Fairy Tale Transformation: The Pied Piper Theme in Australian Fiction





Pied Piper, folk tales, fairy tales, transformation, Australian fiction, Australian novels,

How to Cite

Masson, S. V. (2016). Fairy Tale Transformation: The Pied Piper Theme in Australian Fiction. M/C Journal, 19(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1116
Vol. 19 No. 4 (2016): transform
Published 2016-08-31

The traditional German tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin inhabits an ambiguous narrative borderland, a liminal space between fact and fiction, fantasy and horror, concrete details and elusive mystery. In his study of the Pied Piper in Tradition and Innovation in Folk Literature, Wolfgang Mieder describes how manuscripts and other evidence appear to confirm the historical base of the story. Precise details from a fifteenth-century manuscript, based on earlier sources, specify that in 1284 on the 26th of June, the feast-day of Saints John and Paul, 130 children from Hamelin were led away by a piper clothed in many colours to the Koppen Hill, and there vanished (Mieder 48). Later manuscripts add details familiar today, such as a plague of rats and a broken bargain with burghers as a motive for the Piper’s actions, while in the seventeenth century the first English-language version advances what might also be the first attempt at a “rational” explanation for the children’s disappearance, claiming that they were taken to Transylvania. 

The uncommon pairing of such precise factual detail with enigmatic mystery has encouraged many theories. These have ranged from references to the Children’s Crusade, or other religious fervours, to the devastation caused by the Black Death, from the colonisation of Romania by young German migrants to a murderous rampage by a paedophile.  Fictional interpretations of the story have multiplied, with the classic versions of the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning being most widely known, but with contemporary creators exploring the theme too. This includes interpretations in Hamelin itself.  On 26 June 2015, in Hamelin Museum, I watched a wordless five-minute play, entirely performed not by humans but by animatronic stylised figures built out of scrap iron, against a montage of multilingual, confused voices and eerie music, with the vanished children represented by a long line of small empty shirts floating by. The uncanny, liminal nature of the story was perfectly captured. 

Australia is a world away from German fairy tale mysteries, historically, geographically, and culturally. Yet, as Lisa M. Fiander has persuasively argued, contemporary Australian fiction has been more influenced by fairy tales than might be assumed, and in this essay it is proposed that major motifs from the Pied Piper appear in several Australian novels, transformed not only by distance of setting and time from that of the original narrative, but also by elements specific to the Australian imaginative space. These motifs are lost children, the enigmatic figure of the Piper himself, and the power of a very particular place (as Hamelin and its Koppen Hill are particularised in the original tale). 

Three major Australian novels will be examined in this essay: Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), Christopher Koch’s The Doubleman (1985), and Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Golden Day (2011). Dubosarsky’s novel was written for children; both Koch’s and Lindsay’s novels were published as adult fiction. In each of these works of fiction, the original tale’s motifs have been developed and transformed to express unique evocations of the Pied Piper theme. 

As noted by Fiander, fiction writers are “most likely to draw upon fairy tales when they are framing, in writing, a subject that generates anxiety in their culture” (158). Her analysis is about anxieties of place within Australian fiction, but this insight could be usefully extended to the motifs which I have identified as inherent in the Pied Piper story.  Prominent among these is the lost children motif, whose importance in the Australian imagination has been well-established by scholars such as Peter Pierce. Pierce’s The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety explores this preoccupation from the earliest beginnings of European settlement, through analysis of fiction, newspaper reports, paintings, and films. As Pierce observed in a later interview in the Sydney Morning Herald (Knox), over time the focus changed from rural children and the nineteenth-century fear of the vast impersonal nature of the bush, where children of colonists could easily get lost, to urban children and the contemporary fear of human predators.

In each of the three novels under examination in this essay, lost children—whether literal or metaphorical—feature prominently. Writer Carmel Bird, whose fiction has also frequently centred on the theme of the lost child, observes in “Dreaming the Place” that 

the lost child, the stolen child – this must be a narrative that is lodged in the heart and imagination, nightmare and dream, of all human beings. In Australia the nightmare became reality. The child is the future, and if the child goes, there can be no future. The true stories and the folk tales on this theme are mirror images of each other. (7) 

The motif of lost children—and of children in danger—is not unique to the Pied Piper. Other fairy tales, such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, contain it, and it is those antecedents which Bird cites in her essay. But within the Pied Piper story it has three features which distinguish it from other traditional tales. First, unlike in the classic versions of Hansel and Gretel or Red Riding Hood, the children do not return. Neither are there bodies to find. The children have vanished into thin air, never to be seen again. Second, it is not only parents who have lost them, but an entire community whose future has been snatched away: a community once safe, ordered, even complacent, traumatised by loss. The lack of hope, of a happy ending for anyone, is striking. And thirdly, the children are not lost or abandoned or even, strictly speaking, stolen: they are lured away, semi-willingly, by the central yet curiously marginal figure of the Piper himself. 

