The other day, I went to Hamelin, the lovely Renaissance town on the River Weser in Westphalia in Germany which is famous for one thing all over the world: the spooky story of the enigmatic figure known in English as the Pied Piper and in German as the Rattenfänger, or ratcatcher. Everyone knows the story, so I will not repeat it, but it has always struck me as one of the most mysterious and chilling stories in the fairy tale corpus. People have tried to ‘explain’ it with reference to the Children`s Crusade or young settlers disappearing into Eastern Europe, but though unusually for a fairy story there is both a date–1284–and a place–Hamelin–definitely attached to it, in most other ways it has that shifting, mysterious feel of fairy tale and the Piper surely has most of the attributes of a faery being–the music, the bargain, the irresistible magic, the vanishing into a hill, and the snatching of children.
The Museum of Hamelin has some interesting displays around the story, and some striking set pieces including a wall of children´s shoes which sent a shiver up my spine as I remembered seeing a chilling, heart-clenching exhibit of abandoned shoes at Auschwitz..There is also a weird and creepy but effective performance piece, played by mechanical figures built out of scrap iron, and a montage of voices and music, with the vanished children represented by empty shirts floating slowly by..The horror which is so close to the surface in this story is clearly brought out there. But lest you get too overwhelmed,in the town there are also shops selling cheerfully tacky souvenirs, especially rats in all guises, made of felt wood plastic china and marzipan! And a couple of times a day, the glockenspiel bell array on the registry office plays a carillon to accompany the mechanical figures of the Piper, the rats, and then the Piper and the children, from behind metal doors high up on a wall. Hamelin has lived off the Piper for a very long time, and perhaps that was, in true fairy style, his final gift.
As an aside, it struck me recently that the theme of the Pied Piper runs like a silver thread trough several Australian novels: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, The Doubleman, by Christopher Koch, The Green Piper by Victor Kelleher, and The Golden Day, by Ursula Dubosarsky. A strange coincidence indeed, that this story should find so many echoes so far away..