The Nightingale

“The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen
Original Danish Title: “Nattergalen”
First published in 1843
Retold by T.Q. Townsend

This story is very old, so you should hear about it before it’s forgotten! Long ago, the Emperor of China had the most magnificent palace in all the world. It was made of fine porcelain – very precious and so fragile that visitors had to be careful not to touch. In the garden were the most delightful flowers. Silver bells were tied to the most beautiful blossoms to make sure that you would notice them. The garden stretched so far that even the gardeners didn’t know where it ended. You could walk all day until you reached a beautiful forest with tall trees and deep lakes. Beyond the forest was the sea, blue and deep. Large ships could sail right under the branches of the trees. It was here that a nightingale made its home. Its song was so beautiful that even a poor fisherman, who had very few things to be happy about, would lie still in his boat each night and listen, saying at last to himself, “Heavens! What a lovely song!”

The Emperor’s palace and gardens were famous, and travelers came from all over the world to admire it. But while they were amazed by the wonders of the Emperor’s home, everyone agreed that nothing was better than the nightingale. When scholars and travelers returned home to write about their adventures in China, they never forgot the nightingale. In fact, it was always at the top of every list of the best things about the Emperor’s palace. Those who were able to write poetry penned their most beautiful verses about the nightingale in the forest by the sea.

The travelers’ tales were shared around the world, and some of them came back to the Emperor. He sat in his golden chair, pleased to read the nice things people had to say about his home. He enjoyed the splendid descriptions of the city, the palace, and the garden. But he became puzzled when he read the words “but the nightingale is the very best!”

“What’s this about a nightingale?” said the Emperor. “I have never heard of it before, even though it seems to be right in my own garden. I must find out more.”

The Emperor called for one of his knights. He was a man who was so fancy and important that if anyone of lower rank dared to speak to him, he would only answer “Pff!”

“All of the foreign writers say there is a remarkable bird in my garden called a nightingale,” said the emperor. “They say it is the very best thing in all of China. Why has nobody ever told me about it before?”

“I’ve never heard of the nightingale,” answered the knight. “It must never have been presented at court.”

“I want it to sing for me tonight!” declared the Emperor. “Everyone in the world has heard it except me!”

“I’ll do my best to find it,” replied the knight.

But where to look? The knight ran up the stairs and down the stairs. He ran through halls and corridors. He asked everyone from the court ladies to the stable boys if they had heard of the nightingale, but with no luck. The knight ran back to the emperor and said, “Your Majesty, this nightingale doesn’t exist. Do not believe what you have read! Some writer made it all up.”

“But the book I have read was sent to me by the Emperor of Japan himself!” said the Emperor. “He would never lie. I must hear this nightingale! It must come tonight and I will do it great honor. If it cannot be brought to me, then I will punch the entire court in the stomach right after dinner.”

“Goodness!” said the Knight, and once again he ran up the stairs and down the stairs. He ran through all the halls and corridors. But this time, half of the imperial court ran along, because they didn’t want to get punched in the stomach either. Everyone wondered how the whole outside world knew about the nightingale and those who actually lived at court did not.

The courtiers searched high and low and asked every servant if they had heard about the nightingale. Finally they spoke to a young girl who was the lowliest scullery maid in the kitchen. She answered them “Oh, the nightingale? I know it very well. At night when my work is done I am allowed to deliver leftover food to my poor sick mother. She lives down by the beach. It is a long walk, and sometimes I get tired, so I stop to sit under the trees in the forest. As I rest, I hear the nightingale sing. The music is so beautiful that it makes me weep. It makes me feel the same as when my mother kisses me.”

“Wonderful girl!” cried the Knight. “You will be promoted! No more scrubbing pots and pans for you! You will serve the Emperor at his table, if only you can take us to the nightingale!”

The girl led all the courtiers out to the forest where the nightingale always sang. As they walked through a pasture, a cow began lowing.

“Oo!” cried out a young lord. “That must be it! It’s amazing that such a small bird can make such a loud sound!”

“Uhh . . . that’s a cow,” said the serving girl. “We still have a long way to walk.”

The crowd continued on, and the sound of chirping frogs rose up as they passed a pond.

“Delightful!” declared the governor of the Emperor’s palace. “I hear the nightingale! It’s like the sound of bells ringing!”

“Umm . . . those are frogs,” said the serving girl. “But don’t worry. We are nearly there.”

