In children’s fantasy, enchanted realism and magical realism, there is often an arc word (leitwort) which enters popular lexicon, or sticks in the mind long after the reader leaves the story. These magic words sometimes become a part of the child’s own imaginative play, an improvised version of early childhood fan fiction.
Where Do Magic Words Come From?
Imagine a baby on the verge of learning to speak. For all of her life she has been inarticulate — she wants something, but all she can do is cry or say “Uh, uh, uh!” Then, somehow, the purpose of speech is revealed to her, and after what must be a tremendous struggle, the power of speech. Though we all once experienced it, it is hard now to picture the immense thrill of power we must have felt the first time we cried “Mommy!” or “Cookie!” and saw what we desired appear. From this experience, surely, comes the power of magic words and spells in fairytales.
Small children like simple, repetitive rhymes and games, just as they like repetitive or cumulative folktales such as The Gingerbread Man. As they grow older and more competent linguistically they become impatient with such tales; they learn that the magic spell doesn’t always work and that words don’t always mean what they seem to mean.
Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Harry Potter is full of them: Riddikulus, Obliviat, Alohomora etc.
The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton features trees which whisper ‘wisha wisha’, which as a child reader sent a tingle down my spine. While this onomatopoeia doesn’t directly function as a magic word, it signals that the children have entered an enchanted realm.
Originates in the late 17th century (as a mystical word engraved and used as a charm to ward off illness). The word comes from Latin and was first recorded in a 2nd-century poem by Q. Serenus Sammonicus.
From Italian ‘quick, quickly’, from late Latin praestus ‘ready’. In modern English, it’s usually ‘Hey, presto!” This is because magicians started using ‘Hey presto!’ in the late 18th century. English speakers first borrowed presto from Italian as a musical term.
This is relatively new, dating only from the 1940s, and a guy called Gomer Pyle, who popularised the Marvel Comics word.
This is from the art deco era, and is simply mimetic, meaning it’s the sound we imagine is made when a magician makes a flourish and presents something magical to the audience.
French (voilà) from the 1700s, basically means ‘Look!’
What makes a good magic word?
For the answer to this, I turn to the work of scholars who have studied nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes have a proven track record for memorability and infiltration into the real lives of children (and caregivers).
Rhythm— rhythm is an especially important aspect of the prosody of nursery rhyme (along with intonation, stress and tempo of speech). Then there’s isochrony (e.g. whether a language is stress-timed or syllable timed). Children’s rhymes tend to have a ‘binary structure’ e.g. quatrains, or four-beat lines (Baa Baa Black Sheep). Some have proposed that this is because they mimic heartbeats, which we remember from our time in the womb. Nursery rhymes often offer a sense of closure in their rhythm. This is known as a ‘closed circular structure’. Scheiding offers Baa Baa Black Sheep as an example of this. John Prine’s Prine’s rhythmic delivery of “Illegal Smile” is likewise phrased ‘like a children’s sing-along, emphasizing the final two syllables of each line: “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street — dead end/And all my friends turned out to be insurance — sales men.”’
Musicality— refers to metrical pattern and how rhythm is marked. English is an example of a ‘stress timed language’, which means native English speakers in most dialects around the world leave the same length of time between stressed syllables. (Māori background speakers in New Zealand often speak native English without the stress timing, borrowing Māori syllable timing unrelated of whether they also speak Te Reo Māori.) ‘Musicality’ of an utterance will partly depend on who is uttering it.
Repetition— Binary structures lend themselves to repetition. Rhyme is another form of repetition and the following observation is especially interesting:
Rhymes are generally rooted in the sensory world and make reference to people, objects, and actions, but not ideas, although ideas can and are inferred and assumed from the short actions found in the rhymes. This situational nature makes rhymes more recognizable, as the objects and actions they depict are related to the culture they belong to, and can be found in daily actions. A rhyme could then be recalled and ‘activated’ when in contact with any of these domestic activities which it mentions.
Debbie Pullinger, From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry
Formulaicity — babies initially learn language as ‘units’ and later as linked strings of words, initially unaware of divisions. Much adult language is also formulaic, and these shared phrases are an important part of a community’s identity.
Language as Play— Memorable phrases are phrases which form the basis of play. Audiences incorporate them into play and build on them, using the original as a model. Where magic words and rhymes accompany movement (e.g. clapping, skipping, jumping) they become more memorable. Memorable phrases are performative (contrasting with descriptive).
