Friday, 20 April 2012

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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 next day a stranger came into town. (It’s worth noting here how often the very best stories begin with the arrival of a stranger into a closed community.) He was a beggar, by the look of him, with red hair and a jacket of two colours. (This is what made him the Pied Piper, and I spent a long time as a child trying to determine exactly what this pied quality meant in visual terms. Some books depicted him in yellow and red, like a court jester. Some said he was in red and green, a combination sometimes associated with the fairy world. I imagined him as a magpie; white on one side and black on the other, with the added associations both of bad luck and theft.) The man had no horse, no money and no possessions but a set of reed-pipes, on which he played very beautifully. (I also spent a very long time thinking about those pipes of his. I’d first read the story in French, for which the name of the instrument was “flûte.” In English, however, the stranger is described as a “piper,” which to me implied either bagpipes – which seemed unlikely - or maybe some kind of recorder, also referred to as “flûte”, or “pipeau” in French. I finally decided that the stranger played the pan-pipes, an instrument that has long been associated with the primal, darker side of Nature. This may seem like a trivial point, but in these old stories so many things are lost in translation – look at Cinderella’s glass slipper – that it’s sometimes worth checking the details.)

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
No-one could quite remember the notes of the tune the piper played (this should have come as a warning,) but it was a warm and lilting tune, bright and wistful at the same time; the kind of tune that makes people smile almost without knowing it, the kind of tune that makes folk tap their feet and think about dancing. And as the Piper played, the rats came out of the cellars to listen to him; and they slunk out of the back alleys and the grain-stores and sewers and ditches, and went off in the wake of the Piper, who ignored them and just went on playing that very simple little song, making his way quite casually into the centre of Hamelin, where the river ran fast and deep. And when he got to the river, the Pied Piper stood on the quay and played a little faster, and all the rats that had followed him ran straight into the river and drowned; and that was the end of the plague of rats.

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
At which point the Mayor, who had been waiting for the chance to pin something on the vagrant, had the Piper thrown out of town, with orders never to return. But as he reached the town gates, the stranger took out his reed pipe and once again began to play. No-one paid much attention at first. After all, the rats were gone. But the children of Hamelin heard the tune – a music that was at the same time wild and a little wistful, merry and unutterably sad – and they came out to hear the Piper. Heedless of parents and teachers alike, children all over Hamelin left their games and their schoolwork, abandoned their bicycles in the street, left football matches and skipping-ropes and went dancing off in the Piper’s wake. (I like to think that the tune he played was something only children could hear; a sound beyond the normal frequencies of the adult register. Perhaps it was; or perhaps children are just more susceptible to the call of the subconscious mind.)

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
One by one, the children followed the Piper into the hill –and then the door to the passage slammed shut and none of the children were ever seen again. Only one child was left behind – a lame boy, unable to keep the pace, who was still outside when the hill closed.

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.)
Yes, and it is a fairy tale. In recent decades it seems to have become fashionable to look down upon the fairy tale and to value instead the kind of reading matter that deals with “serious issues”. In short, we have learnt to look for answers, rather than questions in the stories that we read. Surely this is the opposite of what a story should do for us. One of the reasons fairy tales and legends still resonate so strongly with us is that in spite of their apparent irrelevance to the topical problems of the “real” world (one of my grandfather’s sternest criticisms was to refer to something as “airy-fairy”, which implied both lacking in substance as well as dangerously imaginative), they nevertheless manage to locate our most sensitive pressure points, those things that transcend mere topicality, heading straight for the collective unconscious. (If you need further proof of this, try naming ten classic fairy tales from memory. Then try naming ten Booker prize-winners. See which ones you remember best.)

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. 


  1. Fantastic post!
    And I loved the illustrations.
    Thank you for sharing Joanne.
    All the best,
    RK Charron

  2. Joanne, I love your books, and I loved this post!

  3. I always thought it a bit tough on the rats - would you call it vermicide? - but then I'm lucky to live in an age, country and class where they aren't a very real threat to survival. Whenever we were read this story in class, it was always followed afterwards with the 'never go with a stranger' warning. Maybe that's one of the reasons why it's never evolved into anything gentler?

  4. Brilliant haunting stuff. Thanks, Joanne! And yes, super illustrations too.

  5. I wish I'd written this. He always seemed to me a Pan-like figure, who was equally two sided, as was Robin Goodfellow. And I think there is magic in Joanne's writing.

  6. I loved reading this post, it took me right back to being 6 and gave me goosebumps. The illustrations are perfect too. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. x

  7. The version I had as a child (in an otherwise rather anodyne collection in which, eg, the witch in Hansel & Gretel repented of her ways) had the land in the mountain as somewhere paradisical where nobody was hungry or lame, with the result that the child left behind at the end seemed doubly excluded, first from the adult world and then from the childhood world. As I was (and am) myself disabled this really hurt...

  8. I always saw the tale as a sort of un-Peter Pan: the rats bring plague that decimates but what if they had been eliminated? What ifl the children could have been carried away instead if dying in unimaginable numbers? Death is an awfully big adventure.

  9. A fascinating post with gorgeous pictures. I've always found this to be a haunting story too.

    Just in connection with your comment that stories often start with a stranger coming to town: some years ago, I went to a workshop where Andrew Davis was talking about the making of the TV series of Middlemarch. At the outset, Andrew rather nervously explained to the American producer (or other significant person) how he saw the series starting. The Important Person listened gravely, then shook his head. "No, no, Andrew. The way I see it is this. A stranger rides into town..." And that's how they did it, with Lydgate arriving in Middlemarch.

    And I love your books too, Joanne!

  10. Dear Joanne and Katherine,

    Thank you for your post on The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and your observation, Joanne, that our relationship with the world of magic and story "combines longing and fear in fairy equal proportions" and also your fascination with tunnels, your identification with the little lame boy, and the lack of a "comfortable conclusion" to the story.

    I happened upon this post and your blog, Katherine, while looking for an illustration of the little lame boy for a story I had just posted on my blog, one which invokes the poem and also lacks a comfortable conclusion. Since the artist was unknown I look the liberty of using it in my story, but with due acknowledgement of your blog.
    (If you're interested in reading it, the link is

    Now that I've discovered your blog I will definitely return. Thank you!