The courtiers were growing very tired, for they weren’t used to walking anywhere for themselves. They were just beginning to wish that they had ordered some servants to pull them along in carriages when at last the nightingale began to sing.

“That’s it!” said the little girl. “Listen! Do you hear it? And there it sits!” She pointed to a small gray bird perched up in the branches, sweetly singing an enchanting tune.

“Can you believe it?” murmured the Knight. “I never would have imagined that such a simple looking bird could be the source of such music.”

“Oh, little nightingale!” called out the serving girl in a sweet and polite voice. “Our gracious Emperor has heard of you and invites you to sing for him.”

“With the greatest pleasure,” replied the nightingale. And then it resumed its song, believing the Emperor stood in the crowd below.

“It’s like glass bells!” sighed the knight. “Look at how its little throat moves! I can’t believe we’ve never heard it before. This little bird will be a charming success at court.”

“Would the Emperor like me to keep singing??” asked the nightingale.

“Oh, excellent little nightingale,” said the Knight, “Let me explain. The Emperor is in his palace. We came to find you so that we could invite you to come to a party tonight, where you will enchant the Emperor and all of his court with your charming song.”

“My music is best heard out among the trees,” answered the nightingale, “but I am happy to visit the Emperor in his home.”

The palace was cleaned from top to bottom. The porcelain walls and floor gleamed from the glow of thousands of golden lamps. Every hall was decorated with the most fragrant flowers from the garden. The bells rang, and the doors opened. There was a great rush of footsteps as all the courtiers, dressed in splendid finery, hurried to the great hall.

There sat the emperor upon his throne, and beside him was a perch made of gold. All of the courtiers looked on, and the little serving girl was there too, for now she was no longer a scullery maid but the one trusted to bring the Emperor his meal. The room fell silent as the nightingale fluttered into the hall and landed on the golden perch. It bowed gracefully, and the Emperor nodded in return.

The nightingale began to sing, creating a melody that was so beautiful that the Emperor’s eyes filled with tears. Then the nightingale sang even more sweetly, and the song touched the hearts of everyone who heard. When the song ended, the Emperor was so delighted that he offered his golden slippers to the bird as a reward. But the nightingale kindly said that it had already received all the thanks it could wish for.

“I have seen tears in the eyes of the Emperor! Knowing that I have made you happy is the richest treasure I could desire,” the nightingale said with another bow. Then it sang again with its heavenly voice.

It’s the dearest little charmer!” said the court ladies to one another as they tried to imitate the sounds of the nightingale by gurgling water in their mouths. The footmen and chambermaids also whispered to one another that they were amazed by the beauty of the music, and that means a lot because they were difficult to please. Indeed, the nightingale created quite a sensation!

The Emperor begged the little bird to be his guest at court. He gave it a splendid golden cage to rest in, and the freedom to walk out twice a day and once at night. The nightingale was given twelve servants who tightly held on to silken cords tied to the bird’s feet. But there was not much pleasure to be had in flying like that.

The whole city talked of nothing but the spectacular bird, and when people met in the street one would say “nightin” and the other would reply “gale.” Eleven peddlers named their children “Nightingale” but their hopes of having musical children never came true.

One day a large parcel arrived for the Emperor. The label read “Nightingale.”

“It must be a new book about our famous bird!” smiled the Emperor. But inside was no book. Carefully wrapped within was a small mechanical bird — a nightingale made of silver and gold. It was covered in diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. As soon as the bird was lifted from the box, it sang a pretty little tune, and its glittering tail flitted up and down. Around its neck was a slender ribbon with a card that read “The Emperor of Japan’s nightingale is not so fine as that of the Emperor of China.”

“How delightful!” all the courtiers cried, and the servant who had delivered the mechanical bird was instantly bestowed with the title of Supreme Imperial Nightingale-bringer.

“The two birds must sing a duet!” everyone cried.

The nightingale tried to sing with the mechanical bird. But it didn’t really work, because the nightingale sang her natural tune, and the artificial bird only knew waltzes.

“This is no problem,” the music master declared. “The mechanical bird sings quite perfectly to my taste.” After that, the mechanical bird sang alone, and it was just as popular as the real one. After all, it was so much prettier to look at, glittering like fine jewelry.

It sang the same tune over and over again, but never grew tired. And the courtiers loved to hear it, but after a while the Emperor recalled the voice of the real nightingale and wanted to hear it again. But where was it? In the days since the court had become enthralled with the mechanical bird, the nightingale had flown away unnoticed through an open window to return to its home in the deep green woods.

