Variations On Once Upon A Time

Eloise Wilkin time

When creating a fairytale world, certain language marks the tale as timeless.

Why timeless? Stories which begin in a fairytale fashion share the quality of essential truth. Earlier audiences assumed this essential truth to be the essence of God’s own voice:

In the beginning was the Word.

John 1:1

Fairytales begin with a similar, familar phrase. This phrase sets the tone and tells the reader: “This is an old and distant story tied to modern times only thinly.” These beginnings all serve the function of effacing a particular voice. For more on that see Psycho Narration, especially the bit about dissonant and consonant narrators. (A Once Upon A Time story has a ‘dissonant’ narrator, with no personality of its own.)

A Once Upon A Time beginning also tells the reader that “This could be anywhere. Its heroes could be anyone. This hero could be you.” For the same reason, fairytale characters are archetypes.


Some languages e.g. Japanese say ‘A long time ago…’ (Mukashi, mukashi…)

There once was a king/queen/princess…

It was once…

German: Es war einmal… (Once upon a time)

Armenian: There was and there was not…

Korean: Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…

Czech: Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…

Lithuiana/Persian/Thai etc: Once upon a time, a long long time ago…


Some stories simply start with the word ‘Once’. This is enough to invoke the ‘Once upon a time’ tone.

Other stories utilise “Once Upon A [X]”

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Header illustration by Eloise Wilkin

The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen

The Princess and the Pea was first published in 1835, one of a handful of satirical, colloquial fairy tales in an unbound collection by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. The colloquial language didn’t go down well with critics at the time, who also didn’t appreciate that Andersen’s silly little “wonder tales” failed to convey a moral suitable for children.

It took another 11 years for English speakers to read this story in translation, but it wasn’t the same story at all. Translator Charles Boner didn’t pick up on Andersen’s satire. Or perhaps he did pick up on it, but didn’t find it funny. In any case, Boner (great name, huh?) did not simply translate Andersen’s tale, he changed the ending and left English readers with something quite different.

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The Fairytale Importance of the Literary Salon and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy

“Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann

First, what is a salon?


The common feature of a salon: It is set up for social interaction.

Madeleine Lemaire - Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre 1891
Madeleine Lemaire – Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre, 1891.

As shown in the header illustration, “Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann, a salon is also a feature of a grand hotel.


(A courtier is often in attendance at the court of a monarch or other royal personage. They’re not all noble, because courtiers include the clergy, soldiers, secretaries and so on.)

Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)
Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)


Innovation is driven by the recombination of ideas. So the larger a population you have and the more interconnected it is, the more ideas can flow among diverse minds and create baby ideas. … Jeffrey West … in his book Scale tries to make this case that just getting a bunch of people together in the same place, talking to each other is a huge accelerant to new ideas

Sean Carroll and Joe Henrich in conversation

The literary salon originated in seventeen-century France and was the birthplace of conte de fées: fairy tales, in which the ‘fairies’ are magical creatures.

Charles Perrault, along with other men, is remembered today as a significant figure in establishing this genre of story but, as often happens in historical accounts of important figures, it was actually women who mostly hung out in these French salons, interacting, swapping stories and talking about literature. The fairy stories functioned as commentary on power structures and wealth.

In the 1630s, the Marquise de Ramboillet owned a salon in Paris called Chamber bleue. Highly educated women from aristocratic families gathered there. They were called the précieuses. In contemporary English, this loanword now refers to a pretentious woman who puts on airs, which should tell us a lot about how we feel, as a culture, about women who are genuinely smart: Fakers.

Later that century, one of the woman authors of these new fairy tales started to make a splash. Her name was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. In 1690 she released “The Island of Happiness”. (It was novel-length.) Seven years later she released four volumes of conte de fées, Tales of the Fairies (1697), establishing her for centuries as a significant figure in European fairytale history. It was actually D’Aulnoy who coined the term conte de fée.

D’Aulnoy had reason to be interested in fairytales as a vehicle to express emotions around gender injustice. She had been married off at 15 to an abusive man three decades older. Like all women of her time, she could not inherit, and could not work to earn money.