Magic Words Revisited
Nickety nacketty noo noo noo appeals because of its repetition, its musicality and its rhythm.
J.K. Rowling’s magical words and spells work a bit differently from the nursery rhymes. They appeal to the older reader’s interest in wordplay and etymology. For instance, “Riddikulus” is an adaptation of “ridiculous” as well as of ridiculum (Latin, “joke”) and ridere (Latin, “to laugh”). The reader doesn’t necessarily know all that in order to appreciate it, but by uttering it in an everyday context, bonds with other Harry Potter superfans.
Wisha wisha is beautifully onomatopoeic, and whenever I hear wind blowing through trees, I think they are saying ‘wisha wisha’. This is in line with Pullinger’s theory that the best nursery rhymes (and also the best magic words) are situational, found in daily actions (or natural phenomena).
Header painting: The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917
Is fairy land real? Some children’s stories would like us to think so. Their endings contain a ‘wink’, encouraging readers to carry the possibility of fantasy lands with them, even after the story draws to a close. This is one way of achieving resonance. We might argue this is a cheap trick.
Enter Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Magic of Reality partly as an antidote to magical thinking, which he famously despises. His main argument? Reality is far more interesting than anything fiction writers can make up. In this he is probably right.
How big is this utopianforest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinny) or they meet a different dwarf each time. (Turns out dwarves keep changing in size.)
Either that or the girls are stalking the dwarf. Perhaps they are not as stupid as they appear on paper, and were in on the bear’s plan from the get-go, hoping to kill him themselves, but only after he reveals his store of treasure.
None of this is on the page, of course, because fairytales as recorded by the Grimm Brothers rendered girls and women innocent naifs who required rescuing by men.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”
Snow White belongs to a category of stories in which girls are taught self-sacrifice in order to better serve men. These stories didn’t stop appearing in the 1800s. More recent examples:
In “Snow White and Rose Red” an ursine prince asks to come in and warm by the fire. Of course the women let him in, as Mrs Tittlemouse let in the toad, also to sit in front of her fire. Because he wanted to. Because he believed he had the right to her space, her time and her attention. And because the girls fulfilled their feminine roles of caring, all worked out in the end.
This is the story of sisters, presented as different sides of the same coin. Any personality difference is symbolised by the contrasting colour of their hair.
These archetypes have been recycled in many stories, for example in Laura and Mary from the Little House series, or Anne and George from The Famous Five series. One is quiet, the other active:
Snow-White was more gentle, and quieter than her sister, who liked better skipping about the fields, seeking flowers, and catching summer birds; while Snow-White stayed at home with her mother, either helping her in her work, or, when that was done, reading aloud.
These are the Ideal Girls, at one with nature, loving each other deeply. They always share everything and are perfectly clean and tidy. They have no moral shortcoming at all.
In a way, Snow White and Rose Red have superpowers. They are high mimetic heroines according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. Their superpower is a specifically feminine variety. These girls are so well connected to Earth and nature that nature cannot harm them. The idea that women are close to nature both elevates and hinders women. If you’re close to nature, you can’t rise up to become one with God, unlike men, who are Gods of their own domains.
Because these girls are so Good, ‘no mischance befell them’. This exposes a problematic ideology in which bad things happen to bad people. So what, exactly, is their story worthy problem? How do we make a story out of that? When the main characters of a story are Mary Sue archetypes, all the interest must come from the opponents. What tends to happen is, the main characters are so boring the contemporary reader ends up empathising with the opposition, simply because they’re not boring. This is partly why Mary Sue characters are a bad idea in modern stories, except in parody.
Snow White and Rose Red live in Arcadia, where even at night in the surrounding woods are perfectly safe, and berries available whenever they’re hungry. What more could these characters want? They want for nothing, of course. This is part of what makes them so Very Good.
(It’s easier to want for nothing when all is provided for you.)
So any desire must come from other characters. The bear is the character with the strong desire for change, so the story kicks off when he enters the story.
Adventure comes to the door of their idyllic, cosy cottage, inhabited only by three women (the sisters and their mother).
One evening, as they were all sitting cosily together like this, there was a knock at the door, as if someone wished to come in.
All but the youngest audience will understand that this is not a bear but a prince. He’s a talking bear. (The film Brave takes the bear transformation plot and inverts its gender by turning a queen into a bear. ) Readers convince ourselves we don’t know if he’s a goodie or a baddie, though his royalty status is telegraphed when he rips his fur on the lintel and a little bit of gold shines through. This is supposed to be a reassuring tale.
