Wednesday, March 9, 2022

When the Emperor is Naked

Many years ago, there was an Emperor, who was so excessively fond of new clothes, that he spent all his money in dress.

Thus begins "The Emperor's New Clothes," by Hans Christian Andersen. It's a classic tale, and one that many of us probably encountered in childhood. Perhaps, like many stories and fairy tales of our youth, it brings nostalgia and simplicity; a simplicity that, at times, we long to regain. I wonder if we can take a moment to revisit this tale and the simplicity and integrity that it bears witness to. 

One day, two rogues, calling themselves weavers, made their appearance. They gave out that they knew how to weave stuffs of the most beautiful colors and elaborate patterns, the clothes manufactured from which should have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who was unfit for the office he held, or who was extraordinarily simple in character.

“These must, indeed, be splendid clothes!” thought the Emperor. “Had I such a suit, I might at once find out what men in my realms are unfit for their office, and also be able to distinguish the wise from the foolish! This stuff must be woven for me immediately.”

Hans Tegner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Emperor wants to distinguish the wise from the foolish, to know who can truly serve him and who cannot. So, he eagerly hands over him money to these rogues, who begin their "work" of weaving magical cloth. The Emperor wants to know how the men are getting along, but he doesn't want to judge for himself--oh no, he must send someone else to ascertain what the cloth is like. So, he sends his old minister. 

The poor old minister looked and looked, he could not discover anything on the looms, for a very good reason, viz: there was nothing there. “What!” thought he again. “Is it possible that I am a simpleton? I have never thought so myself; and no one must know it now if I am so. Can it be, that I am unfit for my office? No, that must not be said either. I will never confess that I could not see the stuff.”

I think many of us in the current culture can relate to this tale. A few examples (though I'm sure we could come up with many more):

If we see good intentions gone awry in the fight against racism, we are deemed racist ourselves and are discarded like an outdated textbook.

If we dare compassionately speak up against the idea that men and woman can pump hormones into themselves and undergo surgeries to change the unchangeable reality of sex, then we are attacked professionally, verbally, or emotionally. 

If we dare to speak in opposition to widespread mandates that force people to have their bodies injected against their will and conscience, we are vilified. We must hate humanity; don’t we care about all the people who are dying? Don’t we want to protect the vulnerable? Don’t we believe in Science? 

If we try to have open and amiable conversations with those of different political or religious beliefs, we are silenced by the mob/media/loudest voices. After all, we don't have room for negativity in our lives, say the mob/media/loudest voices. We only will communicate with those who affirm us and our choices.

So, like the poor old minister of Andersen's story, we decide that we will simply follow along with what everyone else is doing. 

Hans Tegner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Emperor sends another officer of his court to learn about the magical cloth, and like the minister before him, this man sees nothing. 

"I certainly am not stupid!” thought the messenger. “It must be, that I am not fit for my good, profitable office! That is very odd; however, no one shall know anything about it.” And accordingly he praised the stuff he could not see, and declared that he was delighted with both colors and patterns. “Indeed, please your Imperial Majesty,” said he to his sovereign when he returned, “the cloth which the weavers are preparing is extraordinarily magnificent.”

We, too, acquiesce. More and more, we find ourselves falling into the temptation to simply nod silently and passively, never broaching topics that are remotely controversial. We want to keep communication channels open, which is admirable, but forget to stay alert; and eventually may find ourselves falling into the lull of the mob/media/loudest voices. Whatever narrative the mob/media/loudest voices proclaim is truth; any other views are false. 

Eventually, in Andersen's tale, the Emperor decides to see the magical cloth for himself.

“How is this?” said the Emperor to himself. “I can see nothing! This is indeed a terrible affair! Am I a simpleton, or am I unfit to be an Emperor? That would be the worst thing that could happen—Oh! the cloth is charming,” said he, aloud. “It has my complete approbation.” And he smiled most graciously, and looked closely at the empty looms; for on no account would he say that he could not see what two of the officers of his court had praised so much.

The Emperor is advised to have a suit of clothes made from this wonderful new cloth, so that he may wear it in a procession. So, after the rogues go through the "process" of taking the cloth off the loom and stitching together a suit, the Emperor undresses, puts on his new "suit" of clothes, and steps out in public. 

Helen Stratton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So now the Emperor walked under his high canopy in the midst of the procession, through the streets of his capital; and all the people standing by, and those at the windows, cried out, “Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor's new clothes! What a magnificent train there is to the mantle; and how gracefully the scarf hangs!” in short, no one would allow that he could not see these much-admired clothes; because, in doing so, he would have declared himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office. Certainly, none of the Emperor's various suits, had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.

“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.

“Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another. 

I wonder if we can learn from this little child of Andersen's tale. I wonder sometimes if we can, in love and with compassion, voice beliefs and encourage dialogue that doesn't fit the narrative given by the mob/media/loudest voices. Perhaps our courage to do so will spread and encourage others to do the same. 

When the Emperor is naked, who will speak up?


  1. Oh my goodness!!!! I have been thinking of this very story for at least the past year whenever I think of Covid!!!! I even just shared about it with a friend last week. It is just so, so true.

    1. That is fantastic! I'm so glad that I'm not alone in thinking about the relevance of this story with our modern world. I've been noticing just how "complicated" we make many issues in our culture, when really, the answer is not that complicated (at least most of the time). Again and again, I find myself going back to the Gospels when Jesus points to children as a model for sanctity ("unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."-Matt 18:3). And it's making me think that I really need to bring more and more of the old fairy tales and fables into my kids' lives but also my own-there is so much wisdom there.

  2. Wow, what a thought-provoking comparison. There is so much truth in these old classic fairy tales and stories! Living in California during the time of covid, I have viscerally experienced this and feel like that little child with things I think are blatantly obvious but people don't stop to think about. I am not a person who typically goes with the flow, but it took me some time to have the guts to be that person. I have totally embraced that role for some time now, and will happy remain like that child. Life really isn't as complicated as people make it out to be!