The Pied Piper of Hamelin & More on Disability in Literature/Folklore
CN: pandemics, death, racism, ableism, mention of murder and rape
Today, I published my 75th article on Book Riot. This one is on the Pied Piper of Hamelin. As usual, it makes more sense to read my BR essay before this one.
This Medium post compiles and expands on some of my recent ideas that I wrote on my Wordpress blog and Twitter.
Here’s some research on the Pied Piper legend that didn’t fit into my final draft:
The first reference to the Pied Piper story was supposedly a stained-glass window made in 1300, only 16 years after Hamelin’s mysterious tragedy. However, this was destroyed soon after. The landmark called the Pied Piper House was built in 1603. This makes 1384 (or 100 years later) the first surviving reference to the mysterious Pied Piper tragedy, which apparently impacted the town immensely.
What historical records support the migration theory? Surnames previously found in Hamelin first appeared farther east, especially around Berlin, after 1284. This article from the BBC, which I also linked in my BR article, says recruiters wore bright clothes and played music to attract attention. So, this theory sounds plausible, but this is a mysterious trauma historians may never understand.
There’s one theory about the Pied Piper that I totally disagree with, because it’s gratuitously horrifying, but mainly because there’s no evidence to support it. This Ranker article mentions the theory that the Pied Piper was a child molester and murderer. The source Ranker cites for this theory is A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester. The book is a bestselling work of pop history that historians and reviewers have criticized widely. In this excerpt, Manchester says that the Pied Piper story occurred in 1484–200 YEARS later than every other source, or 100 years after the centennial referenced in Hamelin’s 1384 town records. That huge discrepancy with more reputable sources and the lack of sources and citations are red flags. I’m not a historian and haven’t read Manchester’s whole book. However, as a critical reader and writer, I don’t trust A World Lit Only by Fire or its theories as credible historical sources.
Another theory is that the children of Hamelin may have died on a Children’s Crusade. I omitted it from BR because I thought it was too complex and controversial to mention in passing. I don’t think this theory is credible, either. Raphael Kadushin at the BBC called it one of the “more fanciful theories.”
In Elle Tharp’s Ranker article on the Pied Piper, which I linked above, Tharp writes: “As factual and accurate data on the several supposed ‘Children’s Crusades’ is already pretty iffy, many historians doubt that these crusades actually involved children. Perhaps they were labeled as such as a way of invoking purity and innocence into Holy Wars.” This is a great point. Stories of European, Christian children getting visions of invading Palestine sound like propaganda meant to justify adults’ religious and political goals.
More Examples of the Magical or Miracle Cure Trope
In my BR essay, I mentioned the miracle cure trope. I tried to broaden my scope beyond my own experiences of finding a Disney cartoon short ableist as a child, long before I knew the word “ableist.” Similar ideas and experiences inform a lot of my work, but I wanted to focus on the literary origins and historical theories of the Pied Piper legend. This fairy tale of hypnosis via a magic musical instrument also contains tropes common in the fantasy genre.
In the final seconds of the Disney cartoon short, after the disabled boy is “magically cured,” the Piper throws the crutches away, out of the frame. I mentioned in the essay that this was the first example of the ableist miracle or magical cure trope I ever saw in secular fiction.
I’m being specific here because I’m not counting religious stories, of which I was already aware. Maybe that’s why at the time, I assumed incorrectly that all the children were dead and that the Piper’s “Joyland” at the end of the story was heaven. My only published poem critiques religious imagery of heaven necessarily curing all disabilities.
Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Christmas Miracle Cure
Often, these more recent, ableist stories were based on Biblical ones. An example I was familiar with as a kid in the ’90s was Amahl and the Night Visitors, a 1951 Christmas opera by Gian Carlo Menotti. In a story inspired by the Nativity, the protagonist, Amahl, is described as “a crippled boy.” He asks one of the Three Kings, Kaspar, for a cure for his disability. Kaspar, who is deaf or hard of hearing, does not hear him. Amahl gets his miracle cure, in many dramatic moments. David Patmore’s liner notes explain: “Dazed he understands that he can walk. As Amahl places his crutch in the outstretched hands of the Three Kings, they sing of his cure as a sign from God.” Amahl dances and sings about his magical cure as a Christmas miracle. I couldn’t find any other descriptions of the ableism here online, but I remember this opera and its miracle cure vividly. It’s ableist and uses disability as a plot device in multiple ways.
