Pied Piper: questions and themes that arise in the different books

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The Pied Piper is a very bizarre story. I remember the first time I heard the summary – that a piper was promised money to lure rats out of town and when not paid he lured away the villagers’ children – I wanted to hear the rest of the story. That’s all, I was told, but it didn’t make sense. There has to be more. So now I’ve been reading all the Pied Piper stories I can find and I’m thrilled with the variety of ways in which the stories are interpreted. Different books deal with the challenges in the story different ways. Links in this page are affiliate links to Amazon, but I would encourage people to check their local libraries and used bookstores first.

The main challenges in the story are:

  • How does the Pied Piper perform his magic?
  • Why does the Pied Piper steal the children? Is it in any way justified?
  • Is there a happy ending and/or some type of message to be learned?There are many books based on the story of the Pied Piper.

Picture books about the Pied Piper

The first challenge for picture books is how to make the story not totally horrific. What do you do with a children’s story about children being kidnapped? Two picture books solve this problem different ways. In The Pied Piper of Hamelin retold by Diane Suire for the A Classic Tale series the piper returns the children after the parents have paid in tears equivalent to the number of coins they were supposed to pay, and then in gratitude the mayor freely offers the money that was supposed to be paid. In The Pied Piper of Hamelin retold and illustrated by Michèle Lemieux the parents are described at the beginning as spending too much time eating and drinking and that they view their children as taking up time and causing trouble, and though the children are not returned it says “when the wind blows from behind the mountains you can hear the laughter of happy children.”

Historical novels about the Pied Piper

Chapter books on the topic are less concerned with creating happy endings. Two of the books I found, Breath and What Happened in Hamelin attempt to paint very realistic, historical stories.

Breath, by Donna Jo Napoli, paints a remarkable picture of a community stricken by disaster. In her story a wet spring has brought ergot, a deadly fungus, to the community. People are growing sick and dying without knowing why, but suspecting that the rats must be the problem. The story describes the timing by which different people are effected, with the grazing animals struck first and then the wealthier townspeople people eating that year’s grain before the peasants who first use up the older remains of the previous year. The adults are exposed by beer everyone drinks. The protagonist in the story is Salz, a boy with cystic fibrosis (as the back cover explains – within the story no one knows what causes his illness) who is forbidden from drinking beer by his wise grandmother.

Part of Breath deals with witchcraft and superstition. The priest of Hameln edits Albert the Great’s list of forbidden actions when he reads it out, and he joins with a coven of local outcasts in engaging in what he refers to as mysterium. “Miracles are allowed; magic is not.” Salz studies once a month with the priest of the next town over and hence is exposed to other ideas. That priest does not approve of the coven, regardless of whether the participants are, as they say, papists. Salz struggles with fear that he is a hypocrite, for how can he justify participating in what he knows is forbidden? And the participants are very aware in the time of crisis that they risk being labeled and punished as witches. Yet the local priest says it is okay, at least partly because he doesn’t have other answers and partly by comparing it with the belief that relics of saints bring healing.

The author did a good job presenting the crusades. The boy’s father says the crusades were a waste, yet one of the two priests points out the new things brought back – spices, dyes, fabrics and knowledge from the Arab scholars.

“We fought the Crusades for souls – and that’s why we really won, regardless of whether we converted Arabs from Islam to Catholicism. You see, the Arabs know more in science and philosophy than we ever guessed. They’ve become the teachers everywhere. The arithmetic I do with you comes from them. And the physics. And the alchemy. And astronomy – the stars.” His hands hold mine. “The more we know of God’s creations, the closer our souls move towards His almighty presence.”

It was a thought worthy of the scholastics of the time, and it helps to fit the characters of the crusades into their rightful positions. The East had the scholars and culture that the west could only dream of and attempt to imitate.

The pied piper enters the book only briefly at the beginning and end, like book-ends. He risks his life coming to a town that everyone else avoids for fear of catching that which ails them. He is promised huge riches by people who believe that the rats must be the cause of their illness, and in a moment of passionate anger at their betrayal of him he plays his pipes and leads everyone he can from the town. Alas, the children are the only ones healthy enough to follow and keep up. No explanation is made as to how or why the piper wields the power he does.