In the original story there is no mention of motive and no indication of malice on the part of the Piper. There is only his inexplicable presence, a figure out of fairy folklore appearing in the midst of concrete historical dates and numbers. Clearly, he links to the liminal, complex world of the fairies, found in folklore around the world—beings from a world close to the human one, yet alien. Whimsical and unpredictable by human standards, such beings are nevertheless bound by mysteriously arbitrary rules and taboos, and haunt the borders of the human world, disturbing its rational edges and transforming lives forever. It is this sense of disturbance, that enchanting yet frightening sudden shifting of the border of reality and of the comforting order of things, the essence of transformation itself, which can also be seen at the core of the three novels under examination in this essay, with the Piper represented in each of them but in different ways. 

The third motif within the Pied Piper is a focus on place as a source of uncanny power, a theme which particularly resonates within an Australian context. Fiander argues that if contemporary British fiction writers use fairy tale to explore questions of community and alienation, and Canadian fiction writers use it to explore questions of identity, then Australian writers use it to explore the unease of place. She writes of the enduring legacy of Australia’s history “as a settler colony which invests the landscape with strangeness for many protagonists” (157). Furthermore, she suggests that “when Australian fiction writers, using fairy tales, describe the landscape as divorced from reality, they might be signalling anxiety about their own connection with the land which had already seen tens of thousands of years of occupation when Captain James Cook ‘found’ it in 1770” (160). I would argue, however, that in the case of the Pied Piper motifs, it is less clear that it is solely settler anxieties which are driving the depiction of the power of place in these three novels. There is no divorce from reality here, but rather an eruption of the metaphysical potency of place within the usual, “normal” order of reality. This follows the pattern of the original tale, where the Piper and all the children, except for one or two stragglers, disappear at Koppen Hill, vanishing literally into the hill itself. In traditional European folklore, hollow hills are associated with fairies and their uncanny power, but other places, especially those of water—springs, streams, even the sea—may also be associated with their liminal world (in the original tale, the River Weser is another important locus for power). 

In Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, it is another outcrop in the landscape which holds that power and claims the “lost children.” Inspired partly by a painting by nineteenth-century Australian artist William Ford, titled At the Hanging Rock (1875), depicting a group of elegant people picnicking in the bush, this influential novel, which inspired an equally successful film adaptation, revolves around an incident in 1900 when four girls from Appleyard College, an exclusive school in Victoria, disappear with one of their teachers whilst climbing Hanging Rock, where they have gone for a picnic. Only one of their number, a girl called Irma, is ever found, and she has no memory of how and why she found herself on the Rock, and what has happened to the others. This inexplicable event is the precursor to a string of tragedies which leads to the violent deaths of several people, and which transforms the sleepy and apparently content little community around Appleyard College into a centre of loss, horror, and scandal.

Told in a way which makes it appear that the novelist is merely recounting a true story—Lindsay even tells readers in an author’s note that they must decide for themselves if it is fact or fiction—Picnic at Hanging Rock shares the disturbingly liminal fact-fiction territory of the Piper tale. Many readers did in fact believe that the novel was based on historical events and combed newspaper files, attempting to propound ingenious “rational” explanations for what happened on the Rock. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock has been the subject of many studies, with the novel being analysed through various prisms, including the Gothic, the pastoral, historiography, and philosophy. In “Fear and Loathing in the Australian Bush,” Kathleen Steele has depicted Picnic at Hanging Rock as embodying the idea that “Ordered ‘civilisation’ cannot overcome the gothic landscapes of settler imaginations: landscapes where time and people disappear” (44). She proposes that Lindsay intimates that the landscape swallows the “lost children” of the novel because there is a great absence in that place: that of Aboriginal people. In this reading of the novel, it is that absence which becomes, in a sense, a malevolent presence that will reach out beyond the initial disappearance of the three people on the Rock to destroy the bonds that held the settler community together. It is a powerfully-made argument, which has been taken up by other scholars and writers, including studies which link the theme of the novel with real-life lost-children cases such as that of Azaria Chamberlain, who disappeared near another “Rock” of great Indigenous metaphysical potency—Uluru, or Ayers Rock. 

