The Pied Piper of Transylvania: Tripping Over Fairy Tales


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“If you want to tell grown-up fairy tales, you have to look for the dark side” – Juan Antonio Bayona

But your profile said "handsome prince"!

But your profile said “handsome prince”!

Life is not a fairy tale.  There isn’t a handsome prince waiting to emerge from the beast.  The princess is just a pawn in the game of thrones, and a means to secure dynastic succession.  Grimm’s collections, when not properly sanitized for the modern rug rat and their hyper-sensitive parents, are awash in blood and depravity.  The fairy tale of ages past was history, philosophy, and cosmology all rolled into one, a warning that at any time, the universe may conspire to befuddle your much vaunted powers of logic and rationality, demanding adaptation to overcome a descent into insanity (or being eaten).  We still tell ourselves fairy tales, but they are resounding litanies of social mundanity where the protagonist must enchant themselves into transcendence.  G.K Chesterton noted this trend when he bemoaned, “Can you not see that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folklore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is–what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is–what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.”  Heavy, dude.  This is of course, why I do a little dance every time I find an anomalous nugget of bizarre historical fact in a classic fairy tale, such as the connection between the beloved tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin and teleportation to Transylvania.

We all fondly remember the basic plot line of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a medieval story that is a staple of children’s literature, set in the picturesque German town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony in 1284 A.D.  While there are numerous variations depending on who decided it required retelling, the gist is that Hamelin had a rat infestation.  They were probably unaware that rats were buckling down and embracing their role as a vector for the Black Death, but civilization’s attitude towards vermin has always leaned towards the uncharitable.  The sudden appearance of a colorful piper guaranteeing to lure the rats to their death in the Weser River was considered fortuitous, and the Mayor of Hamelin offered the extraordinary sum of 1000 guilders for his pest control services.  The piper dutifully hypnotized the rats with his piping and drowned them, but the Mayor reduced his compensation to 50 guilders.  The Piper vowed revenge, returning on Saint John and Paul’s day while the Hamelinites were in church, and used his strange occult musical talents to lead the town’s children away to Koppelberg Hill, where they vanished and were never seen again.  I’m fairly certain the moral of the story has something to do with tort law.

Given my predilection for doom and gloom, and aversion to jurisprudence, what I find fascinating about The Pied Piper of Hamelin is that the narrative disturbingly appears to have a factual basis connected to Transylvania, Romania, more commonly known for its overabundance of vampires and werewolves.  Think of me as your anomalistic Joe Friday.  The earliest mention of the story is from roughly 1300 A.D., at which time it was depicted in a stained glass window of the Church of Hamelin (destroyed in 1660, although abundant descriptions remain).  Curiously, the official town chronicles of Hamelin contain an entry in 1384, noting, “It is 100 years since our children left”, suggesting that a fairly traumatic occurrence involving children missing en masse can be dated to precisely 1284 A.D.  Subsequent retellings of the tale emerged from the 15th Century onward, but the simple fact remains is that in 1284, a good portion of the children of Hamelin appear to have disappeared.

Ever since the 15th Century, a great deal of scholarly inquiry has been conducted into the nature of the Hamelin child abductions, and many an academic has proffered a perfectly boring and reasonable explanation, associating the event with contemporaneous phenomena such as ill-fated Children’s Crusades, the ubiquitous dancing plagues of Medieval Europe, pagan sects luring children away to nearby hills for ritual dances only to see them swallowed by sinkholes or a sudden catastrophic landslide, to psychopathic pedophiles, to a mass emigration of youth to Eastern Europe encouraged by the bishops and dukes of Pomerania, Brandenburg, Uckermark and Prignitz, who had just recently driven out the Danes at the culmination of the Battle of Bornhöved in 1227, and wanted to replace the local Slavs with Germans (although this would more likely have been in reference to Poland).  These are all perfectly reasonable surmises, based on the fact that the modus operandi of the curious, but skeptical, among the scholarly set is to extract all vestiges of wonder from the intersection between folklore and history, but luckily the older extant versions of the Pied Piper mythos seem to specifically reference the mysterious appearance of a contingent of colonists from Hamelin in Transylvania, a fact that seems to be supported by a strange correspondence of town and genealogical names suggesting a direct link between Hamelin and Transylvania.  The reference even pops up in the poetic retelling of the tale by leading Victorian poet Robert Browning (1812-1889 A.D.).

And on the Great Church Window painted
The same, to make the world acquainted
How their children were stolen away;
And there it stands to this very day.
And I must not omit to say
That in Transylvania there’s a tribe
Of alien people that ascribe
The outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbors lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen
Out of some subterraneous prison
Into which they were trepanned
Long time ago in a mighty band
Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
But how or why, they don’t understand
(Browning, 1912, p39-40).

17th century German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) also noted the correspondence of the disappearance of the children of Hamelin with the sudden emergence of an unidentified population in Transylvania.

Yet another version occurs in the Musurgia of Father Athanasius Kircher, written in 1650, who attributes the event to the year 1190. After narrating the town council’s repudiation of its debt to the Piper, he states that he returned the next day dressed as a hunter, with terrible visage, and piped away all children between the ages of four and twelve; and he adds that he, Kircher, had himself visited the town and seen the Hill and the picture in the church, which he had contemplated with the highest admiration. He says that the Piper was without doubt the Devil, who transported the children to some other place in accordance with some occult judgment of God. The “other place” he names as Transylvania, because about that time there appeared in Transylvania suddenly some boys speaking an unknown tongue (Thompson, 1880, p25-26).

Now, one might chalk this all up to the use of “Transylvania” as a metaphor for an adequately distant and sufficiently creepy place, except for the fact that Transylvanian folklore tends to concur with this extraordinary version of events.  While there is plenty of concrete evidence that there was a Saxon migration into Transylvania in the 12th Century due to its beauty and economic potential and at the invitation of the Hungarian King, early versions of the Pied Piper fairy tale insist that the children of Hamelin suddenly emerged from underground at the Vaghis Cave in Transylvania (keeping in in mind that certain early versions of the Pied Piper narrative have the Piper leading the Hamelin children into a cave in the Koppelberg Hills in Saxony).

In our smug modernism, we have a distinct inclination towards “explaining away”, that is, encapsulating uncomfortable facts in a rubric of rationality.  Odd synchronicities, strange correspondences, and the alignment of diverse historical traditions with fairy tales is considered the purview of literature, rather than an indication that something preternatural is afoot, otherwise we have to consider the possibility that we are sane and logical creatures in an insane universe, or as Lawrence Krauss said, “The universe has a much greater imagination than we do, which is why the real story of the universe is far more interesting than any of the fairy tales we have invented to describe it”.  Me?  I’m going to Transylvania.

Browning, Robert, 1812-1889. The Pied Piper of Hamelin. London: J. M. Dent & sons, 1912.
Thompson, Silvanus.  “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. Privately Printed Opuscula Issued to Members of the Sette of Odd Volumes. London, 1880.


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