The dwarf is clearly a baddie from the start. If you’ve only ever read modern, illustrated versions of this story it’s a surprise to read the Grimm’s version and learn how very small he is at times. Case in point, the girls mistake him for a grasshopper at one point. In my childhood picture books he is almost half the height of the girls.
If you met someone cranky but they were not much bigger than a grasshopper, their rage wouldn’t really scare you, would it? On the other hand, the dwarf is able to pick up ‘a sack of jewels’. In fairytales, dwarves are as big or small as the story requires them to be at any given time.
THE SIZE OF THE DWARF
On that point, how big were fairies, dwarves and other small fantasy creatures really meant to be? That depends on where you come from and in what era you lived.
Elizabethans loved miniature creatures, and the Jacobeans even more so.
Take a creature like Oberon (fairy king). In one story he is three feet tall, in other he is the size of the King on a playing card. Take another fantasy creature, the witch’s familiar. In England the witch’s familiar is a very small creature like an insect or a bee, but in Scotland, familiars are also attached to magicians and are bigger, more powerful creatures. Take fairies. Before Shakespeare they are about as big as insects, similar to the English witch’s familiar. Shakespeare himself made his fairies ‘in shape no bigger than an agate-stone’.
In this old tale, the dwarf is small enough to be picked up by a large bird.
The trope of the human picked up and carried away by a bird clearly plays into ancient fears.
With no plans of their own due to living in a forest utopia, agency comes from the bear. Clearly he didn’t need to warm himself beside the fire. Bears are capable of thriving in very low temperatures. His plan from the start, revealed later, was to spend time next to the girls so that they’d fall in love with him. He is rewarded with rough and tumble and close physical affection.
Making use of the Rule of Three, the girls keep rescuing the angry little dwarf. The reason they do this has been proposed in the first section of the story: They help someone out of trouble because they are Good. They are basically Goodness Automatons. These girls have never considered ethical dilemmas such as The Trolley Problem, in which we sometimes help more people by sacrificing one.
Eventually the bear turns up to save the girls from the dwarf’s wrath. The dwarf tries to convince the bear to eat the girls instead.
“I am a king’s son, who was enchanted by the wicked dwarf lying over there. He stole my treasure, and compelled me to roam the woods transformed into a big bear until his death should set me free. Therefore he has only received a well-deserved punishment.”
SPELLS BROKEN AT DEATH
The idea that a spell can be broken once your oppressor is dead can be found across various superstitious cultures. Most disturbing is that of the houngans in Haiti, origin of zombie mythology.
A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. In this community, if you want to take revenge on someone, you pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed — they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave. When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
Although the supernatural parts of that story are not real, the zombie status of certain ostracised people is completely real. That’s what disturbs me the most. Imagine visiting a community in which someone is ignored, because everyone believes they’re the walking dead.
There is only one happy ending for girls in fairy tales — marriage to royalty. The prince regains his rightful treasure. (I doubt it was rightful.) They end up with even more treasure than before. Instead of trying to return it to its owners, they keep it, because they are royalty.
Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother.
The mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.
Probably because of the Disney film, Snow White from the story with the seven dwarves is the more famous Snow White. This remains a tale for those who read fairytale collections. I think “Snow White and Rose Red” would’ve been much better known 100 years ago, which is why a soap advertisement like below worked for an earlier audience.
But the trope of the female duo (twins, sisters, friends, enemies), each with a different colour hair, remains a staple. TV Tropes call one iteration the Betty and Veronica trope. On film, TV and in illustrated books, it’s really handy to give two girls different coloured hair — the audience won’t get them mixed up. This is why the actress who plays Paris on Gilmore girls was asked to colour her naturally brown hair to blonde, to make her visually distinct from Rory Gilmore.
More widely, we seem to have a bit of a thing for dangerous bears and pretty young virgins rubbed up together. I theorise this is because the bear symbolises brute masculinity, and the virginal young woman is peak femininity, and we traditionally like to see those particular outworkings in the same room.
In this case, I don’t think for a second that a veiled sexual reading of this fairy tale is the modern one; I suspect the inverse is true — bowdlerised versions of Snow White and Rose Red have tried (with only moderate success) to erase the sexual nature of a bear coming to visit maidens in their home. However, contemporary writers such as Margo Lanagan did bring the full force of bestiality back into it, where it actually always was.
The imaginative connection between women and bears goes way back into antiquity. The Roman/Greek goddess Diana/Artemis’s spirit animal was the bear. This character is goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, and chastity.
