In which I search out the folktale inspirations for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd”.


I’ve been reading M.R. James’ 1930 translation of Hans Christian Andersen, Forty-two Stories, which is a delight. I’ve realized that, while I’m familiar with Andersen’s most famous tales, I’ve mostly only read retellings of them, rather than reading them in Andersen’s own (translated) words. It makes such a difference! Andersen’s prose (as channeled through James, at least) is so beautifully clean and unadorned; more modern than I would have expected.

Many (though not all) of Andersen’s tales are direct retellings of folktales, albeit with his own unique voice and special details. Other tales borrow from traditional stories to a greater or lesser degree. In the preface to his translation, James gives a bit of information about the folk origins of several tales, based both on what Andersen himself said, and on James’ personal research.

Let’s explore “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd.”

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Andersen identified “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as a Spanish tale, by Prince Don Juan Manuel. The story he refers to is “Of that which happened to a King and Three Impostors”, from Libro de los ejemplos del conde Lucanor y de Patronio (AKA El Conde Lucanor, or Libro de los ejemplos), completed in 1335. Prince Manuel’s version is a fable that Patronio tells his patron, the Count Lucanor, when the Count asks Patronio his advice about whether to trust a certain person.

Andersen followed the structure of Prince Manuel’s version quite closely. The key difference is that in Andersen’s version, the magic cloth is supposed to be invisible to the stupid and the incompetent. In the Spanish version, the cloth is invisible to those born illegitimate, and the King’s folly gets exposed (so to speak) by a man who doesn’t care what people think of his parentage, and so isn’t afraid to speak truth to power.

The story isn’t just Spanish; there are several versions of the story, most of which involve objects that are invisible to illegitimate children. D. L. Ashliman collects several versions here, including Andersen’s.

“The Miller with the Golden Thumb” is a nice, short, joke/trash-talk version from England:

A merchant that thought to deride a miller sitting among company said to him, “Sir, I have heard that every honest miller that tells the truth has a golden thumb.”

The miller answered and said it was true.

Then the merchant said, “I pray, let me see your thumb.” And when the miller showed his thumb, the merchant said, “I cannot perceive that your thumb is gold. It is the same as other men’s thumbs.”

The miller answered, and said, “Sir, the truth is that my thumb is gold, but you have no power to see it, for it has the property that he who is a cuckold shall never have power to see it.”

I particularly liked the Turkish version, because the king figures out what’s happening on his own, and the Indian version, where a clever young woman tricks a king into lying three times that he’s seen God (she claims that only those born legitimately can see God). Of course, the king appreciates her wisdom and cleverness, and marries her.

The Swineherd, Dobuzhinsky


The story “Svinedrengen,” translated by James as “The Pig-Boy” and more commonly as “The Swineherd” isn’t a direct retelling of a folktale, though it borrows several motifs from the Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 850 tale. According to James, Andersen said the tale “could not be politely told as it stood” — which of course sent me hunting for the original.

In “Svinedrengen,” the hero is the prince of a minor kingdom who wants to marry the Emperor’s daughter. He offers the princess a beautiful rose tree and a nightingale, but the princess disdains both gifts. So the prince disguises himself as a swineherd on the Emperor’s estate, and makes cute toys. First, a magic pot where you can smell everything cooked in every kitchen in the land, and next a top that plays waltzes when it spins. He trades them to the princess for ten, and then one hundred kisses. The Emperor catches the princess giving the swineherd his kisses, and throws them both out of his domain. Then the prince reveals himself to the princess and returns to his own kingdom without her.

“I have learnt to despise you,” he said. “You would not have an honorable prince. You could not appreciate the rose or the nightingale, but you would kiss the swineherd to get a plaything. I wish you joy of it.”

The rude version of the original folktale goes basically like this: A swineherd has three little piglets that he has taught to dance to the sound of his flute. The princess happens by, wants dancing piglets for herself, and so on three successive days she asks for a piglet. The swineherd gives her each pig, on condition that the princess lifts her veil, then exposes her bosom, then lifts her skirt.


Now it turns out that the king has decreed that the princess will only marry someone who can describe her three birthmarks. Anyone, rich or poor, noble or common, can try for the princess. Conveniently, her birthmarks are on her forehead, her breast, and by her knee — so the swineherd has seen them.

