The Emperor's New Clothes

Edmund Dulac : The Empty Loom

Edmund Dulac : The Empty Loom

Welcome to my first story for 2012 dear readers and listeners! Adapting it from a Persian tale told by Court Lucanor Prince Don Juan Manuel, ‘Of that which happened to a king and three imposters”, Hans Christian Andersen wrote this story in 1837 as part of a collection of tales for children.

And yet it is as pertinent now as it was in his day, if not more so. Deborah Orr wrote in the Guardian Weekly in late September 2011,

“If the global market had an emperor, he wouldn’t be wearing any clothes. It is astounding that so much evidence can be staring so many people in the face, yet failing to inspire even a lull in the conversation that peddles “a return to growth” or “10 years of pain” before the “sunny uplands” of prosperity are regained.”

Her reference to the Emperor’s New Clothes just goes to show how relevant fairy tales are, and that there is always something for us to learn from their archetypal motifs. 

The scoundrel weavers wove ‘invisible’ non-existent cloth and hood-winked everybody - the Emperor and his whole kingdom - by appealing to their pride and herd-mentality. In the same way we all fall under the spell of what the spin-doctors tell us today. 

We all need to be as awake and innocent as children if we are to cut through the delusional junk our current culture feeds us.



Emperor: His obsession is childish. He is an example of the puer aeternus (perpetual child) archetype, who “is preoccupied with his personal concerns… and cares little for his social responsibilities….. The last thing he wants is to be tied down or committed – either to a job or a woman” (Antony Stevens).

Soldiers: Military prowess was expected in a king in those days.

Theatre: A microcosm of the world, attending the theatre would have kept the king in touch with his subjects’ thinking.

Chase: in the context of our story ‘the chase’ means hunting, but he doesn’t seem interested in women either! In some translations, ‘going for a ride in his carriage’ was a past-time to show off his clothes.

 Clothes: usually signify the persona, the part of us that we show to the world.

“Scholars have noted that the phrase 'Emperor's new clothes' has become a standard metaphor for anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, collective denial, or hollow ostentatiousness.” (Wikipedia) These are shadow qualities that we hide behind our persona.

On the other hand people put on certain clothes to signify their attitude e.g. christening robes, or high office as in a judge’s robe and wig.

 Rogue Weavers: Imposters, knaves; here we find an example of the trickster archetype. In medieval times tailors came under the aegis of Hermes/Mercurius, the trickster god. Marie-Louise von Franz (MLvF) says that the tailor (in our version of the story the weavers) is “a trickster who shows up the stupidity of the emperor’s persona”.

A more modern trickster tailor was Coco Chanel, (Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, by Hal Vaughn) who tricked the Germans and the French in her efforts to spare her own family.

Spin-doctors (today’s counterpart to the weavers): the term “began to be used in a political and promotional context in the late 1980s” to describe “people employed to weave reports of factual events into palatable stories”. ( “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive".

Seeing: Jack Zipes, in a book about H.C. Andersen, suggests that seeing is presented in the tale as the courage of one's convictions; Zipes believes this is the reason the story is popular with children. Sight becomes insight, which, in turn, prompts action. A comment I came across said “Trust your own vision rather than what you are told by so-called experts”.

Stupidity: Well, the emperor and his entourage, in fact his whole kingdom was stupid and incompetent. Some versions of the story say that the emperor realised and regretted his stupidity and pride and went on to be a wiser king. Kathryn Shultz, an author and journalist says that regret is made up of Denial, Bewilderment, Self-Flagellation and Perseveration (the first three over and over). But as Schulz sees it, “the whole point of acts of idiocy is they leave you … exposed to the world and to your own vulnerability and fallibility” – as the Emperor was indeed! She goes on, “The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves. We need to learn to love the flawed imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better”.

 Unfit for Office: I guess if people thought they were unfit for office no-one would stand for office. But when officials step over the line and cover up their transgressions, and the people find out, that’s when rebellion becomes necessary. And how many naked emperors do we have in the world today?

 Delicate silk… purest gold… put in their own knapsacks: most fraudsters have ‘champagne tastes’!

 Looking-glass: they say the mirror does not lie, but we often ‘see what we want to see and disregard the rest’.

All the people throughout the city: that’s us, the 99%, ‘fed and fleeced alternately’. We are like mushrooms – kept in the dark (as to what is really going on) and fed on manure (to put it politely)!

Child: “In dreams, myths and folk tales, the child appears as a symbol of the nascent Self. …Always the child points to the future and carries within it the seeds of its own maturity and completion” (Stevens).

MLvF says, “The realisation of the Self always brings with it the restoration of the naiveté, the genuineness and totality of the reaction of the child”. She goes on, “The duality of the child motif expresses the fact that the child has the double aspect of childishness and spontaneity”. Thus we see the childish aspect in the Emperor and the naive, spontaneous aspect in the child who cannot contain himself and cries, “He hasn’t got a stitch on!”

 “He has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people”: They came to their own senses at last. This reminds me so much of the phone-hacking scandal which hit the British newspapers in June 2011, and is on-going as media moguls are being scrutinized for their fitness for office.


Anthony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue: A guide to the symbols of humankind. 1998.

Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Revised edition 1995.

Jack Zipes in Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller. 2005.

Kathryn Shultz, quoted in Think and Be Happy Blog ‘Je ne regrette rien’

Reflection Questions

These questions and suggestions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps not all of them are relevant to you, so answer only the ones which call to you. And if you find a question disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend, therapist or personal coach to talk it over with.

I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.

  • What do my clothes say about me? How would a stranger describe me from the clothes I wear?
  • What tools do I have for disentangling from spin-doctor’s webs?
  • What do I do with the courage of my own convictions?
  • How much do I bluff my way through life?
  • How transparent am I in my dealings with the world, is my integrity there for all to see or do I try to cover up my flaws?
  • Can I accept my own vulnerability and fallibility, and forgive myself?
  • How do I do regret?
  • How do I react to blatant mismanagement and injustice?
  • Am I willing to be the odd one out and speak up against my crowd?