The Emperor's New Clothes (Fairy Tale Fridays)

For this week's edition of Fairy Tale Fridays, I wanted to revisit a classic story that I remembered and loved from my childhood.   The Emperor's New Suit (or "The Emperor's New Clothes" as it is often called) by Hans Christian Andersen relates a fable about a vain ruler whose "only ambition was to be always well dressed."  This seems a very selfish goal for someone in such a high position but it is this attribute that leads to his troubles and ultimately to the grand lessons of the tale.  As the story begins, 

"...two swindlers came to this city; they made people believe that they were weavers, and declared they could manufacture the finest cloth to be imagined. Their colours and patterns, they said, were not only exceptionally beautiful, but the clothes made of their material possessed the wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid."

I love that the story takes place in a fairy tale like realm where the general populace would possess enough superstition and naivete to accept the existence of such magical fibers.  And of course none of them - at first - have the humility or courage to admit that the cloth is invisible to them or to challenge the so-called weavers' claim.  As the swindlers work, the emperor sends many people to inspect their progress.  Both a minister and a courtier that the emperor deems honest go to see the fabric.

Neither wants to admit to being unfit for their position or to be declared "unpardonably stupid" (love that phrase), so both of them lie and report to their leader that the cloth is beautiful, the design and colours exquisite.  At this point in the story, I always wonder what would happen had the emperor sought to see for himself rather than sending others in his stead.  The emissaries he sends to report for him are both described in the tale as "honest" and yet neither is truthful to the emperor.  Here we see one of many important lessons coming out of the tale and it's not only that honesty is the best policy but it's caution in whom we trust.  In a quote usually attributed to Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott wrote,
"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive."
I can't think of a more appropriate way to summarize what happens in this story.  All of the townspeople and everyone close to the emperor begins to fabricate (pun intentional) what the cloth looks like and when the emperor is finally presented with the work, he goes along with the charade.  Often in telling this story, blame of some sort is placed on the emperor but I like to cut him some slack.  In many ways he's the last person to pretend to see the fabric and in his situation, with everyone around him declaring to see the material, it would be immensely difficult to admit to not seeing it.  However, since all we ever learn about him is that he is the ruler and enjoys fine clothing, I often wonder why he did not just pretend to disagree with the weavers' taste.  Why did he not throw out the "suit" and declare it ugly?  Or, when pretending to try it on, why not argue the fit as uncomfortable and refuse to be presented in it?

Yes, it was foolish of the courtiers and the people to pretend to see what they did not, but in the end, the emperor was the only one who went so far as to don the imagined clothing!  The ending of the story is rather amusing as a young child finally declares - as the emperor is paraded through the streets - "But he has nothing on at all".  This is both a testament to childlike innocence as well as an observation of mob mentality.  Once the statement is made it ripples through the crowd until reaching the ears of the ruler.  Andersen closes the tale with the statement, "That [hearing the crowd] made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, 'Now I must bear up to the end.'"  So despite knowing the truth, he goes on with the pretense in order to once again save face, providing Andersen a final satirical barb.

This story is a wealth of morals and lessons and I really enjoyed rereading it.  I was surprised at how close the text was to the various versions I heard and read as a child.  It wasn't a twisted or darker version of what I remember and still maintains a lighthearted humor and silliness for bedtime enjoyment.

The Emperor's New Suit by Hans Christian Andersen marks 3/12 in my 2011 Fairy Tale Challenge and continues Fairy Tale Fridays originally started by Tif of Tif Talks Books!  Feel free to share your thoughts on  this tale in the comments below or join in the fun with a post of your own!  I'd love to hear about what fairy tales - new, old, reinvented, retold - you're reading this week as well!

2 Response to "The Emperor's New Clothes (Fairy Tale Fridays)"

  1. Anonymous Says:
    March 4, 2011 at 3:10 PM

    My daughter was in a musical version of this last summer. It was really fun to watch. Of course, instead of having no clothes, the king had bright red long-johns. Too funny. I love that even though the kind knows what's going on in the end, he still has to go through with it. Heaven forbid he admit he made a mistake and ask someone for a jacket.

  2. Tif Sweeney says:
    March 7, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    I love The Emperor's New Clothes! I was just reading this one to my kids again the other day . . . the Disney version with red long john's! Silly, silly emperor!! :)

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