Many years ago there lived an Emperor who was so terribly fond of beautiful new clothes that he spent all his money on dressing elegantly. He didn’t care about his soldiers, didn’t care about the theater or driving in the woods; all he cared about was showing off his new clothes. He had a dress coat for every hour of the day, and just as people say of a king that he’s in the council chambers, here they always said, “The Emperor is in the dressing room!”
In the big city where he lived everything was exceedingly pleasant, and every day scores of strangers appeared. One day two swindlers arrived. They claimed to be weavers and said they knew how to weave the loveliest cloth imaginable. Not only were the colors and patterns extraordinarily beautiful, but the garments they sewed from the cloth had the peculiar property of being invisible to any person who was unfit for his position or inexcusably stupid.
“What lovely clothes they must be,” thought the Emperor. “By wearing them I could find out which men in my kingdom are unfit for the positions they hold; I could distinguish the clever from the stupid. Yes, I must have these clothes woven for me at once!”
And he gave the two swindlers a great deal of money so they would begin their work.
And they did set up two looms and pretend to work, but there was nothing at all on their looms. They promptly demanded the finest silk and the most magnificent gold, which they stuffed into their own bag. Then they sat at the empty looms and worked far into the night.
“I’d certainly like to know what progress they’ve made with the cloth,” thought the Emperor, but he actually felt a bit uneasy about the idea that someone who was stupid or not suited to his position wouldn’t be able to see it. Now, he certainly didn’t think he needed to be afraid for his own sake, but he still wanted to send someone else first to see how things were going. Everyone in town knew what a wondrous power the cloth possessed, and everyone was eager to see how inferior or stupid his neighbor was.
“I’ll send my honest old minister over to the weavers,” thought the Emperor. “He’s the best one to see how the cloth looks, because he is wise, and no one is more attentive to his position.”
Then the venerable old minister went to the hall where the two swindlers sat working at the empty looms. “God save us!” thought the old minister and opened his eyes wide. “I can’t see a thing!” But he didn’t say that.
The two swindlers invited him to come closer and asked him if it wasn’t a beautiful pattern and lovely colors. Then they pointed to the empty loom, and the poor old minister opened his eyes even wider, but he couldn’t see a thing, because there was nothing to see.
“Good Lord!” he thought. “Could I be stupid? I’ve never thought so, and no one must find out. Am I unfit for my position? No, it won’t do at all for me to say that I can’t see the cloth.”
“Well, you’re not saying anything about it,” said the one who was weaving.
“Oh, it’s exquisite! Quite the most charming of all!” said the old minister, peering through his glasses. “That pattern and those colors! Yes, I shall tell the Emperor that it pleases me no end.”
“That’s very gratifying,” said both weavers, and then they mentioned the colors by name and the unusual pattern. The old minister listened carefully so he would be able to repeat everything when he returned home to the Emperor, and he did.
Then the swindlers demanded more money, more silk and gold; they needed it for the weaving. They stuffed everything into their own pockets. Not a thread was put on the loom, though they continued, as before, to weave at the empty loom.
The Emperor then sent over another venerable official to see how the weaving was going and whether the cloth would soon be finished. The same thing happened to him; he looked and looked, but since there was nothing but the empty looms, he couldn’t see a thing.
“Well, isn’t it a beautiful piece of cloth?” said the two swindlers as they displayed and described the lovely pattern that wasn’t there at all.
“I know I’m not stupid!” thought the man. “Am I supposed to be unfit for my position? That would certainly be ridiculous. But I can’t let on.”
Then he praised the cloth that he couldn’t see and assured them of his joy at the beautiful colors and the lovely pattern. “Yes, it’s quite the most charming of all!” he told the Emperor.
Everyone in town was talking about the magnificent cloth.
Then the Emperor wanted to see it for himself, while it was still on the loom. With an entire host of handpicked men, including both of the venerable officials who had been there before, he went over to visit the two cunning swindlers, who were now weaving with all their might, but without thread or yarn.
“Yes, isn’t it magnifique?” said both of the venerable officials. “Just look, Your Majesty, what a pattern, what colors!” And then they pointed at the empty loom, because they thought that surely the others could see the cloth.
“What’s this?” thought the Emperor. “I can’t see a thing! This is terrible! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be the Emperor” This is the most horrible thing that could happen to me!”
“Oh, it’s very beautiful,” the Emperor said. “I give it my highest approval.” And he nodded contentedly and looked at the empty loom. He didn’t want to say that he couldn’t see a thing. The whole entourage he had brought with him looked and looked, but they could make no more of it than all the others. Yet, like the Emperor, they said “Oh, it’s very beautiful!” And they advised him to wear these splendid new clothes for the first time during the great procession. “Its magnifique!” “Exquisite!” “Excellent!” passed from mouth to mouth. Everyone was so genuinely pleased. The Emperor awarded each of the swindlers a Knight’s Cross to put in his buttonhole and the title of Weaving Squire.
The Swindlers stayed up all night long, with more than sixteen candles burning, before the morning of the procession. Everyone could see that they were busy finishing the Emperor’s new clothes. The pretended to take the cloth off the loom, they cut at the air with big shears, they sewed with needles but no thread, and at last they said, “See, now the clothes are done!”
The Emperor himself came, along with his most distinguished courtiers, and both the swindlers raised one arm in the air as if they were holding something u and said, “See, here are the trousers! Here is the dress coat! Here is the train!” and they kept on in this manner. “They’re as light as spiderwebs. It’s almost like having nothing on, but that’s exactly their virtue.”
“Yes,” said all the courtiers, but they couldn’t see a thing, because there was nothing to see.
“Would it please His Imperial Majesty most graciously to take off his clothes? asked the swindlers. “Then we’ll help him into the new ones in front of the big mirror.”
The Emperor took off all his clothes, and the swindlers acted as if they were handing him each piece of new clothing that they had supposedly sewn, and the Emperor twisted and turned in front of the mirror.
“Lord, how well they suit you! How delightfully they fit!” they all said. “What a pattern! What colors! What priceless attire!”
“Outside they’re waiting with the canopy that will be raised above His Majesty for the procession.” said the Chief Master of Ceremonies.
“All right, I’m ready,” said the Emperor. “They fit well, don’t they?” And then he turned around one more time in front of the mirror, trying to look as if he were examining his finery.
The chamberlins who were going to carry the train fumbled their hands over the floor as if they were picking up the train. They started walking, holding on to air. They didn’t dare let on that they couldn’t see a thing.
Then the Emperor walked in the procession beneath the lovely canopy, and all the people on the street and in the windows said, “Good Lord, our Emperor’s new clothes are beyond compare! What a lovely train he has on his coat! How heavenly it fits!” No one wanted to admit that he couldn’t see a thing, because then he would have been unfit for his position or very stupid. None of the Emperor’s clothes had ever aroused such admiration.
“But he doesn’t have anything on!” said a little child.
“Good Lord, listen to the voice of the innocent,” said the father. And one person whispered to the next what the child had said.
“But he doesn’t have anything on!” the entire crowd cried at last. The Emperor cringed, because he thought they were right, but then he reasoned, “I have to make it through the procession.” He held himself even prouder than before, and the chamberlins walked along carrying the train that was not there at all.
By Hans Christian Andersen
Translated by Tiina Nunnally
Viking Penguin, New York, 2005