Children of my generation learned the story of the Pied Piper. It’s one of those Grimm fairy tales lodged in our brains.
The Pied Piper is a kind of public savior who, during the Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages, was freeing the city of Hamlin of the source of the plague that was killing them: rats. Thousands of them followed the music of his flute. But when the city reneged on its agreement to pay him, the Pied Piper led the children out of the city, instead of the rats. Only the irresponsible adults … and the rats were left in the town.
The recent dream of brain surgery shared here on Views from the Edge in which the surgeon was removing a rat from my brain led me to ponder why such a dream would wait until 2018, so many years after I had been freed from the rat-infested house on Church Lane.
Then it occurred to me. Six decades later, I am living again in a rat-infested house. The President charged with protecting the people and its Constitution is a rat, and the rat’s not just out THERE; the rat has gotten inside our heads. Every day. Every night. America is living through a nightmare.
Where is the legitimate Pied Piper who will lead the rats out? More importantly, will the adults care more about their children and the constitutional republic than the rat they confuse with the Pied Piper?
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2018.
Carolyn, you are right. Animals may scare the pants off us, but they are not inherently evil. They simply do what nature tells them to do. Evil humans are far worse in every way.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Once upon a time in the north of Germany there was a prosperous town called Hamelin. The people were ordinary, hard-working folk who lived comfortably in their gray stone houses. Over the years the town grew very rich.
Then the time came when a great problem arose, rats.
The town of Hamelin had always had rats. There are rats wherever there are people it seems, but the rats of Hamelin had always been kept in bounds by the cats that killed them. For some reason the rats began to multiply faster than the cats could take care of them. Then the cats began to disappear and the rats were bigger and bolder than ever.
The rats ate anything they came across, cloth, food, wood, nothing was safe that was not made of metal. The people were desperate. Many were afraid of the rats, which indeed were growing fierce and fearless.
The rats were all the people were talking about, from the simplest hovel to the burgers in the town council-hall, the talk was of rats. Nobody had any good ideas. Poison had been tried and failed. The rats seemed to laugh at the traps and play tricks with them.
In desperation the Mayor of Hamelin announced that the council would pay a great reward to anyone who could rid the town of its rats. Even as the council was discussing this there came a rap on the council-hall door. The Sergeant-at-arms opened the door a crack, afraid of the rowdy mob that was roaming the streets. Instead of a mob, however, there stood a tall, thin fellow dressed in an old-fashioned way with bright colors and a feather in his pointed cap. He was holding a flute.
I’ve rid other towns of beetles and bats.
For a reward I’ll rid you of rats.
Impulsively, the Mayor declared, “We’ll give you a thousand florins…nay, fifty-thousand if you get rid of them all!” And the council-men all nodded in agreement. The strange man replied that it was late but by dawn there would not be a rat left in Hamelin.
Before the sun was up the people of Hamelin heard a strange type of pipe music going up and down the streets of the town. Those who looked out of their windows saw the stranger playing his flute while rats of all sizes and colors flocked out of doorways and down hillsides after him. Down the streets they went to the river that flowed beside the town, and into the river the piper marched, playing as he went. The rats followed him into the river and were swept away never to return.
Before long there was a rapping at the door of the council hall door, and in came the stranger.
“I have come for my fifty thousand florins,” he announced.
The Mayor was flustered. “Eh, fifty thousand florins is a lot of money,” he fussed. The councilmen glanced nervously about and fidgeted.
“A thousand florins will do,” the stranger said at last.
“Well, now, let’s think about that,” the Mayor replied, coming onto an idea in his head. “The rats are gone. They cannot come back. You should be lucky to take fifty florins.” The mayor flung the single gold piece onto the floor at the stranger’s feet.
For a long moment there was silence in the council hall. The stranger raised a long finger straight at the Mayor and said, “You will regret your treachery.” Then he turned and marched out of the council hall.
The Mayor and the councilmen chuckled merrily at their cleverness at not having paid anything to be rid of their plague of rats.
Before dawn the next morning, while all the citizens of Hamelin slept snugly, free of rats gnawing at the timbers of their houses for the first time in a long time, the tall stranger once again made his way through the streets of the town. Again he played a strange tune on his flute, but only the children could hear it. It was a magical tune to them and they got out of their beds to follow the piper. Through the town they went, until at last every child in Hamelin flocked after the piper playing his enchanting music. Out through the gates of the town they went, out to the hills nearby, up to a mountain. When they got there the piper played a different tune and great doors swung open and the piper and all the children flocked behind him into the mountain. Then the doors swung shut and an earthquake rocked the ground causing an avalanche to cover the entryway.
Only one lame lad limping along far behind the rest, desperate to not be left behind, longing to go with them, was witness to what had happened. He was still coming over the hillside when the cave doors shut. He was the one who told the people of Hamelin where their children had gone.
Try as they might they were unable to get inside the mountain. It was many years before the streets of Hamelin echoed with the laughter of many children as it had before.
It is widely understood by folklorists that the story surely must be based on some historical event. There is no agreement, however, about what the event might have been.