However, to date there has been little exploration of the fairy tale quality of the novel, and none at all of the striking ways in which it evokes Pied Piper motifs, whilst transforming them to suit the exigencies of its particular narrative world. The motif of lost children disappearing from an ordered, safe, even complacent community into a place of mysterious power is extended into an exploration of the continued effects of those disappearances, depicting the disastrous impact on those left behind and the wider community in a way that the original tale does not. There is no literal Pied Piper figure in this novel, though various theories are evoked by characters as to who might have lured the girls and their teacher, and who might be responsible for the disappearances. Instead, there is a powerful atmosphere of inevitability and enchantment within the landscape itself which both illustrates the potency of place, and exemplifies the Piper’s hold on his followers. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, place and Piper are synonymous: the Piper has been transformed into the land itself. Yet this is not the “vast impersonal bush,” nor is it malevolent or vengeful. It is a living, seductive metaphysical presence: “Everything, if only you could see it clearly enough, is beautiful and complete . . .” (Lindsay 35). Just as in the original tale, the lost children follow the “Piper” willingly, without regret. Their disappearance is a happiness to them, in that moment, as it is for the lost children of Hamelin, and quite unlike how it must be for those torn apart by that loss—the community around Appleyard, the townspeople of Hamelin. 

Music, long associated with fairy “takings,” is also a subtle feature of the story. In the novel, just before the luring, Irma hears a sound like the beating of far-off drums. In the film, which more overtly evokes fairy tale elements than does the novel, it is noteworthy that the music at that point is based on traditional tunes for Pan-pipes, played by the great Romanian piper Gheorge Zamfir. The ending of the novel, with questions left unanswered, and lives blighted by the forever-inexplicable, may be seen as also following the trajectory of the original tale. Readers as much as the fictional characters are left with an enigma that continues to perplex and inspire. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock was one of the inspirations for another significant Australian fiction, this time a contemporary novel for children. Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Golden Day (2011) is an elegant and subtle short novel, set in Sydney at an exclusive girls’ school, in 1967. Like the earlier novel, The Golden Day is also partly inspired by visual art, in this case the Schoolgirl series of paintings by Charles Blackman. Combining a fairy tale atmosphere with historical details—the Vietnam War, the hanging of Ronald Ryan, the drowning of Harold Holt—the story is told through the eyes of several girls, especially one, known as Cubby. The Golden Day echoes the core narrative patterns of the earlier novel, but intriguingly transformed: a group of young girls goes with their teacher on an outing to a mysterious place (in this case, a cave on the beach—note the potent elements of rock and water, combined), and something inexplicable happens which results in a disappearance. Only this time, the girls are much younger than the characters of Lindsay’s novel, pre-pubertal in fact at eleven years old, and it is their teacher, a young, idealistic woman known only as Miss Renshaw, who disappears, apparently into thin air, with only an amber bead from her necklace ever found. But it is not only Miss Renshaw who vanishes: the other is a poet and gardener named Morgan who is also Miss Renshaw’s secret lover. Later, with the revelation of a dark past, he is suspected in absentia of being responsible for Miss Renshaw’s vanishment, with implications of rape and murder, though her body is never found. Morgan, who could partly figure as the Piper, is described early on in the novel as having “beautiful eyes, soft, brown, wet with tears, like a stuffed toy” (Dubosarsky 11). This disarming image may seem a world away from the ambiguously disturbing figure of the legendary Piper, yet not only does it fit with the children’s naïve perception of the world, it also echoes the fact that the children in the original story were not afraid of the Piper, but followed him willingly. However, that is complicated by the fact that Morgan does not lure the children; it is Miss Renshaw who follows him—and the children follow her, who could be seen as the other half of the Piper.  

