When the people of Hamelin, Germany had a problem with rats, they called the Pied Piper. With his bewitching pipe and enchanting music, he lured the rats away from the city and into a watery grave. But when the people of Hamelin refused to pay the Pied Piper what they had promised, he turned his entrancing music on their children, leading them away to never be seen again. This key moment in a familiar fairy tale carries many insights. It is, at once, a commentary on social values, a vivid example of family tragedy, and a bit of personal psychology. Folklore is compacted wisdom-literature that yields more information with each reading.
There is much we can learn by reflecting on the stories heard in childhood. Magical characters are likely to remain in the imagination for a lifetime. Fairytale is a sub-genre of folktale, something that is handed down from person to person for generations; one of the most important identifying features of a folktale is that it belongs to an entire culture, rather than to an individual. That is why folktales give us many insights into the cultures from which they spring.
My own first hearing of many of the old stories was in the places where they originated. Throughout my childhood our family would travel abroad for several months every few years. There were six children. My parents came up with an ingenious and life-changing idea: have us study the local tales. When we were in Denmark, we visited the home of Hans Christian Andersen, and discussed his stories, such as The Little Mermaid. In Germany, we went to the village of Hamelin, where the tale of the Pied Piper takes place. In Baghdad, it was Arabian Nights. In the temples of India and Japan, the tales of Asia came to life. Seeing how the adventures reflected their settings and how the stories are still alive in those places was a powerful experience.
Various people can imagine the tales quite differently. I had heard the stories before and had pictures in my mind about what the places looked like. When I saw, for example, the spot in Germany where the Pied Piper supposedly led the children away, it didn’t look exactly the same as I had imagined. In a way, noticing that difference made me aware of how our creativity works. It shaped my sense of the world.
I later learned how these stories portray life issues in miniature. These tales are psychological mirrors that can become more complex as we mature. Bedtime stories have enormous influence over our identities. People identify with certain characters in the stories they heard in childhood. To some degree, many live out these stories, largely unaware of how much the old tales may be shaping our lives.
The story of the Pied Piper reminds us that every parent has to deal with letting go of their children and every former child has to cope with feelings about what it means to leave home. If we take the tale as a reflection of the inner landscape, we see that all the characters can represent aspects of our own personalities. The village leaders may symbolize a practical, thrifty side that does not sufficiently appreciate our magical qualities or artistic abilities. If we cheat the imagination of appropriate time and resources, things may go badly. Creativity and play engage the childlike energies that can leave us in a state of depression if they depart.
Mythic stories make up a kind of collective dream that we all have together. If we want to understand our dreams, in many respects, we can look at these stories and study them. A talking animal in a story is often the voice of nature. Among other messages, we are being reminded that we are also animals. We are walking around in animal flesh. We sometimes forget this in our excessively mental, all too industrial culture. We are, first of all, animal creatures. We are not just visitors to nature, or merely caretakers of nature. We are nature. Guiding animals are crucial in mythic stories. Psychologically, this might well represent the wisdom of the body. Meanwhile, sinister or wicked characters may represent aspects of ourselves that have been neglected or rejected.
The ancient tales have their own lives, each with unique, eccentric qualities. Part of the richness is that the same story will have different lessons for each listener. Stories can speak to us in several ways: The practical aspects of our personalities appreciate the assistance provided in prudent decision-making. Our playful energies find the stories to be great fun. The quiet, spiritual side is grateful to have some time invested in reflection. The effects of what we learn might last for a lifetime.