As a child I always felt very sorry for the Emperor.
He was a man filled with pride and easily hoodwinked through a desperate need to be liked. He wasn’t a bad man, just a silly one. I never felt he deserved the ridicule he received however, to be publicly shamed in the way he is.
What a horrid little boy, shouting for all to see, making everyone point and stare and laugh.
As an adult, although some of those threads still exist, the discomfort at the public shaming, I often feel like the little boy who is not afraid to point out the lie, refuses to pretend nothing is out of the ordinary.
The only trouble is often times, I feel like the only one willing to see.
The more I think on it, the more I wonder what to write, the more complex and less clear-cut the answers seem.
I can feel threads of three, perhaps four, characters within me.
The Emperor who wants to be seen as important, to be not just liked but adored, admired, inspiring awe.
Then there is one of the crowd me who wants to pretend everything is okay, to believe the lies.
Nestling alongside that is the caring child I seem to have been who feels a public calling out is unfair, the part of me that feels sorry for the losing side.
But more and more I want to be the boy, or rather the woman, who stands up and says “Hey! Hang on a minute. This is not right!”
How do I do this in a clean and healthy way?
How do I say this is not okay for me with integrity and compassion?
How do I call bullshit without ridiculing or dismissing the truth of another?
No wonder so often we stay silent and refuse to listen to the boy until there is a crowd we can hide behind.
But it is more than that, we have somehow fallen into the trap of the Emperor himself, too afraid to say this is not okay in the first place. The Emperor knows he is being hoodwinked but somehow feels he cannot speak out.
So that makes a fifth character talking between the Story and the Self – the one who feels it has no right to complain, the ‘it’s nothing to make a fuss about.’
What are we saying to ourselves when we are in this particular dialogue?
In any of these dialogues?
Could the bottom line really be as simple as not being afraid, daring to look stupid by saying what feels true for us?
I don’t know what the answers are but perhaps reading the story again, finding where we might slot into it and why could be a good place to start…
Many years ago there lived an Emperor who was so uncommonly fond of gay new clothes that he spent all his money on finery. He cared nothing for his soldiers; nor did he care about going to the theatre or riding in the woods, except for one thing – it gave him a chance to show off his new clothes. He had a different suit for every hour of the day, and since he spent so much time changing instead of saying, as one does of a king, ‘He is in his Council Chamber,’ they said, ‘The Emperor is in his Wardrobe.’
Life was very entertaining in the big city where he had his court. Strangers arrived every day, and one day there appeared two rogues who spread the story that they were weavers who had mastered the art of weaving the most beautiful cloth you can imagine. Not only were the colours and patterns outstandingly lovely, but the clothes made from the cloth had the wonderful property of remaining invisible to anyone who was not fit for his job or who was particularly stupid.
‘They would indeed by fine clothes to have!’ thought the Emperor. ‘With those on, I could find out what men in my kingdom are unfit for the jobs they have. And I should be able to tell the wise men from the fools! Yes, I must have some of that cloth made up for me at once!’ And he handed over a large sum of money to the tow rogues to enable them to begin the work.
So they set their two looms up and looked as if they were hard at work, but there was nothing at all on the looms. They boldly demanded the finest silk and gold thread, which they put in their haversacks, and went on pretending to work at the empty looms until far into the night.
‘I should like to know how far they’ve got with my cloth,’ though the Emperor. But when he remembered that no one who was stupid or unfit for his job could see it, he felt somewhat hesitant about going to see for himself. Now, of course, he was quite certain that, as far as he was concerned, there were no grounds for fear, but nevertheless he felt he would rather send someone else first to see how they were getting on. Everybody in the city knew what wonderful powers the cloth had, and they were all very anxious to see how incompetent and stupid their neighbours were.
‘I’ll send my honest old minister to the weavers,’ thought the Emperor. ‘He’s the best one to see how the cloth’s coming on, for he’s sense enough, and no one’s fitter for his job than he is.’
So the good-natured old minister entered the room where the two rogues sat pretending to work at the empty looms. ‘God help us!’ though the old minister, his eyes wide open, ‘I can’t see a thing!’ But, of course, he was careful not to say so out loud.
Both rogues requested him very politely to take a step nearer, and asked him whether he didn’t think the pattern beautiful and the colours charming. As they pointed to the empty loom, the poor old minister stared and stared, but he still could not see anything, for the simple reason that there was nothing to see. ‘Heavens above,’ he thought, ‘surely I am not a stupid person! I must say such an idea has never occurred to me, and it must not occur to anyone else either! Am I really unfit for my job? No, it certainly won’t do for me to say I can’t see the cloth!’
‘Well, you don’t say anything,’ said the one who was still weaving, ‘Don’t you like it?’
‘Oh, er-it’s delightful, quite the finest thing I’ve ever seen!’ said the old minister, peering through his glasses. ‘The design and the colours-oh, yes, I shall tell the Emperor they please me immensely!’
‘Well, it’s very kind of you to say so!’ said the two weavers, and they went on to describe the colours and the unusual nature of the pattern. The old minister listened very carefully so that he could say the same thing when he returned to the Emperor. And that is just what he did.
