The Singer and the Nightingale is an allegory of soul yearning. It teaches from behind a mask of delightful fantasy the true secret of music, art, and of life itself when one lives it successfully.
Some months ago the world was saddened to learn of the death of “The Singer,” as he was simply known. So well-known was he that to name him might seem a desecration, as if to limit one whose artistry was without no limits, who did far more than sing, for he defined for many people the very art of singing. So famous was he that whole cities sprang into being just so they might give him their keys. And his rich baritone voice settled at least one international dispute. The leading statesmen on both sides, recalling his melodies, took to humming them while deliberating around the conference table. Gradually—just see the power of suggestion!—the rhythmic nodding of their heads became rhythmic nods of agreement!
Well, you have probably guessed that I’m not entirely serious in telling you this story. The fact is, I can’t bring myself wholly to believe it myself. Often, however, since hearing it, I’ve reflected that reality is, after all, a strange mix of cloudy and clear skies. One may live for years believing something, and then suddenly find it taking on for him a sort of—well, a different quality, as if what was becomes unexpectedly what merely might have been, and what is becomes cloaked in questions like, “Well, but is it really?—or is it not, really? Is it only a seeming? Or could it both be and not be? And perhaps, after all, it neither is nor isn’t!”
Well anyway, as to the Singer: Everyone, surely, knows how great he was in the world of music. How many know, however, the secret of his greatness? How many of you listening to me will believe it is even true? And what will your reaction be, as you listen? Will you, like so many in these prosaic times, confuse dry facts with reality?
For the story conceals a mystery—a gay one, to be sure, full of laughter as well as wonder, but it needs cracking like a walnut for its “meat” to be relished.
The tale had its beginning in the heart of a deep forest, and in the heart of night. I heard it while traveling in the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) in Germany, where—so I was to learn—the Singer had been born, and where for years he had been a town favorite before the world claimed him as its own.
What first caught my interest was a poster announcing that “The Singer” would give a concert that evening. Its featured number was to be a song titled, “Melody on A.”
A “melody”—on one note! This would be, I reflected, a novel feature indeed! Smiling, I turned to a bystander and remarked that the name obviously should have read, “Melody in A.”
“Still, what a pity,” I added reflectively. “The prospect of a tuneless melody might add a light and humorous touch to the evening.”
“But you are mistaken!” the man assured me solemnly. He was not amused. “The announcement means exactly what it says.”
“But in that case—well, I mean to say, a whole song on only one note?”
“Ah,” he replied, “but consider the quality of that one note!”
I confessed I had no idea what he was talking about. “Aren’t all notes more or less like,” I asked—“except (or so one hopes!) in pitch? What other special virtue could they possess?”
“Ah, but the note of A as our great Singer sings it,” protested that worthy gentleman, “is a wonder of the age!” He raised his voice slightly as he spoke these words, as if wanting to ensure that this burst of local patriotism be not entirely lost on passersby. “To be ignorant of his A is not to know one of the great mysteries of music.”
“Are you saying,” I inquired, marveling, “that there aren’t other notes that he sings quite as well?”
“Almost,” he replied gravely, “but not quite. Not, at any rate, after what those little creatures”—smiling sweetly, he corrected himself—“those little ‘friends of our community’ did for him.” He glanced around hopefully, as if seeking approval from an audience that was still nonexistent.
“Little—friends?’” I echoed, blankly.
“Oh, you know,” he replied a little impatiently, clearly disappointed that by this time no crowd had gathered. Confidentially he added, “Come now, surely you don’t want me to go through the whole threadbare tale, do you?”
“Indeed I do,” I assured him, “if there is a tale.”
His eyes widened in astonishment. “Do you mean to tell me you don’t know anything about those birds?”
“Birds?” I was utterly bewildered. “I wasn’t aware there were any birds to know something about!”
A dawning look of triumph told its own story. That worthy gentleman had evidently mistaken me for a fellow townsman. Tourists, I realized, seldom visited that remote place. The only way for its good people to keep their local lore intact was, no doubt, to submit themselves to one another in the role of long-suffering listener. My chance acquaintance now realized that he was among of the fortunate few. Fate had introduced him—rare blessing!—to an outsider, a genuine outsider.
Opportunity had knocked. He hesitated not to answer the summons. With an expansive smile he led me smugly to a nearby park bench.
And that, my friends, was how I heard this remarkable tale. As for its credibility, I’ll let you be the judge of it for yourself.
This is another simple story, which I first wrote also when I was eighteen. It doesn’t express my own heart’s feelings as deeply as I did in The Land of Golden Sunshine, but it does express allegorically my own second, and equally deep, desire in life: to help others to find everlasting inspiration and joy in God. The lesson taught by the queen of the nightingales is that true self-expression comes from attunement with the highest reality.
Interestingly perhaps, my first inspiration for this story was a poem of Chaucer’s I had read in college, "The Parliament of Fowls" (as its title would be written in today’s English). In the library at Haverford College I found a book that described the personalities of birds. The birds I chose for this story are all drawn from characterizations I found there.