|The Pied Piper by Arthur Rackham|
by Joanne Harris
Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, I’ve always been very much aware of the dual nature of the world depicted in folklore and story. For every happy ending, there is an equally tragic one; children left to die in the woods; lovers parted forever; villains with their eyes pecked out by crows, or burnt alive; or hanged. Fairytale is a world away from the comfortable assurances of the Disney franchise – and surely that was the purpose of those original fairy tales, devised as they were for an audience comprising mostly of adults; often very poor; people whose lives were cruel and harsh, and who would never – even in fiction - have accepted to believe in a world in which the shadows did not at least occasionally rival the light.
My favourite of these ambiguous tales was always the Pied Piper. It’s interesting that this very well-known story has never been softened and sweetened in the way in which, for instance, The Little Mermaid, or Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella have been adapted to suit our more sensitive times and cultures. Perhaps because the main character is such a sinister figure, nameless, appearing from nowhere, then vanishing into nowhere again, leaving nothing but unanswered questions and a story that lingers uncomfortably without a happy ending. But the ambiguity and the unanswered questions are part of my fondness for this tale, which seems to me to sum up perfectly our uncomfortable relationship with the world of magic and story, a relationship that combines longing and fear in fairly equal proportions.
Like all stories carried down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the Pied Piper. Mine goes like this.
Once, the town of Hamelin was overrun by a plague of rats. (One of this story’s most interesting characteristics is that it is set in a real place, thereby locating the action somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious mind.) The rats were huge, black rats, and they spread like wildfire through the town, invading store-rooms and cellars, getting fat on grain stores, finally growing so big and so bold that they would snatch food right off dining-room tables, or little children right out of their cribs. (At this point, I remember an illustration in one of my grandfather’s old books, which showed a nurse looking into a crib, frozen with horror at the sight of a big rat sitting there in place of the baby.) No-one in Hamelin knew what to do. The Mayor, faced with a crisis such as he had never seen, announced a reward of a thousand crowns to the man who could rid the town of the rats.
|"A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue." Kate Greenaway|
The Pied Piper had seen the rats and knew of the Mayor’s pronouncement. “I’ll rid you of your plague,” he said. “But remember, you promised to pay me.”
The Mayor, who, like all politicians, was more concerned with making promises than with keeping them, and besides, had little confidence in a man who couldn’t even decide on a single colour for his coat, agreed, rather too eagerly.
And so the Pied Piper took out his pipes and began to play a very simple little tune.
|The Pied Piper by Elisabeth Alba|
The next day the Piper went to the Mayor to collect his thousand crowns. (One of the beauties of this tale is its continuing relevance. Centuries down the line, and artists – musicians and writers - are still fighting to be paid for the work they do, while people like the greedy Mayor still believe they can get it for free.) But the Mayor just laughed at the Piper, and said; “A thousand crowns for a tune? You must be out of your tiny mind. I’ll pay you a shilling for your trouble, and I’ll not ask to see your performer’s license.”
The Pied Piper wasn’t amused. (I’ve always seen him as red-haired, and red-haired men have a temper.) His mouth grew tight, and his strange green eyes narrowed, and he turned to the people of Hamelin and said; “You all heard what he promised me. You can make him keep his word.”
But the people of Hamelin knew perfectly well that the thousand crowns, if they were paid, would come straight out of their taxes. And now that they were free of the rats, it rankled to pay such a large sum to a man who had done nothing more than blow into a handful of reeds.
The man was a vagrant, after all; probably an illegal too. Why should their hard-earned taxes go to an undesirable? And so they said nothing, and shuffled their feet, and the Pied Piper got angry.
|Pied fiddler? German: artist unknown|
They followed the Piper out of the town until they came to a round hill; and as they approached, a secret door inside the hill swung open, revealing a dark passage beneath. (I was born in a coal-mining town and in the waste ground behind my house there were several abandoned mineshafts. As a child I was at the same time terrified and fascinated by these, and spent hours crawling around the entrances to various tunnels and openings, certain that sooner or later I was going to get into Fairyland. Like the little lame boy, I’ve been looking ever since.)
|The Pied Piper by Elisabeth Forbes 1859-1912|
As for the Pied Piper, whoever he was, no-one ever saw him again either, although some people thought they heard music coming from under the hill – music, and children’s voices, though whether the children were laughing or screaming, no-one could ever be certain.
As for the Piper, whoever he was… Perhaps this is the real reason why Disney has no use for this tale. There is no comfortable conclusion to this story; no happy-ever-after, not even a clear explanation. What happened to the children? Did they die inside the hill? Did the Piper abandon them there? Or were they (as I liked to believe) taken to another world, where children never have to grow up, forever free of the hypocrisy, greed and meanness of adult life? And who is the Pied Piper? The King of Faërie? An agent of Death? A parent’s worst nightmare? A child’s fondest dream? What happened to the lame boy? Did he spend the rest of his life trying to find the secret door, or did he have a lucky escape? I’ve always thought that a good story should ask at least as many questions as it answers, and this one seems to me to be a perfect example of the genre.
|The lame child left behind. Artist unknown. (Note the discarded toys.)|
Lastly, for me, the Pied Piper is the perfect metaphor for our relationship with stories and storytellers. We all enjoy stories, but we also mistrust the subconscious world from which they spring, and we are often ambivalent, dismissive, fearful or sometimes downright ungrateful towards the people who create them. The Piper, like all artists, exists outside of society; his morality (such as it is) is fundamentally different from ours; he can be helpful or malevolent according to whim and his personal code; and his world, though appealing in many ways, is fraught with danger and mystery. As children, we often identify with the child characters in our stories. As an adult (and as a writer, of course) I have come to identify increasingly with the Pied Piper. Poised uncomfortably between the real world and the world of magic, keeping his audience in thrall; making them believe in things that they know to be impossible; facing both love and hostility with nothing more than a handful of tunes (or a story) between himself and the darkness - isn’t that what we all do? In a world that claims no longer to believe in magic or fairies or monsters, magic is still a powerful force, existing beneath the surface of things, ready to emerge when summoned by just the right combination of musical notes or of words on a page –
A story can bring down a government; or steal away a child’s heart; or build a religion; or just make us see the world differently. Storytellers come and go, but stories never die. And if that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.
Joanne Harris, author of 'Chocolat', needs little introduction. Her adult books are full of fairytale motifs, and she's a writer who is definitely comfortable with the superstitious and supernatural side of human life. Born to a French mother and an English father in her grandparents' sweet shop, her family life was filled with food and folklore, and there's a clear connection between food and magical power in her novels. Bottles of homebrewed wine in 'Blackberry Wine' actually narrate parts of the story, and the chocolate in 'Chocolat' is almost sacramental food. Joanne's characters see ghosts, consult the tarot, dance with shadows. I love the passage in Chocolat where Vianne makes a Pied Piper window display in the chocolaterie: a mountain of green tins covered in crinkly cellophane to represent ice, with a river of blue silk and a cluster of houseboats,
"And below a procession of chocolate figures: cats, dogs, rabbits… and mice. On every available surface, mice. Running up the sides of the hill, nestling in corners, even on the riverboats. Pink and white sugar coconut mice, chocolate mice of all colours, variegated mice marbled through with truffle and maraschino cream, delicately tinted mice, sugar-dappled frosted mice. And standing above them, the Pied Piper resplendent in his red and yellow, a barley-sugar flute in one hand, his hat in the other."
Her children's books, 'Runemarks' and its sequel 'Runelight', are wonderfully exciting blends of Norse myth and fantasy.