A ficionados of David Oscarson know his love of stories: the world’s tales, his own
intimate memories, and a dedication to deeper meaning are all evident in his oeuvre.
His most recent work, the David Oscarson Ugly Duckling limited edition collection, is
the most literal example in Oscarson’s work of his dedication to narrative.
Written in 1843, “The Ugly Duckling” is a tale of alienation and acceptance, written by
Hans Christian Andersen, who described the piece as autobiographical. Like Oscarson’s own
creation of fountain pens, Andersen approached his fairy tales in a unique way. For one, many
of them were invented by him, not replicated from existing stories, and they often challenged
the status quo. Indeed, some scholars attribute “revolutionary” motives to his writing. Certainly,
Andersen’s work critiqued the upper class and aristocracy, and he did so even as he became
a part of that privileged world. Andersen, however, never thought that he truly belonged
anywhere, feeling trapped between his impoverished beginnings and his later illustrious career.
In the annals of fairy tales, Andersen’s voice, style, and stories are atypical, not only
for their somewhat subversive messages but also in their very composition. His tales were
intended not only for children; at that point in time, few children had access to books of
any variety, and even fewer were literate. Andersen understood that adults were the true
audience: even if his books were purchased for children, most would ingest the stories via
their parents’ reading of it. The surface of an Andersen tale is surely appealing to children,
but much of the content would have escaped them entirely. In this way, Andersen wrote
each work with two distinct audiences in mind.
Another unique aspect to his fairy tales is that they weren’t,
in the strictest sense of the term, fairy tales—certainly not in
the way we imagine them to be. That is, there is often no happy
ending, and magic is not required for the narrative’s resolution.
What made his narratives different—and thus remarkable—
was his new approach. He employed noises and sounds, both of
which were appealing to children, and the language and style
used by Andersen was meant to mirror that of children.
The original Danish is difficult to capture via translation, and
it is for this reason that many of Andersen’s books with which we
are familiar aren’t as appreciated for their musicality or literary
depth as they should be. But Andersen was no mere teller of children’s
tales, for much of the content was either invented by him
or adapted from existing folk stories from around the world.
In contrast to fairy tales, folk stories were often bawdy and
very much adult material. Andersen’s extensive travels around the
globe certainly increased his fame, but much of his talent and the
brilliance of his material was lost in translation or reimagined and
made sterile. The work in its native Danish sparkles.
As a child, David Oscarson fell in love with Andersen’s tales
in their original form. Most fountain pen enthusiasts know
Oscarson as a confident man, one with cool good looks and a
certain serenity, but it was not always so. Like most of us,
there was a time in his life when he felt exactly the opposite.
Living in Stockholm, Sweden, as a child, he attended the International School (then called the Anglo-
American School of Stockholm), and his fellow students came from all over the world. In this thick stew of different languages and cultures, little David felt like an outsider. Many of his peers were the children of foreign embassy workers or businessmen. Adolescence is a time of awkwardness in general, and most of the schoolchildren spoke as their first language something other than English or Swedish. One time, little David heard several children in class whispering about him in Japanese. While he did not understand much of what was said, he did catch the word “fatso.” Pictures from that time belie this claim: little David was an adorable child and perfectly average in weight. Along with issues at school, he had a new baby sister to contend with, which took some attention away from him—and children are, of course, very sensitive to these kinds of changes. “I remember well walking along the streets of Stockholm after school, passing by the Royal Castle and Gamla Stan (Old Town) along the Baltic Harbor, trying to figure out who I was and what was to become of me,” Oscarson recalls.
It is that same universal desire for belonging, coupled with the profound sense of isolation and loneliness, that creates the tension evident in “The Ugly Duckling.”
Oscarson continues, “I love this story, and I know that I am not alone. It resonates with all of us who
have at some point—but especially in childhood—felt alone, misunderstood, unloved, unimportant, undesirable, too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too ugly or unwanted in any number of ways. It speaks to the inner greatness within all of us. It speaks to the Divine in every soul.”
When Andersen wrote “The Ugly Duckling” in 1843, those in the literary scene knew that the work was, to some extent, a reflection of his own life. Everyone understood that the challenges that the Ugly Duckling faced were symbolic for Andersen’s own tribulations. Many of his traumatic experiences were explored metaphorically in his fairy tales. (Ironically, his actual autobiography is riddled with falsehoods.)
