Thursday’s Tale: U is for Ugly

U

Actually, U is for Ugly Duckling, a story by Hans Christian Andersen, 1844.

Illustration from The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. John Hassall, illustrator.
Illustration from The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. John Hassall, illustrator.

“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 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. 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.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.

7 Comments

  1. I am a huge fan of storytelling, folklore and mythology. I loved visiting your blog for the first time today from the A to Z blogger’s challenge. If you do this type of storytelling and analysis every Thursday, I am sure to stop back. The story of the ugly duckling has many lessons to teach all of us about identity and self-image. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. mary grace ketner

    Oh, Carol! I love that you’ve drawn from the details of Andersen’s original story, for the attacks and fears which UD endured are what make the discovery that he was never a duck to begin with so joyful–and the misassignment of roles/species so tragic. It is a deep interior story for children born into a world of others’ expectations, trying to accommodate but dealing with the despair of presumed failure until they discover their own power and beauty. Every child experiences this to some degree, and for children whose true selves are quite different from their community’s hopes for them (even a loving community, as the mother illustrates) the experience can be quite tragic. Lesser writers, writers less immersed in the outsider experience, make a simplistic mockery of this theme, but Andersen tells from his heart.

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