This month, I’m participating in a multi-blog series called Project Fairy Tale, created by book blogger, The Cheap Reader. There are 36 bloggers participating, each of us tackling a specific fairy tale. Our goal is devote a month to our tale, with a review of the original story, followed by reviews of three or four retellings. During the month, we can also blog about movie, TV and theatrical versions of our tale, as well as versions from other cultures. A complete listing of the fairy tales and their bloggers can be found on the Project Fairy Tale Master Post.
So, for my fairy tale, I chose:
The Pied Piper!
Why? Well, it’s a unique and kind of creepy story based on an actual town in Germany called Hamelin, where the children mysteriously disappeared in 1284. To this day, Hamelin has turned the Pied Piper legend into a full-blown tourist industry, complete with a musical called “Rats.” I also have a personal interest in this fairy tale because I just completed a modern-day retelling of the story – a young adult novel, called PIPER GIRL, about a 17 year old Latina circus musician who battles diseased rats in the slums of Los Angeles.
For my review of the original fairy tale, I am using the Grimm Brothers version, which is called “The Children of Hameln.”
In 1284, the town of Hamelin, Germany was overrun with rats. A mysterious stranger appeared, dressed in distinctive, multi-colored (pied) clothing. He claimed to be a rat catcher, and promised to get rid of all the rats for a fee. The mayor and townsfolk agreed to pay him a huge amount of money if he succeeded. With his pipe (sometimes called a fife or flute), the stranger magically lured all the rats to follow him. He led them to the River Weser, where they drowned.
Once the rats were gone, the citizens no longer wanted to pay the piper and turned him way. The piper left, but returned on June 26, Saint John and Paul’s Day. This time when he played his pipe, all the children – 130 of them – followed him out of town. He led them to a cave in a mountain, where they disappeared. They were never seen again. In other versions of the story, the piper lures the children to the River Weser, where they all drown. Modern versions are a little gentler, because the piper brings back the children after the townspeople pay him.
Although the story originated in Germany, folklorists have found similar tales from France, Ireland, Norway, Poland, and even ancient Persia. However, the story was made even more famous in 1842 when Robert Browning retold it as a poem, with marvelous illustrations from Kate Greenaway.
So what’s the deal with this story? Why is it so dark?
Like lots of legends, it probably has links to real historical events. Scholars have speculated that it might be based on the Children’s Crusade, the Black Plague or the dancing disease of the 13th century, called St. Vitus’ dance. It’s also a classic morality story: the people of Hamelin broke their promise, and paid for it in a big way. Hence the expression, “paying the piper.”
For my next few blog posts, I’ll be reviewing other retellings of the legend, as well as discussing the Pied Piper in TV, movies, and theatre. Any suggestions for Piped Piper retellings are welcome!