I love that moment in “The Ugly Duckling” when the poor, persecuted duckling, set upon on every side by ducks and hens and cats and henwives, sees a flock of swans:
The duckling had never seen anything so beautiful. They were dazzlingly white with long waving necks. They were swans, and uttering a peculiar cry they spread out their magnificent broad wings and flew away from the cold regions to warmer lands and open seas. They mounted so high, so very high, and the ugly little duckling became strangely uneasy. He circled round and round in the water like a wheel, craning his neck up into the air after them. Then he uttered a shriek so piercing and so strange that he was quite frightned by it himself. Oh, he could not forget those birds, those beautiful birds.
Was there ever a better depiction of what it’s like to be a child? The duckling, so full of self-doubt, marvels and trembles at the thing he is destined to become. We know what he doesn’t know: he will be that beautiful someday.
Beautiful someday. The duckling’s great revelation is that he is himself a thing of wonder. He admired the swans, but it never occurred to him to aspire to swanhood. When he finally comes face to face with the swans, he assumes that they will kill him for his ugliness. Bowing his neck for the fatal blow, he sees his reflection in the water. And there he sees a swan.
It’s the divine comedy. Our wildest dreams turn out not to be wild enough. Our fondest hopes turn out to be pale beside the truth. And we long and ache for that which turns out to have been true all along.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.