Friday, June 17, 2005

The Emperor and the Nightingale

Condensed (slightly) from the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen

A long time ago, the Emperor of China lived in the most beautiful palace in the whole world. It was made of fine porcelain, so everyone had to be very careful.
In the garden, the flowers were hung with tiny silver bells which whispered in the breeze. The Emperor's gardens were so extensive that no one, not even the gardener, knew where it ended.

I can tell you that it backed onto a mighty forest that ended at the sea; from there you could see the great ships as they sailed by.
In one of the trees in this forest lived a nightingale who sang so beautifully that the poor fishermen would stop to listen to her as they spread their nets in the moonlight.
Travellers from afar would visit the Emperor to admire his palace and gardens, but the only thing that touched their hearts was the lovely song of the nightingale. Authors who wrote books about the wonders they had seen never forgot to mention the nightingale; even poets composed verses in her honour.

The Emperor sat in his golden chair and was pleased to read about the high praise bestowed on his land. He knew nothing of the nightingale, and was suprised to hear her named the most beautiful thing in his kingdom. He could not understand why he did not know anything about this bird, so he summoned one of his lords-in-waiting to ask why he had not been informed.

The lord-in-waiting hurried all over the palace, inquiring of everyone he met if they knew of the nightingale. But no one in the palace had heard of her, so he returned to the Emperor and reported that perhaps she was a work of fiction, and that one cannot believe everything one reads in books.

The Emperor replied, "But this book here was sent to me by the Emperor of Japan; it cannot possibly contain a falsehood!" He insisted that the nightingale be brought to him that night so that he could listen to her sing.

The lord-in-waiting and half the court ran about in a panic, for if the nightingale did not appear, they would be punished. Finally they met a little girl in the kitchen who knew. She said that every night she was allowed to take table scraps for her sick mother, who lived at the end of the forest, and that the nightingale sang to her while she rested on her way back to the palace kitchen.

The lord-in-waiting gave the maid permission to see the king eating dinner, if only she would bring the nightingale to the palace that evening. So she went out to the forest, with half the court following behind. When they saw the plain grey bird sitting on a branch, the lord-in-waiting exclaimed that pretty songs couldn't possibly come from such a modest bird, and that it must have turned pale at the sight of so many grand people.

The kitchen maid called, "Little nightingale, our most gracious emperor wishes you to sing before him."
"With all my pleasure," the nightingale replied, and lifted up her voice in song (thinking that the lord-in-waiting was the Emperor).

The lord-in-waiting said, "It sounds like tiny glass bells, and see how her tiny throat works!" He proclaimed she would be a success at court, and invited her to gain the imperial favour.

That evening, the palace glittered in the light of a thousand lamps, and flowers had been moved into the halls so that there was the constant tinkling of those little silver bells. All the court and staff were present, including the little kitchen maid who stood in a corner. Every eye was turned towards a golden perch in the centre of the great hall, upon which was perched the little grey nightingale.

The Emperor let her begin, and she sang so sweetly that tears rolled down his cheeks, and the notes went straight to the hearts of everyone who listened.

When she finished, the Emperor was so pleased that he wished to honour her by hanging his golden slipper about her neck, but she refused, saying, "I have seen tears in the Emperor's eyes. That is reward enough for me." And she sang again, more enchantingly than before.

In all, the little grey bird was such a success at court that she was ordered to stay there. She had her own gilded cage and was allowed to go out twice a day and once at night. She had twelve attendants who held her with a silk string fastened to each leg. And her fame spread throughout the land, but it was a golden captivity wasn't it?

One day the Emperor received a large package inscribed with the words, "The Nightingale". In awe, he unwrapped a marvellous golden casket containing an artificial nightingale encrusted with diamonds, rubies and other precious gems. As soon as it was wound up, it sang just like the real one, and moved its sparkling tail up and down. Around its neck hung a little card which said, "The Emperor of China's nightingale is poor compared with the Emperor of Japan's."

