The Emperor’s New Clothes
The traditional tale retold
by Carol Ann Duffy
The people had an Emperor once, who was so terribly keen on fashion that he spent all his money on fine new clothes. He took absolutely no interest in his army, or going to the theatre, and would only drive through the country in order to show off his latest outfit. He had different clothes for every hour of the day, twenty-four seven, and just as we say of the KIng that he’s in a meeting, it was always said of the Emperor, “He’s in his wardrobe.”
The Emperor lived in the capital city, a vibrant, exciting place. Every day saw new people pouring in, and one day two swindlers showed up. They put it about that they were weavers and could weave the finest garments anyone could imagine. Not only were their colours and designs incredibly attractive, but the clothes made from their material had the amazing quality of being invisible to anyone who wasn’t fit for the position he held or who was well stupid.
“Gosh! They must be wonderful clothes,” though the Emperor. “If I wore them, I’d be able to tell which of my statesmen are unfit for their posts! And I’d be able to sort the clever ones from the thick. Yes! The stuff must be woven for me at once!” And he arranged for a large amount of cash to be paid to the swindlers, so that they could start work immediately.
So they did: they set up a couple of looms and pretended to be weaving away, but there was absolutely nothing in the looms. Nowt. Zilch. Cool as you like, they demanded the most delicate silk and the finest gold thread, which they promptly stashed in their own pockets; and then they went on weaving nothing far into the small hours at their empty looms.
“Gosh! I wonder how they’re getting on with the stuff,” said the Emperor to himself. But there was one thing that was really worrying him- and this was that a man who was stupid or quite unfit for his position would never be able to see what had been woven. Not that he had anything to fear on his own account, not at all, not at all, but, all the same, it was probably sensible to send along somebody else first to see how things were coming along. The whole city had heard of the strange power possessed by the material and everyone was desperate to find out how crap or daft their neighbours were.
“I’ll send my honest Prime MInister to the weavers,” thought the Emperor. “He’s the best one to tell what the cloth looks like, for he has brains and no-one deserves his position more than him.”
So off went the honest Prime Minister to the workshop where the two swindlers sat cheating at their empty looms. 2
“Good heavens above!” thought the Prime Minister, with his eyes popping out of his head. “I can’t see anything at all!” But he made sure not to say so.
The two swindlers begged him to come nearer and take a closer look. Didn’t he think their colours and patterns were wonderful? Then they pointed to their empty looms and although the poor Prime Minister widened and widened his eyes, he couldn’t see a thing because there wasn’t a thing to see. “Crikey!” he thought. “Does this mean that I am stupid? I had no idea! Nobody else had better get wind of it either! Am I unfit for my post? No, I can’t possibly admit that I can’t see the stuff.”
“What d’you think of it then?” asked one of the weavers.
“Oh, it’s so charming! Quite enchanting! Totally exquisite!” said the poor Prime Minister, staring through his spectacles. “What an original pattern! What tasteful colours! Yes, indeed, I shall make sure to tell the Emperor how much I like it!”
“Oh, we’re well pleased to hear that,” said the swindlers, and then they named all the colours and described the unusual design. The Prime Minister listened carefully, so he could repeat it all to the Emperor- which he did.
Now the swindlers demanded more money, more fine silk and more gold thread, which they said was needed for weaving. But it all went straight into their own pockets- not one thread went on the loom- and they carried on working at the empty frames as before.
Before too long, the Emperor sent along another sincere statesman to see how the weaving was coming along and if the stuff would soon be ready. Just like the Prime Minister, he looked and looked, but, as there was nothing there, there was nothing to see.
“Look at that! Isn’t that a well gorgeous piece of stuff?” said the swindlers, and they drew his attention to the prettiness of the design which wasn’t there at all.
“I know I’m not stupid,” thought the man, “so it must be my official position I’m not fit for. Some people would have a good laugh at this, so I must make sure it doesn’t get out.” So he praised the material which he could not see and complimented them on its beautiful colours and charming design. “Yes, it’s fabulous!” he said to the Emperor when he got back.
The whole town could talk of nothing else but the wonderful material. The Emperor decided that he himself must see it while it was still on the loom. With a crowd of hand-picked courtiers, including the two esteemed officials who had already visited, the Emperor arrived at the workshop. Both crafty villains were weaving away like the clappers without so much as a thread between them.