Seventeenth century France is known for its ‘gender wars’. During this century a number of all-male academies were being founded. Women quite rightly felt marginalised and saw the need for a revolution.

Today, fairytales which all end with the heroine marrying the man she loves seem retrograde, but marrying for love was itself a radical idea in the context of a culture which married its girls off and gave them no autonomy whatsoever to marry who they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns begaun in 1687. The ‘ancients’ were all about Greco-Roman literary archetypes. In oppsition, the ‘moderns’ praised archetypes from French folklore and from medieval, courtly tradition. In case you’re wondering, Charles Perrault was on the side of the Moderns. His fairy tale “Griselda” (1691) was written to exemplify his modern views. Perrault was publishing fairy tales at the same time as Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy.

Excluded from The Establishment, aristocratic french women decided to start their own private space for recitations, performance and general storytelling. Fairy tales are perfect for this kind of storytelling because they sit between the oral tradition, can easily incorporate aspects of pop culture and also classical literary traditions of the so-called elite. A fairytale can be anything the storyteller wants it to be, because the backbone of plot is so robust. The form is also very welcoming; you don’t even have to know how to read and write to have a solid appreciation of fairytale.

I don’t want to make these aristocratic women seem too liberal. I mean, they were still wealthy white women practising wealthy white feminism in their private salons. The stories they used as base were from ‘the common folk’, but they weren’t interested in inviting the actual common folk to these salons. They didn’t want to be associated with the nursemaids and peasant women of the world. Charles Perrault was happy to write about such women because he didn’t need to worry about being taken for one. In contrast, the female salonnieres preferred reciting fairytales starring sibyls and fairies. These ladies were fans of Giambattista Basile (1566 – 1632) and Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Basile was an Italian fairytale collector remembered today for the earliest known European versions of Rapunzel and Cinderella. Straparola (1485?-1558) was also Italian. He published a collection of stories in two volumes called The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights. This collection includes some of the first known printed versions of fairy tales in Europe, as they are known today. We don’t know much about him, partly because Strapola is unlikely to have been his real name.

Fast forward to the time of the Grimms, who today catch a disproportionate amount of the credit for tales they collected (largely from women), and who dismissed the fairy tales of D’Aulnoy for being sentimental, feminine and domestic in nature. Before the Grimms came along, D’Aulnoy’s work was hugely popular, and distributed in translation all across Europe in The Fairies Cabinet (1785-89). Andrew Lang was happy to include a number of her stories in his Fairy Books. In contrast, renowned misogynists the Grimm Brothers actively sought to minimise the importance of D’Aulnoy in fairy story tradition, and they were successful in their mission. How many readers know of the Grimm brothers (and Charles Perrault) but not the name of Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy today?

When she is mentioned, she is often positioned as secondary to the male actors in the history of fairy tale. Note the wording of the following sentence from Britannica online:

Her best-remembered works are Contes de fées (1697; “Fairy Tales”) and Les Contes nouveaux ou les fées à la mode (1698; “New Tales, or the Fancy of the Fairies”), written in the manner of the great fairy tales of Charles Perrault but laced with her own sardonic touch. 


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Creepy Donkey Skin Fairy Tales

“Donkey Skin” is an old tale which appealed to Charlies Perrault. Perrault included his own version (called “Peau-d’ Ane, Conte”) in Old-time Stories told by Master Charles Perrault (1921), ensuring the tale’s enduring popularity, and cementing Perrault’s particular spin on it in popular imagination. There are many similar takes on this story, known collectively as Aarne-Thompson type 510B.

This category includes three main strains. One is the “Donkey Skin” strain (a.k.a. “Catskin”, “Cap o’ Rushes”). These stories all include beautiful dresses, parties, and a ‘recognition token’. (In “Cinderella” the ‘recognition token’ is the slipper — how true lovers recognise each other.) Oh yes, and incest. Creepy.

