Fairytale Retellings & Prompts: The Ugly Duckling

This month we’re doing a series called the A-Z blogging challenge where we dive into Fairytale Retellings and provide prompts for writers. Writers are the people making the books, television shows, and movies of tomorrow. For more information on the challenge check out my earlier post here.

The Ugly Duckling” (in Danish: Den grimme ælling) is a literary fairytale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875). You’ll recognize him because he wrote The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen.

The story tells of a little bird born in a barnyard who suffers abuse from the others around him until, much to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a beautiful swan, the most beautiful bird of all.

“The Ugly Duckling” was first published 11 November 1843. The tale has been adapted to various media including opera, musical, and animated film. Though considered a fairytale it’s not derivative from any older tales.

The Details

When the story begins, a mother duck’s eggs hatch. One of the little birds is perceived by the other birds and animals on the farm as an ugly little creature and suffers much verbal and physical abuse from them. He wanders sadly from the barnyard and lives with wild ducks and geese until hunters slaughter the flocks. He finds a home with an old woman, but her cat and hen tease and taunt him mercilessly and once again he sets off alone.

The duckling sees a flock of migrating wild swans. He is delighted and excited, but he cannot join them, for he is too young and cannot fly. Winter arrives. A farmer finds and carries the freezing little duckling home, but the foundling is frightened by the farmer’s noisy children and flees the house. He spends a miserable winter alone in the outdoors, mostly hiding in a cave on the lake that partly freezes over. When spring arrives, a flock of swans descends on the lake.

The ugly duckling, now having fully grown and matured, is unable to endure a life of solitude and hardship any more and decides to throw himself at the flock of swans deciding that it is better to be killed by such beautiful birds than to live a life of ugliness and misery. He is shocked when the swans welcome and accept him, only to realize by looking at his reflection in the water that he had been, not a duckling, but a swan all this time. The flock takes to the air, and the now beautiful swan spreads his gorgeous large wings and takes flight with the rest of his new family.


In reviewing Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life by biographer Jens Andersen, British journalist Anne Chisholm writes “Andersen himself was a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet, and when he grew up with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for the theater he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children.”

Speculation suggests that Andersen was the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik (later King Christian VIII of Denmark), and found this out some time before he wrote the book, and then that being a swan in the story was a metaphor not just for inner beauty and talent but also for secret royal lineage.

Bruno Bettelheim observes in The Uses of Enchantment that the Ugly Duckling is not confronted with the tasks, tests, or trials of the typical fairy tale hero. “No need to accomplish anything is expressed in “The Ugly Duckling”. Things are simply fated and unfold accordingly, whether or not the hero takes some action.”

In conjunction with Bettelheim’s assessment, Maria Tatar notes in ’’The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen’’ that Andersen suggests that the Ugly Duckling’s superiority resides in the fact that he is of a breed different from the barnyard rabble, and that dignity and worth, moral and aesthetic superiority are determined by nature rather than accomplishment.

This is not a story that fits into either science fiction or fantasy. However, many transformational novels and films are, so I’m including it here with a few ideas to get you ready for your prompt.

How would you re-write the ugly duckling to make it more contemporary? What “ugly-duckling” retellings have you already seen?

For more blogs participating in A to Z 2020 click the link here.


T.S. Valmond is the science fiction and young adult fantasy author of The Bolaji Kingdoms Series and The Verity Chronicles. As an award-winning poet, world traveler, and sign language interpreter she uses her experiences to fuel her stories. She’s a regular contributor to the website and founder of the Riders & Flyers group.


  1. Off the top of my head, I wonder if “The Princess Diaries” could be considered an ugly duckling story, except (if I remember right) Mia doesn’t view herself as an outcast prior to finding out she is royalty. So maybe it doesn’t quite fit.

    I also think of “All About Steve” with Sandra Bullock as Mary, a quirky character who accepts who she is and recognizes her flock — a group of eccentric people — by the end of the film.

    1. Yes, The Princess Diaries is a classic ugly duckling story. Good catch! Also has one of the best intro songs to a movie I’ve ever heard “Supergirl” by Krystal Harris. AMAZING!

  2. This is one of those tales were you can tell they don’t come from folklore. It has a good ending, but when you start getting into the message, it gets kind of wobbly…

    The Multicolored Diary

    1. Oh, you think so? I feel like the message is clear, but it’s not dark enough to be typical European folklore.

  3. There are a million ugly duckling stories, usually aimed at kids to try to give the message that what makes you different makes you special. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” springs to mind. But I really dislike it when it’s more about status and getting accepted into the right group or being praised by the boss than about people actually learning to value our differences. I do like the scene in “Roxanne” where he smells the fire with his big nose — classic ugly duckling.
    Black and White (Words and Pictures)

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