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Annotations for Nightingale

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Song Bird (abridged)
by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Song Bird (unabridged)
by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Hans Christian Andersen
Father of the Modern Fairy Tale 
by Terri Windling


The annotations for the Nightingale fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Nightingale Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Nightingale to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

Most of the annotations were provided by Heidi Anne Heiner, creator of SurLaLune. Her annotations are designated with HAH.

Special thanks to Christine Ethier, an adjunct teacher of English writing at both Community College of Philadelphia and Camden County College, for providing additional annotations to this tale. Her annotations are designated with CE.

1: The Nightingale: First published in 1844 in Nye Eventyr (New Fairy Tales). The collection was critically well-received.

The Franks write:

The tale "was no doubt inspired by Andersen’s crush on Jenny Lind, who was about to become famous throughout Europe and the United States as the Swedish Nightingale. He had seen her that fall, when she was performing in Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s celebrated Tivoli Gardens opened that season, and its Asian fantasy motif was even more pronounced than it is today. Andersen had been a guest at the opening in August and returned for a second visit on October it. In his diary that night he wrote: 'At Tivoli Gardens. Started the Chinese fairy tale.' He finished it in two days" (139).

While Lind was kind to Andersen, and admired his writings, she did not return his love. The two had many common qualities, such as their piety, plain physcial appearances, and their individual rise to fame for their talents in the arts. HAH

Jackie Wullschlager points out the tale was written when Lind's "future was less certain" and that Andersen saw a parallel between his "telling of fairy tales" and her singing. Lind's style was not at first immediately popular and Andersen has the nightingale rewarded by the Emperor as Lind was by the king (233-234).

In Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Jack Zipes contends that in the tale Anderson indirectly "argues that the nobility must adapt to the value system of the emerging bourgeoisie or be locked out of the kingdom of happiness" (97). CE
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2: The emperor is a Chinese, and all those about him are Chinamen also: The Franks write: "In Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen and Birgit Neder gaard-Larsen’s Om at Overscette H. C. Andersen (On Translating H. C. Andersen, 67-79), the English novelist and translator William Glyn Jones contributed an essay that recalled his painful and sometimes amusing arguments with his publisher regarding this and other usages that may offend some modern sensibilities" (150). HAH
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3: Porcelain: Excerpted from Wikipedia:

"Porcelain is a ceramic material made by heating to high temperature selected and refined materials often including clay in the form of kaolinite.

"The earliest porcelains originated in China possibly during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). In the context of Chinese ceramics the term porcelain lacks a universally accepted definition. This in turn has led to confusion about when the first Chinese porcelain was made. Claims have been made for the late Eastern Han period (100 to 200 AD), the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 280 AD), the Six Dynasties period (220 to 589 AD), and the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 AD). Some experts are currently of the view that the first true porcelain was made in the Chinese province of Zhejiang during the Eastern Han period. Chinese experts emphasise the presence of a significant proportion of porcelain-building minerals (china clay, porcelain stone or a combination of both) as an important factor in defining porcelain and shards recovered from Eastern Han kiln sites in Zhejiang, estimated to have been fired at a temperature of between 1260 to 1300 degrees Celsius, were found that met this condition (He Li 1996).

"Porcelain was first made in China, and it is a measure of the esteem in which the exported Chinese porcelains of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were held in Europe that in English China became a commonly used synonym for the Franco-Italian term porcelain.

"At the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in 687 AD, the original marble and mosaic exterior work was replaced in Ottoman times with Turkish ceramic tiles. At Versailles, Louis XIV's short-lived set of garden pavilions, the Trianon de Porcelaine designed by Louis Le Vau, was faced with glazed ceramic tiles, blue and white in a chinoiserie manner that owed something to Dutch glazed tile-clad interiors; it was replaced in 1687 by the Grand Trianon" ("Porcelain" Wikipedia 2006). HAH
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4: Garden: According to Jackie Wullschlager, parts of the Emperor's garden are "an image of night-time Tivoli" (234). See also Note 1.

