Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 16 Jul 2020

The Pied Piper of Hamelin adapted and illustrated by Thomas Baas

Probably originating in Lower Saxony (now part of Germany) in the Middle Ages, this traditional tale of a town overwhelmed by rats and saved by a mysterious stranger with a magic pipe who takes a terrible revenge when he is double-crossed, has been told and retold down the years by Goethe, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning to name just a few.

Like all good morality tales, the lessons it teaches are universal and echo down the years. What makes The Pied Piper of Hamelin a particularly powerful story is the linking of the supernatural to our primal fear of the loss of our children – the ultimate jeopardy being the result of selfish adults who should be protecting them. Just what or who The Piper was the embodiment of is the source of plenty of academic debate – perhaps he represents the plague or maybe he symbolises the lure of emigration. But, ultimately, the simple message that making a bargain and then reneging on that deal will always lead to bad consequences. So the Piper becomes the instrument of cosmic retribution, the symbol of the way the universe insists upon  justice and decency.

I first came across The Pied Piper of Hamelin in the Robert Browning verse version when I was quite young as it appeared in the ever absorbing Look and Learn magazine. The poem's driving rhythm and pace enthralled me – even though I can’t say I always quite understood some of Browning’s vocabulary and sentence structures. But as is the case with so much poetry, the meaning found its way into my head through a mysterious osmosis which was helped by reading it over and over again with a growing sense of dark suspense and chill. It was this stanza that really nailed my interest:

 “Rats! They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladle's,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.”

In this illustrated version from 2016, Thomas Baas, an artist and author from Strasburg has retold the tale in a simple prose version which relies for its power on the wonderful drawings that fill full single and double page spreads. The publisher, Little Gestalten, have really done a great job with showcasing Baas’ work – they’ve use a format that combines paper that’s about A4 wide but A3 tall that gives the book a long, tall feel.

Interestingly enough, although Baas has retained the Middle Age setting of the story – 1283 - he’s produced drawings which show a population of Hamelin that appears to have come from a range of unspecified time settings  that could be 19th or early 20th century. This is a simple but effective device to underscore the timeless universality of the tale.

The Piper himself comes suitably clad in black, almost as a thief in the night, and as he leads the children off into the hills around the town to disappear forever, it’s impossible not to feel a shiver of fear for their fate. For children this will be an irresistible – but ultimately safe - flirtation with danger.

You’ll be able to order this book from your local independent bookseller and you should expect to pay around £12 for it. It will be money well spent.

Terry Potter

July 2020