The rogues now demanded a further supply of money, silk, and gold, which they said they must have for their work. But they put it all in their own pockets, and not a single thread ever appeared on the loom. However, they continued, as before, to weave away at the empty loom.
Soon afterwards the Emperor sent another unsuspecting official to see how the weaving was going on and whether the cloth would soon be finished. The same thing happened to him that happened to the minister: he stared and stared, but as there was nothing but the empty loom, he could not see a thing.
‘Yes, it’s a lovely piece of stuff, isn’t it?’ said the two rogues. And they showed him the cloth, and explained the charming pattern that was not there.
‘Stupid I most certainly am not!’ thought the official. ‘Then the answer must be that I am not fit for my job, I suppose. That would be a very odd thing, and I really can’t believe it. I shall have to see that no one else suspects it.’ And then he praised the cloth he could not see, and assured them how happy he was with the beautiful colours and the charming pattern. ‘Yes,’ he told the Emperor, ‘it’s quite the finest thing I’ve ever seen!’
The story of the magnificent cloth was now on everybody’s lips.
And now the Emperor wanted to see it himself while it was still on the loom.
With a large number of carefully chosen courtiers-among them the two good old men who had been there before-he paid a visit to the two crafty rogues, who were weaving away with all their might, but with neither weft nor warp.
‘Isn’t it really magnificent?’ asked the two officials. ‘Will Your Majesty be pleased to examine it? What a pattern! What colours!’ And they pointed to the empty loom, fully believing that the others could undoubtedly see the cloth.
‘What’s this!’ thought the Emperor. ‘I don’t see a thing! This is really awful! Am I stupid? Am I not fit to be Emperor? That would be the most shocking thing that could happen to me!-Oh, it’s very beautiful,’ he said aloud. ‘It has my very highest approval.’ He nodded in a satisfied manner, and looked at the empty loom: on no account would he tell anyone that he could not see anything. All the courtiers who had come with him stared and stared, but none of them could make out any more than the others. But they all repeated after the Emperor, ‘Oh, it’s very beautiful!’ And they advised him to have a suit made of the wonderful new cloth so that he could wear it for the first time for the great procession that had been arranged. ‘It’s magnificent! Delightful, excellent!’ was repeated from mouth to mouth, and they all appeared to be deeply impressed and delighted with it. The Emperor gave each of the rogues an Order of Knighthood to hang in his buttonhole and the title of Knight of the Loom.
The two rogues sat up the whole night before the morning when the procession was to take place, and they had sixteen candles burning. Everyone could see that they had a job on to get the Emperor’s new clothes ready in time. They pretended to take the cloth off the loom, they cut out large pieces of air with their big tailor’s scissors, they sewed away with needles that had no thread in them, and at last they said, ‘Look, the clothes are ready!’
The Emperor with the most distinguished of his gentlemen came to see for himself, and the rogues both held one arm up as if they were holding something, and they said, ‘Look, here are the trousers. Here’s the jacket. This is the cap.’ And so on and so on. ‘They are as light as gossamer! You’d think you’d nothing on your body and that, of course, is the whole point of it!’
‘Yes,’ said all the gentlemen, but they couldn’t see anything, because there was nothing there.
‘Will You Imperial Majesty most graciously be pleased to take your clothes off?’ said the rogues. ‘Then we shall put the new ones on Your Majesty over here in front of the big mirror.’
The Emperor laid aside all his clothes, and the two rogues pretended to hand him his new clothes, one at a time. They put their arms round his waist, and appeared to fasten something that was obviously his train, and the Emperor turned himself round in front of the mirror.
‘My, how well it suits His Majesty! What a perfect fit!’ they all said. ‘What a pattern! What colours! It must be worth a fortune!’
‘The canopy which is to be borne over Your Majesty in the procession is waiting outside,’ said the Chief Master of Ceremonies.
‘Right,’ said the Emperor, ‘I’m quite ready. Doesn’t it fit well?’ And he turned round once more in front of the mirror and pretended to take a good look at his fine suit.
The Gentlemen of the Chamber, whose job it was to bear the train, fumbled on the floor with their hands as if they were picking it up, and then they held their hands up in the air. They dared not let anyone notice that they couldn’t see anything.
And so the Emperor walked in the procession under his fine canopy, and everybody in the streets and at their windows said, ‘My look at the Emperor’s new clothes! There’s never been anything like them! Look at the beautiful train he has to his coat! Doesn’t it hang marvellously!’ No one would let anyone else see that he couldn’t see anything, for if he did, they would have thought that he was not fit for his job, or else that he was very stupid. None of the Emperor’s clothes had ever had such a success before.
‘But Daddy, he’s got nothing on!’ piped up a small child.
‘Heavens, listen to the voice of innocence!’ said his father. And what the child had said was whispered form one to another.
‘He’s nothing on! A little child said so. He’s nothing on!’
At last, everybody who was there was shouting, ‘He’s nothing on!’ And it gradually dawned upon the Emperor that they were probably right. But he thought to himself, ‘I must carry on, or I shall ruin the procession.’ And so he held himself up even more proudly than before, and the Gentlemen of the Chamber walked along carrying a train that was most definitely not there.
By Hans Christian Andersen.