How big is this utopian forest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinney) 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.
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.
STORY WORLD 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.
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:
A boy needs something to nurture and he is the sort of kid who does what he’s told not to do.
He needs to learn to be obedient.
A boy wants a goldfish. Not only that, he wants to nurture the fish.
So far so good. This is all established on the first couple of pages.
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 ‘battle’ 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 battle sequence does not surprise us enough.
This is where the book really fails.
The writer cheats. We see the fish seller dive into the pool and do something to the fish. The fish becomes small again. The boy (and reader) is told to not ask what was done.
This is the wrong way of using magic in stories. The audience must know the basic rules of the magic even though magic, by its very nature, is mysterious.
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 Can Do Magic by Ole Könnecke is a great book for parents who would like to teach their kids The Magic of Reality (as expressed by Richard Dawkins and others).
Written and illustrated by a German picturebook maker, this was translated by New Zealand’s Gecko Press.
Anton Can Do Magic is part of a trilogy (The Anton Saga):
Anton and the Girls (2004)
Anton Can Do Magic (2006)
Anton’s Secret (2007)
As far as I know, only this one has been translated into English by Gecko.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
Anton’s weakness becomes clear only as the story progresses and we see he is easily duped and overconfident.
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.
Often in stories the initial plan does not work and needs to be modified.
Anton stares at the tree.
Then he does some magic.
When this doesn’t work he changes his plan slightly. He’ll try something smaller. The bird.
The battle scene is the bit where three children are waiting for Anton to produce the missing bird.
Anton produces the bird from under the hat and wins the battle, as well as the respect of the three children.
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.)