The Nightingale

the nightingaleThis story by the Danish poet and writer Hans Christian Andersen is about an Emperor who discovers that there is a bird in his garden that, although plain to look at, sings so beautifully that it is famous all over the world. He falls in love with its song and keeps it in a cage until he receives a toy bird covered in jewels which can sing just as well. He replaces the original bird with the toy one, and does not realize until lying on his deathbed years later that the song of the real nightingale is the true treasure.

English Learner Vocabulary Help

The words and expressions in our Simplified English story which are not in our Pre-Intermediate Level 1200 word list are: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , and . There is also one “non-word” in the story: Pooh!. This is what the Prime Minister answered when anyone other than the Emperor asked him a question and, we are told, means nothing at all.

If you are interested, you can watch and listen to a nightingale singing by clicking here.

General Comments on the Story

fairy tales of hans christian andersenOur source was an e-book book called “Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen”, available from Project Gutenberg here. Two things surprised me about the book. The first was the literary quality of Andersen’s original work, especially the imagery used in some of his descriptive passages. This has been lost over the years as his stories have been re-written for children. The second was the dark themes and unhappy endings in many of Andersen’s stories.

During his lifetime, Andersen rose from a poor family and difficult childhood to become one of the most famous writers in Europe. It is said that later in life he suffered from periods of depression, due in part to his childhood experiences and in part to frustrations in his adult life. Despite his wealth and success, he was never fully accepted in Danish high society because of his low beginnings. In addition, the only woman Andersen truly loved in his life did not return his feelings.

A lot of Andersen’s up and down emotions can be seen in his writing. This story and the famous children’s story “The Ugly Duckling” (written at almost the same time) have heartwarming themes about how an animal that was badly treated because of how it looks can win out in the end. As a child, Andersen proved to be highly intelligent. However, people often laughed at him because he was also unusually tall, clumsy and ordinary looking. Could this be the source for the idea of the plain looking nightingale and ugly duckling?

These stories were written in perhaps the happiest period of Andersen’s life, when he was courting Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. “The Nightingale” was said to have been written as an expression of his love for her, earning her the nickname “The Swedish Nightingale”. When Anderson proposed marriage in a letter a year later, she wrote back politely saying “no” in the following words:

“farewell… God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny”.

Heartbroken, over the next two years he wrote two of his saddest stories (also featured ob our website): “The Fir Tree” and “The Little Match Seller“.


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branch(n: branch pl branches) An arm-like part of a tree that grows out from the central part. 2000

breathe(v: breathe, breathes, breathed, breathing) To move air into and out of your lungs; to inhale and exhale. He was breathing hard from running.
(phrasal verb: breathe deeply) To take a lot of air into your lungs. 3000

cage(n: cage pl cages) A container or enclosure with wire or metal bars for holding birds or animals. 4000

corridor(n: corridor pl corridors) A long, narrow passage inside a building with doors that lead to rooms on each side; also called a hall or hallway. 3000

(n: Emperor pl Emperors) A man who rules a group of countries or regions. 8000
(n: Empire pl Empires) A group of countries or regions that are controlled by one ruler or one government. 000.
(adj: Imperial) Of or relating to an empire or an emperor. 5000

hut(n: hut pl huts) A small and simple house or building. 3000

jewel(n: jewel pl jewels) A precious stone (such as a diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire) that has been cut and polished.
(n: jewels, plural) An ornament or pieces of jewelry containing a precious stone or stones. She loved dressing up in her jewels.
(adj: jeweled or jewelled) Covered in jewels. 3000

master(n: master pl masters) 1. A person who has become very skilled at doing something. 2. Someone who has control or power over others. 3. A polite title for a boy. 2000

nightingale(n: nightingale pl nightingales) A small brown European bird that sings a beautiful song, especially at night. 7000

nod(v: nod, nods, nodded, nodding) 1. To move your head up and down as a way of answering 'yes' or of showing agreement, understanding, or approval. 2. To move your head up and down as a signal to someone or as a way of saying hello or goodbye to someone. 3000

palace(n: palace pl palaces) A very large and beautiful house, especially one lived in by a member of a royal family such as a king, queen, sultan, etc. 4000
The picture on the left shows Buckingham Palace in London where the Queen of England lives.

pale(adj: pale, paler, palest) Having a skin color that is closer to white than is usual or normal, either because it is your natural color or you are sick or scared at the time. 3000

plain(adj: plain, plainer, plainest ) 1. Simply made, with no pattern or decoration. She was wearing plain black shoes. 2. Easy to understand; clear. His words were quite plain. 2000
(n: plain pl plains) A large area of flat land with few if any trees. 11000

poem(n: poem pl poems) A piece of writing arranged in lines which usually have a regular rhythm and often end in words that rhyme. 2000
(n: poet pl poets) A person who writes poems (poetry). 4000

(n: Prime Minister pl Prime Ministers) The leader [chief minister] of a government in some countries.
(adj: prime) The most important. 2000

punch(v: punch, punches, pinched, punching) To hit someone or something hard with your fist. 3000

reward(n: reward pl rewards) A benefit that someone gets or is offered for doing good work, good behavior etc. 3000

royal(adj: royal) Of or relating to a king or queen, etc. 2000

servant(n: servant pl servants) Someone who is hired to do household or personal duties [such as cleaning and cooking]. (คนรับใช้) 1000

shake your head(v: shake, shakes, shook, shaken, shaking your head) To turn your head from side to side as a way of answering “no” or of showing disagreement or that you will not do something. (ส่ายหัว)

throat(n: throat pl throats) 1. The front part of the neck. (คอ) 2. The back part of the mouth connecting the openings of the stomach, lungs and nose. (ช่องคอ) 3000

A 10 minute musical animation, where the story is told in song by three Chinese girls. To watch online, click here. To download the mp4, click here.

This children’s radio theater series ran on the CBS network from March 1934 until October 1954. The show always began with a characteristic jingle from its sponsor, Cream of Wheat breakfast cereal. We have left this in at the beginning of the recording for atmosphere, but have edited out the childish talk by the announcers that follows it. The quality of the recording is not great, and the strong American accents of the actors don’t help in making us believe that the story really happened in China, but this is still a wonderful example of children’s entertainment in the days before TV. To download the mp3, click here.

A 24 minute film from the ‘Fairytaler’ Danish television series featuring 30 Andersen stories. To watch online, click here. To download the mp4, click here.

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