Demons. Poetry contests. A cat that may not be exactly a cat. Not elements that exactly come to mind when thinking about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a story without demons or cats, but all blended into Kara Dalkey’s novel-length retelling of the story, The Nightingale, which transforms Andersen’s fable into a novel of palace intrigue, magic and poetry.
Dalkey wrote her novel as part of Terri Windling’s The Fairy Tale series, novel length fairy tale retellings intended for adults. She kept many elements of the original tale. As in the original story, for instance, the emperor learns of the music in his gardens from reading a book written by outsiders, not his own courtiers, and as in the original story, the courtiers are led to that musician by a kitchen maid. As in the story, his own courtiers are frequently none too perceptive—or alternatively, so focused on their own ambitions and problems that they forget to notice little things like the way a certain courtesan keeps herself very carefully away from mirrors and still pools of water. And as in the original story, both of the “nightingales” try to perform together, and fail, and most members of the court find themselves on the side of the courtesan—who, as in the original tale, is not entirely natural.
Dalkey did, however, change many other things, starting by shifting the setting from China to Japan, and continuing by changing the focus of Andersen’s tale from a focus on the artificial versus nature, to a tale of demons and singers, without a single singing bird to be found. She also added and changed minor details. To be fair, those minor details sort of include the setting. Andersen’s “China” was vaguely described at best—remove that word, and his story really could be set anywhere. Dalkey, on the other hand, while keeping the precise time setting of her novel vague, grounds her story with descriptions of Japanese culture, building techniques, religion and poetry. The Emperor’s motivation is also different: in the original story, the emperor is indignant that strangers have encountered the most beautiful thing in his realms when he has not. In Dalkey’s novel, the emperor sends the courtier off to find the flautist as part of a general strategy to gain at least some control over his court.
Most notably, Dalkey transformed the nightingales into people: a shy girl from a noble family, gifted with playing the flute, and a vengeful demon, a little less gifted with music, but skilled with manipulating events.
As the novel starts, Uguisu, the “nightingale” of the tale, is in complete despair, to the point where she has decided to summon a ghost in order to kill herself. I’m not entirely sure why she feels that she has to summon a ghost to kill herself, instead of finding a less magical method, but moving on. The ghost is not particularly in favor of this plan, not because the ghost cares about suicide one way or another, but because the ghost plans to use Uguisu as part of an elaborate plan to destroy the Fujiwara family, the true powers behind the Imperial Throne, which can’t be done if Uguisu is dead. This dovetails rather neatly with the plans of Uguisu’s father to increase his family’s prestige and power.
The only person against this plan is Uguisu herself, partly out of pure horror, partly because she is far too shy to want to participate in court politics, and partly because she is in love with another man—one who rather conveniently decides to leave to become a monk, and then rather equally conveniently returns just when the story needs a monk, but I anticipate. Nonetheless, she continues to play her flute—which brings her to the attention of some Chinese travelers, whose report of her music brings her to the attention of the emperor. Uguisu is brought to the court, and assigned three ladies-in-waiting. But when she refuses to sleep with the emperor—knowing, with good reason, that this could lead to his death—her family ghosts decide that more drastic measures need to be taken. They bring in a courtesan who claims to be from China, plays the flute exquisitely, and is remarkably level headed. She also can’t cast reflections, but we can’t all be perfect.
Dalkey places this plot in the context of a highly stylized, highly mannered court, so stylized that courtiers often choose to communicate with each other through poems. Even the most pragmatic member of the court, Diamigi, often ends his musings with a poem or two. Everything seems bound by custom and law: the number of servants that must attend a person of a certain rank; the way the noblewomen are only allowed to talk to most men through screens that conceal their faces; the messages written and sent through poetry.
Unfortunately, all of this careful focus on manners and poetry leaves several characters rather indistinct, all hidden behind their screens of proper behavior and habits of writing brief poems to express their feelings. It can be somewhat difficult, for instance, to distinguish between Daimigi, an ambitious nobleman concerned with elevating his family’s power and prestige, and Netsubo, an ambitious nobleman concerned with elevating his family’s power and prestige. Which is sort of a problem given that one is the target of the villain’s plot, and one is part of the villain’s plot.
Or occasionally, for that matter, between Lady Katte, recently elevated into the nobility and miserable about it, and Uguisu, recently elevated to the highest nobility, brought into the palace, and miserable about it—especially when both fall in love with men considered unsuitable for them, and both find themselves temporarily exiled from the court. Rather a problem given that one is supposedly the main character of the story, and one isn’t. And although Dalkey attempts to give Uguisu’s three ladies-in-waiting distinct personalities—one is rather stupid but hopeful, one a mean gossip, and one a clever poet—only Shonasaki, the poet, manages to stand out, a problem given that their distinct opinions have a certain effect on the plot.
The romances also may trouble some readers: Uguisu, for instance, is considerably younger than the forty-one year old Emperor, who even calls himself “old” when he comes to her bedchamber, and who has at least one daughter presumably about Uguisu’s age. The narrator outright comments on the age and social differences between another couple, before assuring readers that the romance is not as unlikely as it sounds. That this reflects historical realities does not necessarily make either couple something to cheer for—especially since neither romance is particularly well built up. A third romance between minor characters works a little better—but since they are minor characters, it remains sidelined.
It’s also somewhat difficult to sympathize with this Emperor—yes, he’s the victim of a decades long plot aimed largely at the family who politically controls him, but at the same time, he makes a number of terrible to cruel decisions while not under the demon’s influence, making another character’s later insistence that the emperor is truly good and kind seem, well, wrong. It doesn’t help that even after he is directly targeted by the demon, he still suffers less than others like Katte, separated from the man she loves, or Daimigi, who loses a beloved son, or for that matter, the son. And he loses several points for willingly exiling his cat. So I’m perhaps less enthralled by attempts to save him than I should be.
And I’ll confess that as fond as I am of new takes on old fairy tales, by turning “The Nightingale” into a story of long awaited revenge, rather than exploring the implications and unsaid parts of Andersen’s tale, The Nightingale seems to miss much of the point.
On the other hand, any novel that has poetry and specifically the skill of writing poetry as a major part of the plot is bound to get at least a small piece of my heart. The cat is adorable, and yes, part of the plot. And I must say that while I know I’m not supposed to, I rather like the courtesan Su K’an. Sure, technically she’s a demon, and technically, not exactly the most moral person in the group—but I like her self-confidence and her refreshing lack of jealousy. And sure, her willingness to train the Emperor’s new wife—technically her rival—is all just part of her Evil Plan, but in a novel that frequently features women deliberately cutting other women down, it’s rather nice to have an evil demon willing to support the rise of a virtual stranger.
And for all of my criticisms about The Nightingale kinda missing the point of the original story, above all, the novel is an example of just what can be mined from fairy tales, and the rich possibilities of giving a tale new motivations, while keeping elements of the same plot. Having familiar plot points pop up in new and unexpected ways—as a poetry contest in this novel, for instance—is half the delight of fairy tale retellings. It’s hardly a perfect novel, but The Nightingale does serve as a template for showing the possibilities of the novel-length fairy tale retelling.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.