In another strain (from Italy, Sudan, India, New Guinea, and Japan) the girl wears a human skin. Creepy. She is discovered while bathing. Also creepy. Cf. Silence of the Lambs.

In the third strain, the girl hides inside an item of furniture. Less creepy.

Perrault’s is a blend of the first two strains. There are dresses but no party. The girl is discovered bathing.


In fairytales, when a female character on the cusp of adulthood wears a coat like this — shaggy, dishevelled — it is part of a larger symbol web (commonly also involving wells, towers, dragons, werewolves and flowers) in which she is about to shed blood. In this case, the blood of deflowering. While the girl wears this coat, she is under the spell of enchantment. This state can be broken by doing various things; one of them is getting married to a man.

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The Golden Age Of Brownies

Palmer Cox (1840 - 1924) for The Brownie Year Book 1895

A brownie is a fairy from English and Scottish folklore.

They live in houses (so are a type of hobgoblin — ‘hob’ referring to the cooking equipment with hot plates).

They are industrious.

Like German poltergeists, they sometimes mess up the joint. This is done out of mischief rather than malice.

However, the Yorkshire boggarts and bogles of Scotland are malicious, no different in their behaviour from poltergeists.

If you hear soimething at night, it might be a brownie cleaning your house. (I guess mischievous brownies like to mess things up because they like cleaning so much.)

They are offended by gifts left out for them, except for bread and milk/cream, which they love. Leave it by the hearth. (The hearth is considered a liminal space in a house, where fairies can get in.) The tradition of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa (a sanctified chimney demon) is clearly descended from brownie folklore.

They’re similar to the Scandinavian tomte in that they keep watch over the farmstead at night. (Though I’m not sure if brownies are thought to peer in through windows and keep watch over children.)

A brownie cleaning the house (I’m guessing at night). Artwork by Arthur Rackham. Brooms themselves are thought to have magical powers.

A puck is similar to a brownie. In old Middle English the word ‘puck’ meant ‘demon’. Fast forward to Elizabethan times (1558 – 1603) and pucks are more fairy than demon, indisguishable from hobgoblins/brownies. You may know the character of a ‘puck’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/96) by William Shakespeare. Written near the end of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s Puck is of course an Elizabethan archetype, mischievous rather than ‘demonic’.

Brownies endured in UK folklore as mischievous creatures with childlike qualities. Naturally, when the phenemonon of ‘literature for children’ emerged, brownies were perfect as characters in children’s books. The Golden Age of Brownies began in the late 1800s. A guy called Palmer Cox led the charge.

Palmer Cox (1840 – 1924) was a Canadian illustrator and author. He wrote a series of funny rhyme called The Brownies. These are thought to be some of the first comic books. The cartoons were published in several books, such as The Brownies and Their Book (1887). One of the earliest cameras purchased by consumers was called the box brownie, apparently inspired by Palmer Cox’s stories.

How big are brownies? In The Brownies and Prince Florimel, Palmer Cox said they were the size of twelve-year-olds, but in other stories he shrinks them right down. Basically, fairies can be as big or as small as a story requires. Take a fairytale such as Snow White and Rose Red: The dwarf in that story seems to increase and decrease in size as fits the scene. Brownies are no different, though I had never thought they were as big as twelve-year-olds. (I saw a large group of twelve-year-olds last week — some are the size of adults, others the size of children.)

Palmer Cox encoded another significant change to popular conception of brownies: Beforehand they had been considered solitary creatures. But Cox’s brownies hang out in large mobs, more like today’s Minions. In the wild, solitary creatures are the most formidable: You don’t want to meet a male grizzly, for instance. By giving these creatures lots of friends he gave them a party vibe, and now they were properly bowdlerised. Despite being called Brownies, these are folkloric brownies in name only. They are now basically pixies.

Another influential person in the Golden Age Of Brownies was Julia Horatia Ewing. In 1870 she wrote a short story called “The Brownies”. (She was only 23 at the time.) Although brownie stories were common in oral folklore, this is one of the first written works to feature brownies.

