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Literature / The Nightingale

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"The Nightingale", also known as "The Chinese Nightingale" and "The Emperor and the Nightingale" is a famous 19th century fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen. It was first published in 1843.

In Imperial China, the Emperor learns that one of the most beautiful sounds on Earth is the song of the nightingale, one of which happens to live in his very own gardens. Though put off at first by the bird's plain appearance, he is so delighted with her song that he brings her into his palace as a permanent "guest". By and by, he receives a bejeweled mechanical bird as a gift, which quickly captures the attention of the Emperor and his court. As they play the mechanical bird nearly to the point of breakdown, the real nightingale returns to the gardens.

Then the Emperor falls ill, to the point where his successor has been chosen and The Grim Reaper is sitting at his bedside. In despair, he cries that if he could only turn the key of the mechanical bird and hear its song one more time, he would have the strength to fight back. At that moment, the real nightingale bursts into song from his window, restoring his strength and shaming Death into departing. From then on, she tells the Emperor, she will not live as his prisoner but will still return frequently to tell him what is happening in his empire, so that he will be known as the wisest emperor ever to live.

Not to be confused with the 2015 historical fiction novel by Kristin Hannah.

This fairy tale provides examples of:

  • Artistic License History: At least one Chinese translation of the story remarks in a footnote that the story is based on what Danish people thought Imperial China was like, rather than what Imperial China was actually like, and as such most descriptions of life in China are pure conjecture (the Imperial Palace was not built out of porcelain, for starters). Furthermore, nightingales are not native to China, and so they almost certainly would not have nested near the Emperor's palace.
  • Artistic License Ornithology: As with most songbirds, only male nightingales sing, yet the nightingale in the story is described as female. Some translations, such as Erik Haugaard's 1974 version, correct this issue by making the nightingale male. Also, the nightingale is already an adult by the time the Emperor hears of it, spends time in the palace, then the mechanical bird lasts for a year, and then five years pass before the Emperor falls ill. It's uncommon for nightingales to live more than five years, and unheard of for them to live more than eight.
  • Asian and Nerdy: The mechanical robot nightingale is gift of the Japanese Emperor.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Sort of. When the Emperor sees the bejeweled mechanical bird he prefers it over the grey real nightingale and forgets the latter completely.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The nightingale returns just in time to save the Emperor from the Grim Reaper.
  • Bowdlerise: Some child oriented versions just let the Emperor be very ill and omit the entire scene with the Grim Reaper.
  • Clock Punk: The mechanical nightingale.
  • Come Back, My Pet!: At his death bed the Emperor wishes the real nightingale would return. She does.
  • Creative Sterility: The mechanical bird knows only one song. Over time, the Emperor and his court prefer it because it's a recognizable tune they can whistle, not the organic and free-form songs of the real bird.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: The Emperor completely ignores the real nightingale when the mechanical bird appears, despite long months of faithful service. He doesn't even notice when she flies away.
  • Dying Alone: Everyone abandons the Emperor when his death seems inevitable... everyone but the nightingale.
  • A Friend in Need: The nightingale.
  • Game-Breaking Injury: The mechanical nightingale eventually suffers an internal breakdown that cripples its ability to sing.
  • The Ghost: The Emperor of Japan is mentioned a few times throughout the narrative, but never appears in person.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: When the Emperor demands to see the Nightingale, the chamberlain responds with "Tsing-pe!" This is likely intended as a rendition of the Chinese 钦佩, which means "admiration" or "esteem" and does not make sense as a response to anything in conversation, much less a command from an Emperor, and was most likely thrown in by Andersen just because it sounded Chinese.
  • The Grim Reaper: Appears when the Emperor is about to die.
  • Imperial China: The story takes place in this time period.
  • Loyal Animal Companion: The nightingale was the last member of the imperial court to remember the Emperor.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Nightingales are not native to China.
  • Nameless Narrative: Nobody in the story has a name.
  • New Technology Is Evil: The mechanical nightingale makes the Emperor dependent on it and causes him to forget the real bird. However, in the end when the Emperor says that he'll break the machine into pieces, the real nightingale tells him not to do so, because "the bird did very well as long as it could".
  • Nightmare Face: Andersen describes how the Emperor looks straight into the hollow eyes of Death.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: The nightingale persuades the Grim Reaper to spare the Emperor's life. She also does this for the mechanical bird when the Emperor wishes to have it smashed.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: The royal entourage arrives at the Emperor's bedroom assuming he must have died by now, only to have him greet everybody with the words: "Good morning!"
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: The mechanical nightingale who can sing just as beautifully as the real nightingale and looks prettier due to the jewelry on its body.
  • Talking Animal: The nightingale agrees to go to the Emperor's Palace and argues with the Grim Reaper over keeping the Emperor alive.
  • Tears of Joy: The first time the Emperor hears the nightingale's Beautiful Singing Voice, he's left with tears rolling down his cheeks.
  • True Beauty Is on the Inside: The real nightingale's beauty is all in her song. When the mechanical bird appears with a much nicer appearance and a pretty song, the real bird is gradually forgotten — but she is the one with the purity of heart and song to return to the emperor when he is in need.
  • Upper-Class Twit: The imperial court is full of them. The chamberlain is so above people that he never bothers to speak a word to common folk, but when it comes to finding the nightingale, none of them can distinguish a bird from a cow, or a frog. The fishermen, on the other hand...
  • Wowing Cthulhu: Even Death himself can't resist the beauty of the nightingale's song and ends up sparing the Emperor's life in exchange for one, which essentially causes him to get homesick and leave.