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“The people care not one whit for the inner workings of government. They only care that I look the part. If I’m to appear as a slovenly, disheveled ragamuffin, the subjects would assume that I am as common and ordinary as they are and unfit to rule this vast kingdom. No, they want to look up to me. They need to admire me. They demand I oppress them! And I shall.”
– The Emperor’s raison d’etre that proves to be his undoing
Now we go from one fashion-centric fairytale about maintaining royal appearances to another. The Emperor’s New Clothes is the story that best encapsulates the lesson “clothes (don’t) make the man”. Though popularized by Hans Christian Andersen, the original version goes as far back as 1300s Spain. It’s one of many cautionary tales collected by Prince Juan Manuel of Villena in his moralistic compendium Libro de los ejemplos. Leaning into the fact that these stories were not intended for children, the king in this narrative is tricked into buying a suit that’s “invisible” to any man who’s not the son of his presumed father. A similar story is told in India, where the ruse is exposed when the commoners ask their king if he’s become a naked monk.
Andersen was unfamiliar with the Spanish original but based his take on a German translation. The alterations he made reflected his ire towards the vanity, pride, and false intellectualism of the upper class. One such change, however, reflects an incident in Andersen’s own life. As a boy, his parents took him to see the king’s procession through town; so much hype was built up around him that upon seeing the monarch for himself, young Andersen declared “But he’s only a man!” Despite his family shushing him, he would not be silenced. There’s little doubt that this scene influenced the climax of his story.
Hollis Robbins, in her critique of The Emperor’s New Clothes, states that the tale is so transparent that there’s no need for scrutiny. If you’ll forgive the expression, it wears its moral on its sleeve. And yes, I can see where Robbins is coming from, but that doesn’t make it any less important. In the wake of certain administrations and the ongoing battle to bring them to justice, it’s more important than ever to point out the naked truth regarding corrupt, self-serving officials instead of swallowing the lies they deck themselves in. This story is foundational in teaching those young and old that change can begin when someone has the courage to say that the Emperor has no clothes.Continue reading