Every member of the court agreed that it was very beautiful, and the courtier who had brought it was entitled Imperial Nightingale-Bringer-in-Chief.
It was decided the real and the artificial birds must sing a duet, but it really was a disaster, for the real nightingale had her unique song, and the artificial one only sang waltzes.

So the real nightingale was forgotten while the court was absorbed in the artificial one, which was like jewellery to look at and could sing the same song many times over without tiring.
Eventually the Emperor said the real nightingale ought to sing something, but when they looked around for her, she had flown away, back to the freedom of the green woods. The courtiers blamed her and called her an ungrateful creature.

Then they were content that they had the best bird after all, thus the real nightingale was banished from the kingdom and the artificial one placed on a silk cushion by the left side of the Emperor's bed (as that is the same side as his heart and therefore the most noble).

By the end of a year, all the courtiers and everyone in the street could sing or whistle all the notes of the artificial nightingale's song. One night, however, when it had been wound up and the Emperor was lying in bed listening to it, there was a whizz and a crack, something went amiss, and the nightingale stopped singing. The Emperor immediately called for his physician who could do nothing for a machine. Then he sent for a watchmaker, who managed a little repair but suggested it should be used with great care as the wheels were worn and could not be replaced for fear of damaging the song.

Five years passed and now we find the Emperor lying in his bed, deathly ill. The Chinese loved their ruler and the country was plunged into grief. Even soft cloths were laid in the hallways of the porcelain palace so that not a footstep could be heard.
One night, the poor Emperor lay alone in his bed, struggling to breathe, bathed in the moonlight streaming through the open window. When he opened his eyes, he saw Death sitting on his chest.

While the Emperor listened, Death and his many cohorts reminded him of everything that had happened during his lifetime - his good and bad deeds, and all of his words.

In desperation the Emperor cried out for music to drown out the voices, but they would not be silenced. And the jewelled nightingale would not sing, for there was no one to wind it up. When all was given up, and the room returned to stillnes, Death was still sitting with the Emperor.

Suddenly the room was filled with the sound of sweet music coming through the open window. It was the real nightingale, who when she had heard of her emperor's illness, had come to sing to him of hope. As she sang, the shadows grew lighter, the blood flowed faster through the emperor's veins, and even Death stopped to listen.

The nightingale sang and sang and sang, until Death wafted out through the window like a cold white mist.

The Emperor praised the nightingale for banishing Death and asked how he could possibly reward her.
She replied that he had rewarded her the first time with his tears, the jewels that rejoice a singer's heart. Then she urged him to rest and regain his strength, and she sang him to sleep.

In the morning when the sun shone through the window, not one person ventured into the Emperor's chamber, believing him dead. The Emperor awoke refreshed, and again the nightingale sang for him. He said to her, " Stay with me; you shall sing whenever you wish, and I will break the artificial bird into a thousand pieces."

The nightingale wisely urged him not to, as it had served its purpose well and was indeed pretty to behold. She preferred to live in her forest and visit him in the evenings, when she would sit outside his window and sing him tales of whatever she had seen in the day. On one condition:

"What is that?" asked the Emperor, now dressed in Imperial robes with his sword at his side.

"Let no one know that you have a little bird who tells you everything." And she flew away to gather her songs across the kingdom.

When the servants tiptoed in to look at their dead Emperor and they stood there in astonishment to see the living one, he turned to them and said, "Good morning!"

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading that. Where did you get it? The end seemed abrupt. I really like the illustration.
vanessa

Steliano Ponticos said...

This story is great. Today I wrote the end of mine and then I didn't like it so I deleted it but now I regrett that because I think it was good..Anyway your story even reminds me of the end of mine..I'm so stupid to have deleted it. Bey

Olivia said...

I know, I literally just came from your site where I left you a message!

Jia Li said...

thank you liv for sharing the story

piano-3 said...

Good morning Olivia,
Thank u for this lovely story , I liked it so much it’s touching and sweet like many Chinese things

Olivia said...

Hey everyone, it is my pleasure ;-)

Jia Li said...

ooh, new picture
I like.

Steliano Ponticos said...

yeah great new picture

Olivia said...

Thanks, I left a comment on your site about it.