7 min read

Opinion: The Governor's New Mask

Once upon time there was a Governor...
Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, Hans Christian Andersen's first illustrator.

Once upon a time there was a Governor...

In the great city where he lived, life was always gay. Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable and protect the people from all sorts of unpleasantness. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine and protect against mysterious pestilence, but masks made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

"Those would be just the masks for me," thought the Governor. "If I wore them I would be able to discover which men in my state are unfit for their posts. And I could tell the wise men from the fools. Yes, I certainly must get some of the stuff woven for me right away." He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once, knowing full well he could just tax the people for the costs whenever he wanted.

They set up two looms and pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms. All the finest silk and the purest cotton thread and even nonwoven polypropylene which they demanded went into their traveling bags, while they worked the empty looms far into the night.

"I'd like to know how those weavers are getting on with the masks," the Governor thought, but he felt slightly uncomfortable when he remembered that those who were unfit for their position would not be able to see the fabric. It couldn't have been that he doubted himself, yet he thought he'd rather send someone else to see how things were going. The whole town knew about the mask's peculiar power, and all were impatient to find out how stupid their neighbors were.

"I'll send my honest old deputy to the weavers," the Governor decided. "He'll be the best one to tell me how the material looks, for he's a sensible man and no one does his duty better."

So the honest old deputy went to the room where the two swindlers sat working away at their empty looms.

"Heaven help me," he thought as his eyes flew wide open, "I can't see anything at all". But he did not say so.

Both the swindlers begged him to be so kind as to come near to confirm the protection, approve the excellent pattern, the beautiful colors. They pointed to the empty looms, and the poor old deputy stared as hard as he dared. He couldn't see anything, because there was nothing to see. "Heaven have mercy," he thought. "Can it be that I'm a fool? I'd have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be the deputy? It would never do to let on that I can't see the cloth."

"Don't hesitate to tell us what you think of it," said one of the weavers.

"Oh, it's beautiful - it's enchanting." The old deputy peered through his spectacles. "Such a pattern, what colors! So much science! I'll be sure to tell the Governor how delighted I am."

"We're pleased to hear that," the swindlers said. They proceeded to name all the colors and to explain the intricate pattern and detail just how scientific their science was. The old deputy paid the closest attention, so that he could tell it all to the Governor. And so he did.

The swindlers at once asked for more money, more silk and gold thread, to get on with the weaving. But it all went into their pockets. Not a thread went into the looms, though they worked at their weaving as hard as ever.

The Governor presently sent another trustworthy official to see how the work progressed and how soon it would be ready. The same thing happened to her that had happened to the deputy. She looked and she looked, but as there was nothing to see in the looms she couldn't see anything.

"Isn't it a beautiful piece of goods?" the swindlers asked her, as they displayed and described their imaginary pattern.

"I know I'm not stupid," the press secretary thought, "so it must be that I'm unworthy of my good office. That's strange. I mustn't let anyone find it out, though." So she praised the material she did not see. She declared she was delighted with the beautiful colors and the exquisite pattern and the very scientific data. To the Governor she said, "It held me spellbound."

All the town was talking of this splendid cloth, and the Governor wanted to see it for himself while it was still in the looms. Attended by a band of chosen yesmen, among whom were his two old trusted officials - the ones who had been to the weavers - he set out to see the two swindlers. He found them weaving with might and main, but without a thread in their looms.

"Magnificent," said the two officials already duped. "Just look, Governor, what colors! What a design! The science and the data!" They pointed to the empty looms, each supposing that the others could see the stuff.

"What's this?" thought the Governor. "I can't see anything. This is terrible! Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Governor? What a thing to happen to me of all people! - Oh! It's very pretty," he said. "It has my highest approval." And he nodded approbation at the empty loom. Nothing could make him say that he couldn't see anything.

His whole retinue stared and stared. One saw no more than another, but they all joined the Governor in exclaiming, "Oh! It's wonderful," and they advised him to wear masks made of this wonderful cloth especially for the great procession he was soon to lead. "Magnificent! Excellent! Unsurpassed!" were bandied from mouth to mouth, and everyone did their best to seem well pleased. The Governor gave each of the swindlers a cross to wear in his buttonhole, and the title of "State Weaver."

Before the procession the swindlers sat up all night and burned more than six candles, to show how busy they were finishing the Governor's new masks. They pretended to take the cloth off the loom. They made cuts in the air with huge scissors. And at last they said, "Now the Governor's new masks are ready for him."

Then the Governor himself came with his yessest of yesmen, and the swindlers each raised an arm as if they were holding something. They said, "This is the tri-fold fiber, here's the nose clip, and these are elastic straps," naming each piece of the mask. "All of them are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that's what makes them so fine."

"Exactly," all the yesmen agreed, though they could see nothing, for there was nothing to see.

"If the Governor will condescend to take your mask off," said the swindlers, "we will help you on with your new mask here in front of the long mirror."

The Governor took his mask off, and the swindlers pretended to put his new mask on him.

"How well the Governor's new mask looks. Isn't it becoming!" He heard on all sides, "That pattern, so perfect! Those colors, so suitable! The science, so final! It is a magnificent mask."

Then the deputy of public processions announced: "The Governor's canopy is waiting outside."

"Well, I'm supposed to be ready," the Governor said, and turned again for one last look in the mirror. "It is a remarkable fit, isn't it?" He seemed to regard his mask with the greatest interest.

The yesmen who were to make certain he looked good for the public pretended to adjust it and center it on his face. They made sure the straps were tucked proper behind his ears. They didn't dare admit they had nothing to see.

So off went the Governor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, "Oh, how fine are the Governor's new masks! Don't they protect him to perfection?" Nobody would confess that he couldn't see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No mask the Governor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

"But he hasn't got anything on," a little child said.

"Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?" said its father.

And one person whispered to another what the child had said, "He hasn't anything on. A child says he hasn't anything on."

"But he hasn't got anything on!" the whole town cried out at last.

The Governor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his yesmen continued to say it fit perfect the mask that wasn't there at all.

Author's Note: With all apologies to Hans.[1]

Notes & References

  1. A translation of Hans Christian Andersen's "Keiserens nye Klæder" by Jean Hersholt. Info & links. “H.C. Andersen CENTRET.” Hans Christian Andersen : The Emperor's New Clothes. Accessed August 27, 2021. https://andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheEmperorsNewClothes_e.html. ↩︎