“Isn’t it splendid, your Imperial Majesty?” said the two honest statesmen.
“What colouring! What patterning! If your Majesty will take a look!” And they pointed to the empty looms, quite sure that everyone else could see the stuff.
“Gosh! What’s going on?” thought the Emperor. “I can see nothing at all! This is dreadful! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be Emperor? This is the most appalling thing that could happen to me... Oh, it’s so-o-o gorgeous,” he said to them. “It has our total approval!” And he nodded his head up and down contentedly as he gazed at the empty loom. After all, he wasn’t going to say that he couldn’t see a thing. The crowd of courtiers who had come with him looked and looked, but they could see no more than anyone else had done. But they all copied the Emperor and said, “Oh, it’s so-o-o gorgeous!” And then they advised him to have some clothes made from this wonderful new material and to wear them for the Grand Procession that was soon to take place. “Beautiful!’ “Divine!” “Superb!” “To die for!” were the compliments that scurried from mouth to mouth. Everyone just loved the material and the Emperor gave each of the swindlers a knighthood, with a badge for his buttonhole, and the title of Imperial Weaver.
On the eve of the Grand Procession, the swindlers sat up all night by the light of seventeen candles. Everyone could see how hard they were working to finish the Emperor’s new clothes. They pretended to take the material down from the loom; they snipped and they clipped at the air with huge scissors; they sewed busily with needles that had no thread in them, and at the end of it all they said, “Sorted! The Emperor’s new clothes are ready!”
Then the Emperor himself arrived, surrounded by all his statesmen; and the two swindlers held out their arms, as though they were displaying the new clothes, and said, “Here are the trousers! Here is the jacket! Here is the long cloak!” And so on. “They are as delicate as gossamer, as light as a spider’s web; you can hardly feel you are wearing anything- that’s the beauty of them!”
“Yes! Absolutely!” chorused all the statesmen. But they could see nothing, because nothing was there.
“Now, if your Imperial Majesty will be gracious enough to take off your clothes,” said the swindlers, “Then we will dress you in the new clothes right here in front of this big mirror.”
So the Emperor took off all his clothes, and the swindlers pretended to hand him each of the new garments they were supposed to have made. Then they made out they were zipping up the trousers and straightening the collar and draping the cloak.
“Wonderful! It’s amazing how well they suit Your Majesty! What a terrific fit!“, everyone started to say. “What a pattern! What colours! What a gorgeous cloak!”
The Master of Ceremonies entered with an announcement. “The canopy to be borne above Your Majesty in the procession has arrived outside.”
“Very well, I am ready,” said the Emperor. “Don’t they suit me down to the ground?” And he posed again in front of the mirror, trying to look as though he was gazing at his splendid new clothes.
The servants, who were to carry the cloak, stooped down and groped about on the floor, as if they were picking up the cloak; and as they walked they pretended to be holding something up in the air, not daring to let on that they couldn’t see anything.
So the Emperor marched under the canopy in the Grand Procession, and all the people in the streets and hanging out of the windows said: “Look! The Emperor’s new clothes are the finest he has ever had! What a perfect fit! What a gorgeous cloak!” No one would let anyone else know that he couldn’t see anything, because that would have meant he was unfit for his job or incredibly stupid. Never had the Emperor’s clothes been such a howling success.
“But he’s got nothing on!” shouted a little child.
“Good Grief!” exclaimed the courtiers. “Stupid child! His parents should take him home! It’s ridiculous!” But the child’s remark was whispered from one person to another.
‘He’s got nothing on! There’s a little child saying he hasn’t got anything on!”
“He hasn’t got anything on!” shouted all the people at last. And the Emperor felt really uncomfortable, because it seemed to him that they were quite right. But somehow he thought to himself, “Gosh, well, I must go through with it, procession and all.” So he drew himself proudly up to his full height, while his servants marched after him, holding up the cloak that wasn’t there.
FROM BEASTS AND BEAUTIES (DUFFY/SUPPLE/STILL; FABER 2004, ISBN 0-571-22669-8)
© copyright Carol Ann Duffy