‘Der var dejligt, ude på landet.’ There, out in the country, it was lovely. Thus begins H.C. Andersen’s story, ‘The Ugly Ducklng.’ A Danish friend of mine, Lis Pihl, often quoted it, as an example of his superlatively nuanced style. The sentence it usually translated as ‘It was lovely, out in the country.’ The ‘There’ is left out. According to Lis, starting the sentence with ‘There’ gave it in intimacy and immediacy and specificity which it lacked without that adverb.
She may have been overstating the case, but there’s something to it. I was thinking about ‘The Ugly Duckling’ today, as I walked along the shore from Visby to Snäck, on the island of Gotland. Der var verkligen dejligt! It’s so beautiful here that it is almost unbelievable. Visby, this medieval Hanseatic city, a cluster of cobblestoned streets and lanes, red roofed houses, lilacs and laburnums in bloom, roses and hollyhocks about to bloom, is as picturesque and charming as any fairytale village. Its wonderousness is not so much surpassed as complemented and paralleled by the beauty of the walk by the sea – three or for kilometres. First, I come out of the city by one of the ancient massive stone gates. Outside is a hilly natural parkland, full of meadowsweet and buttercups, lilacs and apple trees, and criss crossed by little paths leading down to the sea. There are lilacs and apple trees and meadowsweet in the grassy sward by the sea from time to time. Otherwise a regular path, the kind you get on any seafront, for bicycles and pedestrians (who usually share wide footpaths in Sweden - cyclists are considered to hav e more in common with pedestrians than with buses and cars., and it is safer for them to be on footpaths than roads.) The Baltic is calm and quiet today, although the wind ruffles its blue surface. Not tidal, and with a low salt content, it can be as calm as a lake, but it’s a big sea and it can be wild and rough. On these calm days the birdlife along the shoreline is amazing - I cannot get over it. There are seagulls, of course, sailing around in the sky, calling and sometimes shrieking. But all along the coast, in enclaves of reeds and long grass, are small families of water birds. Swans and cygnets, ducks and ducklings, geese and goslings. The swim around the calm water, they turn head over heels in it, they eat what they find on the shoreline. Every day they are there, in the same spots, apparently busy with their lives. They – like the birds of the air – look happy, seem to be enjoying the early summer sunshine, the beautiful surroundings.
It is impossible not to wonder about their lives. What are they delthinking? Are they thinking? (They must be, to some extent?) Are they happy, or busy, or worried? They don’t look bored, the family of ducklings, and yet they keep doing the same thing, swimming around and around the same little stretch of water, day after day. What happens at night? What happens on windy rainy days when I’m not walking here, keeping an eye on them?
I begin to wonder about how HC Andersen began to imagine the story of the ugly duckling. I imagine he was walking past or sitting by a duckpond, a marshy area near a manor house, as described in his story. I imagine he saw the duck sitting on her nest, or a family of duckling, and began to wonder about their inner lives and their outer lives. And perhaps he saw also a cygnet, a big grey cygnet, and began to wonder what would happen if a cygnet got mixed up with the cute little ducks?
There is probably some other explanation altogether, and quite probably it is well-known, because we know a lot about HC Andersen. But somehow that first sentence of the story, Der var dejligt, captures the peacefulness, the naturalness, the simple delightfulness of the little scene of country life I am passing every day, during my stay in Visby.