Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403
Based on a Spanish story from the fourteenth century, this tale was so cleverly altered by Andersen that it is still cited as an example of the foolish behavior of those in authority. He changed the Moorish king to an emperor. He reduced the number of swindlers from three to two. Most significantly, he changed the magic quality of the cloth so that those who could not see it were presumed either “unfit for their posts or hopelessly stupid.”
The vain emperor spends his time and money on his only interest—his wardrobe. Along come two men who claim to be able to create a magic cloth. They are given money, silk, and gold thread without limit to complete this marvelous fabric. The fabric will be made into clothing for the emperor. The two men work on an empty loom, pretending to weave, while pocketing all the money and supplies.
Curious about the enterprise, the emperor first sends his honest prime minister to report on the progress, but when the old man sees nothing, he is afraid to tell the truth for fear it means he is unfit for his post or hopelessly stupid. The prime minister repeats to the sovereign what the swindlers tell him about the glorious design and wonderful colors of the cloth. Next, the emperor sends a second official with the same result.
At this point the emperor decides to see the fabric for himself, but both the emperor and the courtiers with him are afraid to say that they see nothing but an empty loom. When the day comes for the emperor to don the suit made from the nonexistent cloth, everyone pretends that it is real. The emperor heads a public procession in his underwear, with the crowd continuing the pretense.
Then, in innocence, a little child speaks: “But he hasn’t anything on!” This fact is whispered from person to person; all the spectators shout the truth. The emperor says to himself: “I must go through with it, procession and all,” and, drawing himself up still more proudly, he continues to walk with his chamberlains following—carrying the train that is not there.
It is only the child who has not yet become corrupted by the world who will tell what he or she sees. Another implicit moral lies in the emperor’s knowing that he has been swindled, but refusing to acknowledge his error publicly.