What Happened in Hamelin by Gloria Skurzynski

What Happened in Hamelin is based on the premise that the Pied Piper story has some truth in history and directly takes on the question of how the piper could wield the power attributed to him. How could a piper have done what the pied piper was said to do? The story proposes the piper was a gypsy whom has the rats fed salt meat to make them thirsty and then has them beaten to death when they come to the river for water. When the piper wasn’t paid he used the purple fungus ergot to inflict the children with an ailment from which the proposed cure was dancing, so that he could dance them out of town and sell them as slaves – probably to replace surfs that died in the epidemic or populate lands further east.

In What Happened in Hamelin story is told from the point of view of an orphaned boy, Giest, who works for the baker. He’s drawn into the piper’s plans, thrilled to be cared for, to be treated as special and asked to help. At intervals he doubts his new friend, questioning him and suspecting him of evil, but his longing to be free of his poor treatment at the bakery, to start a new life elsewhere and to be special to someone encourages him to turn a blind eye to the warning signs till eventually he identifies (at least momentarily) as Judas saying his share of the pay should be 30 pieces of silver (not the twenty offered).

The book is fascinating. The townspeople are just coarse and mean enough that for a while I am drawn into Giest’s hope that the piper will free (at least some of the children) from ill treatment of the townspeople. In what way, I wonder, are the townspeople, particularly the council members, responsible for the piper’s actions. He justifies himself by thinking he is collecting the money owed to him, but if he would be so ready to sell children into slavery, what would stop him from taking the children anyway? The piper is not acting out of rage as in Breath but instead acting on a careful plan.

Fantasy worlds inspired by the Pied Piper

After Hamelin by Bill Richardson

Whereas What happened in Hamelin and Breath try to provide a historically possible story, After Hamelin takes the opposite route. On the front page it says “The Pied Piper legend comes from the Middle Ages, and Hamelin is a real town in the country we now call Germany, but this story is not tied to those particulars. It unfolds in a place that isn’t here and a time that isn’t now.” The mention of tomatoes sticks out in my mind at a detail not from the middle ages but the bigger thing is that the story takes place within a world of magic dreams. The story is a sort of Wizard of Oz adventure with a girl gathering friends on a magical journey, nestled within the story of the Pied Piper but in some ways independent of the piper. The story of the pied piper shows up only as pale background to the colorful magical inventions of the author. There is a fainting, flower-arranging dragon, a talking cat, a three legged dog, a blind musician and a winged-warrior woman.

After Hamelin is written in first person from the point of view of a 101 year old woman. Almost every chapter starts off with her talking about being 101 and what that is like, as she attempts to record the adventures of 90 years before. Written this way the book includes the author’s little tidbits of wisdom:

Take a dozen people, each of whom can paint equally well. Ask them to imagine a cake. Ask them to paint it. When they are done, you will have twelve very different cakes. Flat cakes. Layer cakes. Brown cakes. Pink cakes. Cake is a simple word, but no two people imagine “cake” in the same way. Or else, say “dragon.” Right away, a picture comes to mind. But of what? Some see enormous purple lizards. Some see fire-breathing monsters. Some see snakes with wings. As sure as I am 101, the picture you hold in your head of the dragon Mary Jane is different from the picture that your sister or brother or best friend would conjure.

Or perhaps say “Pied Piper” and admire all the different images and stories that can be conjured? One of the problems I find with After Hamelin is that there are a number of things very vaguely described, so that I feel my image of it is very shaky, very based on my own imagination with less guidance from the author than I would like.

The topic of what it would take to make someone turn evil slips into the story at a couple of places. The piper turns the children to rats. “‘For the first little while, they were like themselves. But within a few hours they had become –‘. ‘ratty.'” When she herself turns into a rat she has to keep a sense of who she is, so that she could repeat the charm and turn herself back human.

The mention of ratty children brings to 101 year old Penelope the children who torment her in her old age. “I know that they are children and that they say thoughtless things. I know that they might one day regret their insolence and wish they could apologize. I know all this, and still I loathe them. Is that too strong a word? No. I do loathe them. I think they are beyond rehabilitation.” She wishes she could bring them face to face with a harpie – though she cannot – and debates turning one into a rat – something she could do. Why, I wonder, does she so loathe the nasty children when once ninety years before she wondered if there was a way to rehabilitate the piper?

There is mention too of wanting to be special. In the story each child is taken on his or her eleventh birthday to be told by a wise old man what his or her special skill would be. Penelope fears that hers would be ordinary. What if she is destined for no more than being a good housewife?

