“‘BUT HE HASN’T GOT ANYTHING ON,’ a little boy said ….. ‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ the whole town cried out at last.”
On this optimistic note, Hans Christian Andersen brings his cautionary tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to an end.
Andersen’s children’s story was written nearly two centuries ago, in the 1830s. One can only imagine, how he might caution his readers in 2023.
* * * * *
“WHAT DID YOU SAY!”
The little boy spun round in alarm, to find himself staring up at an Imperial Guardsman.
“I-I-I said, the Emperor hasn’t got anything on, sir”, the boy stammered.
Around them the laughter ceased, as if the whole town had suddenly been struck dumb.
“What a wicked thing to say!” the Guardsman roared. “Anybody who isn’t a complete fool can see that he is attired in the finest suit of clothes the Empire can contrive!”
“But-but, he isn’t, sir, he isn’t wearing anything.”
“What’s going on here? said the Guardsman’s Sergeant, pushing his way through the silent and rapidly thinning crowd of townspeople. Why aren’t these people cheering their Emperor?”
“It’s this child, sir”, the Guardsman replied. “He shouted out that the Emperor hadn’t got anything on.”
“Where are his parents? Who is responsible for this child?” demanded the Sergeant.
Twisting his cap in his shaking hands, the boy’s father shuffled forward.
“What kind of parent are you to let your offspring shout out such false, harmful and subversive disinformation! How is the social cohesion of the Empire to be maintained if little boys are permitted to express themselves with such freedom?”
“I’m most dreadfully sorry,” the boy’s father stammered, “I shall see to it that the boy is severely punished.”
“I’m afraid it’s not quite as simple as that, the Sergeant replied. “Your boy’s behaviour raises some very serious questions about the home environment in which he’s being reared. You had best lead us to your place of residence immediately.”
Flanked by the two Guardsmen, and their tall pikes, father and son made their way through the narrow streets of the town to their home. Drawing her other children to her side, the boy’s mother watched the little party approach.
“What’s going on, husband?” she enquired, casting a worried glance in the direction of the armed men.
“Our son said the Emperor hadn’t anything on, when, plainly, he was dressed in the finest suit of clothes I have ever seen”, her contrite spouse replied, half-smiling at his grim escort.
“But he didn’t, Mama!”, her son expostulated. “If he had been wearing clothes, then I would have seen them. I mean, you’re wearing clothes, Papa is wearing clothes, these men, under their armour, are wearing clothes!”
“Oh my foolish boy,” his mother exclaimed, “what have I told you about contradicting other people’s claims?”
The boy hung his head and mumbled: “That people are entitled to their beliefs – no matter how ridiculous.”
“And?” His mother prompted, tapping her foot in frustration.
“And that it is unkind to undermine people’s ideas about themselves – no matter how utterly bizarre those ideas may be.”
Hearing this, the Sergeant stepped forward, glowering at the woman and her son.
“But this will not do at all, madam, not at all. You are teaching your children that people’s beliefs about themselves – and their attire – may be wrong. You are suggesting that in spite of being sincerely held it is, nevertheless, entirely possible that people can be mistaken in their beliefs. Indeed, you would appear to be saying that it is possible your boy may be perfectly correct. That the Emperor really hasn’t got anything on. That our Head-of-State is walking naked through the streets! But that is treason, madam, treason pure and simple!”
“No! No! My wife is no traitor, sir. She is merely a little simple-minded. She places an altogether unreasonable amount of faith in what she perceives through her senses. She does not understand how wishing something to be true can actually make it so. Like the Emperor’s new clothes – which are real, quite real, for the very simple reason that the Emperor believes them to be real!”
“And what Emperor’s believe to be real,” the Sergeant interjected, “must be real.”
“Yes, sir”, the boy’s father agreed.
“Yes, sir”, echoed his mother.
“Yes, sir”, said the boy – with fingers crossed.
This satire was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 September 2023.