Title: Peter & Max
Author: Bill Willingham
Genre: Young Adult
Publication Date: 2009
Blurb: When an unspeakable tragedy befalls a family of traveling minstrels, they become stranded and left for dead. Here in the heart of the Black Forest, Peter Piper and his older brother Max encounter ominous forces that will change them both irreparably. Thus begins an epic tale of sibling rivalry, magic, music, and revenge that spans medieval times to the present day, when their deadly conflict surfaces in the placid calm of modern-day Fabletown.
The first Pied Piper retelling I chose to review, Peter & Max, is an old favorite of mine. Willingham is best known for the Fables series of graphic novels, featuring characters from fairy tales and folklore (the “Fables”), who reside together in a secret neighborhood in New York City, called Fabletown. In many ways, the series reminds me of the popular television show, “Once Upon a Time,” in that it depicts a group of fairy tale characters exiled to the modern world. (Although Fables has been around since 2002).
Although Peter & Max is part of the Fables series, it’s a young adult novel that can be read as a standalone title. The story focuses on the Piper brothers – two members of a family of traveling musicians, who live in a fairy tale world resembling medieval Germany. At the start of the book, Peter—now an adult—learns that his older brother, Max, has arrived in the modern world and is looking for him. Whatever has led to this reunion can’t be good, because Peter believes his brother will try to kill him. For the rest of the book, the story alternates between the present – as Peter prepares to meet Max – and the past, where we learn what caused the rift between the brothers.
Max’s deep-seated hatred for his younger brother arises when their father passes down the family’s magic flute, Frost, to Peter. Feeling shut out of his birthright, Max vows revenge. When an invading army tears the Piper family apart, the two brothers are separated. Peter takes refuge in Hamelin, where he grows into a master thief and eventually finds his childhood sweetheart, Bo Peep. Max resides in the Black Forest, where he makes a dark pact with the resident witch. From her, he gains control of a flute even more powerful than Frost, which he names Fire. The story builds to the eventual showdown between the brothers—in modern-day Hamelin, of all places.
So what’s the Pied Piper connection?
Both brothers are Pipers, but Peter Piper is actually the nursery rhyme/tongue-twister Peter who ate picked peppers and stuffed his wife into a pumpkin shell (both these incidents are explained in the novel). Max becomes the legendary Pied Piper after he uses Fire to lure all the rats out of Hamelin. When the town leaders refuse to pay him, he uses his flute to steal the town’s children in retaliation. By hints we’re given, the children don’t come to a good end. In addition to being the Pied Piper, Max is an all-around nasty character. When he eventually crosses over to the United States, his dark magic is partially responsible for the spread of the 1918 Influenza epidemic!
How does this book stack up as a retelling?
Although the Pied Piper fairy tale is an important part of the story, it isn’t the focus, because the incident in Hamelin only takes up a few chapters. But the book gives us the piper’s full backstory, plus it features both medieval and modern-day Hamelin as a setting. In the acknowledgements, Willingham mentions that he used Dr. Radu Florescu’s scholarly work, In Search of the Pied Piper, as part of his research. Although I won’t be reviewing that book for the blog, it’s a fascinating look at the various explanations for the legend.
Overall, this is a great read, very reminiscent of a classic fairy tale in tone, with an omniscient narrator and familiar elements of folklore like talking animals, dark magic, witches, knights, and goblins. As an added bonus, the illustrations are wonderful. I highly recommend it.