Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pied Piper of Hamelin: the children left behind

Excerpt from The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Robert Browning, 1842 (lines 208 - 255)

The Mayor was dumb, and the Council stood
As if they were changed into blocks of wood,
Unable to move a step, or cry
To the children merrily skipping by,
-- Could only follow with the eye
That joyous crowd at the Piper's back.
But how the Mayor was on the rack,
And the wretched Council's bosoms beat,
As the Piper turned from the High Street
To where the Weser rolled its waters
Right in the way of their sons and daughters!
However he turned from South to West,
And to Koppelberg Hill his steps addressed,
And after him the children pressed;
Great was the joy in every breast.
"He never can cross that mighty top!
"He's forced to let the piping drop,
"And we shall see our children stop!"
When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, --
"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
"I can't forget that I'm bereft
"Of all the pleasant sights they see,
"Which the Piper also promised me.
"For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
"Joining the town and just at hand,
"Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
"And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
"And everything was strange and new;
"The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
"And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
"And honey-bees had lost their stings,
"And horses were born with eagles' wings;
"And just as I became assured
"My lame foot would be speedily cured,
"The music stopped and I stood still,
"And found myself outside the hill,
"Left alone against my will,
"To go now limping as before,
"And never hear of that country more!"

Of all the versions of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, this verse by Robert Browning is perhaps the most famous -- at least within the Western Anglophone world.

For a long while, I wondered if the piteous figure of the little lame boy, who desperately wanted to keep up with his playmates, but could not, was an invention of Browning's -- a romantic figure to tug at the heartstrings.

But a version of the story collected by the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: The Children of Hameln (Translated by D. L. Ashliman), also includes the detail of two children who were kept back by their "impairments": A blind boy, who could hear the music, but not see the trail, and a mute (deaf) child, who could see the trail, but could not hear the music.

Two things strike me about the depiction of Disability in these two versions. On the one hand, they're each an open acknowledgement that "all" doesn't necessarily mean All -- that not every child (and hence, every adult) can do everything in the same way as the majority. Some of us have to take the long way 'round, and thus we can't keep up and reach the "Promised Land." On the other hand, these impairments are also depicted as extremely isolating. Why didn't the deaf child and the blind child work together, for example?*

Of course, what seems like a tragedy at first may end up being a happy ending, and what seems a golden promise turns out to be a poisoned one. In a few other versions of the story (compiled, along with the Grimms' story linked to above, by Dr. Ashliman), the grown-ups eventually learn that the children who were led away ended up being sold into slavery, or taken off to war, and killed in battle. And thus, those marked as "Weak" and "Outcast" when things are going well, end up being the founders of the next generation after disaster strikes. Ultimately, these children -- the ones left behind -- are put in their perennial role of Omen-bearers, acting (unwillingly) as both witness and Sign that their society had fallen out of balance, and had become corrupted, incurring some Divine Wrath.**

We could, as a society, choose to be aware of those we are shutting out, and leaving in isolation. And we could choose to change, and be more inclusive. It is possible. Some would say it's even simple. That might be the first step in overturning our corruption, and bringing our society back into balance. It's far easier, though, to wrap ourselves in pity and sentimentality, and keep on doing as we've always done.

But either way, we're going to have to pay the piper, someday. How we pay is the choice before us.


*Though this particular view of Disability may be a quirk of the Western, European, culture this story comes from; for comparison, see the Aesop Fable The Blind Man and the Lame Man

**For an explanation of the link between Disability and Prophecy, see this entry, which I posted last April: Monsters: a Key motif, and a Symbol of Disability

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