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The Children of Hamelin Commentary

The Children of Hamelin is an extraordinary, multi-faceted little tale which provides many windows of approach.

First, as to the differences between this and older versions of the tale, I have introduced into the story the different sources upon which the tales draws, and the puzzle they present as to what was the actual history and what was glued onto it later. For one can do this and still keep a sense of the magical and mysterious.

On the everyday level this tale is about as frightening as it gets, for there is much to it that is real. The monster is not an imaginary beast. The enemy that consumes the town is a horde of rats, and there are few things which inspire a primal repugnance in the way rats can. Moths are annoying when they eat your goods. Worms are icky but deep in your gut it's sensed they are essential as the earth through which they burrow. Fierce dogs provoke terror. But rats are the worst of all. One imagines them in hordes, unstoppable, relentless. Encountered in dreams, they are like a soft spot of rot hidden deep in the soul, covered over by dark, and when it emerges from the dark to bother you then it seems something is quite wrong, for the natural habit of rats is to keep themselves secret. Perhaps that is one reason they are so frightening.

As a child, I listened to the tale and felt sympathy and grief for the two children left behind--one lame, the other blind. I knew that to follow the piper wasn't frightening. The child knew the world into which the piper led the young ones was paradise. Heaven. And it didn't strike as fair that a lame child would be left out of paradise because he was unable to keep up with the healthy children. If paradise should be open to anyone, it should be for the lame child and the blind one. But of course, the lame child and the blind one are essential to the story, for it is they who are able to tell us where the other children went. If no one with knowledge is left behind, then rather than having a story we are left with only an undecipherable question mark. What happened to the inhabitants of the colony of Roanoke is a mystery, which only becomes a tale when this person or that attaches their explanation of what might have happened. The tale of the children of Hamelin would be much the same if we knew nothing about where they had gone.

As an adult and a mother, I think of the horror of having a child taken from one. In the newspapers, even if we read of a horrible, mass kidnaping which was fantastically described exactly as this one, rather than feeling awe we would experience terror, the same fear and grief of the adults in the Hamelin tale. And yet, when one thinks about the ages of the children who follow after the Pied Piper, those four and up, one is reminded that until about the age of five children do indeed live in a rather magical world. It is at about the age of five that an incredible process of growth and psychological distinction between themselves and "other", between the real and the imaginary takes place. Which isn't to say that children below the age of five can't distinguish between truth and fantasy. Of course they can. But at about five a new edge of "self" materializes, and thus one might say that the Pied Piper's captivating only the older children refers to how all children eventually leave us. Every one. They disappear. Disappear to the eyes of adults, as well as to themselves in that their world alters and becomes much bigger, a place of quarrels and troubles of the sort that the Pied Piper's followers escaped. The story hasn't to do with the older children themselves slipping into a paradise whre adults may not be permitted, but that now they are older a certain quality of their youth has disappeared, and who they once were along with it, though it still resides somewhere in the hidden land of youth where troubles never intrude. This is a common enough sentiment in fairy tales. Because I frequently now have to listen to Disney's "Winnie the Pooh", I think of Christopher Robin and how when he leaves his forest and stuffed animal playmates to go to school, he asks his bear never to forget him. He may be unable to return, but his stuffed bear will certainly remember the child he was and keep that treasure safe and sound.

On another level, stories like this are very much like mysteries. You look for clues and try to guess from them what might have happened. The Children of Hamelin is exceptional among fairy tales in that it names a place, and even gives a supposed time (even though different ideas of when that time was exist). The tale suggests that what happened wasn't just fairy tale, imaginary. It was real. As the tale shows, there is even a wall with an inscription on it as to when the event took place. And the street where the exceptional event took place is called "drumless". A silent street. Wedding parade bands cease to play when crossing it.

We know, however, that the Children of Hamelin is a fairy tale. It has all the earmarks of one. We intuit that whatever might have happened at Hamelin, it was not this tale, but an event which after a period of time became a backdrop for this tale of the Pied Piper leading the children into the mountain.

Who disappears into the bowels of a mountain but fairies? The town of Hamelin has somehow become attached to a fairy story of the type where ordinary citizens are captured and carried away into fairy mounds. The UFO stories of today resemble these tales, especially those where the individuals return. But the children of Hamelin didn't return. They didn't wake up as old men and women on the hillside, like Rip Van Winkle. A number of Seneca tales tell of individuals carried away in baskets into the sky where they live quite happily, and when they return they find that several generations have passed, the world is no longer the one they had known, and disenfranchised they return to their sky home. Which is indeed now their real home. Once one has crossed over to that other side, one may not return.

