Things That Make You Go Hmmm...

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The following is an excerpt of Grant Williams' free weekly newsletter "Things That Make You Go Hmmm..." Click HERE to subscribe.

don juan manuelIn 1335, a Spanish author named Don Juan Manuel (left) published a book of Castillian folk tales en-titled ‘Libro de los ejem-plos del conde Lucanor y de Patronio’ or, to give it its English title, ‘Book of the Examples of Count Lucanor and of Patriono’.

The book was divided into four parts, the fist of which—a collection of 50 short stories, many of which consisted of no more than a few paragraphs and were drawn from sources as diverse as Aesop and Arabian folktales—became the most widely-known and was subsequently translated into dozens of languages.

Over 200 years later, in 1575, the book was published in Seville as ‘Tales of Count Lucanor’ and, 67 years later still, in 1642 it was published once more—under the same title— in Madrid. After that, the manuscript lay forgotten for almost two centuries.

Many of the stories contain plotlines familiar to millions:

Tale 28 ‘Of what happened to a woman called Truhana’ is eerily similar to Aesop’s ‘The Milk-maid And Her Pail’, Tale 44 ‘Of what happened to a young Man on his Wedding Day’ is Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ by any other name and Tale 23 ‘What happened to a good Man and his Son’ is the fable of ‘The Miller, His Son And The Donkey’. But it is Tale 7 with which we shall concern ourselves today; ‘Of that which happened to a King and three Impostors’.

This particular tale was translated into German under the title ‘So ist der Lauf der Welt’ (which, as far as my elementary German will take me, means something along the lines of ‘That’s The Way The Cookie Crumbles’) and it was this German translation that was read by a 32 year-old Danish author named Hans Christian Anderson and so captivated him that he went on to rewrite the story in his own inimitable style for inclusion in the third and final part of his collection of magical stories entitled ‘Fairy Tales Told For Children’.

This last volume—which contained ‘The Little Mermaid’—was published in April 1837 to rave reviews and has subsequently been translated into well over a hundred languages.

Under Anderson’s masterful care, ‘So Ist Der Lauf der Welt’ became a story familiar to millions; ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

The story begins thus:

Once upon a time there lived a vain Emperor whose only worry in life was to dress in elegant clothes. He changed clothes almost every hour and loved to show them off to his people.

Word of the Emperor’s refined habits spread over his kingdom and beyond. Two scoundrels who had heard of the Emperor’s vanity decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves at the gates of the palace with a scheme in mind.

“We are two very good tailors and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a mater of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.”

From that simple beginning, the story goes on to demonstrate how definite pronunciations from those in a position of power can prevent the masses from understanding what is staring them in the face but that it only takes one person either clever enough, brave enough or, in this case, naïve enough to speak out to suddenly bring realization crashing down upon the rest of the hordes and thus create carnage.

In 2003, Hollis Robbins published ‘The Emperor’s New Critique’ which set forth the compelling case that the story—like the clothes of the Emperor himself—was so utterly transparent as to require no critical scrutiny. Hollis asserted that:

“... Andersen’s tale quite clearly rehearses four contemporary controversies: the institution of a meritocratic civil service, the valuation of labor, the expansion of democratic power, and the appraisal of art”.

In his summation, Robbins concluded that the story’s appeal lay in its “seductive resolution” of the conflict by the truth-telling boy. I have no doubt you can already see where I am going with this, but indulge me if you will and let’s take a look at the relevance of this age-old fable in today’s troubled world.

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