Friday, April 1, 2011

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

A sombre but beautiful story as adapted from the poem by Robert Browning, whose version is the one most of us know today. Some of his language, such as “They fought the dogs and killed the cats, and bit the babies in their cradles,” has made it into other versions of the story.

But even before Browning wrote his verses, the legend of the Pied Piper was well known, and it has one of the most interesting histories of any story I have yet related. It seems that on or around the date in question (July 1376, as you’ll see) something happened in the town of Hamelin which cost the people of the village dozens of their children. Precisely what happened is no longer known, but it is this event that the legend of the Piper commemorates.

Perhaps a plague (maybe one spread by fleas on rats) wiped out all the young people. Perhaps the term “child” simply refers to a younger person, and a large group simply emmigrated. Another (much less likely) theory, is that the Piper was a real man, who lured unsuspecting children away only to molest and kill them, though this theory, as I said, has been widely discredited.

So in the end all that we know for sure is that the Pied Piper is a metaphor for something, though we may never know what. Perhaps it is nothing so sinister, however, Perhaps the Piper simply represents fleeting youth. The children we all once were had to leave to make way for the adults we have all become. My intention was to present this story as Browning did, with its original, sad ending, but…well, to tell the truth, it bummed me out too much. Besides, it’s too soon after “Godfather Death” for a downer, so I, like so many before me, changed the ending to make it happy. Hopefully it’ll still work.

If you should visit the town of Hamelin, near Brunswick, you might come across a street leading from the main street to the Wesen River which bears the label “Pied Piper Street.” Should you find yourself walking down this street, do not sing, whistle, dance, or play any kind of music. Such frivolities on so solemn a boulevard would be forbidden. Why should this be so? Well, that is what our story is about.

As with so many other things in life, it started with something very small. A rat. A hungry rat who wandered into Hamelin town in search of food. The rich, fat people of Hamelin had more food than they knew what to do with so the garbage cans were full to bursting. The rat had never seen such extravagance before, so he vowed to stay in Hamelin forever.

Now, one rat living in your town would not be much of a problem. But, of course, it’s never just one rat. Another will come to share in the success of the first and another and another and so on and so on until, before they even knew how it had occurred, the people of Hamelin were overrun with dozens, hundreds, thousands of rats! Well-fed and courageous rats who took on the dogs. Greedy rats who killed the cats that were sent after them. Soon they were not content to eat out of the garbage and began invading people’s pantries.

The problem was serious. These rats were eating the people of Hamelin out of house and home and everything in between. The angered citizenry stormed the Courthouse and demanded that the Mayor of Hamelin do something. But the Mayor had no idea what he could do. He and his advisors locked themselves inside for days trying to come up with a strategy to rid the town of rats once and for all. They called in professional rat catchers, hunters, even magicians to lift the curse of vermin from the town, but to no avail. The situtation was becoming desperate, and it looked as though nothing short of a miracle would save the people of Hamelin from being buried alive in a sea of hungry vermin.

This is how it was…before the Piper came to town.

When the townspeople saw this garrishly clad stranger, they could not help but stare. Tall, thin, piercing blue eyes, loose, soft hair, and elaborate clothes made of crimson and gold thread. His long cape swept the ground when he walked, his head was covered by a pointed cap, and tucked in his belt was a long pipe. His fingers seemed to twitch as though all too eager to play it. He came across a young boy, lame from birth, leaning on a crutch and asked him where to find the man in charge.

“You want the Mayor, sir,” said the boy. “The courthouse at the end of the main street.”

“Thank you, young man,” said the Piper.

“But you won’t get to see him. He’s been locked up in there for days trying to solve the rat problem.”

“Ah!,” said the Piper eagerly. “But that is why I am here. I am come to rid this city of its dreaded infestation.”

“Can you really?”

“I can, my boy. And I can help you, too. I know you might not understand this, but the day may yet come when I have worn out my welcome in this town and when I take my leave, I may be able to set you free of your constraints as well.” He thanked the boy again and marched straight to the Mayor, leaving the boy confused and unsure of this mysterious stranger.

The Mayor, like the other citizens of Hamelin, was not sure what to make of the Piper. But, as he had come promising to end the rat problem, he decided it couldn’t hurt to hear what he had to say. “And how do you propose to get rid of the rats?” asked the Mayor.

“If it please your Lordship,” said the Piper, graciously, “I have a peculiar talent. One which I have used many times in the past to dispose of unwanted creatures. Lice, moles, vipers, scorpions…even rats. And I can offer you the same service.”

“You can eliminate all the rats?”

“Every last one. If I start now, your town will be free of rats by…lunchtime.”