The street in Hamelin, where the children were last seen, is today called Bungelosenstrasse, translated to ‘street without drums’. No one is allowed to dance or play music there. This street is now a tourist attraction — alternatively, you can check it out on Google Earth, though it appears the Google street car has yet to traverse the area.
Any cultural image in which children follow an adult playing music is likely to conjure images of the Pied Piper.
SETTING OF THE PIED PIPER
Hamelin is a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are a number of theories.
THEORIES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE PIED PIPER
THE BLACK DEATH THEORY
The story of the Pied Piper suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. In Black Death days, those with literacy skills generally wrote to other towns nearby to warn them of it.
According to Marina Warner, in No Go The Bogeyman, The Pied Piper legend warns that the fey and the pied, the eldritch and the elf, are dangerous to humans in their capriciousness. They personify the unpredictable mischief making of fate. The Pied Piper story is dated to 1240 when Hamelin is known to have suffered a similar plague and in several ways its hero prefigured many spectres who come to haunt Germany. Though not devilish or otherwise monstrous the piper appears in the motley sometimes worn by the devil and even more by the fool who mocks truth while the mountain, which uncannily opens when he plays in order to swallow the children, is the familiar habitat of elves and deserves and giants and other messengers from the dark side.
THE PIED PIPER INVENTION AS COGNITIVE BIAS
It’s perfectly reasonable to think there was no human figure leading the children away, that it’s all metaphor. Throughout history there is evidence a persistent cognitive bias — humans have a tendency to find meaning in the universe by imputing agency to events that might as plausibly or more plausibly be due to chance.
A better documented historical example are the French famines. Under the old regime, the population could never accept that nature was solely responsible for the dearth. The general assumption was that people were hoarding grains somewhere, driving the prices up. The actual cause, we are sure now, was a bad harvest. This particular conspiracy theory is known today as the Pacte de Famine.
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADES THEORY
However, there may have been a person involved. Another theory involves children taken away for The Children’s Crusades. In this story, dating from the Middle Ages, young, charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. However, there’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. The crusades were almost certainly much smaller than legend has it. There remains no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit.
THE CULT RECRUITMENT THEORY
It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier those days (around June 20-22).
THE DANCING PLAGUE THEORY
Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania. There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. Injuries were sustained. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.
THE ABDUCTION THEORY
But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a terrible news story similar to that one.
THE RAT PLOT
In early, 1400s versions of the Pied Piper tale there was no mention of rats. Of course, by the time Robert Browning turned it into a poem, rats seemed vital to make the story work.
Why and when did the rats come into the story? Rats were a problem in every town and city throughout the history of cities. They’re still a problem today. Rats have often represented the worst of humanity since they thrive in urban environments we’ve come to associate rats with other urban ills such as crime and overcrowding and disease.
The Ratcatcher is a fairytale in its own right. The Brothers Grimm recorded The Ratcatcher(in 1839) which is separate from The Pied Piper, also collected. There are no disappearing children in this fairytale. Instead, it is much more concerned with a magician who can charm rats. A Danish version of the tale similarly elevates the role of the ratcatcher to an almost godlike status. In the Grimm version of The Pied Piper, the children are taken through a portal into Transylvania (a spooky country where vampires live). At this point in history Transylvania lay dormant. Good land was going to waste. Other places such as Germany were overpopulated and starving. This leads us to another theory: Many Germans settled in places such as Transylvania during this time. They would drum up volunteers to go with them. Is it possible that the children of Hamelin disappeared because they were taken by fellow townspeople migrating? By people who needed young, healthy workers? Perhaps the parents even sold the children, or at least gave them permission to leave, knowing that starvation was the other option. They may have been led away by a persuasive, military march. Perhaps people joined this march without too much in the way of thought. Hunger is a strong motivator.
It looks like the fairytale of The Ratcatcher (as collected by the Grimms) combined over time with the real story of the missing children of Hamelin and now we have a fairytale/legend hybrid. This seemed to happen in the 15th century. By the mid 16th century they seem permanently intertwined. The first written version of The Pied Piper was penned by a guy with the wonderfully fairytale name of Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern, and that included the rats.
After it was re-written in German a couple of times (including by the Grimm Brothers of course) Robert Browning wrote a considerably more cheerful version. By the mid 1800s, the disappearance of the children of Hamelin is truly mythic.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE PIED PIPER
Below: You probably recognise whose these illustrations are by. Arthur Rackham.
