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The Pied Piper

from The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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By Sue

A photo of Sue Evans reading The Pied Piper of Hamelin

‘If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise!’

Picture me as a nine-year-old weighing up what it means to break your word, pondering how serious the consequences can be. For Hamelin in Germany in the thirteenth century, a broken promise proved disastrous. According to legend, the town lost all its children when the mayor and corporation refused to honour an agreement with a piper who had rid them of a plague of rats. This stranger, clothed in motley red and yellow, played such wondrous music on his flute he could enchant all manner of creatures to follow him – and the rats, he led to a watery grave. When the town’s elders reneged on their promise to pay him, the piper played a different tune, the children following him through a portal in a hillside to another land. They were never to be seen again, except for a lame boy who couldn’t keep up and was left behind to tell the tale.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a poem by Robert Browning, is believed to be based on a true story of the disappearance of many children from the milling town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that on 26 June 1284, on the day of the Saints John and Paul, 130 children born in Hamelin were lost, lured away by a piper wearing many colours, possibly to a place of execution. An early stained glass window in a Hamelin church, thought to commemorate the tragic event, showed a colourful piper surrounded by children dressed in white. The window has since been destroyed but accounts remain of its existence. In later centuries, the piper became part of folklore, a rat catcher wearing multi-coloured clothing. He appears in the story by the Brothers Grimm, as well as Robert Browning’s.

I was given an edition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, illustrated by Kate Greenaway, for Christmas when I was a child. Being captivated by the language, the timbre and rhythm of the words, I could recite swathes by heart. Rats grumbled, rumbled, tumbled. Children pattered, clattered, chattered. And what did happen to the children? I grew up in mill town in Lancashire, admittedly not as picturesque as Hamelin, but we had a river and a looming hill on the outskirts. The moral of the story struck me to the quick but, try as I might, I couldn’t imagine Pendle Hill (as it happens, a place renowned for witches) opening up to reveal a paradise.

The Pied Piper appeals to me because he is an ambiguous figure, a cautionary exemplar here but an incarnation of the devil in other accounts. Browning’s poem contrasts the wealthy town officials and ordinary people trying to make a living, having their best efforts thwarted by rats, and it’s clear where wickedness lies. Besides, if you could hear music so exquisitely beautiful that you would follow it anywhere, what do you suppose it would sound like?

The 26 writing group has worked with The Story Museum as part of its 26 Characters exhibition. The group have produced a collection of poems, and couldn’t resist being part of the gallery of favourite characters.

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