Tivoli is actually still open and has several Andersen motifs. CE
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5: The most singular flowers: Andersen describes flowers often in his tales, most memorably in his Snow Queen in which several flowers share their fanciful ideas with Gerda. HAH
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6: A nightingale: From Wikipedia:

"The Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), also known as Rufous Nightingale and Common Nightingale, is a small passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family Turdidae, but is now more generally considered to be an Old World flycatcher, Muscicapidae. It, and similar small European species, is often called a chat.

"The Nightingale is slightly larger than the European Robin, at 15-16.5 cm length. It is plain brown above except for the reddish tail. It is buff to white below. Sexes are similar.

"The male Nightingale is known for his singing, to the extent that human singers are sometimes admiringly referred to as nightingales; the song is loud, with an impressive range of whistles, trills and gurgles. Although it also sings during the day, the Nightingale is unusual in singing late in the evening; its song is particularly noticeable at that time because few other birds are singing. This is why its name (in several languages) includes "night". Recent research has shown that the birds sing even more loudly in urban or near-urban environments, in order to overcome the background noise. The most characteristic feature of the song is a loud whistling crescendo, absent from the song of Thrush Nightingale. It has a frog-like alarm call.

"In popular traditions, the Nightingale announces the coming of spring, and is a symbol of love" ("Nightingale" Wikipedia 2006). HAH
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7: And those who could write poetry composed beautiful verses about the nightingale: Andersen often wrote barbs in his tales, poking at the literary circles that excluded him or had different literary theories from himself, particularly in regards to poetry in this case. HAH
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8: Something, it appears, may be learnt from books: Another Andersen barb, probably taking aim at those who dismissed his work as being simple, unimportant and only for children. HAH

It must be a fable, invented by those who had written the book. “Your imperial majesty,” said he, “cannot believe everything contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called the black art.”: Andersen, a writer primarily of fiction, is mocking the criticism he often he heard of his own work by reviewers and scholars. Of course the nightingale exists as the story will prove. HAH

Sent to me by the great and mighty emperor of Japan: One doesn't know if Andersen knew the irony of such gift giving between China and Japan which historically have had difficult relations at best. Considering their geographical location and stature in the world, the Japanese emperor is an obvious choice as a benefactor to the Chinese emperor, but rather unlikely when real history is considered. Japan was more open to trade and relations with Europe in the 19th century, however, so Andersen's assumptions have a historical basis of sorts. HAH

“Tsing-pe!”: The Franks write: "Probably nonsense, but Dal, Nielsen, and Hovmann say that it may be a variation of the Chinese ch’in p’ei, or 'as you please'" (151). HAH

A poor little girl in the kitchen: The lowliest servant in the palace becomes the means of introducing a great treasure to the Emperor and his courtiers.

“Beautiful,” said the young courtier again. “Now I hear it, tinkling like little church bells.”: Is Andersen mocking the courtier's inability to distinguish good music from bad? One doubts that many find the croaking of frogs to be melodic, especially since croaking is often used to describe badly executed music.

In his The True Story of My Life: A Sketch, Andersen writes about trying to convince Jenny Lind to perform in Copenhagen for the first time outside her native Sweden: "I said, that I, it was true, could not pass judgment on her singing, because I had never heard it, neither did I know how she acted, but nevertheless, I was convinced that such was the disposition at this moment in Copenhagen, that only a moderate voice and some knowledge of acting would be successful; I believed that she might safely venture" (Chapter 7).

Of course, Lind's voice was more than moderate and she enjoyed great success, just as the nightingale does in the tale, at least for a time. Lind remained popular in Europe and the U.S. until her retirement. HAH

A little, plain, simple thing like that: Jenny Lind was considered very plain, even rather ugly by some. Most of her audience, Andersen included, forgot her appearance when she sang. Pictures of Lind can be viewed at Wikipedia's "Jenny Lind."