Born in 1805, Andersen was raised in poverty, lost his father while young, and was forced to take a job in a factory to support his mother. Ultimately, benefactors helped him to further his education. At the same time, like Eliza Dolittle, he learned the manners and customs of more sophisticated (that is, wealthier) circles. Andersen was an eccentric man who wasn’t especially fond of children. Suffering a plethora of phobias, he was terrified of dogs and feared pork. At all times he carried with him a rope in case of fire, wanting assurance that if he needed to get out of a building fast, he could. Being buried alive was a particular obsession for Andersen, and each night upon retiring he propped up a note that
read: “I only appear to be dead.” He had difficulties with intimate relationships and is believed to have been celibate his whole life. The extensive traveling undertaken by Andersen contributed to and inspired his work. When his book Fairy Tales for Children was published, the stories were given mixed appraisals. Friends and associates were mostly disappointed, and one reviewer even urged him not to waste his time on such nonsense. It wouldn’t be long, however, before his literary colleagues were openly noting his influence on them. After 1839, it was his so-called fairy tales that gained him wide acclaim before he passed away in 1875. The David Oscarson Ugly Duckling collection displays entirely new innovations, just as Andersen employed in his own work and who, like Oscarson, always challenged both himself and the audience. Primarily, the novel way in which the pen’s guilloche
engraving beneath the enamel tapers down and fades marks a visual transition between the beautiful lake and the mud of the duck yard. Ducklings and their footprints, engraved in low relief, are located under the duck yard section of the pen. In contrast, a signet (baby swan), who is also in the duck yard, is inscribed, but in mid relief, underscoring the true identity of the Ugly Duckling and reinforcing the self he has understood himself to be by the end of the story: a now-magnificent swan.
Both etchings are beneath the enamel, but the swan’s illustration has far more clarity than that of the ducklings. This is an intentional effect: both images hearken to the past—for the past is so integral to understanding the self—but faded, distant. The swan knows who he is but does not forget the experiences that shaped him. He will always keep the memories to remind him of
the stories that made him. Oscarson, too, never forgets the influences, events, and people that created the man and artist we so know and admire.
Outlined in high relief on the cap, the majestic adult swan is displayed in guilloche and hot enamel. His reflection is mirrored on the barrel, above the duck yard. The most striking image on the pen due to its high-relief inscription, the adult swan reminds the pen’s user to focus most closely on the present and the self that we have achieved.
Beginning at the bottom of the pen barrel, engraved in high and low relief, is a hatching egg and shell fragments in either white or opalescent hot enamel. The pen’s clip displays an egg in the act of cracking, and atop the pen’s crown is the signature of the master storyteller, “H.C. Andersen,” in high relief. Each pen features engraving in Danish of a line from Andersen’s original version of “The Ugly Duckling.” Translated into English, it reads: It doesn’t matter if you were born in a duck yard, so long as you are hatched from a swan’s egg! The 38th collection in the David Oscarson series of limited edition writing instruments, Ugly Duckling is available as either a cartridge/converter/eyedropper-filling fountain pen or rollerball that accepts standard international refills. The 18 karat gold bicolor nib with David Oscarson logo engraving is available in widths of fine, medium, or broad. It retains the old-world artistic mastery of hard enamel that allows for the creation of each enchanting Oscarson pen, using the centuries-old technique of guilloche. Five color variations will be available, each limited to an aggregate production of 70 pieces: a pen for each year of Anderson’s life. The David Oscarson Ugly Duckling collection uses Oscarson’s cigar-shaped brass body and features complex enamel color combinations: one color for the swan motif along the cap and the top part of the barrel, and another color for the duck yard toward the bottom of the barrel: light blue matched to a copper-colored duck yard and silver-plated appointments; gray matched to a smoke black duck yard with silver-plated appointments; teal matched to brown with gold-plated appointments; black matched
to red with silver-plated appointments, and an all-black enamel version with gold-plated appointments. Oscarson infuses his pens not only with history and culture but also his own personal experiences, allowing us an intimate glimpse into the man who creates such exquisite and meaningful art. His work is made of all that he has seen and absorbed in his
life: tales, events, and even other artists who, like Hans Christian Andersen, contributed to and influenced the masterful writing instruments Oscarson offers today. The David Oscarson Ugly Duckling collection carries multitudes of meaning within it and its own sort of genealogy. When the
writer meets the page, then the magic Oscarson imbues into his art coupled with the pen’s remarkable quality makes certain that the end result of writing with an Oscarson writing instrument will always be “Happily Ever After.”