As far as their gendering goes, big mobs of Cox brownies are kind of like Smurfs: We are to use the masculine pronoun, while also considering them ‘gender-free’. (A linguist’s commentary on that.) Cox describes the brownies as age-less and super beautiful — virtues more traditionally associated with idealised femininity.

Their loveliness of face and form was beyond all description.  Just try to think of the prettiest girl you ever saw.  Well, even the plainest of these fairies were ever so much prettier.

The Brownies and Prince Florimel

Instead of a patriarchal Papa Smurf, Cox’s brownies are ruled by Queen Titania.


I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s stories, which were already old by the time I got to them. Influenced by Cox’s version of Brownies, Blyton’s ‘brownies’ are basically pixies. These creatures make for excellent main characters in stories because audiences love tricksters.


When creating his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis utilised pretty much every folkloric character he’d ever encountered and smooshed them together in a bizarre creation which somehow, for some reason, worked. Lewis’s brownies are more similar to the folkloric kind — hobgoblins who stay in the house and do your housework.


Settling upon a name for the younger (formally Girl) Guides has proven problematic. At first the 7-10 year olds were called ‘Rosebuds’. Lord Baden Powell listened to the girls who complained that they did not like this name. He decided to rename the younger girls Brownies after Julia Horatia Ewing’s short story. Younger Guides were called Brownies until 1996. Now, Guides of all ages are simply called Guides.

It makes sense that Baden Powell renamed 20th century guides after folkloric brownies. Like archetypal little-mothers, brownies are homebound, industrious and always cleaning up after people. It may have felt somewhat progressive to name girls after brownies, because brownies are also mischievous and enjoy a degree of self-determination. Reading the story today, I wonder if “The Brownies” was ever enjoyed by children. Like the vast majority of Victorian writers for children, Ewing wasn’t really interested in entertaining children. She was teaching them to be helpful and submissive.

An illustration of (Girl Guide) Brownies by South London illustrator Margaret Tarrant, 1888-1959. This is one of a series of works commissioned for the Girl Guide and Brownies. Brownies used to wear these blue tunics.

Although we no longer call the younger guides ‘Brownies’, the phrase ‘Brownie points’ remains in common English usage. This originally referred to the merit badges (or six points) earned by Brownies for carrying out good deeds.

Brownie Scout Handbook, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, illustrated by Ruth Wood, 1954
Brownie Scout Handbook, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, illustrated by Ruth Wood, 1954


I don’t know for sure what prompted the Guides’ shift away from the word ‘brownie’ in the mid 1990s, but I feel it is indicative of a shift in the associations we have with the word. Few kids grow up with stories about folkloric (pixie-like) brownies anymore. Do an Internet search and the brownie is more commonly associated with a chocolate-y baked good. Even J.K. Rowling, who has certainly done her bit to keep old folkloric characters alive for younger generations of readers, has ensured brownies go the way of baked goods:

The brownie is a flat, baked square or bar sliced from a type of dense chocolate cake, which is, in texture, like a cross between a cake and a cookie, and is made by the Hogwarts kitchen House-elves .

The Harry Potter Wiki

As you can see, Rowling does utilise the folklore of the brownie; she simply does not call them ‘brownies’. She calls them house-elves, and she also rounds out their characters.

Aside from the baked goods, there’s also the ‘drop a brownie in your pants’ association, as well as offensive ones. This may have contributed to the demise of the children’s book brownie, whose Golden Age has long since gone, but who remains with us, mostly under different guises. A bestselling exception is The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Toni diTerlizzi, with standout brownie creature called Thimbletack.

Palmer Cox Our Brownies ABC Adventures; 1898
Palmer Cox Our Brownies ABC Adventures; 1898

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Header: Palmer Cox (1840 – 1924) for The Brownie Year Book 1895

Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling

There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.

For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.

For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).

