“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.
Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.
THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM
This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.
A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.
[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books
Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)
When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.
Avocado Baby (1982) is a picture book written and illustrated by John Burningham. This was my first introduction to John Burningham. Our teacher read it in class. I was about six.
I don’t think I’d ever eaten an avocado at age six, so it functioned as a magical fruit, and didn’t strike me as odd that Burningham refers to them as ‘avocado pears’. I just checked: avocado is not related to the pear. Avocados were sometimes called avocado pears (in England) because of their pear-like shape.
Fruit is prone to changing its name between generations. Where I grew up, in New Zealand, my grandmother always called kiwifruit ‘Chinese gooseberries’. That’s what kiwifruit were called until the fruit marketing board got a hold of them and rebranded the ‘Chinese gooseberry’ for mass export, conveniently linking the furry brown skins with New Zealand’s most famous endangered bird. (Kiwifruit are not related to gooseberries.)
Then, when I left New Zealand, I realised only New Zealanders call kiwifruit ‘kiwifruit’ — the rest of the world shortens to ‘kiwi’, which is unsettling for a New Zealander self-identifying as ‘kiwi’. I am not a fruit!
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.
In the late 17th century this word was 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. . It comes from the Hebrew phrase abreq ad hâbra, meaning ‘hurl your thunderbolt even unto death’. It was usually inscribed inside an inverted triangle.
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.
Scenes of pretty young women taking care of hirsuite beasts in front of the hearth is a common scene across fairytale. Below, an illustration for a Scandinavian tale. And because it is Scandinavian, the beast is translated into English as ‘troll’.
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.
The living person who thinks they are really dead is utilised in the comic book series House of Whispers, written by Nalo Hopkinson (a Jamaican-born Canadian author). Jamaica is very close to Haiti, and Hopkinson has clearly made use of ancestral belief in her original additions to the Sandman universe.
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?
In the Robert Browning poem, the Battle is dramatised with the scenes between the Pied Piper and the council.
The death big struggle takes place off the stage, when the piper drowns all of the children.
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?
Helen is ‘the woman behind the man’ in the Dr Seuss duo. It was Helen who encouraged her husband Theo to start writing picture books.
When the marriage ended and Theo embarked upon a second relationship, Helen suicided. It would be nice to think that her separation from Theo had nothing to do with it, because had been dealing with cancer for a long time. But the truth is, she left a note. So we know that had almost everything to do with the timing of it.
Helen was a much better editor than she was a writer, which I’d like to emphasise is no small skill in itself. (Roald Dahl’s editors, for example, had a MUCH bigger hand in making him look great than most people realise.)
The book A Fish Out Of Water is a story that Theo cast aside. He didn’t think it worked. Helen disagreed and made sure it was seen by the world. It’s still reasonably easy to get a hold of. I somehow ended up with two secondhand copies on my bookshelf, for instance. This is possibly a sign that it’s a picture book people decide not to keep.
If this had Dr Seuss’s name on the cover I would certainly agree that this is not him at his finest. I agree with him that it doesn’t work. Let’s take a closer look to try and find out precisely why it doesn’t work, and why Helen thought it still had merit.
The illustrations, by P.D. Eastman are as attractive as those done by Theo himself, if without the distinctive colour palette, so it must have something to do with the text or the plot. First, the plot:
This is a carnivalesque story, so the opponents are the circumstances themselves. The fish getting huge.
Again, so far, so good. It’s common and usually very successful to write a children’s book about something either very big or very small. The young reader enjoys seeing this fish getting bigger and bigger, and can probably predict that it will end up in the swimming pool, or perhaps the ocean.
Unfortunately this is where the plot starts to unravel. The boy can’t solve this on his own — first he calls the police. This is kind of comical in itself because the police are depicted as being right on the end of the phone waiting for his call, and it is clear that they deal with the overfeeding of giant fish on a regular basis.
The problem with putting the fish into the pool is that the swimmers don’t like it, so the boy’s plan changes and he is forced to call the man who sold him the fish.
It’s never ideal to have adults step in and save the day. Not in a children’s book. Even if an adult technically saves the day, the child hero must show more initiative.
The ‘big struggle’ in a carnivalesque book is a sequence of increasingly dire situations, and these keep going until the writer’s imagination is at a limit. Preferably, in the most successful stories of this type, the writer is able to go one or two steps further than the reader’s imagination. A great example of this is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more could happen, it does. This is where the surprise comes in, and carnivalesque stories in particular are all about fun and surprise.
There is no surprise here. All of us could imagine a giant fish being taken to the town swimming pool, and in fact I expected the fish to end up in the ocean.
The big struggle sequence does not surprise us enough.
The boy takes the fish back home and will never feed it too much again.
In the end, this is a moralistic tale about the common childhood tendency to overfeed fish in bowls.
