Tolkien’s Mechanical Nightingale

It is a common enough truism to say that the paths we travel in life often take unexpected turns.  But in our May 15 meeting, JRR Tolkien’s focus on mortality happened to come up, and this set our feet upon a completely unexpected path.

It began the next day when Kelly Cowling posted several comments related to the topic of mortality and Tolkien.  She asked if anyone had read Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers.  This ultimately led to Hans Christian Andersen.  As a philologist Tolkien was perhaps more familiar with the work of fellow philologist Jacob Grimm, but Tolkien’s literary explorations also took his feet to Andersen’s door.

In the fall of 1843 Hans Christian Andersen met a famous Swedish singer named Jenny Lind.  He became infatuated with her – a circumstance that inspired several of his subsequent stories.  One such story, “The Nightingale,” was a fictionalized daydream written in October 1843.  Andersen wrote the tale in two days while staying  in Copenhagen at the new Tivoli Gardens, which featured an Asian decorative theme.

It is a tale of imagined wonders.  In the story, travelers wrote accounts of a magic nightingale that sang very marvelously in a forest under which their ships passed.  Reading one account, the Emperor of China invited this magic nightingale to his palace – a beautiful palace with gardens filled with flowers to which silver bells had been tied.  The singing of this bird amazed them all.  Then one day a mechanical nightingale appeared at court.  The real bird returned to her forest.  When the artificial bird broke down, the Emperor grieved greatly and became ill.  The real bird learned of this and returned to the palace to heal the Emperor.

Tolkien read Andersen but did not wholly approve of such storytelling.  Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-earth (p. 343-344) notes that Tolkien held an “intimate dislike” for Anderson and other authors who didn’t make proper use of traditional material.

It is unclear whether Tolkien knew that Andersen had written “The Nightingale” as a means of memorializing Jenny Lind, and that it was not a traditional tale.  But he knew of the story.  It appears that he also knew of Igor Stravinski’s 1920 symphonic poem, “The Song of the Nightingale,” based on Andersen’s story.  Tolkien seems to mention the tale and the symphonic tone poem in his unfinished book, The Notion Club Papers (published in Sauron Defeated, 1992).

The Notion Club Papers is a time travel tale for which Tolkien fabricated a future history and fictional authorship.  He set the discovery of the Papers in the future as an unpublished manuscript found in the late summer of 2012.  The book sets forth notes on the meetings of a literary group known as The Notion Club, inspired by his own association with the Inklings.  The first entry is dated November 16, 1986.  On that night, only two members of the Club showed up.  One read “a poem about a mechanical Nightingale”; the other seemed drowsy and chuckled often.

This must be a reference to the Andersen story and possibly to Stravinski’s symphonic tone poem.  JRR Tolkien wrote The Notion Club Papers in late 1945 and early 1946.  He sat down in those days and pictured the future world in 1986.  It must have seemed a far-off time then.  But it came and went, and many things happened in the real 1986.

In November 1986 Linda and I lived in Lyons, Colorado – it was the first year we lived together.  And Linda figured out what we must have done on the day that Tolkien  mentioned as the earliest entry for a meeting of the Notion Club.  November 16, 1986.  Linda wrote this account:

On Sunday, November 16, 1986, it was 50 degrees at Mile High Stadium for the opening kick-off, as John Elway led the Denver Broncos to beat the Kansas City Chiefs (38 to 17). There was a friendly rivalry between me and my dad, who lived in Kansas City – where I grew up. When these two teams played we would always talk on the phone at half time. My dad said that in any other game he would root for the Broncos, but not when they played the Chiefs.

Earlier in the fall, I had made a down payment on a Melody Home. The builders began their slow progress and we watched them pour the foundation and put up the framing. Then I learned that the company I worked for (Beech Aircraft) would be closing their Boulder operations by the end of the year. I was really worried that by the time the house was finished I would be unemployed and would no longer qualify for the loan. The suspense was awful but the builders kept up the slow pace of construction. Fortunately, the house was finally ready and we closed on it on December 17. On December 31, my job at Beech ended, but Roger and I celebrated a hopeful New Year’s on Tulip Street.

Wondering where the other members of Grey Havens might have been, out in the world on November 16, 1986, I wrote to Grey Havens and received some interesting replies.  Given the fact that Tolkien mentioned a “mechanical Nightingale” and that this must refer to the Hans Christian Andersen story, and that this story refers obliquely to his infatuation with Jenny Lind, it is appropriate that three of the Grey Havens accounts are love stories:

Uintah Shabazz: In November ’86 I had just returned from my first backpacking trip in ages, which I’d taken with the man who would be Amia’s dad, and we were falling in love!

Andrea Mathwich: I was preparing to graduate from college in Dallas, move to New Mexico for grad school (history), and to be closer to my future husband, Brian. My parents, who live in Ohio, were upset about the move because they hadn’t even met Brian. It all worked out in the end, but it was a tumultuous time for me.

Katy Colby: In 1986 I was trying to get my head around the idea that I had met someone I could picture spending the rest of my life with. I worked in a country club preparing salads and baking breads and cakes for rich folks from Long Island.

Uintah added notes that led to Hans Christian Andersen: There is a famous Chinese legend about a mechanical nightingale, built to replace a living one which, among other things expresses the failure of the man-made world in comparison to the natural world. I still have the beautiful, still photo video Amia watched as a child about this tale.  This “still film” may very well have been from Hans Christian Andersen. I’m remembering it from about 20 years ago, and the story takes place in China, so that was my assumption! The video was very beautifully done, even if with “antique” technology.

Some members of Grey Havens were born after November 1986 or were young then.  Kelly Cowling wrote that in 1986 she “was a geek girl just trying to survive high school.”  But whatever happened in those days for her and for the rest of us, the members of Grey Havens slowly gathered in the future upon the figurative quays of Colorado, and we formed our own literary circle in 2010.

Grey Havens met all through 2011 and through 2012.  And in the mid-1940s Tolkien wrote that during the late summer of 2012 a man discovered the discarded sheaf of papers that became The Notion Club Papers.  And the tale told there begins with a mechanical nightingale.  And beneath this fabulous bird is the hidden story of Jenny Lind.

I guess when we listen to the tales that we tell one another, we often glimpse other lives, other times, other stories.  We peel back Tolkien to find Andersen, and we peel back Andersen to find Lind. In so doing we discover ourselves.  Lost in history, sometimes we don’t know what to expect.  But this mystery makes our various journeys even more meaningful and full of wonder.

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