22 July 2012

22 July - The Pied Piper

                   Mary Magdalene weeps for her Lord
                    That is why it rains these days.

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalen.

"At Marseilles, the birthday of St. Mary Magdalen, out of whom our Lord expelled seven demons, and who deserved to be the first to see the Saviour after He had risen from the dead."  Last year, I included a love charm.

Then, under the wanton Rose, again,
That blushes for penitent Magdalen.

However, “Roses begin to fade on Magdalene's day”, if any are left to fade.

On Magdalene’s day, the nuts are plentiful [and here we are not referring to the ones in the car in front of you who don’t believe in turn-signals or speed limits, although they are very plentiful at this time of year as well.]

Fennel, a spicy, warm, strong herb, is supposed to have sprung from her tongue, but why and how I don’t know, [nor is that a mental picture on which I care to dwell.]  Used with discretion, fennel leaves and seeds add an interesting flavor to salads and breads.  I prefer just to lose myself in the fragrance, like incense, as the plants are warmed by the summer sun.  If you have a Mary Garden, plant fennel in honor of the Magdalene.


This is said to be one of the days that the Pied Piper rid the town of Hamelin in Saxony (or Hamel, in Brunswick, or even a community on the Isle of Wight) of rats and children, at least according to an early 17th century account.  An earlier claim was for the day of St. John and Paul (26 June) and a later account said 20 June, so take your pick.

You should know the story of the Pied Piper, but if not, read on.

The said town had a big problem.  As told by Robert Browning in his poem, the place was infested by

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 ladles,
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"

The townspeople tried everything they knew.  They tried cats, which are usually a sure-fire solution to vermin problems, but it was like 40-1 odds and the cats – like the poor fellow here – really didn’t have a chance.

They tried poison, which worked for a while, but as any householder knows who has tried this method, the vermin don’t die on the spot, gagging and collapsing in an Oscar-winning death scene – no, they go home to gasp their last, and since home is generally within the walls, the stench of their decomposing bodies can make life unbearable for a long while.

Finally, they decided (as people do whenever possible) that it wasn’t their responsibility – that it was up to the government to bail them out of this overabundance of rats. (Since the government officials were also up to their pay-grades in rats, no one yelled about the 1% at this point)

What to do?  What to do?  The people were angry, because their government wasn’t providing everything for them, as it had promised to do.  The town officials were worried, because they had made all kinds of promises when they first took office and then spent their time enriching themselves and their cronies, all the while keeping the people sedated with government handouts and slogans.  They knew full well, though, that the rats had consumed most of the government handouts and if the people didn’t get their daily bread and circus… well, that could mean the end of a lot of plummy jobs next election day, if not sooner.

While the town officials looked up which countries had no extradition treaty with their own, with a view to extended vacations, a stranger entered the town (cue Man-With-No-Name music), dressed something like this colorful fellow here.  His résumé said that he had extensive experience in pest control, and he immediately proposed a solution.  Of course, now, he was a professional, and professional fees do come high…

“A thousand guilders?” cried the town officials.  “A pittance!  Rid us of these rats and we will give you fifty thousand guilders!”  Where they were going to get all that money, they didn’t know, but like governments everywhere, they didn’t worry about it – future generations could take care of it.

Well, alrighty then!  The stranger pulled out his pipe (something like a clarinet or a flute) and began to play as he walked up and down the streets of the town.  And behold!  From every corner came rats.  From houses, from cellars, from storerooms, from sewers, they congregated in the street and followed the music of the piper.  When he had them all in thrall behind him, ready to follow him anywhere, he led them down to the water’s edge and getting in a boat, pushed off for deep water.

The rats, of course, followed him, swimming, swimming, swimming, until they could swim no more and drowned. Those behind stepped on the bodies of their brothers as they headed for deep water.  Anything, anything, to hear that unworldly music.  Rank upon rank of rats scurried to the water, swam, and sank, until there was not a rat left.

[Except for a little lame rat who couldn’t keep up with the others… but that is another story.]

The townspeople were ecstatic, as were the remaining cats!  They sang, they danced, they rejoiced!  The Piper was a hero!  They would put up a statue of him in the park!  They would name streets and schools and airports after him!  They would give him the keys to the town!

Well, yeah, that’s nice and all, but he just wanted his fee so he could get on down the road to his next job.  And since the town officials were so kind as to augment his invoice with another forty-nine thousand guilders…

His fee… yes, hmmmm, his fee…  Now that the plague of rats was gone, the officials were planning huge demonstrations of loyalty to themselves (and Rent-a-Mobs don’t come cheap), with large bonuses to those who had never wavered from the Party Line.  There were Election Ads to buy, all carefully shopped to show the officials themselves ridding the town of the pests.  There were dinners and birthday parties and rallies to plan, wherein orchestrated praises would shower down around them, and their names would be chanted again and again. 

These things cost money, you know.

“Fifty thousand guilders?  Do you take us for fools?  You did nothing but drown a few rats!”  Oh, they were pleased with themselves.  They had the upper hand.  All those years of lying and cheating came in handy now.  “No sir!  Not fifty thousand.  Not even one thousand.  You can take fifty guilders and be thankful you got that much!”

Now, if they hadn’t been patting each other on the back, they wouldn’t have missed the Stranger’s eyes narrowing as he chomped on his cigar.  He left them without a word…

"Once more he stept into the street,
And to his lips again
Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane;
And ere he blew three notes (such sweet
Soft notes as yet musician's cunning
Never gave the enraptured air)
There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter."

He led the children through the streets.  The officials merely laughed.  He headed for the town gate.  “Good riddance to him.”  The children followed him through the town gate and into the forest.  “Don’t worry.  They are just having a good time. They’ll come back when we call them.”  There wasn’t a child left in the town.  “I think we’d better call them now.”  The children heard nothing but the music.  “For heaven’s sake, DO SOMETHING!  Give him his money!  Give him everything he was promised!”  The parade approached the mountain. “AHA!  He’s caught now!  He cannot take the children over the mountain.”  The side of the mountain opened, and the children trooped in.  When the last child but one had entered, the door closed so that there was no trace of it.

One child was left outside – a little lame boy who couldn’t keep up.  He told the parents where their children had gone, and the parents put the blame (as people do whenever possible) squarely on the backs of their elected officials.

I often wonder what the townspeople did to their mayor and town council.  The story doesn’t say.

"And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice,
 If we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise!"

Image from Warner Brothers, “Scaredy Cat”1948 (Merrie Melodies) [see the Wikipedia article].

No idea where the political cartoon came from.  There are dozens of copies floating around, and maybe one of them has the credits for it.

“The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.” Kate Greenaway.