The scansion and rhyme of this story is not up to the same standard as Theo’s other books. This is clear from the very first page:
“This little fish,”
I said to Mr Carp,
“I want him.
I like him.
And he likes me.
I will call him Otto.”
Reading that, you get the feeling it should rhyme but doesn’t quite. Overleaf, we do have some rhyme:
“When you feed a fish,
never feed him a lot.
So much and no more!
Never more than a spot!
This is why, when writing a picture book, decide whether you want it to rhyme or not and then stick with your decision.
In conclusion, Theodor Geisel put this book aside for good reason. But I’m glad it exists, as a lesson in what doesn’t work, and also to know that even the masters like Dr Seuss didn’t write a winner every single time.
Anton wishes to impress his friends by performing a real magic trick. This desire is made clear even before the story begins, on the interior title page, where we see Anton gazing up at a poster of a famous (we assume) magician.
The reader is addressed as one such friend, and from the first page we are told, ‘Here comes Anton. Anton has a magic hat. A real one.’ We are invited to believe it. On the following page:
Anton wants to do some magic. He wants to make something disappear.
This little bird with a mind of its own may ruin Anton’s magic trick and the stakes are upped when ‘the girls’ come along, since boys are especially keen on impressing girls.
But the bird turns out to be a false-enemy ally, or we might consider the bird to have no motivations whatsoever. The bird simply flits around. This is a ‘real’ bird rather than a storybook bird who wears clothes.
A better opponent is Luke, the boy who doesn’t believe that Anton can do magic. There’s more at stake when the opponent is human, because there’s a chance Anton will be humiliated. The reader does not want him to be humiliated, no matter how silly he is.
This is a Chekhovian story in that the main character is not the one who undergoes the revelation — Anton walks off the page at the end of the story and as far as he knows, he has made a bird appear. But the reader knows differently. We learn that although sometimes something appears to be magic, but it is really just coincidence and circumstance.
The final image shows us that Greta is happy to have her bird back, Luke is trying to do his own magic with the flower in his little pot, and Anton is satisfied.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
When the child is a few years older, it’s time for this book. (Yes, much could be said about Richard Dawkins and all the junk that comes out of his Twitter feed, but I have to say it, this book is excellent.)
The Magic Porridge Pot is also known as Sweet Porridge and goes by various similar titles.
There is a motif common in European folktales: A cooking pot that will not cease overflowing. Although this story is obviously a response to famine, I think it’s also a response to a general childhood way of thinking in which you’re not sure when things that start are going to stop. Although there were no flush toilets back in the middle ages, I still remember being wary of flushing toilets when I was a kid, never completely sure if a flushing toilet would overflow, or if a fast-running tap would ever turn off, for instance.
I am more familiar with the English title ‘The (Magic) Porridge Pot’ and you probably are too, but this fairytale was originally called ‘Sweet Porridge’ in German. Apparently it is originally Swedish.
Various Versions Of The Magic Porridge Pot
Several different Ladybird versions of this tale can be found on our shelves. They are interesting to compare because the style of illustration is so different. Most of the big children’s book titles have produced a version of The Magic Porridge Pot. Here’s an Usborne version, with its bright colours and lively black outline work:
Ladybird produced its own version in the same illustrative style:
Not just one, actually! Here we have a more subtle, watercolour style for the distant background but the cartoonish style of the characters is very similar:
Just for contrast, this takes the cake for the ugliest children’s book cover I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what they were thinking but what the actual? Is this a Magic Eye type thing? Or the underbelly of a snake?
Here’s an illustration from a more recent version of this story which appeared in a children’s magazine in 2015. The style of the characters reminds me of Japanese manga characters. It could almost be a still from a Hayao Miyazaki anime:
Back to the earlier versions, I’m not sure what that thing is on the mother’s head, is it a towel because she has washed her hair, or a very big bow?
In any case, these characters look like recognisable people. The cartoon characters can be pretty much anyone white, but these two look like they’ve been based on real human models. This one’s similar, though she looks like a more generic beautiful white woman:
Now to my own 1971 Ladybird edition, which I like the most. It is illustrated by Londoner Robert Lumley, born 1920.
This woman looks like a specific person, doesn’t she?
This version is part of the ‘realistically illustrated’ series, all by Robert Lumley, in the decade between 1964 and 1974.
The most hilarious thing about the illustrations in these books is that they look very much ‘posed for’ and staged. “Imagine this pot on the table is overflowing,” says the artist, taking a reference photo. “Now, look surprised!”
“Look a different kind of surprised!”
“Imagine the pot is magical!”
(I’m assuming the emaciated mouse wearing pants and holding a mini plate was not posed for.)
