The Emperor's Stone Soup

When I was a little girl, two stories I read over and over were The Emperor's New Clothes and Stone Soup. Both of these stories struck a chord with me and I spent a lot of time thinking about them. But these stories did more than spark my imagination. Both of these tales agitated me on an emotional level. They tickled something deep in my conscience which left me feeling slightly off-balance and more aware of a separation between my point of view and the world around me.

In The Emperor's New Clothes, two dishonest weavers visit an arrogant emperor and claim that they can make beautiful fabrics which look invisible to anyone who is incompetent or unfit for his position. The emperor wants to buy a suit made from this special fabric, but he cannot see it (because it doesn't actually exist). Instead of admitting the truth, and having people think he is stupid or incompetent, the emperor pretends to see the imaginary fabric.

Having the same fear, everyone else in the emperor's court goes along with the ruse. They pretend they can see the fabric which they believe everyone else is seeing. When the emperor is dressed in the imaginary clothes and paraded through the town, only one boy has the courage to say that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Once he does, everyone else realizes it, too.

Essentially, the boy in the story said what he actually saw instead of what he wanted to see. And I found that quite appealing. But there was something else that bothered me about the story: It didn't say what happened to the dishonest weavers.

In my childish mind, those thieving weavers somehow became connected to the travelers in the unrelated story Stone Soup. As if the same pair were moving on to another swindle.

Stone Soup is an old folk tale of two hungry travelers who use a stone to dupe a village into making them a meal. As the story goes, the villagers won't give the travelers any food to eat. So the travelers boil a pot of water with a stone in it. When the curious villagers ask what they are doing, the travelers claim that stone soup is the most delicious soup ever and they offer to share with those who provide a bit of "garnish" to add to the pot. People begin contributing onions, carrots, etc. until the stone soup becomes a real soup and the meal is shared by all.

Like the dishonest weavers, the travelers prey on the ignorance of others to get something for nothing. In both stories it was remarkably easy for them to manipulate everyone else and use belief to twist the perception of reality. If it hadn't been for the boy's honest cry, would the whole city eventually be naked and pretending not to be? Would the villagers now actually think adding a stone made a soup more delicious?

As a child who loved asking why and looking for the truth in everything, I didn't like the way the weavers and the travelers could lie so easily. I remember feeling uncomfortably embarrassed for the easily duped citizenry in both stories as well. The idea that whole societies could go along with an obvious lie was frightening to me.

Both stories made me more determined to be like the boy in the emperor's crowd and look for the truth in any situation. Yet, over the years I've learned that finding the truth is rarely simple and being too honest tends to lead to loneliness. Especially when so many others seem to prefer feasting together on stone soup.



3 comments:

  1. I always saw the stone soup story more like "it takes a village to make soup" deal where people collaborate and make something they might not be able to do on their own. The owners of the stone are just the catalyst that draws the people together. But you're right, there are always people who will take advantage of a situation to profit.

    One of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories is about the Sneeches. It's a great story that illustrates the stupidity of racism (and other isms).

    Another great lesson in that story is how some people will take advantage of peoples prejudices to profit. They don't want a solution to the problem, because it's so lucrative (exercise: see if you can identify people like that in our "enlightened" society). We see that over and over throughout history in politics, religion, racial discussions, etc, ad infinitum.

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    1. Yes, I think Stone Soup is often presented with the "it takes a village mentality," but that's part of what bothers me about it. The catalyst for the group coming together was a lie.

      Though the villagers enjoy their stone soup in the end, I'm not sure that they ever learned that soup was delicious because they pitched in and shared what they each had to make something even better. Instead, the deliciousness of the soup was attributed to the travelers' stone.

      Any villager who saw through the stone soup charade would have been left out of the feast unless he pretended to buy into the lie. And those who contributed to the soup only did so because they were tricked, not because they decided that there would be value in working together as a community.

      You might as well say, giving to charity in the hopes of earning a reward is the same thing as giving just because you recognize that other people are in need and you have the ability to help. Yet, they aren't the same, because the fundamental motivation is different.

      The story of the Sneetches is superior because in the end the Sneetches decide (or learn) that their prejudice was a silly lie (which had been passed down through the generations) and they abandon that belief in favor of the truth that Sneetches are no better for having (or not having) a star on their bellies.

      Plus, there's a groovy 70s cartoon musical version of the Sneetches on YouTube: http://youtu.be/v3yJomUhs0g

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  2. Then there's the inconsistency of christmas celebrations by non-christians. Yes, it's a "lie", but I participate in it because it's fun and it's a great time for families. I don't do it because I'm celebrating the birth of anyone in particular (other than my Mom who was born Dec 25th). I have neighbors who are also atheist and seem to follow the tradition for the same reason.

    The Santa Claus bit is something I've avoided selling to the kids. I've always tried to keep neutral about his existence or non-existence. I'm content for the kids to figure it out on their own. Sometimes people need a little magic in their lives.

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