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The Ugly Duckling's Happily Ever After

Hans Christian Andersen's Wish For Lasting Fame Came True

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page C01

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there lived the poor son of a cobbler and an alcoholic laundress. He was a lonely and ungainly lad -- rather an ugly duckling. He read books and played with puppets. All through his barren days and feverish nights, he nurtured a powerful yearning for one thing.

He wanted to be famous. The toast not just of the town but also of the kingdom, and of all the kingdoms of the Earth, and of all the generations to come through all the ages in all the kingdoms.

The people of the town regarded the boy with his ragged clothes and his carrot nose -- and they snickered at his dream.

Yet today, the 200th anniversary of his birth, his kingdom -- Denmark -- is going absolutely bonkers in tribute -- in a wholesome, restrained, perfectly planned Danish sort of way. The rest of the world, including Washington, is celebrating, too.

For where would we be without Hans Christian Andersen?

Think of all the thoughts we would not have thunk.

From his pen flowed "The Ugly Duckling," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Princess and the Pea," "Thumbelina," "The Little Mermaid," "The Red Shoes," "The Nightingale," "The Snow Queen," "The Wild Swans," "The Little Match Girl," "The Swineherd," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep," "The Flying Trunk" -- and about 150 more fairy tales.

These are plots and wisdom that feel like they have existed forever. They are hardwired into our brains. It is almost impossible to experience certain situations without running them through a subliminal Hans Christian Andersen filter and coming up with a succinct, acerbic take.

Your co-worker who is forever dissatisfied with the adjustments on her ergonomically impeccable chair? Yes, she's the Princess and the Pea.

The president from not-your-political-party is touting his new plan for the budget/war/economy/environment? More emperor's new clothes, you snort.

And there you are, sweating at the gym: Don't give up! You'll be a swan one day.

These are handy concepts.

Karl Rove in 2003 said the essence of a political campaign can be found in "The Emperor's New Clothes," according to CNN.com. No matter what gaudy fabric the spinmeisters weave, Rove said, "people are going to see the candidate as he or she is at the end of the parade."

Angry Irish rocker Sinead O'Connor spat at her critics in a 1990 song: "They've got a solid case of / The emperor's new clothes."

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