Literature Review - Hans Christian Andersen and '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, has merits far beyond those of its humble origins - merits for which it deserves to be considered as a great work of 19th century literature. It was 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.
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What's the Story?
Two weavers are approached by a vain, pompous Emperor who desires the finest and most luxurious clothes in all the land for himself - 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 in society; 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 aware of 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 which of his ministers were unfit for their jobs ('and I could tell the wise men from the fools').
Of course, 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, 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 be to imply that the Emperor himself was stupid enough and gullible enough to be taken in by this foolery.
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 draw attention to the truth of the Emperor's own stupidity. Perhaps others simply do not wish to be the first to speak out with a contrary voice. 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 everyone 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.
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 till 1937, 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).
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, under the title 'Libro de los ejemplos', also known as 'El Conde Lucanor' (Book of the Examples of Count Lucanor). This collection was in turn derived from many 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 principally about vanity and pride. 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 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 takes the innocence of a black spectator to point out the truth - the black person would have had no 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 occasion when as a small boy Hans Christian Andersen himself watched a parade in which he saw the then 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 had 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 the story 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.
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 be defended? In some respects of course, that may be seen as an exaggeration. First of all this is a very short piece - just 1500 words in the English translation - which cannot bear comparison for literary merit with great novels. However brevity is not in itself a contraindication to greatness - one cannot judge thyese things simply by the number of words written; otherwise no poetry could ever be considered as great. And 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. 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 some pompous classical actors may look down their nose at comedy dramas, and classical musicians may look down their noses at pop music. They are wrong to do so.
Nonetheless I would not of course recommend 'The Emperor's New Clothes' on the basis of its brevity or its target audience, and not even on the quality of writing. No. What distinguishes the majority of revered works of literature is the thought provoking insight that they provide into the human condition. It is in this area that 'The Emperor's New Clothes' scores over other fairy tales which formulaically feature beautiful princesses, handsome princes and wicked witches, but not very much in the way of real perceptive comment. In this respect, 'The Emperor's New Clothes' also has 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 will be analysed in the next section.
IN A FEW SHORT PARAGRAPHS THIS FAIRY TALE DEMONSTRATES HOW:
2) The Emperor's pride prevents him from admitting that he cannot see the clothes. Such an admission would make him seem stupid if the weavers are to be believed. 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 fallibility, and the more likely you are to allow that fallibility to influence your judgement in a bad way.
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 the worst of purchases. Con artists play on people's vanity. And it's also how advertisers persuade consumers to spend money on expensive luxury items whose beauty may be illusory.
4) The folly of unquestioning acceptance of 'facts' means that the truth is ignored. The Emperor and courtiers believe what the weavers tell them, and the crowd believe what their leader 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 is 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 our 'facts', or 'truth', even if it results in one arriving at a conclusion which is not universally popular or politically correct.
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 the leader's self-belief will soar to levels of conceited self-deception. If no one tells him that he is sometimes wrong, he will believe he is always right.
6) The folly of behaving like sheep leads to the crowd living a collective lie. All the crowd can see no clothes and yet none of the crowd is willing to stand up for the truth. It's so much easier for everyone to just go with the consensus and conform, rather than to think for themselves.
The message in the real world is that the instinct to conform and agree 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 up 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 have 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 in the general public (the 'crowd' lining the streets) - have failed to speak out through self-interest or through fear. (Think of the rise of Nazi Germany, and its culmination in the holocaust to see how true this is).
5) The folly of everyone in the story who claims to see beauty where no beauty exists, is the direct result of collective, undue respect for supposed experts - fake 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. The best examples may be in the fields of popular culture, fashion and modern art where an absolute absence of talent and beauty can be dressed up with 'image'. In the case of popular culture and fashion, it should be clear that real talent is sometimes lacking - otherwise the culture or fashion would survive. Fashion almost by definition, is transient, whilst true talent and beauty will be recognised forever. In the case of modern art, works which require little imagination in their conception and no talent in their creation, sell for $1000s, hyped as they are with pretentious pseudo-intellectual babble (in much the same way as the clothes in the story are hyped by the 'expert' weavers.
8) The Emperor continues his parade even when the crowd are laughing at him. To turn back would be to admit that he cannot see the clothes (which would label him as 'stupid' according to the weavers) or that he realises he has been fooled by the weavers (in which case he is gullible as well as stupid). So instead he 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, so they can withdraw gracefully and humbly. Many tragedies, even wars, have been caused by continuation with a course of action even after evidence has shown it to be misguided.
7) The child who speaks out when no one else dares to, is at first exposed to ridicule and scorn. But eventually truth wins the day as the crowd recognise the lie which they've been a party to.
The message in the real world is that free thinking individuality and freedom from social conventions can allow the truth to emerge even if no one else is initially prepared to admit it. This is so true even today. For the innocence of the child in the story, to the man who can see an injustice in society which others are blind to, all of us should have the confidence to speak out. If we later proven to be wrong, then at least we will have shown guts. But if we are right, then people will gradually appreciate this rightness, and society will change for the better.
If one looks behind the very simple language in the telling of this fairy tale, one finds a story all about the 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, and the crowd who fail to recognise truth and prefer to allow lies to flourish because that is the easier option - we can recognise all of these 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.
As a Commentary on Human Failings, 'The Emperor's New Clothes' is the Greatest of all Fairy Tales
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I have written articles on many subjects including science and history, politics and philosophy, film reviews and travel guides, as well as poems and stories. All can be accessed by clicking on my name at the top of this page
- The Emperor's New Clothes :The Hans Christian Andersen Center - The English Translation
- "A King and Three Impostors" by Don Juan Manuel - the original parable
- The Emperor's New Clothes - Wikipedia
- The Timeline of Hans Christian Andersen's life
- Hans Christian Andersen - Wikipedia
- Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. - Wikipedia
- List of fairy tales - Wikipedia
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