The Nightingale

By Hans Christian Andersen

Illustrated by William Heath Robinson

Being a story for children
and a parable for men and women.

In China, you must know, the Emperor is a Chinaman, and all whom he has about him are Chinamen too. It happened a good many years ago, but that’s just why it’s worth while to hear the story before it’s forgotten!

The Emperor’s Palace was the most splendid in the World; it was made entirely of porcelain, very costly, but so delicate and brittle that one had to take care how one touched it. In the Garden were to be seen the most wonderful flowers, and to the costliest of them silver bells were tied, which sounded, so that nobody should pass by without noticing the flowers.

Yes, every thing in the Emperor’s Garden was admirably arranged. And it extended so far, that the Gardener himself did not know where the end was. If a man went on and on, he came into a glorious forest with high trees and deep lakes. The wood extended straight down to the sea, which was blue and deep; great vessels could sail beneath the branches of the trees, and in the trees lived a Nightingale, which sang so splendidly that even the poor Fisherman, who had many other things to do, stopped still and listened, when he had gone out at night to throw out his nets, and heard the Nightingale. “How beautiful that is!” he said; but he was obliged to attend to his property and thus forgot the bird. But when in the next night, the bird sang again and the Fisherman heard it, he exclaimed again, “How beautiful that is!”

The poor Fisherman listening to the Nightingale

“Oh! How pretty that is!” he would say

From all the countries of the World, Travellers came to the City of the Emperor and admired it, and the Palace and the Garden, but when they heard the song of the Nightingale, they said: “That is the best of all!” And the Travellers told of it when they came home; and the learned men wrote many books about the Town, the Palace, and the Garden. But they did not forget the Nightingale; that was placed highest of all; and those who were Poets wrote most magnificent poems about the Nightingale in the wood, by the deep lake. The books went through all the World; and a few of them once came to the Emperor.

He sat in his golden chair, and read, and read; every moment he nodded his head, for it pleased him to peruse the masterly descriptions of the City, the Palace, and the Garden. “But the Nightingale is the best of all!” it stood written there. “What’s that?” exclaimed the Emperor. “I do not know the Nightingale at all! Is there such a bird in my Garden? I’ve never heard of that: to learn such a thing for the first time from books!” And hereupon he called his Cavalier. This Cavalier was so grand that if any one lower in rank than himself dared to speak to him, or to ask him any question, he answered nothing but P! and that meant nothing.

“There is said to be a wonderful bird here called a Nightingale!” said the Emperor. “They say it’s the best thing in all my great Empire. Why have I never heard any thing about it?” “I have never heard him named,” replied the Cavalier. “He has never been introduced at Court.” “I command that he shall appear this evening, and sing before me,” said the Emperor. “All the world knows what I possess, and I do not know it myself!” “I have never heard him mentioned,” said the Cavalier. “I will seek for him. I will find him.”

But where was he to be found? The Cavalier ran up and down all the staircases, through halls and passages, but no one among all those whom he met had heard talk of the Nightingale. And the Cavalier ran back to the Emperor, and said that it must be a fable invented by the writers of books.

“Your Imperial Majesty cannot believe how much is written that is fiction, and something that they call the black art.” “But the book in which I read this,” said the Emperor, “was sent to me by the High and Mighty Emperor of Japan, and therefore it cannot be a falsehood. I will hear the Nightingale! It must be here this evening! It has my imperial favour! and if it does not come, all the Court shall be trampled upon after the Court has supped!” “Tsing-pe,” said the Cavalier; and again he ran up and down all the staircases, and through all the halls and corridors; and half the Court ran with him, for the Courtiers did not like being trampled upon.

Then there was a great inquiry after the wonderful Nightingale, which all the World knew, excepting the people at Court. At last they met with a poor little Girl in the kitchen, who said, “The Nightingale? I know it well; yes, it can sing gloriously. Every evening I get leave to carry my poor sick mother the scraps from the table. She lives down by the strand, and when I get back and am tired, and rest in the wood, then I hear the Nightingale sing! And then the water comes into my eyes, and it is just as if my mother kissed me.” “Little Kitchen-Girl,” said the Cavalier, “I will get you a place in the kitchen, with permission to see the Emperor dine, if you will lead us to the Nightingale, for it is announced for this evening.”