Illustrator Errol Le Cain chose a similarly limited, warm palette.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN”
Robert Browning’s version, and similar adaptations. This is the version you probably know. This is the one I grew up with.
I have realised in the writing of this blog that I have a harder time working out the ‘main character’ of fairytales than I do of modern stories. Every now and then in a modern story you find the ‘main character’ is actually an ensemble cast a la Little Miss Sunshine or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Winnie-the-Pooh, in which each member of the cast represents a different facet of human nature. Fairytales are like that, I think. Normally we can ask ourselves: Which is the character who changes the most? That is your main character. But what if, as in this legend, an entire town changes forever?
Well, there are the rats of course. But these rats are not the slightest bit anthropomorphised, so let’s treat them like any other natural phenomenon such as a tsunami, earthquake or flood.
The Opponent is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the town council. (Some see the Pied Piper as the personification of death.) He appears in the form of a piper in a long, brightly coloured gown. It’s significant that it’s ‘pied’, because this means he’s pieced it together out of bits of rag. In an era where clothes were clear signifiers of wealth (due to the expense of clothing), the ragtag clothing suggests someone wearing a mask — a duplicitous person who pretended to be more important than he was.
The Pied Piper is the subcategory of False Ally Opponent because at first he helps the town. However, his motives are revealed to be entirely selfish. He is just as morally lacking as the town council who refuse to pay him. He sacrifices the lives of an entire town’s worth of children, collateral damage.
Or is he? Do you come down on one side or the other? The tale of The Pied Piper endures partly because it asks us to think about the nature of altruism. Is the Pied Piper an altruist?
To be genuinely altruistic an action has to satisfy two conditions:
Proactive not reactive
Anonymous (not clear cut when God comes into it, because in some cases the agent believes God is watching)
The Pied Piper was proactive. He wasn’t asked to save the town — he offered. However, he is a businessman. He’s doing it for money. So he is quasi-proactive.
He’s not anonymous. He could have simply gotten rid of the rats without telling anyone, expecting nothing in return.
But what if the Pied Piper was starving and needed payment in order to eat? Does that change our calculation of his altruism? The modern leftie view is that all people deserve a living wage, and the modern right-wing view is that people who contribute a lot to a society deserve a very large living wage. So according to any point along the modern political spectrum, the Pied Piper should garner some sympathy.
DEPICTIONS OF THE PIED PIPER
The Pied Piper is depicted by illustrators in a number of different ways, largely dependent on the era. The unifying feature is of course his clothing, but we can group his body type into a few distinct categories.
Most recently we have ‘hot’ pipers.
But he’s more traditionally very skinny, with pointed feet, nose and hat, and long fingers. See Errol Le Cain’s version (above), which may have influenced character design in Shrek.
Why all the skinny, pointed representations? I suggest the illustrators see the Pied Piper as a symbol of death — whereas he does have skin, he is nevertheless a skeletal/skeleton figure, not so different from many depictions of the grim reaper.
Eleanor F. Brickendale (who died in 1945) even made him slightly androgynous — he could almost pass for an old woman.
Promise to pay the piper and then not pay him. We don’t know if this is because the town can’t pay him or they won’t. It is implied they simply will not, but if the town has suffered famine for an enduring period, it’s also likely they cannot pay him.
Would you have lied to the piper in order to save your town? This is similar to the moral dilemma posed by philosophers: If you were dying and a drug company possessed a drug that would keep you alive — but they charged so much you couldn’t afford to buy it — would you steal it?
Oh. We should have honoured our promise. (Audience: honour your promises. Retribution is often way out of whack with your original misdemeanour.)
The mid 1800s were an era which favoured retributive justice, so Browning would have written his poem influenced by this idea: That if someone does not honour their promise, you are fully justified in meting out retribution. However, he would have been influenced by the ‘eye for an eye’ idea. That phrase is often mistaken today to mean, “If someone takes your eye, feel free to take theirs.” It’s actually an expression urging moderation — “If someone takes your eye, do not take both of theirs — you may take only one in return.” (In other words, don’t go batshit when dishing out punishment.)
So the Pied Piper’s actions, killing all the children, will have been seen by the 1800s audience — as they are today — as completely over the top evil.
I wrote a re-visioning of The Pied Piper. It’s called “The Magic Pipe“. I wondered when, exactly, children became immune to the music. Did it happen overnight? Adolescence takes a while. There must have been a group of adolescents or young adults who heard it but faintly, sufficiently conscious of the draw of the music to perhaps resist it. What would that story look like?