Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Rattenfänger Romance of the Pied Piper

                       Speaking of swarms of Germanic rats, the tale has to that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (the Anglicised form of Hameln, as it seems the English are unable to pronounce the letter combination of ‘ln’ – I wonder how we manage words like ‘kiln’ if that’s the case). I first came to the story through Robert Browning’s poem of the same name, which used to be a standard recitation piece in junior schools (and if it still isn’t, it jolly well ought to be). 

It’s a rattlingly (no pun intended) good bit of versifying, with splendid metrical flourishes and cleverly unforced rhymes and just the sort of deliciously macabre details that send shivers down the spines of young readers. Legions of rats have invaded Hamelin in Lower Saxony and the townsfolk are at their wits’ ends when a strange piper in varicoloured motley arrives in the town, offering to lead the infestation away for one thousand guilders. 

Overjoyed, the mayor and corporation up the offer to fifty thousand guilders to rid them of the vermin and so the piper tootles on his flute and pipes the pests out of Hamelin and into the river Weser, where all but one survivor drown. 

The piper goes back to claim his fee but the mayor reneges on the deal and offers a mere fifty guilders whereupon the piper steps out into the street and pipes once more. 

The boys and girls of the town flock behind him and are charmed away, turning away from the river’s edge at the last minute but following the enchanted piper to the Koppelberg hill instead, where a magical portal opens in the hillside long enough for the piper and the children to be swallowed up. All but one crippled lad disappear inside, he too slow to reach the doorway in time and, it is said, a strange band of people in far-off Transylvania are descended from these stolen children. 

It’s a moral tale – keep your promises or you will have to ‘pay the piper’ – and is said to be based on a real event that happened in 1284, when one hundred and thirty children mysteriously disappeared from Hamelin (Browning places his version in 1376). The rats did not appear in the story until sometime in the 1550s and in some versions the children are returned when the piper is paid many times the promised bounty. 

The first mention of the Pied Piper appears in 1384, when the town chronicle of Hamelin records that it was one century since the children disappeared. The story has had additions and twists added over the years; Goethe wrote a version, as did the Brothers Grimm, with Browning’s poem published first in 1842. Walt Disney made a Silly Symphony cartoon in 1933, wherein the children are led into a magical kingdom inside the Koppelberg mountain, with the crippled boy healed at the last minute and managing to slip into a Teutonic version of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. 

No one knows what really happened at Hamelin but there have been assorted theories put forward to explain the genesis of the myth. Some link the story to plague legends, with the Pied Piper taking the role of Death in a bizarre danse macabre, metaphorically leading the dead children into the Pit. 

Others feel that the true origins of the tale stem from resurgent attempt at a Children’s Crusade, copying the Crusades of 1212 when, it was said, two columns of children set out for the Holy Land, one from France and one from Germany, intent on peaceably converting the Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem to Christianity. The reality of what really happened is lost in myth and legend but it looks likely that there was a movement of people from France and Germany in the direction of the Levant but it also seems likely that the majority of them didn’t leave European soil, and the ones that did were most likely sold into slavery in northern Africa. 

Yet another possibility is that something terrible happened in Hamelin and the inhabitants had to devise an elaborate alibi for the loss of the children (one version puts forward the idea that rye bread became infected with ergot fungus, which produces a powerful hallucinogen similar to LSD, and the tripped-out citizens murdered their offspring). 

Turning to another possibility, it could be that the children weren’t really children in the primary sense but were ‘children’ of Saxony who left their heimat and struck out for pastures new, founding new communities throughout Europe. There may be something to all this, as there are population pockets in places like Poland that have surnames that are distinctly unSlavic but curiously Germanic instead. There were movements of German settlers into other parts of the continent at about the thirteenth century and there were recruiters who ‘charmed’ prospective emigrants into joining the exodus, and it is possible that at least one of these recruiters -  lokators – used a pipe or a flute to attract his clients. 

If you haven’t read Browning’s poem, it’s easy enough to find online – have a read, you’ll enjoy it.

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