Once upon a time, in a kingdom not that far away, a young boy was holding his mother’s hand as they watched the royal procession coming toward the plaza, along with most of the rest of the king’s subjects.
The boy turned to his mother and asked, “Why is the king wearing a dress?”
|This is the original Wilhelm Pedersen illustration|
of the Hans Christian Andersen story,
on which I have literally cut and pasted a dress
“Shhh,” whispered the mother.
“But…” persisted the boy.
“He’s the queen; I mean, she’s the queen.”
“Nuh uh,” said the boy. “I’ve seen the king every time there’s a procession, my whole life, and that’s him.”
“The k— queen sent out a proclamation announcing that h— she feels more like a woman, so now s/he is the queen.”
“But that’s just silly. You can’t just change what God made you by sending out a proclam— a lie.”
“The sovereign ruler can do whatever h— she wants; it’s what she was born to do.”
“He was born a boy—just like me. I know, because, remember that procession a couple of months ago? When those frauds had sold him an invisible suit of clothes, and told him only the wisest could see it? But he wasn’t really wearing anything? So I saw that he had boy parts, like me. And like Daddy. Not woman parts like you.”
The mother was getting uneasy. People might overhear. The boy wasn’t, as a rule, a quiet child. She knelt down to look at him face-to-face.
“Son, you need to not speak your mind so boldly. If you go against our ruler, you could get us into a lot of trouble. The queen might put us out of business—label our laundry an enemy of the queen, make people afraid to do business with us. People might break our windows or chop down our door, because they say we’re the kind of people who hate the queen.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. We don’t hate the king; we just think some of the things he does are kind of silly. That doesn’t have anything to do with how clean we get people’s clothes.”
“Nevertheless, people with power need to be dealt with carefully,” warned the mother.
“But maybe someone just needs to wake him up to what’s real,” said the boy, breaking free and moving to the front of the crowd.
When he got right near the king, he called out, as loudly as he could, “Your Majesty, do you remember me?”
The ruler in the royal gown turned to the boy, uncertain who he was, since there were so many subjects. But in a show of goodwill, he beckoned the boy forward. He held out a bejeweled hand and, in a voice as deep and regal as ever, said, “You may approach.”
The boy curtseyed before the king. A nearby guard ordered, “Bow, boy!”
“Oh, I thought the rules were changing, but, sure, I’ll bow.” So he bowed, and then knelt right before the king.
“You may speak,” said the king.
“Your majesty, you have been a pretty good ruler. Most of the time you’re fair, and you haven’t taxed us beyond what we can bear. And we have good roads and such. But, if you don’t mind my saying so, you think way too much about your appearance. There was that debacle last spring, remember? And now this. It’s a lovely dress, but it’s meant for a woman, and you’re not a woman. You’re a man.”
“How dare y—“ the king began
But a rumble began among the people. “The boy told the king to his face that he’s not a woman!”
“I knew all along he wasn’t a woman.”
“The boy tells it like it is. I wish I had dared.”
“Our king is a man wearing a dress! What is he thinking?”
“Not thinking,” said another, and circled the side of his head in a gesture that, even back then, meant the brain wasn’t working quite right.
“But what if he’s not happy being a man?” asked a sympathetic neighbor.
“What if? I’m not happy being a poor ditch digger, but proclaiming I’m a wealthy banker don’t make it so.”
And so the murmuring grew, until it became a roar, with laughter and shouting.
The king’s embarrassed face turned blotchy red. He was on the verge of tears. The boy patted him on the bare shoulder above the sleeve of his elegant dress. “There, there, Your Majesty. It’s just clothes. You’re still the king. I say, go back to your palace, and do what you were meant to do. And here’s some advice: when you’re going outside among the people, I think it might be better for you to leave your clothing choices to someone else, maybe your valet. OK?”
The king could have said, “Off with his head!” He had an urge to do just that. But he didn’t. The optics of executing a child could cost quite a lot of political capital. Instead, he stiffly turned around, and led the procession back into his palace.
He didn’t come out again for quite some time. But when he did, he wore breeches.
Maybe his majesty struggled the rest of his life, wishing he’d been born a queen instead of a king. But he was what he was.
Because, it turns out that as long as there are bold little boys out there willing to say what they saw, there was no getting the whole world to join in one’s make-believe.
In the real world, we’re hearing fantasies like this. Read one here.
One of my favorite speakers, Neal A. Maxwell (who passed away a few years ago), spoke about some related issues, with beautiful prose, in 1993. Worth hearing again.