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Places to Go: The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen

Written by Rachael Norris, 6th November 2020

Manchester Hub Leader at The Reader Kate Weston takes us on an audio adventure through an extract of Hans Christians Andersen's The Nightingale. Check out the rest of our readings for November and download the calendar here.

During challenging times, I always find myself returning to the comfort of fairytales, where I can be transported into worlds that contain an alternative version of reality whilst still retaining the eternal truths of life. In Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Nightingale’, the fantasy of a talking nightingale is balanced with the harsh reality of illness, ensuring that we remain rooted in a world we know and understand, even as we escape into another.

In this particular extract, a nightingale that has been banished from the Emperor of China’s kingdom returns to the emperor’s side in what seem to be his dying days. Although the emperor, surrounded by so much grandeur in his magnificent palace, had previously tried to keep the nightingale locked up for his own amusement and then favoured a jewelled, artificial bird over the real one, the nightingale still returns to ‘sing him comfort and hope’ during his darkest moment, prompting the recovering emperor to declare that the bird has ‘sung the bad visions away from my bed and removed Death from my heart!’

It feels powerful, this moment of light in the darkness, and something that might feel especially poignant at the moment - and yet it is the next part which always most strikes me. When offered a reward and a home with the emperor, the nightingale refuses. Instead, he asks only to ‘come whenever I want to’ and sing about ‘those who are happy and those who suffer...of good and evil, which is kept hidden from you.’ Is the nightingale simply keen to share his travels or does he perhaps recognise that he has much more freedom to roam - and therefore a greater knowledge of the land and all its people - than this powerful figure will ever have?

As someone who loves to visit new places and learn about the world, I can empathise with the nightingale’s desire to be free to explore. The emperor’s lack of a proper response does make me wonder whether he truly understands the nightingale, however, and whether there will be any long-lasting change in him as a result of his own journey into a darker place.

Whatever your interpretation of this extract, I hope you enjoy listening to it.


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