What Happened in Hamelin by Gloria Skurzynski

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Rating 6.0/10
Gloria Skurzynski reduces this complex morality figure to an avaricious, manipulative predator.

What Happened in Hamelin is undeniably a gripping novel, but I had major reservations. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" is a fascinating story, all the more so because it is one of the few commonly known fairy tales that has basis in documented historical fact. Modern retellings are as motley as the colours of the Piper's cloak, but tend to veer toward the dark whereas Robert Browning's poem and some old film adaptations were decidedly light in tone. Gloria Skurzynski attempts a bold project: documenting "what really happened in Hamelin, 1284," and solving the mystery behind the Piper's motivations. Based on her meticulous research of medieval manuscripts, she strips the familiar folktale of the magic elements that have embellished it for centuries, setting it up as an entirely plausible but cheerless case of ergot poisoning and slave trafficking.

The plot in a nutshell? A stranger to Hamelin befriends a baker's apprentice, lulls people into a false sense of security, and manipulates the entire town into following his orders, culminating in his well-calculated plot to get what he's really after. It's possible, very likely even, that this is how it went down in Hamelin before truth became legend. There is nothing that strains credulity about this version of the story. And that inevitably makes it a joyless, frightening book.

Gone are the supernatural qualities of the folktale we know and love. Gone is the unearthly music that summons every creature under the sun. Gone is the speculation about the Piper's origins and the unresolved ending, whether the children were killed or made it to some kind of otherworldly faery realm beneath Koppen hill. I'll take fantasy over realism any day, so these are heavy doses of reality for me to swallow when reading a book like this.

The villagers' plight is problematic to me, and the one weak link of the story that forces me to suspend disbelief. The Piper (called Gast, the stranger) brainwashes people in a matter of days with little trouble, and our protagonist Geist, the baker's apprentice, never fails to remind us that the man is mesmerizing, that he can coerce people to do things just by looking at them. How was he able to accomplish this? The people of Hamelin were hardened peasants in the middle ages, people used to plague, disease, and all kinds of threats. I imagine they'd be less inclined to trust strangers, especially unfriendly foreigners such as Gast. By the time he got the adults to stay in church while he led the kids out of the city to presumably dance off their sickness, didn't anyone with half a brain see this coming? And really, I know this was written in the 70's, but did the Piper have to be a gypsy? Haven't the Roma been stigmatized enough without unleashing the Pied Piper upon Europe's Aryan villages?

The central relationship between Gast and Geist, on which the entire book hinges, is well developed but problematic. Despite frequent references to knights and squires, the Piper draws the teenage boy in a very physical way. Gast is constantly tilting up the boy's chin to look in his eyes, and Geist even watches him bathe in a scene that seems deliberately calculated on Gast's part as a means to disarm the boy. I couldn't shake the feeling that there was homoerotic subtext in here. If you think this is a stretch, imagine Geist as a young woman; suddenly the sexual undertones are harder to overlook. Given the fact that the Piper is the equivalent of a brainwashing cult master, the boy's physical fascination with him is disturbing to say the least.

The Piper himself is the low point of this book for me, and that's a shame, as I seek out retellings to find him in them. I rather like the man. I like his mysterious origins (human or faery?), his otherworldly musical talent, his excellent fashion sense. I like his naiveté, doing all the hard work first because he genuinely trusts the townspeople to pay him. Lest you think I'm romanticizing, I like his moral ambiguity, the way an honest-seeming person can shatter our illusions with disproportionate revenge. Is it an act of barbarity, or is he saving the children from societal corruption? Gloria Skurzynski reduces this complex morality figure to an avaricious, manipulative predator. It's effective but disheartening, all the more so because we know people like this exist in the real world. Was this the true face of the Pied Piper in 1284? Most likely. But give me Robert Browning any day.

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