“How about that!” said the Emperor, and all the courtiers scoffed that the nightingale was an ungrateful creature. “We have the best bird now, though!” they said as they set the mechanical bird to sing again. And as it sang its robotic song, everyone declared that it was much better than the real nightingale, for it was clothed in sparkling jewels instead of plain gray feathers.

“And you see, great Emperor,” continued the music master, “that with the real nightingale you never know what song you will get, but with the mechanical bird everything is just as you expect! The same song plays reliably for us. We can admire the fine craftsmanship and learn how a waltz is meant to sound, with one beat following neatly after the other.”

“That’s exactly what we think,” said everyone else.

The Emperor commanded that the music master should hold the bird before all the people of the city on the following Sunday so they could hear it sing. And when the little mechanical bird warbled out, everyone was in raptures. They pointed their fingers up at the bird and nodded and smiled. But a poor fisherman passed the edge of the crowd. He had heard the real nightingale, and said to himself, “It sounds pretty enough, and looks very nice. But somehow that bird’s song is missing something. I can’t say what it is.”

A declaration went out that banished the real nightingale from the Emperor’s lands. The mechanical bird was put upon a silk pillow which lay close to the Emperor’s head at night. The courtiers gave the bird many gifts of gold and precious gems. The machine was given the title of “High Imperial Lullaby Singer” and was given the first seat on the Emperor’s left. This was the place of greatest honor, for the heart is on the left side.

The music master wrote twenty-five books about the artificial bird. The books were very long and used the longest and fanciest words which were the most difficult to understand. Everyone at court said they had read it and understood it, though, because they wanted to seem clever.

And so went a whole year. The Emperor, the Court, and all the people of the land knew the Mechanical Bird’s song by heart. Everyone, from the Emperor to the boys in the street would sing along; “Zi zi zi! Cluck luck luck!”

But one evening, as the Emperor lay in bed listening to the mechanical bird sing its familiar song, from deep within the machinery came a “swoop!” Something clanked. The bird went “zurrrrrr!” The wheels ceased turning and the music stopped.

The Emperor jumped out of bed and sent for his doctor, but what could he do to help? So they sent for the watchmaker, and he examined the bird for a very long time. At last the watchmaker said he could try to put it back together, but its parts were so worn out that he did not believe it would be able to make music many more times.

Oh, what horrible news this was! From then on, the Emperor only dared to let the mechanical bird sing once a year. The music master tried to reassure everyone that this would make them just as happy as they were before.

Five years passed, and all of China was plunged into sorrow, for the Emperor was very ill and nobody believed he would live much longer. The people began to wonder when the new Emperor would be crowned. As the Knight walked down the street, some of the folk asked him how things went for the Emperor.

“Pff!” was all the Knight would say as he shook his head.

At that moment, the Emperor lay cold and pale in his big, fancy bed. The whole court thought he was dying, and they ran to bow and curtsy to the emperor’s heir. The butlers went out of the palace to tell their friends, and the maids gossiped about it as they had a coffee break. Cloth had been laid in every hall and corridor so that not even a footstep was heard in the palace. It was quiet; so quiet.

But the Emperor was not dead. He lay stiff and pale in his magnificent bed with its long velvet curtains and heavy gold tassels. High above him a window was open, and the moonlight shone down upon the Emperor and his precious mechanical bird.

The poor Emperor could scarcely draw a breath. He felt as if a heavy weight was upon him. He opened his eyes, and saw that Death was sitting on his chest. On Death’s head was the Emperor’s golden crown. In one of his hands was the emperor’s golden sword, and in the other his silken royal banner. Around the folds of the velvet bed curtains were many faces — some lovely, some hideous. They were all of the Emperor’s good and bad deeds in his life, looking straight into his eyes now that Death sat so close to his heart.

“Do you remember me?” whispered each face, one after the other. “Do you remember?” And the Emperor was suddenly gripped by so many memories that his forehead was covered in sweat.

“I know nothing about any of it!” The Emperor moaned. “Music, music! Play the great drum!” he cried. “I do not wish to hear what they say!”

But the voices went on, and Death nodded at everything that was said.

“Music, music!” screamed the Emperor. “Oh, precious little golden bird, sing, I beg you, sing! I have given you gold and many treasures. I myself have hung my golden slipper around your neck. Sing! Sing!”

But the bird remained still. There was nobody to wind it up, and so it could not sing. Death continued to stare at the emperor with his large, empty eye sockets. It was so quiet. So terribly quiet.

