Monday, July 5, 2010

The Pied Piper Was a Rat

The beauty of sommerferie is this wonderful unfamiliar luxury concept of "free time." I fill that with many activities: going out with friends; physical therapy and ballerina class to stay in [something resembling] shape; biking around the city; sitting by/jumping in the water on Islands Brygge; and of course the always-reliable pasttime of futzing around on the internets. Occasionally, this last boredom-killer leads me to awesome things: shark sleeping bags, zombie defense tips, disconcerting scientific studies concluding that heterosexual men prefer women with small feet, etc. Today, the information superhighway led me to something morbidly fascinating: the real tragic story behind the popular Brothers Grimm tale of the Pied Piper.

In the Grimms' tale, the medieval German town of Hamelin is struck with a plague of rats. A hero arrives in the form of an outsider wearing red and yellow, and he promises to rid the town of their pesky problem; the townspeople like the sound of a rodent-free Hamelin, so they promise him money if he makes good on his vow. This rat-catching style maven uses this special, oddly-specific gift he has to exterminate Hamelin: He plays a tune on his pipe that the rats apparently like. They like it so much, in fact, that the rats are lured into the river Weser, where they all drown. So the piper did his job, and expects his promised fee, but the townspeople are German Scrooges and refuse to honor their promise. The Piper is, understandably, not too happy--and I totally get this. I mean, it's gotta be hard knowing exactly what music will seduce rats. So he goes away for a while to plot his revenge, because every good fairy tale needs a kick-butt revenge twist. He returns to Hamelin, but this time dresses like a hunter (I'm thinking a lot more earth tones and a lot less condiment-inspired color combos). He plays a tune that hypnotizes the town's children this time--not rats, but "rugrats"?--and so leads an entire German town's child population into the mountains, and they are never seen again.

First of all, let's just appreciate the fact that the Pied Piper, though twisted and vengeful, was apparently history's greatest DJ and must have played a mean recorder. (Many modern versions have been watered down: The Piper returns the children, having orchestrated the whole thing to teach those greedy Hamelinites a lesson.) But the kicker is that in the real town of Hamelin, there are references to a true tragedy, one of which is recorded on the walls of one recorded on the walls of the so-called Rattenfängerhaus (House of the Piper): “In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the calvary near the koppen.” And suddenly this fairy tale might not be so fun. What really happened?

The Market Church in Hamelin has a glass window from the 1300s which shows a colorfully dressed stranger leading a crowd of children dressed in white. This window was destroyed in 1660, but did inspire Augustin Von Moersperg in 1592. He made a watercolor painting which retains the essence of the original window and, importantly, upholds the main geographical features of the tale. Folklore has made synonymous the Pied Piper and the figure of a rat-catcher. In fact, the rats were probably a later addition (not an original element) to the Hamelin tale, but this might be because the image of rats deepened the story. I mean, most people don't associate rats with pleasant imagery, though Disney's lovely Ratatouille has done wonders for the global rodent reputation. The image of a rat-infested medieval town does bring to mind thoughts of the plague. As for the Piper, medieval representations had that cheeky figure known as Death presenting himself as a skeleton with a penchant for colorful clothes. So the Pied Piper is a sort of Black Death made human...and as a result--even less adorably--the one responsible for taking the lives of the 130 children of Hamelin.

There are many ideas and interpretations of what actually happened in Hamelin on that fateful June day, as well as who the Piper really was, or--perhaps he was not an actual person, though that remains quite possible--what the character of the Piper represents. What is clear now, after over 700 years, is that the Pied Piper of Hamelin has become a classic "trickster." The Piper was a medieval punk with terrible fashion sense; he challenged the establishment, broke the rules (both of decent common society and good taste), and spread anarchy. Depending on your sense of humor/life outlook, he can be seen as horrible or as a prankster. The Pied Piper was a bit schizophrenic. One minute he's a psycho, the next a hero, then a rebel… and then a mass murderer with some killer tunes. The Pied Piper led Hamelin's children to some sort of place, that much we know. (Plus, he was probably the best exterminator of the 13th century.) Whether this place was a new land, some weird state of consciousness, or a terrible death is a mystery yet to be solved...

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