Be Kind to your Tailors

As a measure of the darkness and frailty of the human spirit, it’s hard to beat fairy tales. One of the most famous, and most devastating, is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The protagonist is a vain and doltish emperor who takes particular pride in his wardrobe. His tailors convince him that they have made him a suit of clothes invisible to anyone unworthy of their position. Of course, there is no suit - but the emperor and his ministers are too insecure to admit they can’t see it. When he parades before his subjects in his invisible suit, the assembled crowd is afraid to say anything, until a child finally blurts out what everyone is thinking. Ridicule ensues.  

It’s hard to hear this story without cheering the innocent, observant child’s humiliation of the prideful emperor. Speak truth to power, the story seems to advise us. We would all like to imagine ourselves in the role of the child - speaking a truth that is obvious but radical, because we have too much pride or not enough sense to do otherwise. 

In reality, I think we’re all worried that we’re the emperor.

If I’m right, then the telling of the tale itself serves to tighten another ring around the story’s tension. Just as the emperor and his ministers can’t admit to each other that they do not see the suit, the story’s audience can’t admit to each other that they empathize more with the emperor than the child. That the emotion the story invokes most sharply is not glee but dread.

The story allows us to distance ourselves from the emperor - or at least to pretend that we do. He is a singularly elevated character, and therefore removed from the rest of society. But then, in our own minds, aren’t we all. I ache for the emperor, I truly do. Despite all the damning riches and power the emperor wields, despite even all the untold misery he has surely visited upon his subjects, I can’t help but feel some pity for him, and fear his fate. The more I think about the story, the more I even come to resent the child. 

The emperor teaches us more than the child. The child is a blank slate; not yet fully human. He therefore has little to teach us about being a human. And in fact it would be odd for a fairy tale to make the child the teacher. The child is the fairy tale’s audience, and therefore its student. The lesson - especially in the grisly Northern European tales - is usually what human weaknesses the child must prepare for. 

In this, the emperor serves ably, and to him we should be grateful. He teaches us to remain humble, to solicit and credit the honest opinions of our closest advisors. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he teaches us to be kind to our tailors. They can do us great harm.

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