This is a bedtime story I’ve been working on for Dylan. At the moment, though, he’s only interested in stories which feature little boys named Jack and at least two good giants, with an optional bad giant and/or witch, so I haven’t run this one by him yet.
You may have heard this story. Or you think you have. You almost have. People like to cite this story a lot. But this isn’t that kind of story, and no one is going to be trying to cast themselves in the lead role of this story.
Once upon a time, there was a land which was ruled over by the Blue Emperor. The Blue Emperor was a good emperor, and well-loved by his people, but none loved him more than the little boy who lived on the edge of town. Well, if we’re being honest, there were probably lots of people who loved the Emperor just as much as the little boy who lived on the edge of town, but the boy, who didn’t get out much, didn’t know any of them.
Not long before the year of the Blue Emperor’s Jubilee, the Emperor appointed a new Vizier. Now, I know in stories like this, the Vizier is usually an evil usurper who is up to no good. But this isn’t that kind of story, and I wasn’t there, so I won’t speculate on his motives. I won’t speculate on the thought process that led to what happened next, either.
What I do know, though, is that in the days and months leading up to the Jubilee, work started spreading through the land that the Vizier had commissioned a fine new outfit for the Blue Emperor. More than that, they said, but this new outfit’s beauty and complexity was so profound that those who lacked true discernment weren’t able to perceive its beauty.
It would not be entirely honest to say that the Little Boy Who Lived on the Edge of Town considered himself undiscerning, and so on the day of the Jubilee, he lined up with all the others to see the Emperor in his fine new Jubilee Regalia. As the Emperor’s procession neared the edge of town where the little boy lived, he heard the cheering in the streets, and he pushed his way through the gathering crowd to see the Emperor as he processed down the street.
Everyone was cheering, and the loudest cheers celebrated how fine and grand the Emperor’s new suit was. And then all at once, the crowd fell silent as the voice of one little boy cut through it. The little boy called out in surprise: The Emperor has no clothes!
Now, this is the point in the story where you’re probably expecting everyone to feel rather foolish and admit that none of them had seen the magical clothes, and realize that the Vizir was a flim-flam artist who’d preyed upon everyone’s fear of looking foolish, and the little boy would be praised for speaking truth to power.
But like I said, this isn’t that kind of story. So here’s what happened instead.
The procession halted a moment. Everyone whispered nervously. Sure enough, the Blue Emperor stood before them as naked as the day he was born. The little boy felt the weight of the crowd’s silence and he was filled with fear. And then, another person in the crowd, not far from the little boy called out, “Well of course he doesn’t. What were you expecting?”
The little boy didn’t know what to say. Surely it must have been a mistake. He had heard all about the magnificent suit of clothes that could only be seen by those with true discernment. But he saw nothing. Did he lack true discernment? Another person in the crowd spoke up. “Anyone can wear clothes, but it takes someone as truly wonderous as the Emperor to wear nothing at all.” And one by one, everyone in the crowd started to laugh. Not at the Emperor, that would be unseemly, but at the little boy who had somehow thought there was something wrong with the Emperor parading about the city in his birthday suit.
The little boy didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t understand it. Everyone had seen the same thing he had, but somehow to them it had seemed like a brilliant artistic decision, rather than an old man parading about town in the altogether. Days later, at the Solstice Festival, all his friends and relations, who knew how much the little boy had loved the Emperor, gave him Blue Emperor toys and Blue Emperor Books and Blue Emperor Commemorative Plates, but the little boy could barely stand to look at them, for now all he could see was the image of the Emperor’s private parts waving in the breeze. He went to ask the Wise Man, an old scholar famous for his histories about the Emperor.
The little boy said that he had heard that many people did not like to have the nakedness of others thrust upon them without specific consent. The Wise Man said, “Those are silly people. After all, anyone can just avert their eyes. And really, it’s better for them to get over their distaste and stop making silly complaints like that. And besides, the Emperor showing us his natural greatness and beauty is really nothing like a random stranger in a trenchcoat flashing a person on the street; only a very silly person would think that. Anyway, if you don’t like it, there have been plenty of other times that the Emperor wore those inferior clothes that you can enjoy instead.” The little boy tried to explain that every time he tried now, all he could think about was the Emperor’s Jubilee, and that now, knowing that all the famous adventurers of the Emperor’s past would culminate in the Jubilee, the experience of it was forever tainted. “I see the problem,” said the Wise Man: “You never really liked the Emperor at all. You were just a silly child who liked the Emperor’s clothes but had no true discernment.” The little boy cried all that night.
At the little boy’s birthday, again his friends and family found many fine toys and games and books and commemorative mugs emblazoned with the image of the Emperor, for they thought that surely the little boy still loved the Emperor. The little boy couldn’t explain to them why it caused him such pain now to see the Emperor; every time he tried, it was like he was speaking a different language. They could perhaps understand that the Jubilee wasn’t to his taste, but no one could imagine that it would be worse than a passing disappointment. The little boy felt silly when he tried to tell them — why should one unsual fashion choice upset him so? But there it was; something had changed for the little boy and now he knew that any time he started to care about the Emperor or look forward to the Emperor’s next appearance, he would find himself trapped in the obsessive fear that he’d find himself once again confronted by Imperial Nudity. He still loved the Blue Emperor, or he tried to, but his love caused him only pain now, never joy.
So he packed away all the plates and mugs and T-shirts and books and toys, and tried very hard not to think about the Blue Emperor. But his friends and relations would from time to time tell him news of the Emperor’s latest exploits, or ask him what he thought about some new tidbit about the Emperor. The little boy would smile and nod and try not to have an opinion. But inevitably, he’d find his mind drifting into a little trap and he’d once again start obsessing over the Jubilee. At times, he’d get himself so worked up that he needed to tell someone, and the mockery would start all over again — some would think him silly for placing such import on the Jubilee, which was, after all, just one parade. Others would swear that he was no true fan of the Emperor, just a silly boy who wanted to spoil their fun, or that he was simply a fool, and that if he really meant any of it, he’d simply stop caring about the Emperor and get on with his life.
But of course, the devil of it for the little boy was that he could not simply will himself to stop caring about the Emperor. It wasn’t that he hated the Emperor; rather that his love now caused him only pain. And so in the end, there was nothing else for the boy to do but to leave the city, and travel to somewhere far far away where he could forget all about the Emperor. Few people cared that the little boy had gone. One or two were happy to see him go, tired of listening to his lamentations. Perhaps a handful missed his insights on the Emperor’s activities, but not many, and besides, he hadn’t produced any insights worth mentioning since the Jubilee. Most barely noticed one way or the other, just one less sad, silly boy who didn’t know genius when he saw it.
We’ve come now to the point in the story where you typically have a “And they all lived happily ever after,” but this isn’t that kind of story. What happened to the boy after that? I can’t say. Perhaps he was happier alone. Perhapsh he was loneliner. No Happily Ever After this time. But what there is instead is hope. Maybe one day the scales will fall from the little boy’s eyes, and he’ll realize the true brilliance of the Emperor’s Jubilee Regalia and love the Emperor all over again. Or perhaps the Vizir will move on to some other line of work, and the next Vizir will change things up and everyone will reevaluate the past and decide the Jubilee Incident really wasn’t that good after all. Or perhaps the little boy will find something new to fill the hole the Jubilee had cut in his heart and he’ll stop caring so much about the Blue Emperor. I can’t say. Just hope.