Fírinne agus bréaga, 2/2

I started reading while quite young, about five I think. What we used to call “comic cuts”, like The Dandy and The Beano, were my starting point. I can’t recall when I graduated to more demanding fare, like the children’s stories of the 19th-century Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen. But I suspect I first came across Andersen in the Danny Kaye movie, probably at a children’s matinee in one of the cinemas I frequented during the 1960s. 

If I was not already familiar with stories like The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor’s New Clothes, the catchy songs sung by Danny Kaye in the film were a good introduction to the basic narratives. When I actually read the stories, or had them read to me, I cannot say. 

Now, in these febrile times, The Emperor’s New Clothes has assumed a new relevance and this has led me to examine it afresh.

Andersen’s account of a monarch duped by two conmen into buying an “invisible suit” was not original. The Dane based it on a medieval tale from Moorish Spain. But he made two crucial changes that brought out the essence of the story more clearly than the source material. The result is a moral fable that is universal in its appeal.

In the original tale, it is the offspring of unmarried parents who are unable to see the cloth. But, in the revised version, the fabric is invisible to the stupid and those unfit for office. As this lie spreads throughout the court, the fraudsters develop their scam secure in the belief that no one - including the emperor – would be willing to lose face by admitting he can see nothing. And so it transpires. 

The author also changed the climax of the story so that, as the emperor proceeds solemnly through the streets to show off his new garb to the people, it is a child who utters the words: “But he has nothing on!” The medieval version gave this revelation to an adult. 

Andersen’s alterations were inspired. As one commentator put it:

Most of us have, in all likelihood, at some time pretended to know what we do not know or to be what we are not in order to save our face, to avoid the censure or ridicule of others.[1] 

By making it a child who shouts out what everyone else is afraid to admit, Andersen was arguing that the fear of being mocked or sneered at is not innate in the human psyche – we learn it as we grow older. But an innocent child can blurt out the truth because his/her “mental honesty has not yet been spoiled by the pressure of convention”.[2] 

And then there is the final twist.

Despite the child’s cry being echoed by the crowd, the emperor decides to carry on with his big parade rather than retreat to his palace in embarrassment, because 

he realized that it would never do to stop the procession. So he held himself stiffer than ever, and the chamberlains carried the invisible train.[3]  

Andersen’s ending is ambiguous, leaving a crucial question unanswered. Did the people experience a permanent awakening to the truth? Or did they quickly return to the world of self-delusion from which the child had briefly roused them?

If we accept that the lessons of The Emperor’s New Clothes are not limited to either the time or the place in which the story was written, maybe we can find the answer to this riddle in another, more recent, work of fiction. 

The BBC drama series, Roadkill, chronicles the twists and turns in the life of an unscrupulous government minister. He seems impervious to the personal and professional hazards that threaten to stop his gallop. In a brief exchange with his aide the protagonist, played by Hugh Laurie, delivers this insight into his personal philosophy:

You can get away with anything if you just brazen it out.[4] 

Cynical maybe. But does it answer our question?

More to the point, does it also explain the continuing acquiescence by the people in a pandemic narrative repeatedly shown to have been built on deception?

[1] Charles Madison Curry & Erle Elsworth Clippinger (eds.), Children's literature: a textbook of sources for teachers and teacher-training classes (New York, 1921), pp 180-83.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Masterpiece PBS, 26 Oct 2020, Roadkill: Preview, YouTube [https://youtu.be/FAuyPgRM4ng], 12 Jan 2021.

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