The Ugly Duckling

They say the Bible is a text that has been translated the most, and it is followed by the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish writer from the first half of the 19th century.

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of The Emperor’s New Robes, The Little Mermaid, or The Princess and the Pea? Hans has written more than 160 stories, and perhaps the most famous one is The Ugly Duckling, so popular that each time it is told, it is presented as a national treasure, as something originating from ancient times, something that belongs to everyone, something that does not have a single author.

In Andersen’s story, the ugly duckling came out last, and from the largest egg in the next. It is too big, and ugly, hence the mother thinks it came from a turkey’s egg. In order to identify the duckling properly, the mother took all ducklings to swim, so that the duckling may drown, but it started swimming as God as made him. Thentheywenttothefarm, where an old duck noticed that the ugly duckling looked queer (as in the English version), and another duck physically attacked it. All farm birds agreed that the ugly duckling should be exiled from the feathered community. A turkey attacked it, all red and angry, his brothers and sisters wanted the cat to attack him, and the mother was sorry to have had a child like that. The ugly duckling ran away from his miserable surroundings and joined a flock of wild ducks, that concluded that the newcomer is very ugly, but that he may be forgiven if he marries a duck from the flock. But the ugly duckling was not interested in marriage, so it withdrew to the swamp in order to be alone. There, it met two geese, who liked him exactly because he was ugly. Not far from there, there was another swamp, with many unmarried geese, where the duckling could find a wife. But the hunters killed the two geese, and while the duckling was trembling with fear, the dog approached him, sniffed him and left him alone because he was ugly, which harmed the duckling’s self-confidence even more.

In all his despair, the duckling reached the house of an old lady with a hen and a cat. They were unsure if the duckling was male or female, so they treated him badly and put him to a test: they gave him three weeks to lay an egg. However, the duckling was not ready for reproduction, so he left. One night, desperately wondering around, the duckling saw a flock of beautiful birds flying out of the bushes. Strange feelings flooded him, he turned in the water and flew toward them. But the swans flew south, and the duckling could only fantasize about them, during the cruel winter he barely survived.

The Swans

However, the swans returned that spring. When the duckling saw them again, he felt strangely unhappy. He decided to approach him, but thought they would kill him because he was ugly; but better to be killed by the swans, he thought, than to be picked on by the ducks, beaten by the hens, ill-treated by the peasants. When he approached the swans, they spread their wings, and the duckling shouted: “Kill me!” and lowered his head, waiting for the final moment. But then, he saw his reflection in the water, he saw a beautiful swan. Everyone agreed that he was the most beautiful swan in the flock. The children from the coast admired him, and the older swans bowed to him. The ugly duckling didn’t know what to do, he was embarrassed and hid his head under his wing, and he was very happy but he wasn’t proud.

It was too early to be proud. Andersen, born 1805 in Odense, was one of those forced to hide their same-sex feelings throughout their lives. He grew up in poverty, ugly, with a large nose, a combination of clumsiness and femininity.

Other children often ill-treated him – once they pulled down his pants in front of the other kids to see if he was male – while the school practiced strict Scandinavian discipline.

He managed to educate himself, wrote several novels (filled with male-to-male friendships), and afterwards, became very popular with the fairytales, therefore spent time with Dickens (going on his nerves with his hypochondria and acting). He wasn’t very good around women, even though he had been sending love letters to some in his youth. (“Poor ugly creature”, says Andersen in The Ugly Duckling, “He wanted to live with the ducks, and all they needed to do was encourage him!”).

He also wrote love letters to several men, including the famous exchange with the Grand Duke Karl Alexander von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach (if they had ever had sex, and they hadn’t, it would automatically be group sex). The love of his life was Edvard Collin, to whom he had sent letters, nowadays frequent in the anthologies of homosexual love correspondence. “I long for you”, he wrote to Collin. “Yes, at this moment I long for you as if you are a young Calabrian with dark eyes and a look of flaming passion.” After Collin got married, Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid, in which the mermaid is longing for a prince who married a human, so her love was not returned. Hans’ longing was never satisfied, other than by his own hand – in his journal, he neatly drew small crosses for his successful self-pleasuring sessions.

False hierarchies

Hans Christian Andersen never joined the swans. Hediedin 1875, the same year when Tchaikovsky – maybe the most famous European homosexual of the 19th century – started writing his ballet – Swan lake. In 1893, the newspapers wrote about Andersen’s homosexuality, and in 1901, there was a long article about him in a German newspaper advocating the rights and understanding of homosexuals.

However, his official biographers insisted for a long time that he was a heterosexual who had no luck with women. Jens Andersen, a contemporary Danish biographer, confirms that Hans was gay in his book from 2005, but he considers that he died as a spinster, with diaries full of small crosses.

The Ugly Duckling, maybe the most popular children’s tale of all time, may be read in an autobiographical manner, as an expression of experiences of living in a society that believes it knows what is normal, and what is not, and who uses various – but indeed cruel – ways of punishing those considered different. This normative cruelty is justified by those false, unnatural hierarchies, and punishment begins in childhood. Some children learn to live with the ducks, some commit suicide (the suicide rate in LGBT youth is many times higher than in heterosexual youth), and some find their flock.

Of course, not all fairy tales of Andersen are stories of personal homosexual experience, but not that there aren’t any, it cannot be denied that this experience is imbued in one of the fundamental texts of civilization, in the stories that parents, throughout the world, tell their children. And one of the morals of this story is that the world and history are half-empty without the experiences of homosexual men and women. Those hens and cats that organize referendums must know that cruelty improves no one.


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