Speaking truth to power in a funny fable: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the 2000 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here is an Appreciation for Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the 2000 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction:

By Michael Grossberg

It’s not just for kids.

Nor is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” merely another children’s fable.

Few stories have resonated so deeply with all ages for so many generations that they become an integral part of international culture.

This sly libertarian fable has become so emblematic in folk wisdom that it’s inspired a common catchphrase: “The emperor has no clothes.”

One modern edition, published as a picture book for kids, subtitles the story as “A Story About Honesty.” Yes, it is that – but also so much more, especially about how honesty and truth are among the first casualties in the war of politics.

Andersen (1805-1875), a prolific Danish author-poet, wrote many popular and enduring fairy tales that embody universal truths about life, loss, betrayal and deception. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” ranks among his most popular, along with “The Little Mermaid,” “The Nightingale’,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Red Shoes,” “The Snow Queen,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “Thumbelina,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Little Match Girl.”

Many of Andersen’s stories have inspired movies and musicals, partly because of their imagination, humor and plot twists, but perhaps also because they embody moral lessons for young and old alike about facing adversity with resilience.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” although it has been translated into more than 100 languages since its publication in 1837 in Andersen’s third anthology, may be too simple and short a tale to justify a full-length play, musical or film. (Yet, I’d love to see someone try to adapt it, perhaps interwoven and fleshed out with another Anderson fable, because its enduring themes are surprisingly sophisticated and subtle, with strong appeal for adults.)

This charming but sobering tale, about a foolish and vain emperor who hires two weavers to make him the most beautiful clothes, reflects and reinforces perennial anti-authoritarian and libertarian themes about the pomposities, hypocrisies, illusions and deceptions so often perpetuated by the powerful – especially politicians and statesmen.

Although the weavers claim to fashion the most beautiful clothes with the most elaborate patterns, they’re actually con men who only pretend the make the clothes while convincing the emperor that they’re using a fine fabric invisible to the “hopelessly stupid” or anyone else unfit for his high royal position.

The emperor and his courtiers, afraid of being exposed as unfit, are pressured to pretend to see the “clothes.” Once the suit is finished, the weavers mime dressing the emperor – who actually remains naked.

As the emperor marches before his subjects, the townspeople go along with the pretense because no one wants to be accused of stupidity or a lack of refinement.

Yet, an innocent child, unafraid to speak the truth, shouts that the emperor is wearing nothing at all, emboldening some adults to echo the child. Even though the emperor finally realizes that the child is telling the truth, he continues the procession to avoid embarrassment and sustain the Big Lie.

Interestingly, according to his biographies, Andersen’s inspiration for his fable may have stemmed partly from his own childhood, as he once recalled standing in a crowd with his mother, waiting to see King Frederick VI.

When the king appeared, Andersen said: “Oh, he’s nothing more than a human being!” Yet, his mother tried to silence him, asking him if he’d gone mad.

Hans Christian Anderson statue in Copenhagen

Because political discourse routinely resorts to deception, euphemism, exaggeration and denial of reality, Andersen’s fable sadly is destined to remain relevant for generations to come.

For instance, it certainly resonated in the 1930s and 1940s, during the rise of statism and collectivism – whether sparked by a Lenin or Stalin or Hitler – that was largely applauded as a progressive inevitability by the leading thinkers, artists and columnists of that era.

Largely, that is, except for George Orwell, who even before he wrote his classic Prometheus-winning cautionary tales Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, penned his own radio-script adaptation of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” for the BBC.

They say it takes one to know one, and Orwell certainly recognized the continuing relevance of Andersen’s cautionary fable for his era.

Today, when lies (or at least half-truths) are commonly promulgated by presidents, politicians, bureaucrats and outright tyrants in countries around the world, this 19th century fable sadly seems as timeless than ever.

Hans Christian Andersen in 1869 (Creative Commons license)

Note: Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) wrote many plays, novels, poems and travelogues but is best remembered for his fairy tales – which include 156 stories across nine volumes.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of The Survival of Freedom, edited by Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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