In the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the mayor promises a stranger a bag of gold if he can rid the town of a plague of rats. After completing the task, he goes to collect his reward only to find that the mayor has convinced the people, his constituents, that they should now negotiate a lower price. The Pied Piper doesn’t argue. He saves his breath for his flute, plays his enchanting music and the children follow him from the town.
The meaning of the Pied Piper story has been interpreted in many different ways. That the Piper in his red and yellow costume and long cape was a symbol of Death and the lost children died of plague. Some scholars believe it references the Children’s Crusade to the Holy Lands. Or the Piper was the leader of a pagan sect, something QAnon followers would understand today.
But, more likely, it is a simple morality tale about right and wrong, honesty and greed, of the grand gesture and unfulfilled promise.
The Allegory of the Pied Piper of Hamelin
The story dates back to 1284 when the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony was suffering a plague of rats. Each day, they multiplied, grew bigger, bolder, fighting the dogs, chasing the cats and biting the babies in their cots. When a mysterious stranger appears and offers to rid the town of its vermin, the good burghers agree to his fee.
The stranger, whom they called the Pied Piper, played his magic flute in a way that so bewitched the rats they came swarming from their grubby lairs. They followed him to the River Weser, where they threw themselves upon the current and drowned.
When he returned to collect his reward, the townsmen were at a meeting where the mayor had convinced the people that the sum they had agreed upon to ‘pay the piper’ was too high and, being honest men, they voted to offer him less.
The Pied Piper knew from experience that all discussion with these grey old men with vested interests would be in vain. He saved his breath for his flute. He played his music, and what he removed from Hamelin was the future. The children followed him along secluded trails, they crossed the river and vanished into the Koppenberg hills, never to be seen again.
One hundred and thirty children disappeared. Only the crippled boy was left behind – a reminder to the people of Hamelin of what they had done, what they had lost – the legacy of believing their duplicitous mayor with his lies and false promises.
The earliest known record of the story dates to around 1300 and was depicted in a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin. Although the church was destroyed in 1660, written accounts of the tale survived and spread as folklore.
Versions of the Pied Piper later appeared in the writings of the Brothers Grimm, Robert Browning, Goethe and, more recently, Russell Brand. In 1957, the story made it to the silver screen as a musical starring Van Johnson, Claude Rains and Kay Starr with music from Edvard Grieg.
Bring on the Clown
The phrase ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune,’ slipped from German to English parlance in the late Middle Ages and has come to mean those who can afford to pay get to choose what it is and how it’s done. Generally, it his the rich who can afford to pay the piper and the poor who dance to their tune.
Boris Johnson is famously two-faced. He is both the mayor of the story and the Pied Piper, a man who can charm snakes, mendacious, a clown. With the tricky promise of ‘taking back control,’ he stole the future and led the people into the dark nowhere land of Brexit. He is also the miserly mayor who, with his insanely rich chancellor, Rishi Sunak (dreaming of the top job) clawed back £20 a week from the impoverished victims of Universal Credit knowing it would leave children going hungry.
All through history, in 13th century Hamelin, in 1930s Germany, in the United States in the Recent Age of Madness, in Moscow, Beijing and Downing Street, charismatic liars have drugged the people with promises to build bridges where there is no river and rid the river of the rats, royalty and oligarchs who share their table.
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