“I understand your skepticism, sir, but I am guaranteed. Let me do what I intend. If I fail, I leave town, never to return, and you owe me nothing. But if I can do as I say…will you give me a thousand guilders?”

“A thousand?” said the Mayor. “If you can deliver on this promise, you will have fifty thousand!”

“No thank you, sir. I am not greedy. One thousand is more than enough for me. Have we a deal?”

“We have, sir,” said the Mayor, enthusiastically. “Get rid of every last rat in Hamelin before lunchtime and I’ll give you a thousand guilders!”

With a bow of thanks to his lordship, the Piper stepped out into the courtyard. All was silence, everyone waiting to see what this mysterious man was about to do. He smiled a knowing smile, raised the pipe to his lips…and played. He played a haunting melody that no one had ever heard before. It was light and joyous, yet powerful and moving. Something that spoke to the heart of every creature alive…but none more than the rats.

Indeed, the rats were so enraptured of his playing that they followed him as he played. He moved all through the town playing his song and every rat he passed pricked up his ears and joined the parade. The townsfolk could not believe their eyes or their ears as they watched the Piper walk straight down Main Street, then turn down an alley that led to the river. Once at the banks of river, the Piper stopped, but the rats, poor things, dove into the waters and were swept away by the current. The rats of Hamelin were finally gone!

Never have you heard such rejoicing and celebrating! Singing and dancing in the streets. The entire township gathered under the balcony of the Courthouse to praise the Mayor for solving the problem and setting them free. The Mayor silenced them with his hands and spoke:

“Thank you for your kindness, citizens of Hamelin. But now we have much to do. The rats all but devoured our fair city, and we must rebuild. Destroy their nests so that they never return. Call the builders and carpenters to repair the damage they called. And tonight a feast! A feast such as has never been seen in Hamelin town!”

“But first,” came a voice from the crowd, “my thousand guilders, if you please.” The Pied Piper stepped forward and the Mayor turned white. In all his joy he had quite forgotten his promise to the Piper. One thousand guilders? For playing a song? Did he really have to pay?

“Well,” said one of the Mayor’s advisors, “You did promise him.”

“Only because I never dreamed he’d be able to do it! Exterminate rats with a  pipe? Who ever heard of such a thing? He cannot possibly hold me to that. He must know I was joking.”

The Mayor and his advisors discussed the issue at some length. In the end the conclusion they arrived at was simple: The rats were gone. Even if they had not drowned in the river, they had been taken far away from Hamelin and were no doubt gone for good. So what if they didn’t pay the Piper? It’s not as if he could bring the rats back from the dead. Surely, his pipe could not do that. And so, the Piper was sent for. He strode confidently into the room, eager to receive his payment.

“Now then, Mr. Piper,” said the Mayor, as diplomatically as he knew how, “far be it from me to go back on a promise or to deny you what you are entitled to…but you must know that when I said I would pay you a thousand guilders I was only joking.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“I mean, a thousand guilders is a little steep for what you did, isn’t it?”

“But you offered my fifty thousand.”

“Never mind what I said, you said you wanted a thousand and…well, look, obviously we have a lot of rebuilding to do now that the rats are gone and we simply don’t have that kind of cash available right now. But, as I said, you are entiteld to payment so…how does fifty guilders sound?”

The Pied Piper’s face was hard. He was livid. “You gave me your word,” he said through clenched teeth. “You swore to me that if I rid the city of rats, you would pay me one thousand guilders. The rats are gone, where is my payment?”

“Young man! I will not be spoken to in this manner. Now if you want payment, I have offered you a very generous amount. Take it or leave it.”

“I see…I was mistaken. I did not rid the city of every rat, one has clearly remained behind.” The Mayor was about to respond to this, but the Piper went on. “This is your last chance, Mr. Mayor. And be careful: This pipe doesn’t just work on vermin, you know. If you make me angry, I may be moved to play a different tune.”

Of course, the Mayor assumed that the Piper was bluffing so he said, “Go ahead, do your worst. Blow that pipe until you burst!”

“So be it,” said the Piper, and with that he turned on his heel and went back into the streets.

The courtyard was vacant, now, as the people of Hamelin were in their homes, making repairs or preparing for the night’s festivities. The only people who met the Piper’s eye as he looked around were a few children playing in the street…and of course the Mayor and his advisors, who looked down on the Piper from their balcony, wondering what he would do next. This time, there was no knowing smile. Just a deep breath, and a sad look in his eye, as, once again, the Pied Piper raised his pipes to his lips.

