The story centers around a Chinese emperor who finds out about a nightingale with an extremely beautiful voice. The Emperor wants the nightingale to stay with him always and the bird becomes popular at court and famous throughout the city. When the Emperor receives a mechanical nightingale, the bird falls out of favor but the real bird's song eventually saves the Emperor's life by charming Death himself.
The story has been adapted for stage, cinema and television. One of the best known adaptations is the 1914 opera Le Rossignol by Igor Stravinsky.
The Emperor of China lives in a palace made entirely of porcelain with a beautiful garden. Beyond the garden, there is a forest which stretches to the ocean. In the forest, lives a nightingale which sings so beautifully that all who hear her song cannot help but be moved. When travelers from other countries write about the Emperor's city, they always mention the nightingale but the Emperor himself does not know that the bird exists.
A book is sent to the Emperor from the Emperor of Japan. It says that the nightingale is the most remarkable thing in all of China. The Emperor is surprised that he needed to read a foreign book to find out about the bird with an amazing voice which lives near his palace. He asks a gentleman of his court to find out about the nightingale. The gentleman asks the other courtiers but they have never heard of the bird. Eventually, a girl who works in the kitchen tells the gentleman that she listens to the nightingale every evening and that she can lead the courtiers to where the bird lives. The gentleman is surprised to find that the nightingale is a plain looking gray bird but is impressed by its song. The girl asks the nightingale if she will sing at the Emperor's palace. The bird replies that her song sounds best in the forest but agrees to go anyway.
The nightingale's song moves the Emperor to tears. He offers the bird his golden slipper as a reward but she says that the Emperor's tears are reward enough. The nightingale is told to remain in the palace. She lives in a cage but is allowed to fly outside three times a day, although a servant must keep hold of her by a silken thread when she flies. The bird and her beautiful song become famous throughout the city.
One day, the Emperor receives a package from the Emperor of Japan. It contains a mechanical nightingale made of gold and silver and covered in jewels. The courtiers are impressed that, unlike the real nightingale, the mechanical one sings the same song every time. They are also impressed that it can sing over and over again without getting tired. While the courtiers are admiring the mechanical nightingale, the real one slips away quietly.
After a year of constant use, the mechanical nightingale suddenly stops working. A watchmaker is eventually able to repair it but says that from now on, to avoid breaking it again, it should only be used once a year. The mechanical bird remains next to the Emperor's bed, surrounded by the many gifts that he has given it, including his golden slipper.
Five years later, the Emperor lies seriously ill. Death comes for the Emperor one moonlit night, accompanied by many people, some beautiful and others ugly, who Death explains are the Emperor's good and evil deeds. The good and evil deeds make a terrible noise. The Emperor calls out to the mechanical bird for some music to drown out the noise but the bird remains silent. The Emperor is too weak to get out of bed and there is nobody else to wind up the mechanical toy. Suddenly, the real nightingale returns. She sings such a beautiful song that Death himself is moved and allows the Emperor to live.
The nightingale agrees to return to the Emperor but will not stay with him always. She will fly across China and observe those who are happy and those who are miserable. She will then report back to the Emperor, who will always have a little bird that tells him everything.
- Text of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" in Danish and English on Wikisource.
- Public domain audiobook of "The Nightingale" on YouTube.