'THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES' : A LESSON FOR THE 21st CENTURY
On 7th April 1837 the great Danish teller of fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen penned the third and final volume of his 'Fairy Tales Told For Children'. The whole collection of tales included nine stories, but this third volume included just two. One was 'The Little Mermaid'. The other, though very brief, was a story of great morality and highly perceptive commentary on the human condition. It was of course, still a fairy story intended for children. But this was a fairy story which, in the opinion of the author of this page, had merits far beyond those of its humble origins - merits which entitle it to be considered as a great work of 19th century literature. It is called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'.
On this page, I relate the story of 'The Emperor's New Clothes', how it came into being, and the messages of the story which are still hugely relevant in the 21st century.
A Portrait of Hans Christian Andersen by by the artist Christian Albrecht Jensen in 1836 - one year before the publication of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'
What's the Story?
Two weavers are approached by a very vain and pompous Emperor who desires the finest and most luxurious clothes in all the land - clothes which are befitting of his supreme status. The two weavers promise him just such a set of clothes, so fine and wonderful that they will only be for the eyes of the great and good; indeed, they will be quite invisible to anyone who is stupid, incompetent or unworthy of their position in society. What's more, the clothes will be made of a material so fine ('as light as a spider web') that they will not weigh down the wearer, so fine, the wearer will not even be able to feel them draped over his body. Such a set of clothes would be perfect for a great Emperor. They would suit his sense of his own importance. And their magical properties of invisibility to the unworthy, would enable him to find out exactly which of his ministers were unfit for their jobs ('and I could tell the wise men from the fools').
But the weavers are nothing more than a pair of con-men - swindlers who have no intention of creating a fine set of clothes. They have heard of the Emperor's vanity and they believe they can turn his failings to their own advantage. So they decide to go to the pretence of making this set of fine clothes. Of course when the Emperor goes to visit the weavers at their work and they make a show of enthusing over the cloth and the clothes they are making, he cannot see anything at all. But he is too proud to admit that he cannot see the clothes. To do so, according to the weavers' description of the clothes, would be to label himself as stupid and unfit to be Emperor. And of course when his courtiers and ministers visit the weavers, they also cannot see these clothes, but they also pretend that they can - because if they say anything different, they will be admitting their own incompetence and unworthiness. ('Can it be that I'm a fool? It would never do to let on that I can't see the cloth'). What's more, if any of them did have their suspicions about the existence of the clothes, well, to voice their doubts would surely be to imply that they thought the Emperor himself was stupid enough and gullible enough as to be taken in by this foolery. That would never do!
When the Emperor finally walks out among his subjects in his non-existent finery, the crowds watch eagerly. They all want to see which of their friends or neighbours are so stupid that they cannot see the clothes. What actually happens of course, is that none of them see any clothes. But no one says anything. Perhaps some are embarressed to tell the truth because they think that they themselves must be too stupid to see the cloth. Perhaps others believe that to say anything derogatory would be to disrespectfully draw attention to the truth of the Emperor's own foolishness. Perhaps still others simply do not wish to be the first to speak out. Only one small child who is far too innocent of all this pretension and social convention shouts out 'But he hasn't got anything on!' At first the little boy's father tries to correct the boy, but gradually the news breaks out and so everybody finally realises they are not alone in their inability to see the clothes. And now everybody begins to find the strength in numbers to admit there is nothing to see, and they begin to laugh. The Emperor cringes, but continues with the procession, because to turn back now would be to admit his own gullibility. Better by far to carry on in the pretence that he is the only one who has the wisdom to see the clothes! His courtiers likewise feel they have to continue to live the lie, and dutifully follow their leader.
An original drawing of the Emperor's parade by Vilhelm Pedersen, the first illustrator of Hans Christian Andersen's tale
Hans Christian Andersen and his Collection of Fairy Tales
In 1835 the first of three installments of short fairy tales was published by Hans Christian Andersen in a series called 'Fairy Tales Told for Children'. This first volume published on 8th May included four tales of which the best known are 'The Princess and the Pea' and 'The Tinderbox'.
Then on 16th December 1835, Andersen released the second installment. Three tales were included in this volume, one of which was 'Thumbelina'.
The third installment was delayed until 1837, when 'The Little Mermaid' and 'The Emperor's New Clothes' were published.
Other famous fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen in his career include 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' (1838), 'The Ugly Duckling' (1844), and 'The Snow Queen' (1844).
What's So Good About It?
In my introduction I suggested 'The Emperor's New Clothes' might be considered one of the great works of 19th century literature. Can that really be defended? In some respects of course, it may be seen as an exaggeration. This is after all a very short piece - just 1500 words in the English translation - which maybe cannot bear comparison for example with a great novel. However brevity is not in itself a barrier to greatness - one cannot judge these things simply by the number of words written; otherwise no short poem could ever be considered as great. And after all, Shakespeare himself said in 'Hamlet' that 'brevity is the soul of wit.'
