Fairy Tale Facts: The Nightingale

By 1843, Hans Christian Andersen was a well known writer. His 1837 publication of “The Little Mermaid” had thrust him into the international spotlight. His 1843 collection, the first volume of “New Fairy Tales”, included yet another popular tale, “The Nightingale.”

Photo by Charles Postiaux on Unsplash

Despite being less well known today, “The Nightingale” is actually a story I’ve known and loved for years. So let’s dive in!

The Story

Although a Danish tale, “The Nightingale” is actually set in China. The story tells of an unnamed emperor who builds and lives in the most beautiful palace in the world. It is made entirely of porcelain (which just sounds dangerous, if you ask me). The extensive gardens are home to exotic flowers and plants of all kinds, each rigged with a small bell to help draw attention to it. Travelers come from around the world to see the palace, but the emperor soon finds that the thing that impresses visitors the most is the song of a nightingale in the woods just outside. He demands to hear this miraculous song. His court searches high and low (apparently none of them have ever heard of the mysterious nightingale) and finally tracks down a servant girl who can take them to the bird. The nobleman in charge of the search has seemingly never left his palace before, as he first thinks a cow and then some frogs are the elusive songbird.

The nightingale happily gives the group an impromptu concert. The nobleman invites the nightingale back to court to perform for the emperor. Despite saying that her song sounds best out in the woods (because she can talk for some reason?), the bird goes back with them. She is a rousing success, drawing tears of awe from the emperor and becoming the latest fad for quite some time. One day, an admirer sends the emperor a gift: a jeweled, clockwork bird. It also sings. The emperor wants the fake nightingale to sing with the real one, but the fake’s programmed music doesn’t blend well with the real one’s natural improvised tunes. As time goes on, people begin to prefer the fake, as the music is just as lovely and the jeweled bird outshines the small gray nightingale in appearance. Eventually the emperor asks for the true nightingale to sing again, only to find that she has long since flown away.

A year passes and the artificial bird breaks down. While it is repaired with some success, it is very fragile and can only play it’s music once a year or else risk breaking down for good. Another five years pass and the emperor grows fatally ill. As he lies on his deathbed, all he wants is to hear beautiful music, but the fake bird remains silent. Through an open window comes a song: the nightingale, hearing of the emperor’s illness, returns to offer what comfort she can. Death is so moved by her song that he spares the emperor. Full of gratitude, the emperor begs the bird to return and stay forever. She agrees, but with a condition: she must be allowed to come and go as she pleases. In return, she will sing to the emperor about the state of his kingdom and people.

The Real Nightingale

Hans Christian Andersen was rather well known for frequently falling in unrequited love. One of the subjects of his adoration is often credited with being the inspiration for this story and she’s someone whose name has become a little more well known in recent years: Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, so nicknamed because of this story (at least, she gained the moniker shortly after the story was published). She never returned Andersen’s love, viewing him more as a brother. Some credit her rejection of him as the inspiration for his later work, “The Snow Queen.”

What are some of your favorite obscure fairy tales? Until next time, word nerds!

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