The Golden Day similarly transforms the other Piper motifs in its own original way. The children are only literally lost for a short time, when their teacher vanishes and they are left to make their own way back from the cave; yet it could be argued that metaphorically, the girls are “lost” to childhood from that moment, in terms of never being able to go back to the state of innocence in which they were before that day. Their safe, ordered school community will never be the same again, haunted by the inexplicability of the events of that day. Meanwhile, the exploration of Australian place—the depiction of the Memorial Gardens where Miss Renshaw enjoins them to write poetry, the uncomfortable descent over rocks to the beach, and the fateful cave—is made through the eyes of children, not the adolescents and adults of Picnic at Hanging Rock. The girls are not yet in that liminal space which is adolescence and so their impressions of what the places represent are immediate, instinctive, yet confused. They don’t like the cave and can’t wait to get out of it, whereas the beach inspires them with a sense of freedom and the gardens with a sense of enchantment. But in each place, those feelings are mixed both with ordinary concerns and with seemingly random associations that are nevertheless potently evocative. For example, in the cave, Cubby senses a threateningly weightless atmosphere, a feeling of reality shifting, which she associates, apparently confusedly, with the hanging of Ronald Ryan, reported that very day. In this way, Dubosarsky subtly gestures towards the sinister inevitability of the following events, and creates a growing tension that will eventually fade but never fully dissipate. 

At the end, the novel takes an unexpected turn which is as destabilising as the ending of the Pied Piper story, and as open-ended in its transformative effects as the original tale: “And at that moment Cubby realised she was not going to turn into the person she had thought she would become. There was something inside her head now that would make her a different person, though she scarcely understood what it was” (Dubosarsky 148). The eruption of the uncanny into ordinary life will never leave her now, as it will never leave the other girls who followed Miss Renshaw and Morgan into the literally hollow hill of the cave and emerged alone into a transformed world. It isn’t just childhood that Cubby has lost but also any possibility of a comforting sense of the firm borders of reality. As in the Pied Piper, ambiguity and loss combine to create questions which cannot be logically answered, only dimly apprehended.

Christopher Koch’s 1985 novel The Doubleman, winner of the Miles Franklin Award, also explores the power of place and the motif of lost children, but unlike the other two novels examined in this essay depicts an actual “incarnated” Piper motif in the mysteriously powerful figure of Clive Broderick, brilliant guitarist and charismatic teacher/guru, whose office, significantly, is situated in a subterranean space of knowledge—a basement room beneath a bookshop. Both central yet peripheral to the main action of the novel, touched with hints of the supernatural which never veer into overt fantasy, Broderick remains an enigma to the end.  

Set, like The Golden Day, in the 1960s, The Doubleman is narrated in the first person by Richard Miller, in adulthood a producer of a successful folk-rock group, the Rymers, but in childhood an imaginative, troubled polio survivor, with a crutch and a limp. It is noteworthy here that in the Grimms’ version of the Pied Piper, two children are left behind, despite following the Piper: one is blind, one is lame. And it is the lame boy who tells the townspeople what he glimpsed at Koppen Hill. 

In creating the character of Broderick, the author blends the traditional tropes of the Piper figure with Mephistophelian overtones and a strong influence from fairy lore, specifically the idea of the “doubleman,” here drawn from the writings of seventeenth-century Scottish pastor, the Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle. Kirk’s 1691 book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies is the earliest known serious attempt at objective description of the fairy beliefs of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. His own precisely dated life-story and ambiguous end—it is said he did not die but is forever a prisoner of the fairies—has eerie parallels to the Piper story. “And there is the uncanny, powerful and ambiguous fact of the matter. Here is a man, named, born, lived, who lived a fairy story, really lived it: and in the popular imagination, he lives still” (Masson).

Both in his creative and his non-fiction work Koch frequently evoked what he called “the Otherland,” which he depicted as a liminal, ambiguous, destabilising but nevertheless very real and potent presence only thinly veiled by the everyday world. This Otherland is not the same in all his fictions, but is always part of an actual place, whether that be Java in The Year of Living Dangerously, Hobart and Sydney in The Doubleman, Tasmania, Vietnam and Cambodia in Highways to a War, and Ireland and Tasmania in Out of Ireland. It is this sense of the “Otherland” below the surface, a fairy tale, mythical realm beyond logic or explanation, which gives his work its distinctive and particular power. And in The Doubleman, this motif, set within a vividly evoked real world, complete with precise period detail, transforms the Piper figure into one which could easily appear in a Hobart lane, yet which loses none of its uncanny potency. As Noel Henricksen writes in his study of Koch’s work, Island and Otherland, “Behind the membrane of Hobart is Otherland, its manifestations a spectrum stretched between the mystical and the spiritually perverted” (213).