It may also be argued that this is 'only' a trivial fairy tale for children. But so what? There is no literary law which says that fairy tales cannot be as meritorious as serious stories for adults. Many look down their noses at seemingly trivial pieces of fiction in the same way that a classical actor may look down their nose at TV comedy drama, and a classical musician may look down their nose at popular music. They are wrong to do so.
Nonetheless it's not of course on the basis of its brevity or its target audience, that I am recommending 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. And it's not even on the quality of writing. No - what distinguishes the majority of revered works of literature is the truly thought provoking insight that they provide into the human condition. And it is in this area that 'The Emperor's New Clothes' scores over many other fairy tales which rather formulaically feature beautiful princesses, handsome princes and wicked witches, but perhaps not so much in the way of real perceptive comment. In this respect, 'The Emperor's New Clothes' also has very much more to recommend it in its few short paragraphs, than many an epic novel of action and adventure.
Some of these insights into human behaviour which are applicable even in the modern world of the 21st century, will be analysed in the next section.
THE MESSAGE OF 'THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES'
IN A FEW SHORT PARAGRAPHS THIS FAIRY TALE DEMONSTRATES HOW:
1) The Emperor's overwhelming desire for the finest set of clothes ever to be fashioned, allows the two con men to manipulate him. They play on his vanity. They flatter him in order to deceive him into parting with his money.
The message in the real world is that vanity can lead one to make the worst of decisions and specifically in this case, the worst of purchases. Confidence tricksters play on peoples' vanity. It's also how advertisers may persuade consumers to spend their money on vastly expensive luxury items of illusory beauty.
2) The Emperor's pride prevents him from admitting that he cannot see the clothes, because if the weavers are to be believed, such an admission would make him seem stupid. He ends up deceiving himself, because his pride matters more to him than the truth of his own eyes.
The message in the real world is that pride comes before a fall. The more pride you have, the more difficult it is to admit your own fallibility, and the more likely you are to allow that fallibility to influence your judgement in a very bad and even ruinous way.
3) The Emperor's self importance is boosted by having a whole bunch of obsequious 'yes men' around him. None of these 'yes men' is prepared to question his judgement and none of them is prepared to say or do anything which might damage their standing in their ruler's eyes.
The message in the real world is that gathering 'yes men' around him is the worst thing a leader can do, be it an emperor, a president, or a managing director. If the followers of a leader are unwilling or unable to tell him the truth and stand up to him, then his detachment from reality grows and grows. The leader's self-belief will soar to new levels of conceited self-deception. If no one tells him he is sometimes wrong, he may come to believe he is always right.
4) The folly of unquestioning acceptance of supposed 'facts' means that the real truth is ignored. The Emperor and courtiers believe what the weavers tell them, and the crowd believe what their Emperor tells them, in spite of a total lack of hard evidence. The Emperor, the courtiers, the crowd - one after the other - they all assume that the existence of the clothes must be beyond doubt.
The message in the real world is that we should be critical and objective when examining 'facts'. Too many 'facts' which we hear are in reality merely beliefs and opinions (or even lies as in the case of this story). The evidence needs to be very rigorously examined, and this alone should form the basis of what we regard as 'facts' - even if it results in one arriving at a conclusion which is not universally popular or politically correct.
5) The folly of everyone in the story who claims to see beauty where no beauty exists, is the result in part of collective, undue respect for supposed experts - the weavers who enthuse over their 'wonderful' cloth, and the court officials who praise the invisible clothes.
The message in the real world is that just as in the story, we far too often believe that something must be good because an 'expert' tells us it is. Possibly the best examples today may be in the fields of popular culture, fashion and art where an absolute absence of talent or beauty can be dressed up with 'image'. In the case of popular culture, it is clear that real talent is sometimes lacking, because otherwise that culture would be less ephemeral than it often is. In the case of fashion - well, fashion by definition, is transient, whilst true beauty is forever recognisable. In the case of art, I would argue that works requiring little imagination in their conception and no talent in their creation, may sell for $1000s, hyped with a pretentious pseudo-intellectual babble (in much the same way as the clothes in the story are hyped by the 'expert' weavers).
6) The folly of behaving like sheep leads to the whole crowd living a collective lie. All the crowd can see no clothes and yet none are willing to stand up for the truth. It's so much easier for everyone to go with the consensus and conform, rather than to try to think for themselves.
