quite fit.

“So he never was a duckling in the first place,” Mr. Mahfouz said. His voice was calm now, and very precise, the way it was when he was explaining something, something he expected them to get. Her to get. “He was going to become a swan. No matter where he went, no matter what he did – it was in his genes. Charise, you understand what I’m saying?” (pg. 133)

I think that there’s something universal about “The Ugly Duckling.” Most of us have felt ugly at some times in our lives or like we didn’t fit in with those around us, like the world’s against us for something we don’t even have control over. I like how Charise’s teacher phrases it. “He was going to become a swan.” He never was an ugly duckling, no matter what anyone else thought. It’s a good reminder not to let our circumstances dictate how we live, to believe in ourselves even when others don’t. It may be tough, but we can make it through, become the swan we are destined to be.

Tif, from Tif Talks Books, is the hostess of this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there later today to see her take on the Ugly Duckling and to share your own thoughts. Next week, we’ll be looking at “The Goose with the Golden Eggs” by Aesop.