My family and I never believed in or wanted any type of cure for my disability. Still, as a child, I began writing stories about magical cures after reading and hearing them in classic literature and Biblical stories. They permeate our culture. I thought this was the expected story about disabled characters, or maybe I was trying to imagine a perspective I didn’t share. I was excited to find any disabled characters at all. This is an example of how disabled people can internalize ableist, retrogressive cultural tropes and ideas. I use disability theory and critical theory to undo these assumptions I unconsciously absorbed.
Connection to the Fantasy Genre in General
This section is adapted from a Twitter thread I wrote in December 2020. I wanted to add it here because of the dubious theory of the Pied Piper leading a Children’s Crusade.
A lot of medievalist fantasy tropes come not just from the Middle Ages or the British Empire centuries later, but specifically from the Crusades. (Somehow, crusade still usually has positive connotations in English.) That’s at least what a lot of the medieval Romances, already mythologizing a past centuries earlier, are about. These include King Arthur, Lancelot, Percival, seeking the mythical Holy Grail, etc. Once you think of it originating in the Crusades, fighting inhuman, dark fantasy races becomes even more undeniably racist and xenophobic.
These prejudices were also applied to white, Celtic pagans in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Myths of St. George slaying the dragon or St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland are usually interpreted as symbolizing Christianity’s suppression of pagan religions.
Also, famed explorer Marco Polo exaggerated and made up a lot and wrote about fantasy “races” that were more like the ways 20th century Americans pictured space aliens than any real variations between people. They were filled with bizarre, ableist, racist imagery. One medieval European explorer believed that people in the Southern Hemisphere were headless with facial features in their chests.
I love this essay by Maria Sachiko Cecire. It explains, much better than I could, something that I hinted at when writing about A Curse So Dark and Lonely and A Court of Thorns and Roses. So many fantasy books use pseudo-medieval Europe as templates that we don’t need much world-building. There is some room for originality in these series, though.
Critical theory, and diverse SFF writers writing from their own perspectives, help us understand the Eurocentrism, Christian hegemony, and nationalism that underpin these genres. I love many fantasy stories too, but they’re not natural, neutral, or universal! And they didn’t just happen out of nowhere. They’re informed by ideology — sometimes deliberately by the beliefs of a few influential people, like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. More marginalized views have traditionally been excluded.
More on Fairy Tales, Folktales, the Middle Ages, and Disability
Spoilers for Kristin Lavransdatter below:
In case you missed it or follow my Medium but not Wordpress: for ableism and fatmisia in a work of fiction set in medieval Europe, see my Kristin Lavransdatter reviews: part 1 and part 2 here. Part 1 also discusses the ableism in medieval-inspired fantasy show The Witcher.
I also threaded more about Kristin Lavransdatter and Christianity after LitHub released this interesting podcast episode days ago.
From my recent Twitter thread: One interesting thing about Catholicism in this novel is Kristin’s disproportionate guilt. She feels guilty for her entire life for having sex before marriage and for her and Erlend’s ambiguous involvement in his lover, Eline’s, death — possibly self-defense.
Kristin helps to prevent a human sacrifice at the end of the novel. Of course, the attempt at ritual murder horrifies her. Instead of just being relieved that the murder didn’t happen, though, she’s glad SHE was there to stop it. She only feels she’s atoned for her earlier sins after this. I understand the Catholic guilt here, but it’s weird to me that she thinks she needs to balance out totally unrelated sins in this way.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a traditionally Catholic book in many ways, but even it says some subversive things regarding Catholicism. It says some of the martyrs must have suffered more than Christ himself. So, implicitly, this is the 20th century idea of suffering as meaningless, or at least not necessarily redemptive.
However, the novel also contains ableist ideas of disability and suffering (which are often equated) as punishment for sin. So, I love these incommensurable contradictions and tensions in fiction and attempts to parse them out in criticism. Lit crit is like squaring the circle in some ways. I know this and still write fiction and criticism. Art will always be more and less than the sum of its parts, or more or less than what we get from or put into it, paradoxically.
Some authors make explicitly bigoted comments, of course. But unless they do, my point in analyzing ableism in fiction is more often “ableism is everywhere, even unconsciously” than “this author is bigoted” or “No one should ever read this.”