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The Pied Piper Among Us

Overview

Published: 03/27/2013

by Jim Campbell

The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has been told and retold for about 800 years, is translated into countless

languages and has been turned into a poem of about 320 lines by Robert Browning. This is strong evidence that the story contains a valuable message. The town of Hamelin in Saxony was overrun with rats. How bad? Robert Browning tells us:

 

Rats!

They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles …

 

A Pied Piper arrived in Hamelin and offered, for a fee, to rid the town of rats. The mayor agreed. The Pied Piper played a tune on his pipe and led the rats into the river, where they drowned. With all the rats gone, the mayor reneged on the deal. The Pied Piper left the town planning revenge. He returned dressed in hunters’ green and played his pipe; this time the children of the town raced to follow him. He led them out of town, over a hill, and they were never seen again.

 

It’s not surprising that the basic story has been embellished over the generations. The plague of rats, which seems so essential to the story, struck Hamelin a hundred years after the children disappeared. In the original story, there’s no mention of the villainous mayor. (With the mayor in the story, the Pied Piper pretty well gets off scot-free.)

The mayor was probably dragged into the story because we all like to blame politicians for everything that goes wrong.

 

So, with the rats and the mayor removed, all we have is a story about the Pied Piper who came to town and marched the children away. The story is from the time of the Crusades.

Many Crusades, with varying degrees of success, set out to reclaim the Holy Land. One of them

was the Children’s Crusade. Two charismatic young men, Stephen of Vendôme and Nicholas of Cologne, went from town to town recruiting young people to march off to free Jerusalem. They talked of adventure and glory, and assured everyonethey’d be safe from harm, and that God would provide for them and protect them.

 Thousands of children followed them over the hills, never to be seen or heard from again.

Stephen of Vendôme’s contingent descended en masse upon the port city of Marseilles looking

for food, shelter and ships to carry them east. They went no farther; they were sold into slavery, a fate better than starving. Fascinated by rats and the mayor’s cupidity, many, like Browning, missed the point of the tale.

It is a very serious warning to all of how charismatic leaders, so convinced they are right, can lead people astray – particularly vulnerable young people – by selling them a bill of goods and enticing them to adopt destructive lifestyles.

 Our age has seen its share of  Pied Pipers, of charismatic leaders, dictators, celebrities, stars and prophets piping seductive tunes that lead to slavery, suffering and often to self-destruction.

 The Pied Piper is not a children’s story. It is about our time and place.

 

Jim Campbell is an Oakville-based author and writer. 

 

Illustration for Home Digest by Rui Ramalheiro

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