The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen: A Tale of Resurrection

Just as baptism and burial are seldom associated with one another, neither are a duckling and the Resurrection. The interconnectivity of life and death, however, is paramount to any understanding of Christianity—which understanding is beautifully portrayed in a well-known tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

Know you not that all we, who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in his death? For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in the newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Burial with Christ in baptism is part of the Christian experience, and provides a fitting reflection for Lent. The word “Lent” is rooted in a word for springtime. In spring men enjoy a lengthening of days, increasing light, and an unveiling, or even remaking, of the world. Lent, as a time of penance and self-examination, should be viewed as an awakening out of a wintry night into the Eastern dawn of the world and the Word. Everyone is called to be remade into the comprehension and participation of the creation and Resurrection.

But as St. Paul reminds us, participation in the passion, death, and burial of Christ must come first. This is the Faith. The way of Faith, however, is often shrouded in obscurity and ordeal. Life can be a dark pilgrimage, offering no clear path towards light and life. Hence, we walk by faith, not by sight. “But the men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark,” sings Chesterton’s Ballad, whether or not they are conscious of the action of the Resurrection in their lives. Christians are called to be optimists when pessimism is the only reasonable conclusion. Therefore are they confident and carry on even though they carry on blindly. Explanation is only necessary to the faithless. To those who live by Faith, no explanation is possible and in that do they thrive, under the happy hardship and invincible ignominy of the cross of Christ.

…there is no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him: Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not…and we have thought him as it were a leper…(Isaiah 53:2-3)

The spirit of Christian tribulation and rebirth is central to a fairy tale that few would immediately consider an Easter tale. The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen is tearful and triumphant in the agony that leads to glory. Everyone who has been a child knows this story, for it is integral to childhood and, upon reflection, integral to Christianity as well.

When a mother duck hatches a strange egg, a little creature is born into the world that is immediately despised for its ugliness. The Ugly Duckling begins its painful life unwanted and unloved simply because he is different—but it is in virtue of that difference that he ultimately finds acceptance and love. After enduring the cruelties of ostracism, freezing in the cruelties of winter lost and alone, the Duckling is unexpectedly remade in the springtime as the Swan he never knew he was. The poor Ugly Duckling suffered blindly through a world of horrors and hatred to rise again—born to a new life in a new spring. There is beauty, though, only because there had been ugliness.

As an analogy of the Christian journey, The Ugly Duckling goes beyond the general principles of suffering and resurrection. In his search for a home, the Ugly Duckling is also searching for himself. He is acutely aware of his identity as an outcast and a pariah. He is very conscious of his disfigurement, being mercilessly reminded of it by everyone he meets. For all this, however, the resolute Duckling resists forcing himself into a paradigm he does not fit into. He flees when he is driven out of the farmyard, spurned by all. He resists the flippant invitations of the wild ducks and wild geese to marry. He does not follow the advice of the haughty hen and cat to leave off thoughts of swimming and learn to lay eggs or purr. In short, the Ugly Duckling cannot and, more importantly, will not simply blend in. He consistently chooses to be true to his mysterious nature rather than live a lie—and it is never the easier choice.

This is a quality that every Catholic is called to possess since every Catholic is called to be an evangelist. Sadly, it is a quality that is difficult to find nowadays. Catholics today are inclined, if not determined, to be assimilationists—to be JFK Catholics—not allowing their Faith to have any external effect on their day-to-day lives or their interactions with the world. This is not being hated by all men for Christ’s sake. This is not the rending of the veil. This is not the earthquake of the Resurrection. Only those who endure unto the end will be saved, and rise again from the tomb—as the Ugly Duckling did.

The Ugly Duckling is a clear enactment of the dogged refusal of the Christian to surrender to the denouncements of the world. Like any martyr, the little Duckling is demeaned, reviled, tortured, mocked, and persecuted unto death. To the credit of Andersen, the story does not hold back the brutality, but presents real pain, real abandonment, and real misery. The Ugly Duckling can only represent resurrection because it represents crucifixion and the dark night of the soul. Without these, the final joy would ring hollow. There cannot be true triumph without true tribulation. In coming through adversity, the Ugly Duckling is given a reward that far exceeds his wildest dreams—to become one of those birds that are the most beautiful of all birds, and to be joyfully welcomed into their majestic company.

The Ugly Duckling suffers and is saved precisely because of who he is. If our Catholicism is the defining factor in our lives, then so too will we win salvation through suffering like the Swan, like the Saints, like Our Risen Lord.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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