Music and Mechanics: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale

“Your imperial majesty,” said he, “cannot believe everything contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called the black art.”

In the early 1840s, fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen had already published his first collections of short stories, as well as two popular, well reviewed novels. Emboldened by these early successes, he had begun to turn from creating delicate literary versions of the oral stories he had heard as a child, to creating his own stories. These new tales were part fairy tales, part social criticism. Among these was “The Nightingale,” first published in New Fairy Tales in 1843, a story of music, near death, and mechanics—one of the closest things Andersen ever wrote to a steampunk tale, and one that he wrote swiftly, assuredly, over just two days.

“The Nightingale” is set in a very imaginary China of “a great many years ago.” ...