Deceptions and Satire: The Emperor’s New Clothes

I’d intended to have the next few posts focus on some of the other French salon fairy tale writers, or perhaps Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s retellings, or some of the stories of Nobel Prize winner Anatole France, or even the bitter, fierce yet hopeful collection The Armless Maiden, edited by Terri Windling. And posts on all of those, and more, are coming.

But for the past few weeks—since January 20, to be exact—I’ve found myself thinking of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

In many ways, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” barely meets the definition of fairy tale. Not only does it not contain a single fairy, it contains none of the other trappings of fairy tale: no talking animals, no quests, no magic. What it does have is an emperor, of no particular place or realm, and various courtiers, reminiscent of many of the minor characters in the French salon fairy tales, and oh, yes, like many fairy tales, a rather pointed moral.

And the tale features one element common to myth and fairy tale: the trickster. Or, in this case, two tricksters—two men claiming to be weavers able to weave something so beautiful, so fine, that they would be invisible to people unfit for their current jobs—or just very stupid.

In a rather immediate giveaway that something might be just slightly off with their claim, the fake weavers immediately ask for fine silk and gold cloth, instead of providing their own magical material. Truly intelligent people might have noticed this, but even moderately intelligent people could figure out that admitting that they could not see the cloth might lead to—Well. Their emperor was not exactly the most intelligent or insightful person, after all.

And so, everyone in the story, from the emperor, to the courtiers, to the people in the streets, pretends to be able to see the beautiful cloth and clothes—right up until the moment when a small child shouts out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

Andersen was presumably familiar with another tale about a trickster figure who started out in the apparel trade: “The Brave Little Tailor,” collected and rewritten into its current form by the Grimm brothers. Very similar tales also appear in Italian and Polish collections. In the Grimm tale, a small, not particularly physically imposing figure, the little tailor, uses a real event—killing seven flies in a single blow, to convince others, including a giant and a king, that he is a great warrior, capable of killing seven warriors in a single blow. As in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” his deception is finally uncovered only when it’s too late: The tale ends with the announcement that the little tailor was a king, and remained one until his death.

Both tales heavily focus on the connection between deception and fear.  It’s not just that the tailor is good at lying and tricks. The giant, the king and the guards in “The Brave Little Tailor” choose to believe the tailor because it’s too risky not to. The one person who does figure out the truth—the little tailor’s wife—gains nothing from this knowledge other than humiliation. That same risk features in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” where nearly everyone goes along with the deception in order to save their lives—and ensure that no one around them will claim that they’re stupid.

There, however, the resemblances end. For one thing, the weavers in Andersen’s story do just one con, and then leave; the tailor needs to do several tricks—pretend that he’s throwing a rock instead of a bird, for instance, and later trick two giants into killing each other. Which leads directly to the second difference: He may use tricks instead of actual strength, but the tailor does manage to rid the country of various giants, a unicorn and a vicious boar. The weavers do nothing other than humiliate the emperor and his court. And the tailor, for all his tricks, rarely outright lies, exactly—well, apart from the moment when he claims that a bird is a rock. The weavers do nothing but lie. The tailor makes use of good luck; the weavers take advantage of human nature. The tailor is a social climber, impressed by the spaciousness and splendor of the castles he enters; the weavers are sycophants, unimpressed by anything except the opportunity to make a buck, who apparently simply vanish at the end of the tale. Above all, “The Brave Little Tailor” is a story of triumph. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a tale of humiliation. One is fairy tale, the other satire.

A more direct inspiration was a Spanish tale by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, “Lo que sucedio a un rey con los burladores que hicieron el paño,” or  “What Happened to a King with the Rogues Who Wove the Cloth,” found in his 1337 collection El Conde Lucanor. At the time, the collection was notable mostly for its use of medieval Castillian/Spanish, instead of literary Latin; Don Juan Manuel, an aristocrat and scholar, was dedicated to promoting Spanish as a literary language, as well as publishing translations of Arab and Latin books into the more common language, two hobbies that earned him considerable criticism from contemporaries, who thought he should be focusing his time on more important pursuits.

Apart from promoting the use of Spanish, El Conde Lucanor focused on issues of morality, using tales as moral lessons, including, issues of honesty and deception. In “What Happened to a King with the Rogues Who Wove the Cloth,” three weavers manage to convince a court that only legitimate sons can see the cloth they weave, critical in Spanish and Arab courts that allowed only legitimate sons to inherit thrones and lands. The king isn’t just terrified that his subjects will think him unfit or stupid, but that he will lose his throne—and thus says nothing, until a stable boy, in the fortunate (for the story) position of not inheriting anything, exposes the deception in front of the court, leaving the king humiliated—and in a much worse position that he would have been had he confronted the weavers earlier. It’s not only a discussion of deception, but a reminder to other aristocrats and Spanish royals that their social inferiors were watching—and not powerless.

Andersen read the story in a German translation, changing several elements, including the character of the emperor, who has no worries about his legitimacy, but does have an obsession with clothes and a few concerns that, just perhaps, either he or his underlings are unfit for office. Rather than a potential threat, the emperor sees the clothes as a potential tool—a way to determine the abilities of his courtiers. Andersen, of course, lived in a world where in living memory, aristocrats had been overthrown in part because of a perceived obsession with clothing and other superficial matters (to greatly oversimplify one aspect of the French Revolution), but also a world where inadequate, unqualified courtiers and bureaucrats, given positions thanks to birth and rank instead of talent, had helped bring about the collapse of political systems. And, like the Grimms, he lived in a world where members of the lower and middle classes, had, much like the brave little tailor, used political turmoil and their own talents to climb into positions of power.

Andersen himself was somewhat in this category: Born into dire poverty, he used his storytelling talents to mingle among the upper middle class and even the aristocracy and royalty. Here, he found not only lingering memories of the French Revolution, but several people who seemingly remembered nothing of it, focused on the superficialities of clothing and jewelry, along with hypocrisy, all elements that inspired his retelling.

But as he told others, he also found inspiration in something else: a remembered moment from his childhood, when, as he recalled, he was disappointed to realize that King Frederick VI was just a regular man—something his mother did not want him noticing too loudly.

This, perhaps, was the memory that led him to change, at the very last minute (by which I mean, “after the story went to the printers”), his original ending, of courtiers and aristocrats happily admiring the naked emperor and his new clothes, in a vicious satire of contemporary European courts. Instead, he chose to remind his aristocratic listeners—and any others—that, just as in medieval courts, others were watching, and might even speak out.

At the same time, Andersen was somewhat skeptical of the power of simple observation and comment. After all, his tale ends not with the overthrow of the emperor, or any of his ministers, but with the emperor deliberately deciding to continue walking regardless, and his chamberlains holding up his non-existent train with even more dignity than before.  He might have been unmasked; he might have been humiliated. But he is not removed from power, and at most, all of his people can say was that he was tricked—in a deception they were initially more than willing to join. It’s both a harsh criticism of politicians, and an acknowledgement of the potential limitations of speaking the truth.

“The Emperor has no clothes” has gone on to enter the political and popular lexicon, as a phrase depicting and condemning the all too common habit (one I’ve participated in) of feeling afraid to stand up against the status quo, of the majority viewpoint. Andersen would not, I think, have objected to reading the tale in this way: After all, his story is an indictment against just that kind of thinking. But it’s also an illustration that sometimes, just observing the truth may not be enough.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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