But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
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Old Mother Frost

Old Mother Frost” is a German fairy tale also known as “Mother Holle“, “Mother Hulda” and “Frau Holle“. Across cultures, other weather conditions are used: Lady Snowstorm, Old Mother Blizzard in Russia. The Grimm Brothers collected this story for their book Children’s and Household Tales (1812). The narrative seems to comprise jigsaw pieces from Cinderella (for the wicked stepsister and mother), The Frog Princess (for the well/spring) and religious dualistic thinking. It’s clearly a story for and by women and girls. The central image of the spindle suggests it was told among spinsters. This one also has a didactic function: Good girls do housework; bad girls slack off.

New Year postcard by Schmucker
This New Year postcard by Schmucker reminds me of imagery from Mother Holle.
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The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

From Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling by Vilhelm Pedersen

A character is different from their family/tribe and feels utterly alone. Eventually they find their ‘people’ who accept them for who they really are. Understanding they are not alone in the world after all, the main character accepts themselves. Now they can be happy.

The Ugly Duckling is at its heart a transgression story. In any transgression story the mask must come off at some point, revealing the animal’s true self. Stories in which a character wears ‘someone else’s’ identity and remains hidden are rare and run counter to audience expectation.

This basic plot of loneliness to community to acceptance is ancient, and not surprisingly so, since humans are a social species. Separated from their tribe in the wild, a human won’t survive for long. Unlike all other animals species, the human woman cannot so much as give birth on her own.

Most non-human primates give birth unassisted with relatively little difficulty.

Obstretrical Dilemma, Wikipedia

Partly for biomechanical reasons, loneliness for us means death, even more than for many other species. This age-old loneliness plot taps into the most primal of human fears. And in children’s literature in particular, stories very often begin with the empathetic main character in a state of loneliness, hence all the moving house/starting new school stories. The child character also quite often starts from a state of boredom, though some loneliness researchers include ‘boredom’ as a type of loneliness (called ‘existential loneliness’ — being without a purpose in the world).

Although The Ugly Duckling features an animal main character, this is clearly a story about humans.

In The Ugly Duckling, Hans Andersen uses animal symbolism to tell a disguised human story. It unites animal transformation and animal moral tale in a unique way; it is about an unrecognised metamorphosis that really isn’t one at all. The Duckling only appears to be a strange outcast because no one knows what he really is, even his mother, who took trouble in hatching and defending him, gives up at last, wishing he had never been born.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Blount goes on to explain what Hans Christian Andersen brought afresh to this tale which otherwise relies heavily on Aesopian fable:

The pathos of this strange and beautiful fable is quite new to the form. The Aesop elements are there: the proud turkey cock, the old duck with the red rag of honour, and the incident when the animals quarrel over an eel head which is seized by the cat; and there is a house too, where the cat is master and the hen mistress. But there is far more than barnyard comedy in the rejection of the Duckling and his efforts to do what his nature demands, always thwarted by animals who, when he wants to swim, tell him to lay eggs or purr. Thrown out, hunted, half-starved, frozen, when he eventually meets the swans, his life has become so wretched and hopeless that he is only conscious of ugliness so great that he expects death.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
H. C. Andersen's 'The Ugly Duckling' Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965 hearth
H. C. Andersen’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’ Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965


Apparently, when Hans Christian Andersen was asked whether he would write an autobiography he replied that “The Ugly Duckling” did the job.

Perhaps Hans Andersen was writing about himself. Everyone interprets the fable in [their] own way, for the story has an echo in everyone. As a fairy tale it is, like many of Andersen’s, very odd. The happy climax is so long delayed that it almost does not happen, unlike Cinderella (with the same plot) where we know the heroine is favoured and only unrecognised by an odd quirk that magic will soon put right. The long suffereings of the lonely duck are alien to the setting which (Orwell always excepted) from Chaucer to Hepzibah Hen is usually gay and superficial. The moral is the one about appearance and reality, expressed by birds so memorably and wonderfully that there is no need to call the story a Parable from Nature; these simple symbols have expressed universal truth as only a story teller of genius can do.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Andersen's 'Forty-two Stories' Illustration by Vittorio Accornero, 1952
Andersen’s ‘Forty-two Stories’ Illustration by Vittorio Accornero, 1952