Some used to suggest that the event alluded to in the legend was the 1212 disastrous “Children’s Crusade”.
One of the oldest ideas is that in the 13th century the children of Hamelin were “carried off” by an epidemic or a natural disaster. The piper is a personification of death in that case. The date is (supposedly) established by a 1384 entry in the chronicles of Hamelin that says “It is a hundred years since our children left.” There was also a stained glass window installed in a church in Goslar about 1300, mentioned several times between 1400 to 1700 and reconstructed based on those descriptions, showing a colorfully clad piper enticing a great crowd into a hillside. Specific details were supplied by a manuscript from Lunenburg written about 1440 which says: “In the year 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26 by a piper clothed in many kinds of colors, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.” A koppen is the knoll of a hill.
Recent attention has shifted away from the idea that this interpretation is accurate. It seems to modern scholars that something much less sinister may explain the supposed disappearance of a body of people in the 13th century. At that time areas of Europe East of Germany were opening up for resettlement following the withdrawal of the Mongols who had invaded under Genghis Kahn. Recruiters were attracting unemployed young people with the promise of lucrative rewards, and many emigrated. There is substantial evidence of Germanic names including variations on the word Hamelin in Transylvania. Another possibility is that they emigrated following the defeat of the Danes in 1227 at the battle of Bornhovet which opened the area south of the Baltic Sea. Surnames from Hamelin are found in two towns in that area, now part of Poland.
Whatever may the historical incident being recalled in legendary fashion, by 1559 rats were added to the story for the first time and became firmly attached almost immediately. By the 18th century the story was popping up all over. The Brothers Grimm drew on nearly a dozen sources to compile their version for their 1816 edition of “Deutsche Sagen”. By that time Goethe was quoting the story as well.
Bettelheim does not make a single mention of this story in The Uses of Enchantment probably because it is not the type of fairytale that conforms to his theories about useful children’s literature. He wants to explain that authentic fairytales help children see their way through apparently impossible relational situations. They lead to a “happily ever after”. That the “Pied Piper” does not do. Still children listen to the story.
Inasmuch as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is now part of the standard collection of children’s stories, as well known by English speakers as Cinderella, we are including it here. Our consideration of the story is how older children and young adolescents assimilate the story to handle life issues.
From the very first mention of the name of the story, children know it will be about the Pied Piper. They will be waiting for him to appear and following his action. There is no other individual as spotlighted in the story as the piper. No child, for example, is identified until the lame lad appears at the very end. But the story is not about the boy. If listeners are going to figure out what is going on they will have to pay attention to the piper.
But will they identify with him and sympathize with him? Should they?
It is easier to see that the bad people in this tale are on the town council. They are the ones who first of all do not know what to do and then do the wrong thing. What’s more, their malfeasance is not accidental, no matter of oversight, confusion, or lack of data. They made a conscious decision to cheat the piper out of what they had promised to pay him. They were “too clever” by far. They needed to be honorable and straight-forward. Instead, they were devious and deceptive.
On the other hand, the piper is difficult to identify, or to identify with. He is too mysterious for listeners to know enough about him to think of themselves in his situation. Few children will imagine themselves playing the pipe at the head of a surging plague of rats. It is clear, too, that his music is not normal. It is as strange as he is. How he comes at the very moment he is needed, and where he goes when he leaves with the children are mysteries. There is something too spooky about him to be anybody’s friend. He is effective but not attractive.
Instead, children will identify with the children. They are innocent. It is unclear whether they are victims, but apparently they are. It would be unnatural for a hundred and thirty children of all ages to want to go be buried in an underground cavern for all eternity. They go gladly, or entranced. They are willing to follow, but not able to made a choice about it. They are not free. If not, then they are enslaved. They are victims. Their story does not end happily; it ends mysteriously.
However, it is this mystery surrounding the events in Hamelin that make the story a fairytale rather than a legend or a fable. Legends are about heroes who undertake epical tasks that make a historic difference or who stand for universal efforts. Fables are moral stories that inevitably include talking animals and conclude with a simple ethical slogan. “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is neither of those. It must be a fairytale because the piper is a fairy. That is, he is not a human being in the same sense that everyone else in the story is. He has super-natural powers and that implies a super-natural identity. He may be something, anything, elsewhere. He appears to be a tall thin man dressed in bright colors, but his skills do not match his appearance. Once inside the sealed mountain, who knows? Listeners hope for the best, for the sake of the 130 kids he has lured away. William Manchester in 1992 wrote that the piper was a pedophile. Robert Burton wrote in 1621 that the piper was the devil. In 1687 Nathaniel Wanley countered, to the contrary, it was “a wonderful permission of God to the rage of the Devil.” That is the version on which Robert Browing based his light-hearted poem in 1842. There are also versions in which the children are rescued and other versions in which they arrive in a far nicer place than Hamelin. The fact is listeners will have to use their imaginations because the story does not say what happened to the children.
Happily, this element of mystery facilitates understanding the story in a metaphorical sense, as other fairytales have been interpreted.