The Franks write:

Years later Andersen described Lind to his friend Nicolai Bøgh, who in 1915 published excerpts from a diary he had kept during an 1873 journey with Andersen: “They say Jenny Lind was hideous to look at, and maybe she was. The first time she walked on stage, I said the same ‘She’s hideous’ ... but then she sang and became divinely beautiful. She was like an unlit lamp when she came in, and then, when you lit the lamp and she began to speak, it was as if her spirit cast a divine radiance on the stage and every seat in the theater. You weren’t in the theater, you were in church” (151). HAH

She has certainly changed color at seeing so many grand people around her: Jack Zipes states: "Because the common-looking bird (an obvious reference to Andersen) possesses an inimitable artistic genius, he is engaged to serve the Emperor" (Zipes 1998, 99). HAH

“Little nightingale,” cried the girl, raising her voice, “our most gracious emperor wishes you to sing before him.”: In Andersen's The True Story of My Life: A Sketch, he writes:

In the autumn of 1843, Jenny Lind came again to Copenhagen. One of my friends, our clever ballet-master, Bournonville, who has married a Swedish lady, a friend of Jenny Lind, informed me of her arrival here and told me that she remembered me very kindly, and that now she had read my writings. He entreated me to go with him to her, and to employ all my persuasive art to induce her to take a few parts at the Theatre Royal; I should, he said, be then quite enchanted with what I should hear.

I was not now received as a stranger; she cordially extended to me her hand, and spoke of my writings and of Miss Fredrika Bremer, who also was her affectionate friend. The conversation was soon turned to her appearance in Copenhagen, and of this Jenny Lind declared that she stood in fear.

"I have never made my appearance," said she, "out of Sweden; everybody in my native land is so affectionate and kind to me, and if I made my appearance in Copenhagen and should be hissed!--I dare not venture on it!"

I said, that I, it was true, could not pass judgment on her singing, because I had never heard it, neither did I know how she acted, but nevertheless, I was convinced that such was the disposition at this moment in Copenhagen, that only a moderate voice and some knowledge of acting would be successful; I believed that she might safely venture (Chapter 7).

With this description, Andersen seems to have placed himself in the role of the young girl who brings the nightingale to the emperor. HAH

“My song sounds best in the green wood,” said the bird; but still she came willingly when she heard the emperor’s wish: Andersen, growing up under a monarchy, believed in honoring a monarch's wishes. HAH

A real court cook: The Franks write: "Andersen — not for the first time — is making fun of the order of rank, in particular a law from 1717 in which a judicial officer could be ranked higher with the addition of the word real" (151).

The implication is that despite her responsibility in making the concert possible, the girl still wasn't honored with a high enough ranking in the court to sit in the great hall with the bourgeouise. HAH

Went to every one’s heart: In The True Story of My Life: A Sketch, Andersen described Jenny Lind's premiere in Copenhagen thus:

It was like a new revelation in the realms of art, the youthfully fresh voice forced itself into every heart; here reigned truth and nature; everything was full of meaning and intelligence. At one concert Jenny Lind sang her Swedish songs; there was something so peculiar in this, so bewitching; people thought nothing about the concert room; the popular melodies uttered by a being so purely feminine, and bearing the universal stamp of genius, exercised their omnipotent sway--the whole of Copenhagen was in raptures (Chapter 7). HAH

He declared the nightingale should have his gold slipper to wear round her neck: The Franks write: "On September 18, 1843, Jenny Lind sang for the Danish king, Christian VIII, who rewarded her with diamonds" (151). HAH

But she declined the honor with thanks: she had been sufficiently rewarded already: According to Jack Zipes in his Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, the story hints at that patronage Andersen had to use and shows that the bird, at least, is able to set terms as if in a free market (98). CE.

Who each held her by a silken string fastened to her leg. There was certainly not much pleasure in this kind of flying: The bird is held captive, but gives up its freedom to share its song. HAH

An artificial nightingale made to look like a living one, and covered all over with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires: While toys and trinkets such as these, often made of much less precious materials, are common in modern times, they were rare during Andersen's time. HAH

But they did not get on well, for the real nightingale sang in its own natural way, but the artificial bird sang only waltzes: Karri Lokke, quoting Jack Zipes [1999: 82-5], states in the tale "the working-class or peasant poet as voice not just of nature but also of socioeconomic groups marginalized, taken for granted, and even exploited by the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, as Andersen experienced his relations with his patrons, Jonas Collins and his son Edvard" (154). HAH

“That is not a fault,” said the music-master, “it is quite perfect to my taste,” so then it had to sing alone, and was as successful as the real bird; besides, it was so much prettier to look at, for it sparkled like bracelets and breast-pins. Three and thirty times did it sing the same tunes without being tired; the people would gladly have heard it again, but the emperor said the living nightingale ought to sing something. But where was she? No one had noticed her when she flew out at the open window, back to her own green woods.

