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A DANISH ORIGINAL


HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN

His earliest writings were based on stories he heard as a child, but he soon began constructing new and original stories, some of which reflected his humble background and ungainly looks. “The Ugly Duckling”, while universal in theme, is believed by some scholars to be an expression of his struggle with his homosexuality in an era in which same sex relations were illegal.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author who left us an incredible legacy in the form of stories that transcend age and nationality such as “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Snow Queen”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, “Thumbelina”, and “The Little Match Girl”.

In it’s proverbial form, “The Ugly Duckling” is an account of an unprepossessing, unsatisfactory member of one species evolving into a beautiful, admired member of another and encourages us to expect for ourselves an eventual transformation of situation and self for the better, whatever the restrictions of our early circumstances and the current low opinion of others.

Obviously this story is of irresistible appeal to insufficiently appreciated children, but also to those whose familial praise and appreciation seems in direct opposition to those of his peers. As an only child, I had been led to believe that I somehow possessed superior qualities in whatever field I entered. It was a pity that no one else shared their opinion!

Many children imagine themselves in the role of Prince or Princess, having somehow been switched at birth into a royal or more privileged family. I expressed a common desire to be found better than I was, and occasionally embarrassed my self by jumping into the fray only to be discovered lacking in whatever talent to which I had laid claim.

On one such occasion in a fourth grade talent show, I confidently sat at the piano and pounded out a “Russian” piece which I made up as I went along. The scalding looks and silence which greeted me fortunately kept me away from any further public piano recitals.

“The Ugly Ducking” assures us of the hope of acceptance during our unhappy times, while confounding all those authority figures who have given up on us or who have failed to see the possibility of excellence.

ugly duckling

The inclination to bully those different from ourselves is universal, beginning in childhood. It involves the first taste of class consciousness, as well as the ability to exercise power over another. As a child, I attended a different school each year, in a different state. I was therefore somewhat different, and fair game for those inclined to bully. Bullying can take the form of rejection, sarcasm, a promise of some future aggressive action, or casual derogatory remarks, any of which can leave lifelong scars on a sensitive child.

The object of hostility, or at least aversion, can be either one who is richer, poorer, beautiful or homely, smart or dumb, fat or skinny. In other words, someone different from one’s self.

The current rash of NFL abuse cases springs from people trained to hit first and then ask questions. The difference in size and strength, the exorbitant amount of money paid these people, plus the weekend adulation given them, somehow makes them immune to ordinary behavior. We can only hope that public opinion and a steady reduction in their paychecks will eventually make them rejoin the human race.

It is interesting that “The Ugly Duckling” was Andersen’s most constant favorite and one for which he exclaimed to a friend in 1843 “It’s selling like hotcakes”! The similarities between Andersen’s life and the ugly duckling are irresistible. Andersen was gangly, poor, and uneducated–yet he became a literary star despite the under-appreciation he suffered. In a similar fashion, the hatchling is mistaken for a common duck and mistreated before discovering that he is a beautiful swan. He often remarked that “The Ugly Duckling” was the hardest story to compose, as it was the most autobiographical.

This classic example of an animal tale also spawned one of Andersen’s most famous quotes: ‘Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg’. In Andersen’s day, the definition of artistic genius was shifting and was less bound to class than it had been before. He was part of this exciting new breed, and the tale’s inspiring and hopeful message continues to make it one of Andersen’s most beloved stories to this day.

All of us know moments of oppressive solitude of the soul. What we want most at such times is the assurance that we are not unique in our emotions, that others have the same yearnings, have suffered similarly. “The Ugly Duckling is an instrument of profound comfort.

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5 comments on “A DANISH ORIGINAL

  1. Very well put. In fact a great insight in people, especailly children, who of course become ‘people ‘later on.
    If only our exterior wasn’t so important.

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  2. How right you are Gerard. The “right” clothes, hairdo, etc. cause endless sleepless nights, at least with teenage girls. Overdressed, underdressed it doesn’t matter. Of course the rejected one has to take some responsibility. It doesn’t bode well being the smartest kid in the class or the dumbest either. It works better to be a smartass!

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  3. I wonder if anyone has done a study of which Andersen tales people remember from childhood? The two that affected me most profoundly, or at least stuck with me, were “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Little Match Girl.” Of course I knew of “The Ugly Duckling,” but I don’t remember reading it, or having it read to me, even though I was utterly convinced by 5th grade that I was the ugliest duckling in the world.

    Eventually I got over it, but it took a good while. It didn’t have a thing to do with a new hair style or losing weight or trying a new lipstick color — it was all about gaining confidence about my ability to set goals and achieve them, in the real world. 🙂

    I just was thinking about Andersen’s little set-to with Dickens today. You may remember the story. Dickens invited Andersen to be a house guest for a couple of weeks, but Andersen stayed five, and showed no inclination to leave. Eventually, Dickens put his bags on the front step and sent him on his way. Sad, really, because at that point their friendship was over.

    Funny thing, about the autobiographical. I have a few posts sitting around percolating, but not being written. They all have to do with family, childhood, etc. I don’t have any ambivalence about telling the stories — no terrible secrets, etc — but there is something more difficult about crafting experience so that the writing becomes personal, rather than confessional.

    Such an enjoyable post, this one!

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    • I don’t write well enough to steer my words in the right direction. The big word “I” can be anathema. Probably should have stuck to the Arts!

      Yes, I did know about the Dickens/Andersen relationship. Andersen, like so many ugly ducklings, was undoubtedly so delighted to have someone pay him attention, that he figured he may as well become part of the family. Poor man.

      My mother and grandmother didn’t do me any favors in the respect of a low profile. My hair went somewhere between Shirley Temple curls and European braids around the head when everybody else just had “hair”, so it did sort of set me apart!

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  4. He does seem a tortured soul doesn’t he? The pictures show him to be such a homely fellow, and gangly. There is a large bronze bust of him in a small park in Solvang, CA, on which the artist took a great deal of artistic license! My husband is Danish and handsome, at least to me! The sculpture’s profile looks very like Dr. Advice!

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