Portrait of the Kitchen-Maid carrying a bag on her back

The Kitchen-Maid

So they all went out into the wood where the Nightingale was accustomed to sing; half the Court went forth. When they were in the midst of their journey a cow began to low. “Oh!” cried the court pages, “now we have it! That shows a wonderful power in so small a creature! I have certainly heard it before.” “No; those are cows lowing,” said the little Kitchen-Girl. “We are a long way from the place yet.” Now the frogs began to quack in the marsh. “Glorious!” said the Chinese Court Preacher. “Now I hear it: it sounds just like litle church bells.” “No; those are frogs,” said the little Kitchen-Maid. “But now I think we shall soon hear it.” And then the Nightingale began to sing.

“That is it!” exclaimed the little Girl. “Listen, listen! and yonder it sits,” and she pointed to a little gray bird up in the boughs. “Is it possible?” cried the Cavalier. “I should never have thought it looked like that. How simple it looks! It must certainly have lost its colour at seeing such grand people around.” “Little Nightingale!” called the little Kitchen-Girl, quite loudly, “our gracious Emperor wishes you to sing before him.”

The Nightingale on a branch, singing

Among the branches dwelt a Nightingale

“With the greatest pleasure!” replied the Nightingale, and began to sing most delightfully. “It sounds just like glass bells!” said the Cavalier. “And look at the little throat, how its working! It’s wonderful that we should never have heard it before. That bird will be a great success at Court.” “Shall I sing once more before the Emperor?” asked the Nightingale, for it thought the Emperor was present. “My excellent little Nightingale,” said the Cavalier, “I have great pleasure in inviting you to a Court festival this evening, when you shall charm his Imperial Majesty with your beautiful singing.” “My song sounds best in the green wood!” replied the Nightingale; still it came willingly when it heard what the Emperor wished.

The Palace was festively adorned. The walls and the flooring, which were of porcelain, gleamed in the rays of thousands of golden lamps. The most glorious flowers, which could ring clearly, had been placed in the passages. There was a running to and fro, and a through draught, and all the bells rang so loudly that one could not hear one’s self speak.

In the midst of the great hall, where the Emperor sat, a golden perch had been placed, on which the Nightingale was to sit. The whole Court was there, and the little Cook-Maid had got leave to stand behind the door, as she had now received the title of a real Court cook. All were in full dress, and all looked at the little gray bird, to which the Emperor nodded.

And the Nightingale sang so gloriously that the tears came into the Emperor’s eyes. The tears ran down over his cheeks, and then the Nightingale sang still more sweetly; that went straight to the heart. The Emperor was so much pleased that he said the Nightingale should have his golden slipper to wear round its neck. But the Nightingale declined this with thanks, saying it had already received a sufficient reward. “I have seen tears in the Emperor’s eyes; that is the real treasure to me! An Emperor’s tears have a peculiar power. I am rewarded enough.” And then it sang again with a sweet, glorious voice.

The Emperor and the little Cook-Maid walking in the garden

They admired the city, the palace, and the garden

“That’s the most amiable coquetry I ever saw!” said the Ladies who stood round about, and then they took water in their mouths to gurgle when any one spoke to them. They thought they should be nightingales too. And the lackeys and chambermaids reported that they were satisfied too; and that was saying a good deal, for they are the most difficult to please. In short the Nightingale achieved a real success. It was now to remain at Court, to have its own cage, with liberty to go out twice every day and once at night. Twelve servants were appointed when the Nightingale went out, each of whom had a silken string fastened to the bird’s leg, and which they held very tight. There was really no pleasure in an excursion of that kind. The whole City spoke of the wonderful bird, and when two people met, one said nothing but Nightin—, and the other said—gale; and then they sighed, and understood one another. Eleven pedlar’s children were named after the bird, but not one of them could sing a note.

From The Nightingale, Hans Christian Andersen,
New York: R. H. Russel, 1895.

ClassicsFairy tales

EuropeDenmark

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