This is Broderick’s first appearance, described through twelve-year-old Richard Miller’s eyes: 

Tall and thin in his long dark overcoat, he studied me for the whole way as he approached, his face absolutely serious . . . The man made me uneasy to a degree for which there seemed to be no explanation . . . I was troubled by the notion that he was no ordinary man going to work at all: that he was not like other people, and that his interest couldn’t be explained so simply. (Koch, Doubleman 3)

That first encounter is followed by another, more disturbing still, when Broderick speaks to the boy, eyes fixed on him: “. . . hooded by drooping lids, they were entirely without sympathy, yet nevertheless interested, and formidably intelligent” (5).

The sense of danger that Broderick evokes in the boy could be explained by a sinister hint of paedophilia. But though Broderick is a predator of sorts on young people, nothing is what it seems; no rational explanation encompasses the strange effect of his presence. It is not until Richard is a young man, in the company of his musical friend Brian Brady, that he comes across Broderick again. The two young men are looking in the window of a music shop, when Broderick appears beside them, and as Richard observes, just as in a fairy tale, “He didn’t seem to have changed or aged . . .” (44). But the shock of his sudden re-appearance is mixed with something else now, as Broderick engages Brady in conversation, ignoring Richard, “. . . as though I had failed some test, all that time ago, and the man had no further use for me” (45).

What happens next, as Broderick demonstrates his musical prowess, becomes Brady’s teacher, and introduces them to his disciple, young bass player Darcy Burr, will change the young men’s lives forever and set them on a path that leads both to great success and to living nightmare, even after Broderick’s apparent disappearance, for Burr will take on the Piper’s mantle. 

Koch’s depiction of the lost children motif is distinctively different to the other two novels examined in this essay. Their fate is not so much a mystery as a tragedy and a warning. The lost children of The Doubleman are also lost children of the sixties, bright, talented young people drawn through drugs, immersive music, and half-baked mysticism into darkness and horrifying violence. In his essay “California Dreaming,” published in the collection Crossing the Gap, Koch wrote about this subterranean aspect of the sixties, drawing a connection between it and such real-life sinister “Pipers” as Charles Manson (60). Broderick and Burr are not the same as the serial killer Manson, of course; but the spell they cast over the “lost children” who follow them is only different in degree, not in kind. In the end of the novel, the spell is broken and the world is again transformed. Yet fittingly it is a melancholy transformation: an end of childhood dreams of imaginative potential, as well as dangerous illusions: “And I knew now that it was all gone—like Harrigan Street, and Broderick, and the district of Second-Hand” (Koch, Doubleman 357). 

The power of place, the last of the Piper motifs, is also deeply embedded in The Doubleman. In fact, as with the idea of Otherland, place—or Island, as Henricksen evocatively puts it—is a recurring theme in Koch’s work. He identified primarily and specifically as a Tasmanian writer rather than as simply Australian, pointing out in an essay, “The Lost Hemisphere,” that because of its landscape and latitude, different to the mainland of Australia, Tasmania “genuinely belongs to a different region from the continent” (Crossing the Gap 92). In The Doubleman, Richard Miller imbues his familiar and deeply loved home landscape with great mystical power, a power which is both inherent within it as it is, but also expressive of the Otherland. In “A Tasmanian Tone,” another essay from Crossing the Gap, Koch describes that tone as springing “from a sense of waiting in the landscape: the tense yet serene expectancy of some nameless revelation” (118). But Koch could also write evocatively of landscapes other than Tasmanian ones. The unnerving climax of The Doubleman takes place in Sydney—significantly, as in The Golden Day, in a liminal, metaphysically charged place of rocks and water. That place, which is real, is called Point Piper. 

In conclusion, the original tale’s three main motifs—lost children, the enigma of the Piper, and the power of place—have been explored in distinctive ways in each of the three novels examined in this article. Contemporary Australia may be a world away from medieval Germany, but the uncanny liminality and capacious ambiguity of the Pied Piper tale has made it resonate potently within these major Australian fictions. Transformed and transformative within the Australian imagination, the theme of the Pied Piper threads like a faintly-heard snatch of unearthly music through the apparently mimetic realism of the novels, destabilising readers’ expectations and leaving them with subversively unanswered questions. 


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Author Biography

Sophie Veronique Masson, University of New England

PHD Student in Creative Practice, School of Arts, University of New England

Professional author: Established and award-winning novelist, author of more than 60 books.