How the “Swedish Nightingale” Became “The Snow Queen” | Happy Birthday Hans Christian Andersen!


In honour of Hans Christian Andersen’s 213th birthday today I thought I would explore a link between two of his most famous fairy tales – “The Nightingale” and “The Snow Queen”. That link is Jenny Lind, a beloved Swedish opera singer of the 19th century and someone who, prior to the recent film, The Greatest Showman, I was unaware of. I’m not sure how accurate this movie’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum and his relationship with Lind is (from what little I’ve read it seems like not very) but it did introduce me to the singer known as “The Swedish Nightingale”.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, published in 1843, Andersen’s “The Nightingale” basically tells the story of a Chinese emperor who, upon reading the books and poetry of travellers to his city, discovers and falls in love with the beautiful song of a nightingale who lives in a forest near his gardens. The Emperor imprisons the Nightingale, forcing her to remain at court so that everyone can listen to her sing whenever they please. However, when the Emperor receives the gift of a mechanical nightingale from Japan the real Nightingale is exiled because, as far as everyone can tell, the two birds have the same beautiful voice but the real bird is much plainer to look at than the artificial one (which is covered in jewels). Eventually, the fake bird breaks and the Emperor falls ill. Death comes to him and then the real Nightingale returns outside his window and sings him back to health, enchanting Death himself with her song at the same time. She agrees to return and sing to him each night and tell him the truths of his land and people, which she is privy to only in being able to live freely outside of the palace [Andersen, “The Nightingale”].

When Andersen first heard Lind sing in 1843 her performance was, in his own (translated) words “a new revelation in the realms of art, the youthfully fresh voice forced itself into every heart; here reigned truth and nature; everything was full of meaning and intelligence…the whole of Copenhagen was in raptures” [Andersen, The Story of My Life]. We see in this description of Lind something overtly similar to that of the Nightingale, whose beautiful voice captures the heart of the Chinese Emperor and court in the classic fairy tale. Andersen’s associating Lind’s performances with the idea of “truth” also reflects the ending of his story in the way that the real Nightingale becomes a sort of adviser to the Emperor, telling him everything of his land and people. “The Nightingale”, in short, is an undeniably complimentary portrayal by Andersen of Lind.

Looking now at the “The Snow Queen”, first published in 1844 (a year after “The Nightingale”), we see a story about a young and innocent boy with ice in his heart, held prisoner by the Snow Queen in her palace [this is one of the longer fairy tales so instead of summarising it properly you can read the original story here]. In her biography of Andersen, Carol Rosen argues that the Snow Queen herself was also based on Lind (she draws ties between Lind and “The Ugly Duckling” – perhaps Andersen’s best-known fairy tale – as well). However, the difference between the innocent Nightingale and the icy Snow Queen is pretty stark and this is attributed to the fact that Lind rejected Andersen’s marriage proposal, seeing their relationship as much more platonic than he did and referring to him as a brother.

The fact that Lind inspired Andersen is not really debated. He tells us as much in his The Story of My Life when writes that “through Jenny Lind I first became sensible of the holiness there is in art… No books, no men have had a better or a more ennobling influence on me as the poet, than Jenny Lind”. More speculative are exactly which works and stories she inspired. The link between Lind’s nickname, “The Swedish Nightingale”, and Andersen’s “The Nightingale” is not exactly subtle (nor are the plot and themes of the story itself) and as a result it seems fairly uncontested that the singer was the inspiration behind this fairy tale, as well as two of his other works, “Beneath the Pillar” and “The Angel”. That “The Snow Queen” was modelled by an Andersen made bitter by Lind’s rejection is, I think, a more dubious claim. Perhaps Andersen harboured ill-feelings towards Lind while writing the story but I think it is interesting to note that in his biography, The Story of My Life [quoted above], which was written after his rejected marriage proposal, whenever Lind is mentioned she is painted in an incredibly positive light and his words certainly do not seem bitter or tinged with malice as far as I can see.

So, do we have Jenny Lind to thank for Frozen? I guess we’ll never know. However, it can certainly be said with confidence that she inspired and captured the heart of an author whose stories, in turn, continue to inspire and capture the hearts of so many, even 213 years after his birth.

References/Further Reading if you’re interested:

[“The Nightingale” and “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen]

[The Story of My Life by Hans Christian Andersen]

[“Jenny Lind” Wikipedia page]

[“Hans Christian Andersen” Wikipedia page]

[“The Nightingale” Wikipedia page]

[“The Snow Queen” Wikipedia page]

[“Jenny Lind” image]


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