I know I sound critical of this realistic style of illustration in these Lumley Ladybirds, but really they’re my favourite versions. While the illustrations do lack more realistic movements that can be better achieved via a cartoonish style (see the illustrations of Australian Emma Quay, especially Rudie Nudie, for a great example of characters in movement), the illustrations here are very much of a time and place — specifically old world German — which is harder to achieve in a highly cartoonish style.
“Now, you just stand over there in the background. Don’t move…”
The addition of wild animals in the frame make these photorealistic illustrations seem more ‘picturebook-like’. In the picture above, an interested rabbit.
Here we still have some off-kilter perspective — I suspect there was no reference photo for this one, or perhaps the illustrator specialises in portraits — but it absolutely does the job of conveying the quaintness of the town.
Food In Fairytales
Food is a regular component of fairy tales that have medieval oral antecedents. Famine was a frequent and devastating feature of life in Europe in the Middle Ages and deprivation inevitably shapes fantasies and desires. The magic world of fairy tales often promised rich, sweet, and plentiful food.
Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
STARVATION IN THE MEDIEVAL ERA
In medieval times when crops failed the poor were forced to live on: “horsse corne, beanes, peason, otes, tares & lintels.”
William Harrison’s A Description of England, 1577
horsse-corne = corn grown for horses
peason = an obsolete plural for peas
tares = any of several weedy plants that grow in grain fields
lintels = ‘lentils’ is the modern spelling
During the period 1437 to 1439, for example, “when there was a succession of wet summers and harvests were ruined, the peasantry was reduced to eating such herbs and roots as they could gather from the hedgerows, and thousands died“. The scenario in “The Sweet Porridge” reflects similarly desperate circumstances; the girl’s mother is a widow, so the earning capacity of the husband/father figure has been lost and the girl is presumably searching for something edible in the woods. It is not hard to understand how such persistent hunger and hopeless conditions could lead to a fantasy such as a magic porridge pot. It is not so much what is eaten that is at issue when you are starving but that there should be sufficient of whatever there is to eat. Good, sweet porridge, and plenty of it, could fulfill that desire. “The Sweet Porridge” is thus a story that relies upon habitual and chronic hunger as a driving force.
Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
In fact, even those who lived in castles couldn’t afford to withstand a famine back then, at least in what’s now known as The Great Famine (1315-1317). The human population in Europe was exceeding the ability for land to provide food, except in years with bumper crops. Other impacts of starvation:
Sometimes elderly people would sacrifice eating in order to let the younger ones pull through.
Some churchgoers started to realise that no amount of prayer would provide food and church attendance dropped during times of famine.
The Black Death actually helped fixed the starvation crisis, since the population was greatly reduced. But famine was still a great threat.
Most people would go through 3-4 famines in their lifetimes during the middle ages.
In the Middle Ages, rich people ate what today could best be compared to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s Nourishing Traditions diet, with plenty of meat, poultry and saturated fats, with fermented grains and unpasteurised dairy products. But poor people ate whatever they could get their hands on, with porridge being cheap, along with bread made from barley and rye. Poor people drank ale, similar to beer. Barley was eaten at every meal. The poor drank water and mixed it with honey if they could. This is not so different from what poor people eat today: grain products and lots of fructose.
Compare and Contrast With The Magic Porridge Pot
When it comes to food fantasy in folk tales,Hansel and Gretel is the stand-out example, to the point you can’t now put a witch in a forest without the audience thinking of this famous tale.
Versions of The Magic Porridge Pot story can also be found in other cultures. For example West Kalimantan (Indonesia) has a folktale called Why Rice Grains Are So Small.
Tomie dePaola wrote a tale called Strega Nona, published in 1975, a modern version of The Magic Porridge Pot in which there is an overflowing magic pasta pot. This is probably dePaola’s best known work. It is set in Italy, of course. dePaola created the character of Strega Nona (Grandma Witch) himself, even though she sounds like she’s borrowed from folklore. https://youtu.be/ULUG8IIo9-8
Death by poisonous mushroom must be a harrowing way to go, because you don’t die immediately. Rather, you feel worse and worse, and no doubt realise at some point that you have eaten a deathcap. However, by the time you start to feel ill, it is too late.
Emily Dickinson’s Poem About Mushrooms
By Emily Dickinson
The mushroom is the elf of plants, At evening it is not; At morning in a truffled hut It stops upon a spot.
As if it tarried always; And yet its whole career Is shorter than a snake’s delay, And fleeter than a tare.’
T is vegetation’s juggler, The germ of alibi; Doth like a bubble antedate, And like a bubble hie.
I feel as if the grass were pleased To have it intermit; The surreptitious scion Of summer’s circumspect.
Had nature any outcast face, Could she a son contemn, Had nature an Iscariot, That mushroom, — it is him.
Mushrooms in Hayao Miyazaki Films
Food is important to Hayao Miyazaki, and mushrooms are an important part of Japanese cuisine, so naturally mushrooms feature heavily in his animated films.