Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Common Law in Children's Literature

In moving the chick-chickens from their coop into their run this morning, I made a casual remark to my daughter about being the pied piper. Apparently, I have failed at my parental duty in that she had no idea what this meant. When I began to explain the story, I realized that I didn’t actually know it enough to explain it well. Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation (with or without chickens), I’m here to save you from a similar fate.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is thought to have originated in thirteenth or fourteenth century Germany about a town overrun with rats. One day a man shows up in minstrel clothing (‘pied’ meaning two different colors) and says he can take care of the problem for an agreed upon fee. The townspeople agree and the Piper attracts all the rats out of town with his pipe playing. He leads them all to a river where they drown.

When he comes back to collect his fee, the townspeople try to renegotiate the deal.

"Beside,'' quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink,
"Our business was done at the river's brink;
"We saw with our eyes the vermin sink,
"And what's dead can't come to life, I think.
"So, friend, we're not the folks to shrink
"From the duty of giving you something to drink,
"And a matter of money to put in your poke;
"But as for the guilders, what we spoke
"Of them, as you very well know, was in joke.
"Beside, our losses have made us thrifty.
"A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!''

The Piper vows revenge. He later attracts all the children out of town with his pipe playing. They are never to be seen again.

So, Willy, let me and you be wipers
Of scores out with all men -- especially pipers!
And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice,
If we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise!

You can peruse a beautifully illustrated version of the story as rewritten by Robert Browning with illustrations by Kate Greenaway online here from which the rhymes and illustration above have been taken.

I find it fascinating that a colorful term which has loosely come to refer to anyone who can gather and lead a group of people (or chickens in my case) comes from a dark cautionary tale regarding contractual obligations.

“Do all you have agreed to do” along with “Do not encroach on other persons or their property” make up the two fundamental laws which, according to Richard Maybury, “make civilization possible”. In his book, Whatever Happened to Justice? Maybury explores and explains the history of these two common laws. While there were some parts of his book with which I did not agree, overall I thought it was very informative and a quick, must-read for anyone who is interested in common law, the nature of government, and justice.

After I summarized the tale of the Pied Piper for my daughter I asked her what she thought it meant.

"Keep your promises!"

Seems crystal clear to me now.


Objectiveman said...

As you said it is a dark tale. I would hesitate telling a tale where a lesson is taught by making innocent young kids disappear.

Would it make some of the children wonder that what happened to those kids or am I just being silly?

Lynne said...

You are not being silly - that's exactly what my daughter asked! At 10, though, she was more repulsed than frightened by the terrible tale.

The story is not about justice for the children as the kids certainly did nothing wrong. I only thought it was very interesting that while I had no problem using the phrase, I didn't know it was about keeping promises.

It should be no surprise that the Grimm Brothers had this story in their collection.