by Hans Christian Andersen
If I had to pick a favorite fairy tale it would be “The Nightingale,” published in 1843, in the first book Hans Christian Anderson wrote that didn’t carry the subtitle “told for children.” Don’t let that stop you from reading it to children. I only wish I could find a volume with pictures as gorgeously grotesque as the 1911 painting by Edmund Dulac that illustrates today’s post, an illustration that reflects Andersen’s combination of transformative beauty with downright neurotic creepiness.
(If you doubt that Andersen’s creations can be as terrifying as anything out of the Brothers Grimm, try reading the unDisneyfied version of “The Little Mermaid” with the mermaid’s tongue cut out!)
Like those folktales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Andersen’s stories have a mythic quality. Unlike them, Andersen’s tales don’t have centuries of oral tradition behind them. We live in an era when new fairy tales are being invented constantly, as with Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz, discussed earlier this month. But in the early nineteenth century, inventing fairy tales was something no one had ever done before.
Sure, people had deliberately set out to write moralizing tales for children, most of which left them more determined than ever to be naughty. And there were the old terrifying folktales of child-eating wolves. But to write new tales of overt simplicity, tales with beauty and humor as well as power? That was a new thing under the sun.
The story of Andersen’s infatuation with Jenny Lind, the singer who would be known as the Swedish Nightingale, is legendary. But it was Andersen’s story that gave Lind her nickname, not the other way around. She was still in her teens with her great successes yet to come when she met Andersen in Copenhagen in the summer of 1843.
Each had a rags to riches life, a love of art, and a temperament in keeping with the
Romantic Age. But Lind’s interest never went any deeper than that of a fellow artist. As for Andersen, according to biographer Jackie Wullschlager in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, the sexually ambivalent Dane was courting a young man at the same time he wrote love letters to Lind.
It took the combination of Lind’s breathtakingly unsophisticated talent and the opening of the chinoiserie-inspired Danish pleasure garden, the Tivoli, both in that magical summer of 1843, to give birth to “The Nightingale.” “In Tivoli ¼ began the Chinese tale,” was the entry in Andersen's journal October 11, 1843. Twenty-four hours later, the "Chinese tale" was complete.
It’s the story of an emperor and a “small gray bird” whose song is the most wondrous thing in the entire land. The nightingale is the darling of the empire until the emperor receives a present, a jeweled mechanical bird, which “was just as great a success as the real bird, and then it was so much prettier to look at!”
The real nightingale is happy to return to its forest. But at last death comes for the
emperor. And when he lies longing for music, but deserted and without anyone to wind up the mechanical bird, the real nightingale returns, singing so sweetly that death gives up its conquest in exchange for a song from the little gray bird.
The story is available on Amazon for as little as a penny (plus shipping and handling). Or do like I did, and leaf happily through every copy in your local library. (I finally settled on Anthea Bell’s translation for Picture Book Studio USA).
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a December of spirited adventures with George Macdonald’s The Portent.)