One of the well-known fairy tales that ends happily is The Ugly Duckling. The poor duckling is mocked and humiliated because he is so ugly, but he finally turns into a beautiful swan. On closer examination, what does this story say? It has been usually interpreted as follows: after many hardships, patience and perseverance will be rewarded. But if we stop to think about it, the ugly duckling has turned into a swan only bcause he was hatched from a swan’s egg. If he had been a real duckling, he would have grown into a duck. What does Andersen mean by his tale? Some biographers believe that Andersen was not the son of a washerwoman and a cobbler, but the illegitimate child of a nobleman, perhaps even the king of Denmark. There is no direct evidence for this, but the indications are strong. Perhaps The Ugly Duckling is the author’s way of saying, “I have achieved fame and wealth only because I am in fact of noble birth.”

Another possibility is that Andersen himself believed that he was of noble birth, even if it was not true. In this case, Andersen was suffereing from an obsession, a psychotic condition, traces of which we see in his fairy tale. This is an example of speculative biographical approach. It would perhaps be unwise to apply it as a consistent critical method, but it does illustrate the possibility of using literary works to illuminate the author’s life. However, this approach has little to do with the study of literature. If the focus of psychoanalysis is on the author, then the literary text is used merely as any narrative the patient may tell to the analyst.

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling


“The Ugly Duckling” is an atemporal story that takes place on a river and riverbank. The group of birds is an animal community standing as allegory for human community.



“The Ugly Duckling” (“Den grimme ælling”) is a good example of judicious title change. Hans Christian Andersen originally called this story “The Young Swans” but realised the title completely gave away the surprise ending. Don’t give away your ending in the title!

For over one hundred years The Ugly Duckling has been a childhood favorite, and Jerry Pinkney’s spectacular new adaptation brings it triumphantly to new generations of readers. With keen emotion and fresh vision, the acclaimed artist captures the essence of the tale’s timeless appeal: The journey of the awkward little bird — marching bravely through hecklers, hunters, and cruel seasons — is an unforgettable survival story; this blooming into a graceful swan is a reminder of the patience often necessary to discover true happiness. Splendid watercolors set in the lush countryside bring drama to life. 

an example of modern marketing copy for “The Ugly Duckling” turned into a picture book


The problem is that the Ugly Duckling is different.

I’m not sure who decided ducklings are prettier than baby swans. To me they’re about even. The drake’s feathers rival the majestic outline of the grown swan. I wonder if people ranked the prettiness of these water birds before Hans Christian Andersen turned ‘ugly duckling’ into a meme.

This joke wouldn’t work if we didn’t own the basic assumption that swans simply look more elegant and classy than ducks.

In any case, the baby swan’s main shortcoming is that he is ugly. And because he is ugly, even his mother rejects him. If that’s not pulling at the reader’s heartstrings, I don’t know what will.


The Ugly Duckling wants to be loved. He thinks that if he weren’t ugly then he would be loved. (He is never proven wrong on this point; he is loved once he morphs into a beautiful swan.)


The mother duck is most responsible for the Ugly Duckling’s rejection. She models her distaste for him and the genetic offspring all gang up. So does every single creature who comes into contact with the Ugly Duckling, though he does meet someone who wants to help him find love despite being ugly: The geese. These guys are more like allies than opponents. The Ugly Duckling never did want to be associated with ugly birds. He knew deep down he was better than that.


The Ugly Duckling feels down and waits around to mature. That’s not such bad advice for the mid-teen years.


The Ugly Duckling thinks he’s going to be murdered by the massive, good-looking swans and offers himself up to them. They can murder him if they want; he feels so wretched and ugly and useless.


He looks into the reflection and sees that he has grown into a swan.


The Ugly Duckling is really a swan, so will leave the ducks to live happily ever after as a beautiful swan.


