My current Work in Progress is a fairytale retelling of The Ugly Duckling. As part of my editing checks, I’ll be going back through my story to make sure all of the important parts of the original story make an appearance in some fashion to maintain the connection.
Our society has grown used to The Ugly Duckling as a metaphor for an awkward female teen blossoming into a beautiful woman but, in my opinion, the original is far more about fitting in, finding your tribe, somewhere to belong. The Ugly Duckling’s appearance is simply what marks him out as different – it is a visible sign to everyone else that he is different, somehow wrong. And, that brings me to another point… HIM. Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling was male, not the female we all think of when we talk of ugly ducklings.
Essentially, the story is about the displaced signet (the confusion of the swan egg in the duck nest isn’t explained) finding himself a new family in the form of the duck and her ducklings. My hero makes himself a new family, in the form of a street gang, but—like The Ugly Duckling—all is not as it seems. Just as the duckling is driven out of his surrogate family, so is my hero when his differences start to come to light, and they both run away to the wider world.
All through the story, The Ugly Duckling is reminded he is ugly, as is my hero, although his reminders come from the one person he wishes didn’t find him ugly.
There are, of course, differences – my hero isn’t struck by tongs in a kitchen, or pecked by hens, unless you count the heroine’s mother, and he isn’t hunted by dogs, but I believe I have managed to stay true to the message of the story.
In case you’ve never read it, here is the start of The Ugly Duckling (to continue reading the translation of the original story, complete with illustrations, please click here.)
IT was lovely summer weather in the country, and the golden corn, the green oats, and the haystacks piled up in the meadows looked beautiful. The stork walking about on his long red legs chattered in the Egyptian language, which he had learnt from his mother. The corn-fields and meadows were surrounded by large forests, in the midst of which were deep pools. It was, indeed, delightful to walk about in the country. In a sunny spot stood a pleasant old farm-house close by a deep river, and from the house down to the water side grew great burdock leaves, so high, that under the tallest of them a little child could stand upright. The spot was as wild as the centre of a thick wood. In this snug retreat sat a duck on her nest, watching for her young brood to hatch; she was beginning to get tired of her task, for the little ones were a long time coming out of their shells, and she seldom had any visitors. The other ducks liked much better to swim about in the river than to climb the slippery banks, and sit under a burdock leaf, to have a gossip with her. At length one shell cracked, and then another, and from each egg came a living creature that lifted its head and cried, “Peep, peep.” “Quack, quack,” said the mother, and then they all quacked as well as they could, and looked about them on every side at the large green leaves. Their mother allowed them to look as much as they liked, because green is good for the eyes. “How large the world is,” said the young ducks, when they found how much more room they now had than while they were inside the egg-shell. “Do you imagine this is the whole world?” asked the mother; “Wait till you have seen the garden; it stretches far beyond that to the parson’s field, but I have never ventured to such a distance. Are you all out?” she continued, rising; “No, I declare, the largest egg lies there still. I wonder how long this is to last, I am quite tired of it;” and she seated herself again on the nest.
“Well, how are you getting on?” asked an old duck, who paid her a visit.
“One egg is not hatched yet,” said the duck, “it will not break. But just look at all the others, are they not the prettiest little ducklings you ever saw? They are the image of their father, who is so unkind, he never comes to see.”
“Let me see the egg that will not break,” said the duck; “I have no doubt it is a turkey’s egg. I was persuaded to hatch some once, and after all my care and trouble with the young ones, they were afraid of the water. I quacked and clucked, but all to no purpose. I could not get them to venture in. Let me look at the egg. Yes, that is a turkey’s egg; take my advice, leave it where it is and teach the other children to swim.”
“I think I will sit on it a little while longer,” said the duck; “as I have sat so long already, a few days will be nothing.”
“Please yourself,” said the old duck, and she went away.
At last the large egg broke, and a young one crept forth crying, “Peep, peep.” It was very large and ugly. The duck stared at it and exclaimed, “It is very large and not at all like the others. I wonder if it really is a turkey. We shall soon find it out, however when we go to the water. It must go in, if I have to push it myself.”