The message in the real world is that the instinct to conform with the majority, too often outweighs the courage to say what one actually believes. But history has shown that the majority is NOT always right. If people in the crowd refuse to stand for the truth in the presence of a falsehood, then that way lies the descent into a sham society. The worst excesses of dictators have not come about when they've been forced to brutally defend against a courageous opposition. The worst excesses have come when the dictator has been free to live his lies and escalate them because the majority - both in the inner circles of government (the 'courtiers') and even in the general public (the 'crowd' lining the streets) - have failed to speak out through self-interest or fear. (Think of the rise of Nazi Germany, and its culmination in the holocaust to see how true this is).
7) The child who finally does speak out when nobody else dares to, is at first exposed to scorn. But truth wins the day as the crowd at long last recognises the lie that they've all been a party to.
The message in the real world is that free thinking individuality and freedom from social conventions can finally allow the truth to emerge even if no one else is initially prepared to admit it. This is true even today. From the innocence of the child in the story, to the man who can see an injustice in society which all others are blind to, everyone of us should have the confidence to speak out. If we are later proven to be wrong, then at least we will have shown courage. But if we are right, then people will gradually appreciate this (as the crowd do in the story) and society will change for the better.
8) The Emperor continues his parade even when the crowd are laughing at him. To turn back would either be an admission that he also cannot see the clothes (labelling him as 'stupid' according to the weavers) or an admission that he has been fooled by the weavers (in which case he is gullible as well as stupid). So instead he just carries blindly on, pretending that everyone else is wrong and he is right - the most stupid response of all.
The message in the real world is that folly is compounded by continuing with it. Too many people will carry on blindly rather than admit to a mistake, an admission which would enable them to withdraw gracefully and humbly. Many tragedies, even wars, have been caused by continuation with a course of action even after all the evidence has shown it to be misguided.
The farcical pageant of the Emperor continues ... The ultimate irony in this story is that in attempting to conceal a supposed stupidity (by claiming to see clothes when none exist), the Emperor and his courtiers only succeed in confirming their real stupidity and gullibility
If one looks behind the very simple language in the telling of this fairy tale, one finds a story which is replete with all the many failings of human beings - failings which have caused so much grief, hardship and sadness in the world. The vain, proud Emperor, unsuited to the job of high office, the pandering and obsequious henchmen who offer uncritical support when they should be offering advice, and the crowd who fail to recognise the truth and prefer to allow lies to flourish because that is the easier option - we can recognise all of these traits in today's nations and societies. We recognise them, but we do not necessarily apply them to our own lives. There are undoubted lessons in 'The Emperor's New Clothes' which have not been learned by all. But they are lessons which make this the most intelligent of all fairy tales for both children and adults.
I'd Love To Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun
The Long History of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'
Where did Hans Christian Andersen get his inspiration for this particular fairy tale? It's known that some of his stories including 'The Ugly Duckling' and 'The Snow Queen', were entirely his own creation, while some others including 'The Princess and the Pea' were based on old folk tales. 'The Emperor's New Clothes' is in this latter category.
The story derives from the seventh of fifty cautionary tales in a 14th century Spanish collection by the politician, soldier and writer, Juan Manuel. The entire collection was entitled 'Libro de los ejemplos', also known as 'El Conde Lucanor' (Book of the Examples of Count Lucanor), and was in turn derived from various other sources including Aesop's Fables and various Arabian folktales.
The original story of relevence here - 'A King and Three Imposters' - was very similar in many respects to Hans Christian Andersens's tale. Rather like Andersen's tale, it featured a ruler (a king) and a trio of unscrupulous weavers who had fabricated a story about invisible cloth. However it was somewhat different in its focus; Andersen's tale is primarily about vanity and pride and other social foibles. in Juan Manuel's story, the clothes could only be seen by the true son of the man who was wearing them, and as such it was really a story about illegitimate paternity - the king and his 'sons' all pretend that they can see the non-existent cloths because if they confess otherwise, then that would prove that they are not of true royal descent!
There is one other intriguing difference. In Andersen's tale, it takes the innocence of a child to point out the truth. In Juan Manuel's story it is a black member of the crowd who points out the truth - the black person would have had no possible claim to be the son of the King and therefore had nothing to lose in telling the truth. A translation of this ancient story from 1335, can be found in the references, and makes an interesting read.
Quite why the key revelation was changed so that it comes from the mouth of a child is not clear. Of course the change would have made the story more appealing to children - the intended audience. However, it may also have had its origins in an incident when as a small boy Hans Christian Andersen himself watched a parade by the King of Denmark Frederick VI. No doubt he had been told of the power and finery of the King, but he later recalled that after seeing him he'd expressed surprise that the King looked 'just like an ordinary human being'.
Following publication in 1837, 'The Emperor's New Clothes' became a staple of recitals in polite society, and soon became one of the most popular of fairy tales. Since then it has been the subject of a ballet, a musical, films and television cartoons, and thematically aspects of the story have been applied to many satirical works. It has been translated into more than 100 languages, and its place as one of the great children's tales has therefore been cemented. My aim is to show that it is also a great work for adults to learn from.