Everyone is happier once they are able to live as themselves, so I guess this swan doesn’t have much keeping him down anymore.

No one really disagrees with the idea that in order to be happy you must find your people and thereby find self-acceptance.

But what might Andersen have been wrong about? Which ideas feel dated when read through a modern lens?

  • The mother duck thinks her own babies are pretty because she gave birth to them. This suggests mothers love genetically related children more than adopted children. Studies don’t bear out this idea at all. Parents don’t love their children equally, but there’s no detectable difference between genetic and adopted offspring when both are raised from birth.
  • The ugly ‘duckling’ feels so ugly that ‘even a dog will not bite me’. If we take that as a stand-in for abuse in general, it is simply incorrect that a person can be too ugly to be victimised. This probably wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t used as an actual defense in court when trying to prove the innocence of rapists. This is an example of yet another thing the Ugly Duckling is wrong about. (Main characters are meant to be wrong about something otherwise there’s not much of a character arc.) However, the Ugly Duckling never learns that he is wrong on this point. It’s up to the reader to deduce that he must be wrong, because clearly he’s ugly AND he’s being abused.
  • The ugly duckling only feels legitimised once he looks into the reflection and sees a beautiful swan looking back. This is basically the make-over plot in which Beauty equals worthiness. More modern picturebook retellings of this story generally avoid the literal transformation from ugliness to beauty and instead limit the plot to ‘finds creatures who look just like him’. But what if you have some sort of facial difference and will never find your people? If we read “The Ugly Duckling” at the truly allegorical level, the baby swan was never ugly, only lacking in love. Therefore there was no literal transformation from ugly to beautiful; the bird felt beautiful after finding acceptance with creatures who accept him. The first Shrek movie works in a similar way. Shrek and Fiona are happy because they have ‘found their people’ (both of them ugly by comparison to the haughty, insecure, beautiful versions/imaginings of themselves). The message is ostensibly a positive one for kids: You’re as beautiful as you think you are. The other, unintended message: Know your level, kids. Ugly creatures belong with other ugly creatures; beautiful creatures belong with other beautiful creatures. Beauty is meaningful. Beauty is something we should all be constantly thinking about and trying to improve. In our image obsessed culture it feels hopelessly idealistic to believe that beauty doesn’t mean anything; clearly it does. But can we imagine and work towards a better world than one that runs on Beauty privilege?
  • This is basically a Chosen One story, in which bloodline is king. The Ugly Duckling is really a swan; the poor boy is really a prince. There are many ideological issues with the bloodline story, which remains popular in contemporary storytelling (see Harry Potter and all its offshoots).


This story is so well-known that ‘ugly duckling’ is now a widely understood English idiom.

The Animal Who Thought He Was A Different Animal is an enduring trope across children’s literature:

Then there’s the animal who wished he were a different animal. The Saggy Baggy Elephant is a Little Golden Book by Jackson and Tenggren, first published in 1947. In the jungle, a bird taunts a baby elephant, saying his skin is too baggy. He doesn’t seem to realise he’s been separated from his tribe. The poor elephant feels self-conscious and tries to shrink his skin so he won’t be wrinkled. The tiger, whose sleek skin fits ‘perfectly’ is no help and instead offers to eat bits of it off for him. (That part is quite gruesome by today’s picture book standards.) The saggy, baggy elephant finds happiness and self-acceptance after meeting other elephants.

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Header illustration from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” by Vilhelm Pedersen

The Elves and the Shoemaker

The Elves and the Shoemaker Little Golden Book

Read a modern re-telling of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and you might conclude it’s a tale in praise of gratitude: Gratitude is noble. If someone does you a kind turn, be nice in return.

But that was not the takeaway message for earlier audiences of this tale, told to people with a very different, supernatural worldview. Back when people sort-of-really did believe in fairies, “The Elves and the Shoemaker” tales offered a warning: Do not, whatever you do, make clothes for fairies. DO NOT DABBLE IN ELF-CRAFT. DO NOT ENCOURAGE THEM INTO YOUR HOME.

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