“What strange conduct,” said the emperor, when her flight had been discovered; and all the courtiers blamed her, and said she was a very ungrateful creature.

“But we have the best bird after all,” said one, and then they would have the bird sing again, although it was the thirty-fourth time they had listened to the same piece, and even then they had not learnt it, for it was rather difficult. But the music-master praised the bird in the highest degree, and even asserted that it was better than a real nightingale, not only in its dress and the beautiful diamonds, but also in its musical power. “For you must perceive, my chief lord and emperor, that with a real nightingale we can never tell what is going to be sung, but with this bird everything is settled. It can be opened and explained, so that people may understand how the waltzes are formed, and why one note follows upon another.”

“This is exactly what we think,” they all replied, and then the music-master received permission to exhibit the bird to the people on the following Sunday, and the emperor commanded that they should be present to hear it sing. When they heard it they were like people intoxicated; however it must have been with drinking tea, which is quite a Chinese custom. They all said “Oh!” and held up their forefingers and nodded, but a poor fisherman, who had heard the real nightingale, said, “it sounds prettily enough, and the melodies are all alike; yet there seems something wanting, I cannot exactly tell what.”

And after this the real nightingale was banished from the empire, and the artificial bird placed on a silk cushion close to the emperor’s bed. The presents of gold and precious stones which had been received with it were round the bird, and it was now advanced to the title of “Little Imperial Toilet Singer,” and to the rank of No. 1 on the left hand; for the emperor considered the left side, on which the heart lies, as the most noble, and the heart of an emperor is in the same place as that of other people.

The music-master wrote a work, in twenty-five volumes, about the artificial bird, which was very learned and very long, and full of the most difficult Chinese words: Another Andersen barb, this time aimed at scholarly writings, especially those tending towards overt verbosity. For Andersen, scholars and critics were the enemy to creativity. HAH

Yet all the people said they had read it, and understood it, for fear of being thought stupid and having their bodies trampled upon: Andersen's portrayal of the emperor's court is reminiscent of the court in The Emperor's New Clothes where no one will admit to an inability to see the clothes. Social hypocrisy is common theme with Andersen. HAH

So a year passed, and the emperor, the court, and all the other Chinese knew every little turn in the artificial bird’s song; and for that same reason it pleased them better. They could sing with the bird, which they often did. The street-boys sang, “Zi-zi-zi, cluck, cluck, cluck,” and the emperor himself could sing it also. It was really most amusing.

One evening, when the artificial bird was singing its best, and the emperor lay in bed listening to it, something inside the bird sounded “whizz.” Then a spring cracked. “Whir-r-r-r” went all the wheels, running round, and then the music stopped. The emperor immediately sprang out of bed, and called for his physician; but what could he do? Then they sent for a watchmaker; and, after a great deal of talking and examination, the bird was put into something like order; but he said that it must be used very carefully, as the barrels were worn, and it would be impossible to put in new ones without injuring the music. Now there was great sorrow, as the bird could only be allowed to play once a year; and even that was dangerous for the works inside it. Then the music-master made a little speech, full of hard words, and declared that the bird was as good as ever; and, of course no one contradicted him.

Every one ran away to pay homage to his successor

Cloth had been laid down on the halls and passages, so that not a footstep should be heard, and all was silent and still.

But the emperor was not yet dead, although he lay white and stiff on his gorgeous bed: The Franks write: "Andersen himself had a real fear of being assumed dead and buried alive. Next to his bed he had a sign: 'I only appear to be dead.'" (77). HAH

Death sitting there: Death personified is common in folklore, perhaps most familiarly in the German Grimms' tale, Godfather Death and its related tales. HAH

Had put on the emperor’s golden crown, and held in one hand his sword of state, and in the other his beautiful banner: Andersen portrays death as the great equalizer. Once he is dead, the emperor will be an emperor no more, passing on his power to a successor. He may be powerful in this life, but death disempowers all. HAH

These were the emperor’s good and bad deeds, which stared him in the face now Death sat at his heart: To use a common phrase, the Emperor's life is flashing in front of his eyes as he approaches death.