A scholarly theory on what might have happened states that perhaps the people migrated from Hamelin to a place south of the Baltic sea. Before, this place had been inhabited by a people called the Slavs. There was a war. The Slavs were driven out and the land was open for the Germans, who had conquered it, to move in, enticed by rich rewards by the Germans who already lived there. People were needed for industry and to work the land. Even if this is historically correct, mysteries still remain as to how exactly the tale evolved as it did. I recollect reading somewhere of the inhabitants of an entire Alaskan village disappearing sometime early in the 20th century, the mystery of what happened to them being much like that of the Roanoke Colony. Without any further information, I am more likely, emotionally, to accept that the grief and catacylsm of the disappearance of whoever it was at (supposedly) Hamelin was due to a UFO sweeping them away, rather than to an emigration of citizens to new jobs. Besides which, what is so horrible about an emigration to a new world of opportunity, that those left behind would eventually foster the creation of the tale of the Children of Hamelin? What is so horrible about such an emigration that a street would become "drumless". Soundless.

And then what of the supposed memorials that were established? There is also something equally fantastic about them.

Calvary and Koppen (the name of the mountain into which the children disappeared) are key words to the mystery of Hamelin, it might seem, but there is disagreement on to what they refer. Some say that Calvary was just the name of another mountain or hill, while others say instead it is a place of execution. I'm not certain it's not without some significance that Calvary means also Golgotha, the place where the Christian bible states Jesus Christ was crucified. Calvary comes from a Greek word meaning "skull," or "cranium." And Koppen is very similar to kopf, the German word for head. When one considers that in memorium of the Hamelin incident, two crosses were erected to either side of Koppen/Calvary, the picture of Christ on the cross with the robbers on either hand materalizes. And what is interesting is that two crosses were erected, not three. The mountain is implicit as the central cross of Christ. Christ becomes the Pied Piper, a denizen of an underworld heaven, and the children the individuals caught up by the Rapture, there one instant and gone the next. How are we to divine what has happened to these Raptured individuals if not through prophecy. The Christian new testament says, "This is what happens to those who disappear." The fairy tale of the Children of Hamelin says, however, this is what happened to the children who disappeared. It is a past thing, a line of demarcation between the modern world and antiquity.

There are a number of variants on the story. One has the tragedy occurring in 1376, which is, coincidentally, the year a Richard "Copped Hat" Fitzalan died in England. Notice the similarity between "coppen" and "copped hat". The similarity is even more striking when one discovers that Richard "Copped Hat" Fitzalan's great-great-great grandfather was actually named Hamelin. Hamelin Plantagenet, a son of the first Latin King of Jerusalem. His great-grandfather was William Warren, a Norman who crossed over the English Channel to Britain with William the Conqueror--which is how I stumbled onto this coincidence, because I was looking at William Warren and this period of history. However absurd the connection I draw may seem, I do wonder if there isn't some validity to it. We have already seen how the mountan of Calvary/Koppen can be related to Christ. And now we have an historical Hamelin who was the son of the first Latin King of Jerusalem. The period of time to which this refers is that during which the crusades took place. No Pied Piper with a happy ending, in "Slaughterhouse Five" Kurt Vonnegut writes of the disastrous Children's Crusade.

Another place to look for perhaps an origin to the Hamelin story is in the time of King Edward I of England. It's said he had borrowed a lot of money from the Jews to pay for his war against Wales, which he won, and he added Wales to his kingdom in 1284. (which is another year the tragedy in Hamelin is said to have occurred). He decided he didn't want to pay the Jews back and he forced all 10,000 of them to leave England. They went to Europe where they were then killed due to religious prejudice. But again, that is a story of exodus with a tragic ending. Still, I have wondered if someone didn't pen the tale as happening in 1284 in order to surreptitiously refer to and remind of this event.

Another biblical tie can be seen in the attire of the Pied Piper. His coat is "pied", multi-colored. The coat of Genesis' Joseph the dreamer was multi-colored, and he gave the Hebrew people a refuge from famine in Egypt. Biblically, this turned on them so they became slaves, which led to another Exodus, and a roaming in search of the Promised Land.

The story of the Pied Piper has become tangled up with Christian symbolism, but it is decidedly unchristian in feel. Here, the promised land is in the mountain, the underworld, fairy land. One may even make a comparison with the Danaans, a people of Ireland who "disappeared" through being conquered, and disappearing they became the fairies, the inhabitants of fairy mounds, the keepers of old knowledge. One might even look upon the Children of Hamelin as a tale of Christianity's dominance, and the loss of the old religion to a world of fantasy, an idealized place of retreat not bothered by monkish guilt and ethics of an usurping culture. Yet whispers of them remain, and in the mountain one might hear the music of that older trust in nature, in the earth, before all that is worldly became the possession of the Christian/gnostic satan.


Here is a link to one older version of the Children of Hamelin.


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