And then all at once, close to the window, the most beautiful song floated in on the evening breeze. It was the the little gray nightingale sitting on the branch outside. It had heard of the Emperor’s illness, and had come to sing to him of comfort and hope. As it sang, the faces around the bed grew paler and paler, and the blood began to move faster and faster in the Emperor’s weak limbs. Death himself listened and said, “Go on, little nightingale, go on!”

“Will you give me the magnificent golden sword? And that rich banner? Will you give me the Emperor’s crown?”

Death happily gave up each of these treasures for a song, and the nightingale continued to sing. It sang of the quiet graveyard where white roses grow, where the smell of elderflower drifts through the air, and where the grass is watered by the tears of mourners. The music made Death long to see his own garden, and he floated away, disappearing through the window like a cold white mist.

“Thank you, thank you!” cried the Emperor. ‘You blessed little bird, I know you! I chased you away from my land, and yet you returned to sing away the evil visions from my bed and even drove Death away from my heart? How can I repay you?”

“You rewarded me long ago,” replied the nightingale. “The first time I sang for you I saw tears in your eyes, which I will never forget. Those tears are as precious as jewels to a singer. But now, you should sleep. Be well and strong. I will sing for you again.”

And the nightingale sang a lullaby. The Emperor fell into a sweet and gentle sleep that brought health back to him. The sun was shining brightly through the windows when he awoke, strong and healthy. But none of the Emperor’s servants had returned, because they thought he was dead. But still the nightingale sat outside and sang.

“Please stay with me always!” begged the Emperor. “You shall only sing when you choose to. And I will smash the mechanical bird into a thousand pieces!”

“There is no need for that!” answered the nightingale. “The machine has done well. Keep it as always. I cannot build my nest in a palace, but let me visit you by my own choice. In the evenings I will sit on this branch by the window and sing to you so you can be happy and thoughtful at the same time. I will sing of great joy, and of those who suffer. I will sing of evil and good things which are kept hidden from your sight. Songbirds fly far and wide. We see the poor fisherman, the farmer, and everyone who is far from you and your court. I love your heart more than your Crown, and yet the Crown has something holy about it. I will come. I will sing for you. But you must promise me one thing.”

“Everything!” said the Emperor, who had dressed himself in his imperial robes and now held his heavy golden sword up to his heart.

“I only need one thing,” the nightingale replied. “Don’t tell anyone that you have a little bird who brings you all the news. Things will go better for you that way.”

And then the nightingale flew away.

The servants came in to see the dead Emperor. But imagine their astonishment when they looked and saw their Emperor standing before them, saying, “Good morning!”

Translation Note

I have tried to make a fairly straightforward translation of the original text. There are occasional Danish idioms in the original that can’t be literally imported to English, so I did my best to convey the spirit behind those phrases rather than the exact words.

This story is clearly not meant to convey any specific or accurate picture of a certain time in China’s history. The setting is meant to be “a long time ago and far away.” Andersen makes use of many terms that likely wouldn’t be accurate in an ancient Chinese setting, but which would have made the story comprehensible to Danish children of his time. Terms such as “knight” are not historically accurate, but there certainly would have been some sort of master of horses and stables in any ancient royal court. I have kept the original terms as closely as possible so that readers can understand the flavor of the original text.

In most early translations of the text into English, the nightingale is described as male but Andersen’s original words refer to the bird as “it” without referring to its sex. I have respected the author’s word choice in my version, although it is true that male nightingales do sing more than females, being the ones who have to work harder to attract a mate.

In the original version, Andersen points out at the beginning of the tale that everyone in China is Chinese. I left this sentence out of my translation. But 180 years ago, such a sentence would have helped Danish readers to consider that there were societies quite different from their own. 19th century Denmark was a fairly homogeneous society, and I believe Andersen’s intentions were good. But pointing it out so clearly would seem overly obvious or even odd to modern readers. There is also a reference later in the story to people making a pointing gesture that is customary in China. I cannot be sure what gesture this refers to, so I reduced it to simply pointing. There is also a moment in the original text where the knight cries out “Tsing-pe!” which is not an actual Chinese word. This word seems to represent some kind of exclamation of surprise and alarm, so rather than use a made up “Chinese” word in my translation, I decided to render it as “Goodness!”

Copyright notice: The original Danish text of “Nattergalen” is in the public domain. This translation by T.Q. Townsend may be freely used for non-commercial purposes only.