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett takes on the topic of what it means to be ratty with his rodents. These rats – and one cat – where changed when they ate something special in the garbage behind a wizard’s university. Now they’re not just rodents. They’re able to think. They start to wonder about the Big Rat Underground and about what type of rules they should live by.

The cat, Maurice, is more concerned with money. He’s the real mastermind behind their pied piper scheme where they infiltrate a town, stir up some chaos and then along comes Maurice and the piper kid he found and they earn their money charming the rats away. But this town isn’t like the other towns. There’s something weird going on. The local rat catchers have their own troublesome scheme underway.

One of the really interesting themes within The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is the question of government. It’s a bit of a theme in many of the Pied Piper stories really, as its the government, or mayor or councilmen, who cheat the piper and yet the whole of the people who pay. Are the people responsible because of their accepting of the government? (This argument was vocalized lots during the gulf war, when American and Canadian attacks on Iraqi people were justified by ‘they didn’t overthrow Saddam Hussein, therefore they share responsibility for what he did.’) Yet the Amazing Maurice story takes the theme of government even farther, moving first from talk about government as evil to later portraying government as a difficult necessity.

Maurice has been arguing that their scam is okay because it takes only from the local governments which would otherwise spend their money on wars. The boy, Keith, has thus been taught that ‘the government’ is bad and is startled to meet the mayor’s daughter and realize the government is very human. The rats don’t have government per say, but a leader, and their current leader, made leader before the change came over them is growing old. When another mouse, Darktan, has to step into the role of leader he finds it very tiring. He’s not used to having to admit when he doesn’t know what they should do next or if they are doing the best thing, but he’s told the clan needs his confidence to encourage them. Eventually he ends up having a heart to heart talk with the mayor about the stress of government, and the importance of government is shown again in the forming of a contract.

“If it was a story, and not real life, then humans and rats would have shaken hands and gone on into a bright new future.

But since it was real life, there had to be a contract. A war that had been going on since people first lived in houses could not end with just a happy smile. And there had to be a committee. There was so much detail to be discussed.”

 Other Stories and Considerations

There are other stories less connected to the Pied Piper yet in some ways reminiscent of it. One of my sons thought the story was similar to that of The Isis Peddler, one of a series by Monica Hughes. There the flashy newcomer coaxes the community into toiling away at mining for him, though as my son also points out, the townspeople don’t owe him anything. There’s also similarities between the Pied Piper and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the question of how far one can go to reclaim a debt. There’s a huge difference though, in that if a court had been available to settle the issue the question of taking the children in payment would probably never have come up.

There’s also a movie, The Sweet Hereafter, that uses Brownings poem of the Pied Piper as a theme though there’s several possible Pied Pipers in it. A school bus accident has taken the children away, is the bus driver the Pied Piper? Or is the lawyer who attempts to rally the townspeople in a case against someone. He’s got his sales pitch down straight, assuring people that someone must be responsible, must have chosen to use a cheaper bolt or something and thus cost the people their children. One of the survivors of the crash says something that suggests her father too is a type of pied piper who stole away her childhood in sexual abuse:

And why I lied, he only knew.

But from my lie, this did come true.

Those lips from what he drew his tune

were frozen as a winter moon.

So what makes a person a Pied Piper? Is it a desire to collect more than due? Is it a flashy outfit and ability to con others? When I think of all the children disappearing because the government was unable to pay, I think about situations where schools have been built with structural problems only to collapse during earthquakes in China and Haiti. Perhaps the Pied Piper stories are relevant anytime more time and effort could prevent the loss of children. Is it relevant when we leave whole segments of the population in poverty and teens are piped away by crime, drugs and human trafficking?Part of the Gifted Homeschooler's Forum review series

The story of the Pied Piper is such a flexible, vague story, with so many things left unsaid. Different authors have stretched the story into their own creations but there’s still so much room for questioning and expansion. Check out my post about lesson plans and ideas based on the Pied Piper.

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  • Amber Neal

    Thanks for linking up with us for MMM link up party this week. You have given me something to ponder for sure! I hope you come back next Monday and link up again!

  • Stacie Theis

    I have always heard the story of the Pied Piper leading the rats out of town and was intrigued to learn more from all the different versions. Thanks for sharing these books and your thoughts on the hop.

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