(a Danish tale)
Once upon a time, the Emperor of Denmark spent all his time and money and efforts on his wardrobe. He loved nothing as well as he loved new clothes, and he took every opportunity to show off his fabulous outfits. He changed clothes every hour, in fact, and he was forever searching for the loveliest cloth, the finest embroidery and the most elegant styles.
He ignored his other work; he was always busy fussing over what to wear and how he looked and where he might find the next hat or shirt or trousers, vest or coat or mantle, scarf or belt or blouse.
As word spread of the emperor’s passion, tailors and weavers from everywhere came to the palace to display their wares. Each one hoped the emperor would buy his clothes. One day, two strangers arrived in the city and announced themselves at the palace.
“We’re weavers,” they said, “but no ordinary weavers. Our work is the finest in the world — the most exquisite patterns and beautiful colors. Our skill as craftsmen is beyond compare.”
“That’s what everyone says,” the servants sighed.
“Ah,” said the men, “but our clothing has a quality unlike any other. Anyone who wears our suits outshines everyone in the land. And those who are unfit for their jobs cannot see our clothes.”
The servants were amazed by this news, and the emperor knew at once that he must own such a suit. In this way he would know whom to fire. And so he called the weavers in to appear before him, and he paid them in gold to make him the finest suit in the world.
“I wish you to begin at once,” he said, “and I’ll give you a room in the palace to do your work.”
In truth, these men were not weavers at all. Oh, they knew how to weave tales, and this was such a tale. Still, they moved into the palace and pretended to set up their looms, and then they pretended to work.
The servants peered through the peephole to watch. They saw the two men spinning invisible thread. They squinted hard, for the men appeared to be spinning nothing at all. Indeed, there were no looms. But those two men danced around, pretending to work at those looms and spinning invisible thread.
One servant looked at the other as if to ask if he saw anything, but he dared not say a word. If he admitted he saw nothing, he would be admitting he was unfit for his job. So, instead, he gasped, “They’re masters.”
The other servant had to agree. Although he saw nothing, he knew he would be fired if he admitted this.
Every now and then one of the men called out to the servants: “Bring me more gold thread and the finest silk!”
When the servants presented these materials, the weaving thieves quickly hid them in their sacks and continued their invisible work.
One evening, the emperor walked into the room to see their work, but when he saw nothing, his heart nearly stopped. Only a man unfit for his job would not see these clothes — this he knew. And so he said, heartily, “Good job, men!”
Word spread. Everyone talked of the magical qualities this beautiful suit possessed, and without saying so, everyone eagerly awaited the day the emperor would wear his suit. Then, they thought, everyone would know who was a fool!
The emperor decided to send his most faithful wise man to see what his weavers were up to. When the wise man walked into the room and saw the empty looms, he could only stare. He watched those weavers dancing around, spinning invisible thread through their fingers. He opened his eyes wide but saw no thread at all, nothing but an empty room. He dared not say this aloud, though, and when the weavers beckoned him closer to touch the cloth to see how soft it was, he stepped forward and reached for the invisible.
“Excellent!” the wise man crooned. “I shall tell the emperor how grand his suit is.”
“The rainbow on the breast is lovely, isn’t it?” the first weaver said.
“And don’t you love the golden sleeves?” the second weaver asked.
The wise man listened closely so that he could describe the suit to the emperor, and he set off to tell his invented tale.
At long last, the weavers announced the suit was finished. The emperor and all his men visited the room to see. There was nothing there, of course, but every one of them, afraid of being called a fool, went on and on about the suit’s beauty and majesty.
“I shall knight you for your work,” the emperor told his weavers.
“Just one more night of work,” they requested.
The weavers stayed up all night, their candles burning. In the morning, they pretended to roll the cloth off the looms, to cut the cloth with scissors — though they cut only the air — and to sew with needles that had no thread.
“The emperor’s new clothes are ready!” they announced.
And they raised their arms as if holding up the suit to try on.
“Here are the trousers, the scarf, the mantle and the jacket,” the weavers said. “Light as feathers. It will feel as if you are wearing nothing at all!”
The courtiers and servants and wise man applauded, and after they had pretended to dress the emperor, he stood before his looking glass.
“Well done!” everyone cried. “Such royal robes!”
And the lords who were to carry the emperor’s train bent down and pretended to lift up the ends of the mantle. Beneath a canopy, the emperor walked into the streets, where everyone had gathered to see their emperor. There he strode, dressed only in his underwear, otherwise naked as the day he was born.
“The emperor’s new clothes are magnificent! Such flair!” the people cried.
Suddenly a little boy cried out, “But the emperor is wearing no clothes!”
Everyone gasped, but that was enough. One child had told the truth, and all the rest knew it was they who were the fools.
(Hans Christian Andersen’s version first was printed in 1837.)