The swineherd goes to court to try for the princess, but every time he answers a query from the king, another suitor (a more desirable noble or gentleman suitor) jumps in, saying “I was about to say that, too!” In some versions, the other suitor is the princess’s lover, so he’s also seen the birthmarks. Even though the king said that anyone could try for the princess, he isn’t too happy about having a swineherd as a son-in-law, so he declares “a tie” between the swineherd and the gentleman.

Then comes the part that was too “indecent” for Andersen to repeat.

The king and court decide that the princess should spend the night with both contenders, one on each side of her. Whichever man the princess is facing in the morning will be her husband. The princess prefers the gentleman, so she tells him, “watch the pig-boy, and do everything that he does.” Then she lies down in bed, facing the gentleman.

In the middle of the night, the swineherd gets up to eat a meal that he’s brought with him. He squats down to open his bundle, but the gentleman thinks the swineherd is  squatting down to take a shit — so he does, too. The swineherd then eats his meal, but the gentleman thinks he’s eating his own poo, so… well, you get the picture. In one version, the swineherd wipes his mouth and face after his meal, with a bunch of fresh basil that he’s brought along. The gentleman thinks he’s wiping his face with the remaining feces….

The two get back into bed, one on either side of the princess. At first, she turns towards the gentleman, but she can’t stand the smell, so she rolls over to face the swineherd. She’s still facing him in the morning, so he becomes her husband.

D. L. Ashliman collected several versions of tale-type 850, including Andersen’s. Some are quite close to the tale I sketched above, others diverge a fair amount. I was amused to see that the Wendish version, from 1880, overtly skipped right over the naughty part:

Then they had to decide how to settle the dispute [between the swineherd and the gentleman suitor]. One said one thing; another said something else, and finally they decided to ——–

Now I am not allowed to say what happened next, but in the end the boy did indeed get the young lady, and he became her gentleman.

Of the versions that Ashliman included, my favorites are:

The Emperor’s Daughter and the Swineherd, a Slavic version from 1884. Closely follows the plot I gave above.

The Pearl Queen, from Germany. It diverges quite a bit from the version I sketched above. I suppose it’s a bit didactic and goody-two-shoes, but I like it anyway, because the Pearl Queen picks her husband.

The Youngest Prince and The Youngest Princess, from Hungary. The king’s youngest son and daughter refuse to marry each other (as he wishes them to), and the king banishes them to seek their own way. The prince goes the tale-type 850 route, after helping his sister marry a king that the siblings have cured of a mysterious disease. That first part of the Hungarian tale is quite similar to the second part of the Punjabi folktale Kupti and Imani, where the princess Imani disguises herself as a fakir to cure her lover Subbar Khan, who was poisoned by Imani’s sister Kupti. I told the first part of the tale previously, as Imani’s Venture.

I like Andersen’s versions of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd”; they’re delightful and original. But it’s still fun to go back and see the folk versions of the stories that he borrowed from, and their many variations. Enjoy!

Oh, in case you’re wondering why the title page illustration above only mentions “Forty Stories” — Andersen’s tale “The Traveling Companion” is a (quite lovely) version of the folktale type known as The Grateful Dead. James included two other Danish variants of this folktale type to accompany Andersen’s version. I’m guessing the American edition of the book dropped those two stories.


Preface by M.R. James to Hans Andersen: Forty-two Stories, Hans Christian Andersen, M.R. James, translator. First published 1930. Faber and Faber Edition, 1971.

The Emperor’s New Clothes and other tales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1620, from D. L. Ashliman’s site of Folklore and Mythology Texts

The Birthmarks of the Princess: folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 850, from D. L. Ashliman’s site of Folklore and Mythology Texts


Header Image: Illustration from Hans Andersen’s fairy tales (1913), William Heath Robinson. Source; Wikimedia

Title page of the first American edition of M.R. James’ translation. Source: Delphi Complete Works of M. R. James, Delphi Classics, 2013.

The Swineherd, Mstislav Dobzhinsky (1917). Source: Wikiart

The Swineherd, Vilhelm Pedersen (c. 1841). Source: Wikimedia

Illustration to the poem “Sleeping Beauty” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. W.E.F. Britten (1901). Restoration by Adam Cuerden. Source: Wikimedia.

3 thoughts on “Birthmarks and Invisible Clothes

  1. This is an absolute delight!!!! I had NEVER heard the portion involving the ‘gentleman’ eating his own feces!!! This adds a herty laugh to what was previously just a nice tale of true love and clever swineherds! Thank you – I now feel enlightened!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.