I was chatting with a friend online last night, and the subject of favorite fairy tales came up. For some reason I forgot to mention “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. Somebody (I forget who) wrote a book a long time ago, saying that our favorite fairy tales reveal a lot about our basic desires and strategies for life. Girls who like “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance, seem to always own a red coat, and have a tendency to get into relationships with big bad wolves.
“The Ugly Duckling” is actually a pretty uncharacteristic story for Andersen. It has a happy ending, and he didn’t write those often. Sorry to drop a spoiler on you here, but if you only know “The Little Mermaid” from the Disney movie, the original version doesn’t end the same way at all. Not at all
An excerpt (not the conclusion of the story):
The little mermaid could not help thinking of her first rising out of the sea… and she joined in the dance, poised herself in the air as a swallow when he pursues his prey, and all present cheered her with wonder. She had never danced so elegantly before. Her tender feet felt as if cut with sharp knives, but she cared not for it; a sharper pang had pierced through her heart. She knew this was the last evening she should ever see the prince, for whom she had forsaken her kindred and her home; she had given up her beautiful voice, and suffered unheard-of pain daily for him, while he knew nothing of it. This was the last evening that she would breathe the same air with him, or gaze on the starry sky and the deep sea; an eternal night, without a thought or dream, awaited her; she had no soul and now she could never win one….
Andersen was a writer of tragedy. He wrote tragedies for children, which seems perverse to us. But Andersen was a lonely, shy man who had little experience of happy endings. He’d grown up in poverty and been rejected by every woman he ever fell in love with (he was not, despite what the activists will try to tell you, a homosexual). He was only comfortable with children; remained a child himself in many ways. But the message he had for children was not the one we like to give them—“Hold on, keep hopeful, and everything will turn out all right.” His message, forged out of his own experience in a world where lots and lots of children never grew up, was, “You may fail. You may die. But death doesn’t have to be the end, and the way you die can make your life beautiful.”
I wrote about something like this the other day, in regard to the story about the widow in the smoky house. Our ancestors lived in a harder world than ours, and they had wisdom we can’t begin to comprehend, wisdom that allowed them to endure suffering we can’t imagine and retain their sanity. Afraid to look closely at such holy things, we, the descendents, malign them and label them “morbid.”