As a devout Christian, Andersen firmly believed the Biblical passage:

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
1 Corinthians 15:55-6, King James Version. HAH

That I may not hear what they say:

So Death gave up each of these treasures for a song: Bargains are often made with Death in folklore and fairy tales to spare someone's life for at least a while longer. The nightingale is more successful than most who bargain with Death. HAH

And as she sung, the emperor fell into a sweet sleep; and how mild and refreshing that slumber was!: The Franks write:

In a memoir Charlotte Bournonville, the daughter of the ballet master, told this story: “One of my father’s closest friends, a very musical young man, was very seriously ill, and his sadness at not being able to hear Jenny Lind sing did quite a lot to worsen his condition. When Jenny heard that, she shouted, ‘Sweet Mister Bournonville, just let me sing for the sick man!’ Perhaps it was a dangerous experiment to expose a deadly ill person to such an emotional experience, but it was a success. After he had heard her lovely singing. . . he began to recover.” It is easy to imagine that Andersen had heard this story (151). HAH
According to Jackie Wullschlager, " . . . underlaying the tale is Andersen's sense Jenny [Lind] had saved his spirit from death by reaffirming his faith in art, as well as possibly the memory of her singing to the ill Copenhague wine merchant, Mozart Waage Petersen" (235). CE

Only the nightingale still sat beside him:

“You must always remain with me,” said the emperor. “You shall sing only when it pleases you":

“No; do not do that,” replied the nightingale; “the bird did very well as long as it could. Keep it here still.

I cannot live in the palace, and build my nest; but let me come when I like: Jack Zipes states:

Here the relationship of servitude is resumed with the exception that the nightingale has assumed a different market value: he agrees to be the emperor's songbird forever as long as he can come and go as he pleases. Feudalism has been replaced by a free-market system; yet, the bird/artist is willing to serve loyally and keep the autocrat in power.

As we know, Andersen depended on the patronage of the King of Denmark and other upper-class donors, but he never felt esteemed enough, and he disliked the strings that were attached to the money given to him. Instead of breaking with such patronage, however, the dominated voice of this discourse seeks to set new limits, which continue servitude in marketable conditions more tolerable for the servant. Andersen reaffirms the essentialist ideology of this period and reveals how gifted "common" individuals are the pillars of power -- naturally in service to the state. Unfortunately, he never bothered to ask why "genius" cannot stand on its own and perhaps unite with like- minded people (Zipes 1998, 101). HAH

I will sing to you of those who are happy, and those who suffer; of the good and the evil, who are hidden around you: Essentially the bird is becoming an advisor to the emperor. The implication is that he will represent the interests of the commoners. HAH

The little singing bird flies far from you and your court to the home of the fisherman and the peasant’s cot: Andersen believed that he never "lost touch" with the common people despite his rise in fame and fortune, including his constant association with the wealthy and well-educated in his adult years. HAH

I love your heart better than your crown; and yet something holy lingers round that also: The Franks write: "Andersen was immensely respectful of European royals; he was brought up in the time of the absolute monarchy, when kings had divine rights" (151). HAH

Everything: The emperor's gratitude and willingness to give up everything to the nightingale is satisfying, but somewhat empty, since he was about to lose everything to death anyway. HAH

Good morning: While Andersen does not provide a concrete "happily ever after" ending, the emperor's continued good health is implied in his conversation with the nightingale.

The ending is somewhat unusual for Andersen who was quite willing to let characters die and enjoy their 'eternal reward' to supply what he considered a happy ending. HAH

In Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, commenting on the ending of the tale, Jack Zipes says that the nightingale saving the emperor's life shows that ". . . genuine poetry . . . is uniquely in touch with the real life of the common people and is also the source of the emperor's life" (98).

According to Jackie Wullschlager, "The tale is typical product of Danish Biedemeir: the extremes of danger and betrayal mediated into a harmonious miniature" (235). CE


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Page created 1/2005; Last updated 7/7/07