It was a very different song than before. Haunting and beautiful as the last, but there was something else in this melody. It spoke of loss, and fading memories of youth and innocence. It spread throughout the town like morning fog, seeping into the very hearts and souls of Hamelin’s people and even those who didn’t hear the notes felt the sadness and the heaviness that the song conveyed. A melancholy hung over the town.

The children playing in the streets pricked up their ears upon hearing the sound of the pipe. And without knowing why, they began to move. Following the Piper as he walked the streets, playing his haunting melody. And just as the rats had done before, all the children of Hamelin were following the Pied Piper.

By now, their parents were aware of what was going on, but whatever it was about the song that compelled their children to move, it was preventing their parents from following. The adults were powerless to stop them. All they could do was watch in horror as the Pied Piper led them down the same alley toward the river where the rats had drowned! But the mothers and fathers breathed one last sigh of relief when the Piper turned and led the children away from the river and straight toward Koppelberg Hill, just outside of town.

“Thank goodness!” was the thought among the parents. “He cannot climb that mountain. He’ll have to stop and then our children will come home to us.”

But, such was not the case. For as the Piper and his entourage approached the foot of the hill, a deep crack began to form and soon opened up into a passageway, into the mountain itself. Without so much as a look over his shoulder, the Piper strolled through the portal, followed by the children. As the last of the children entered, the passage began to close again and the last thing anyone in Hamelin saw was that little crippled boy the Piper had spoken to that morning throwing away his crutches and fairly sprinting into the cavern before the portal shut…and the music stopped. All was silent. Able to move again as if by magic, the townspeople of Hamelin raced to Koppelberg Hill but there was no trace of the doorway, nor of their children. It seemed all the children were gone.

For weeks after the children vanished, the Mayor worked tirelessly to find them. Envoys were sent to all corners of the globe, a sizeable reward was offered for anyone who could locate the Piper and beg him for mercy. But, in the end, the search was abandoned when it became clear that neither Piper nor child would ever ben seen again. The date of July 22, 1376, which was meant to be remembered as the joyous day when the town was freed from its infestation, is now remembered as the sombre day on which one hundred and thirty children were spirited away from their families. The Mayor decreed that the street down which the Piper led the rats and then the children would be forever known as “Pied Piper Street” and music, singing or happiness of any kind was forbidden on that street. Parades in town would stop playing until they reached the other side and no tavern or hotel or home would ever be built there for fear of the sound of laughter resonating in that hallowed place.

And it was then, when the people of Hamelin had given up all hope, that a miracle occurred. As they went slowly and miserably about their business, from the fields outside the town they heard the unmistakable, oh-so-familiar sound that they all thought they might never hear again: The laughter of children! And the next moment, the streets of Hamelin (even Pied Piper Street) were filled with their children, running, laughing, joyous at the thought of being home. They ran into their parents arms and were at once gobbled up by loving hugs and kisses.

It was a happy ending, to be sure…the only odd part being that, to this day, no one knows what happened to the children while they were gone. Their parents asked what became of them, but they got no answer, at least none that was satisfying. It was as if the children simply did not remember what had happened to them. The crippled boy did not even seem to remember that he had been afflicted. Of course, the parents didn’t worry about it too much, as their precious children had come home to them. Nonetheless, it is a perplexing mystery, and one which shall likely never be solved. Especially since the Pied Piper of Hamelin has never been heard of again.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Pied Piper (1933) This Silly Symphony version was the only one I knew for years. In this version, the rats are led to a sort of “Rat Paradise” in the form of a giant block of cheese and we see the children (including the boy on the crutches, who is tragically left behind in the original story) arriving at a kind of playground with candy and games.
  • The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957) This made-for-TV adaptation borrowed heavily from Browning’s poem and starred Van Johnson as both the mysterious piper and a young man of the village who was invented to carry the love story and sing the songs. This version also had a happy ending, in which the Piper brought the children back.
  • “The Muppet Show” (TV) In the episode featuring acclaimed flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, the closing number showed a village of rats being overrun by babies and the Piper (Rampal) being called in to save the rats from this infestation. Rampal plays and the babies sing “Ease on Down the Road” as the piper leads the babies out of town. In a word: Weird.
  • “Faerie Tale Theatre” (TV) Eric Idle plays the narrator and the Piper in this version which was based very closely on Browning’s poem. In fact, the whole thing was in verse, with new lines added to fill in the narrative gaps of the poem. This version retains the sad ending of the original, in which the children are never returned. Idle had previously written, directed and narrated the “Frog Prince” episode of the series.
  • “It’s the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown” (Video)(2000) The last ‘Peanuts’ animation special to be written by Charles M. Schulz before he passed away. A very liberal adaptation and, honestly, not Sparky’s best work.

Next Week: 
"The Match Box"

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