When I was a child, I loved reading fairy tales. I loved having them read to me and I just adored watching Walt Disney’s representations of them on screen. Growing up, of course, I realised that there was a distinct line between fairy tales and reality. However, once I started my Bachelor of Arts in Literature at university, I also realised something else.
Every story contains a kernel of truth. When it comes to fairy tales, they tend to have started out as folk stories or popular tales, which were told to children from one generation to another, mainly before and during the Middle Ages. This was a time when poor people did not know how to read and write – such stories helped parents to warn their children of certain dangers (such as not trusting strangers, which is the main idea behind The Little Red Riding Hood).
This was not their only function. Stories were a way for the ‘common man’ to remember and share his past – the history of his village, his family, his country. With the telling of these tales from one generation to the next, it is understandable that these stories would change and become more and more fantastical and whimsical. People who had been told a story by their mother or grandmother as children, perhaps unconsciously changed or simplified their version when retelling it to their own. Certain pointers remain, which show that certain ‘fairy tales’ really did happen.
One such example is the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which I admit, was one of my favourites when I was a child, as it was quite sinister and scary. The tale is set in 1284 in the town of Hamelin, Lower Saxony, Germany. The town, facing a rat infestation, promised a piper money if he would get rid of the rats with the alleged power of his music. The Pied Piper complied, yet the mayor did not keep his word and pay him. In revenge, the piper used his music to lure away all the children of Hamelin, who disappeared forever. Only one child remained behind, as he was lame and could not keep up with the others.
The town of Hamelin really does exist and there are records which date back to 1300 AD of a stained glass window which was commissioned for the local church, and which depicts a piper walking away from the town with a crowd of children behind him. At the time, stained glass windows were also a way for the population to commemorate or remember catastrophic or important events, much as monuments in public places are in the present. Also, a manuscript dating back to 1440 – 50 AD mentioned that in 1284, in the town of Hamelin, 130 children were taken away by a piper and never heard of again. The stained glass window itself was destroyed in 1600, but there are several written accounts of this story which date back to the 14th century right up to the 17th century. Although the rats are not mentioned in any documented way, nor the reason why the piper should have taken away the children, it is chilling to think that this popular fable is actually based on this horrific mass disappearance which actually happened. It’s so shocking that parents continued to tell it to their children for generations!
Of course, there are many theories trying to explain the facts behind the tale. Some say that the rats are a symbol of the plague, which could have decimated many children at the time. Others speculate that the children mentioned in the tale could have been part of many families who at the time were leaving Germany in a bid to colonise Eastern Europe. Others still maintain that the story could relate to a paedophile who terrorised the town at the time, and was akin to a demon, who spirited away children and never returned them. Others say that the local lord had fallen on hard times and had taken the children away to sell them off as slaves. The city of Hamelin itself, needless to say, is quite proud of the local fairy tale and has a number of relevant tourist attractions designed to entertain and encourage families with children to visit (though what could be entertaining about the idea of a stranger stealing all of the town’s children is quite beyond me).
Recently, there has been quite a boom in cinematic representations of what I term ‘twisted fairy tales’, that is, new and different portrayals of the fairy tales we all thought we knew as ‘classics’ when we were children. Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), not to mention other upcoming fairy tale movies such as Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, and Pinocchio starring Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.
Knowing that probably most of these ultimately creepy stories were handed down through generations of retellings, due to the fact that they portrayed such memorable events which parents didn’t want to be forgotten, puts a whole new twist on the ‘fairy tale’ concept as well.
One has to wonder – where IS the line between fairy tale and fiction? Will today’s murders, genocides, wars or natural catastrophes, also be transformed into tall tales told to tomorrow’s generations of children?