Older children and young adults are apt to agree that the town elders brought this upon themselves. What happened to the children was a direct result of their immoral, unscrupulous handling of the piper. The bad people in this story are the adults, and the parents are worse than the piper. The story did not have to end like this, but it often does. Older children and young adolescents do not have to think very hard to come up with parallels in which powerful adults made bad choices that endangered children. What we have here is simply a straight-forward example of a very common occurrence.
To put the best possible light on it, the children are lucky to be delivered from the hands of people like the elders of Hamelin. Hopefully they are taken to a nicer place, but at least they might not grow up copying the behavior of the leaders. Maybe they got away in time.
Hamelin was not that great a place to be, come to think about it. A city plagued with rats is on the way to be a city plagued with Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that wiped out a quarter of Europe from 1348 to 1350. Of course, Hamelin had gotten rid of its rats. On the other hand there were “rats” on the town council. It would be hard to choose between them, which was the more dangerous in the long run.
As older children and young adolescents confront the elders in their own life, the idea of being piped away, far away, has its attractions. The idea that the piper was a mad predator is, after all, a parental sort of notion. Parents have no concept of enchanting music. That is clear by how they react to the music that their children adore. Older children listening to “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” completely relate to the idea that they will follow a piper out of town and out of sight, not only to get away from their parents’ lack of ideals, but simply because the music is so compelling. Older children and young adolescents do not need to know where the music is leading them.
As always, as repeatedly mentioned and just as often misunderstood, the disconnection between generations with regard to the music that enchants them is merely a symptom of a much more general failure to communicate. The values of the generations tend to be separate. There is a chance later in life, and a need, for the younger generation to learn the value of money. The elders of Hamelin valued money. They were not lured away by enticing music. In fact, they could not even hear it. It is unclear what the children valued; the story does not tell us about the children except that they followed the piper when he played their tune. Young listeners will not automatically be frightened by the way the story ends. It will not haunt them. It is satisfying in its own context. If there is anything sad about the end it is that the little lame lad missed going with his crowd. That, children will feel, is too bad.
April 28, 2013
Ken, I see the date at the bottom of your commentary but don’t know its source. I assume you wrote this, at least in part. Was it on your blog? Help!
Excellent questions. Remember when the hosing down of Civil Rights protesters shocked the nation? Would it shock anyone now? How far have we wandered from who we are supposed to be? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.
The breadcrumbs home are in the Constitution, Marilyn. The question is whether those responsible will notice.
I’m not even sure who IS responsible anymore. The people who should be responsible have shrugged their collective shoulders and said: “Hey, not MY problem.” What shocked us in the 1960s would barely rate a TV commentary today. That IS a tragedy and one from which i don’t know how we can recover.
That seems to be the problem, doesn’t it? Responsibility. Individual responsibility. In addition there is the erosion of civility on both sides of the political and cultural divide. I found yesterday’s crowd harassment of the two Trump folks at a restaurant appalling. Behavior like that draws the TV cameras but it doesn’t sit well with people. One of the great virtues of Barack Obama was his level keel and his determination to treat his opponents in the way that he himself deserved to be treated.
The erosion of common courtesy and respect for others is perhaps the biggest danger to a democratic republic. Without that, we have turn our backs on the cultural presupposition that makes politics (the art of compromise) possible.
The problem is made a lot harder when the guy at the top is the MOST uncivil of them all. He set the tone and if this is going to change, either he needs to skedaddle … or he should be the one to reset our national civility levels. Personally, I think he owes us all one GIGANTIC apology.
Totally agree, Marilyn. His behavior is horrendous. Lie after lie after lie, all spoken with the swagger of a playground bully who has no equal. At this point he has no equal!!! But…the Administration’s national security team’s unexpected press conference appearance opens the crack for a public view into the behind-the-scenes turmoil in the West Wing. We shall see.
This mess has taken a toll on all of us. It’s not just politics. It feels personal and mean-spirited and threatening. We need it to end.
It will end, Marilyn. It will. Sooner rather than later. I do believe.
I really want you to be right!
I do, too, Marilyn. It’s getting more bizarre every day.
Marilyn, Gordon, I hope it’s OK for me to be just a little hopeful here. I think many people would be shocked even now. Think of the outrage about the separation of families at the border with Mexico. *Many* people have protested loudly about this. Actually, I just gave myself a little hope.🙂 Not a lot, but I’ll take it.
Carolyn, a little hope can go a long way. Don’t beat yourself up too much for whatever hope is in you. Hope is different from optimism IMHO. Hope is not rose colored glasses. It’s a wonderful gift.
Well, I have written it to so many while replying to comments on Daily Kos or the Washington Post, so here is my take: Please, no animals. There is no rat, crocodile or pig worse than an evil human being. 45 and those enabling him in Congress, as well as all in his administration who are causing such terrible situations for the poor, including suffering from vicious environmental damage have *less* conscience than a tarantula. I am quite firm about this. I definitely understand about your horror at rats. I am deathly afraid of most bugs, including some that I know are both useful and perfectly safe. But however great my horror, 45 and company are worse.
I think I understand, Carolyn. It’s a human infestation!
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