The Pied Piper of Hamelin
is a classic fairy tale/folk legend frequently referenced in other works and media. Although (like most fairy tales) there are various versions, the basic story is as follows:
In 1284, while the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation, a man (sometimes described as looking rather like an elderly woman) dressed in pied (multi-colored, clownish) clothing appeared, claiming to be a rat catcher. The townsmen, not really taking him seriously due to his absurd appearance, in turn promised to pay him for the removal of the rats. The man accepted, and played a musical pipe to lure the rats via song into the Weser River, where all of them drowned. Despite his success, the people reneged on their promise and refused to pay him (or pay him a very measley amount of money, depending the version). The man left the town angrily, but vowed to return some time later, seeking revenge. On Saint John and Paul's day while the inhabitants were in church, he played his pipe yet again, this time attracting the children
of Hamelin. One hundred and thirty boys and girls followed him out of the town, where they were lured into a cave and never seen again. Depending on the version, at most three children remained behind (one was lame and could not follow quickly enough, one was deaf and followed the other children out of curiosity, and the last was blind and unable to see where they were going) who informed the villagers of what had happened when they came out of the church.
The story is often referenced in connection with charismatic leadership, i.e. to compare someone to the Pied Piper is to indicate that they lead unwitting followers to their doom.
Although the origin of the phrase is disputed, it is likely that this story is connected to the use of the phrase "pay the piper" to refer to suffering the consequences of wrongdoing. In the story, the townspeople tried to cheat the piper out of his pay and later had to "pay the piper" when his vengeance took their children away from them.
The best-known telling of the story in English is Robert Browning
's 1842 ballad
, which has had several media adaptations, including a Disney animated short
(1933), a Cosgrove Hall stop-motion short (1981), and an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre
(1985). Other popular reference points for the story are the Brothers Grimm
's "The Children of Hameln"
(1816) and Andrew Lang
's "The Ratcatcher"
The basic storyline has inspired a variety of adaptations/retellings, such as the Grim Fairy Tales graphic novel The Piper
(which expands upon the story), Jacques Demy's 1972 film The Pied Piper
, and such Young Adult Literature
as Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple's Pay the Piper
(in which the Piper is the leader of a rock band) and Donna Jo Napoli's Breath
(told from the lame child's point of view).
Among the many homages is Peter and Max
by Bill Cunningham, of the celebrated comic book Fables
. This version frames the Piper as a sociopath, enveloped with otherworldly powers when he abandoned humanity; the children being payment for the powers he was given.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin provides examples of:
- Adult Fear: An eccentric stranger lures children to go with him, never to be seen again.
- An Aesop: The common phrase, "time to pay the piper" is derived from this story. In a way, the story is a brutal allegory for what tends to happen to people who try to weasel their way out of an agreement or contract.
- Blue and Orange Morality: The people of Hamelin promise the Piper money, but refuse to pay him after he fulfills his end of the deal. So, as a punishment the town's children - who had NOTHING to do with this false promise in the first place - are taken away by the Pied Piper. Yes, the town's adults certainly will feel punished by this act and yes, in some versions of the story the kids are actually better off with the Piper than in Hamelin, but not in all versions.
- The Cake Is a Lie: The town never intends to pay the Piper.
- Childless Dystopia: The Punishment the Piper inflicts on the town.
- Disability Immunity: There was a deaf child that was immune to the piper's tune.
- In other versions, there is a crippled child who tries to follow the Piper but is unable to keep up with him, so ends up spared whatever happens to the other kids.
- Disneyfication: There are adaptations, including the Silly Symphonies Disney version, that change the Downer Ending to a Happy Ending. Generally, either the adults reform and the kids are returned or the kids are actually better off following him. Interestingly, the latter option can also be used in Darker and Edgier versions (i.e., the town is just that bad).
- Disproportionate Retribution: "You didn't pay your bills, so I'll kidnap all your children."
- Downer Ending: In some variants the children resurface in Transylvania, in others they are gone for good. In any case, they never returned to Hamelin and their parents.
- Invasion of the Baby Snatchers: If you don't pay him.
- Magical Flutist: The title character is this.
- Magic Music: The Robert Browning version goes into specific detail as to its nature — the music "speaks" to its targets and tells them that if they follow the Piper, they'll be led to whatever their particular idea of Paradise is.
- Riddle for the Ages: Who (or what) was the Piper? He has been interpreted as a sorcerer, the Devil, or one of the Fair Folk, but most versions neither discuss nor answer that question.
- Swarm of Rats: Ur-Example of the Swarm of Rats in fiction.
- Undead Author: Averts this by having at least one kid unable to follow the Piper.
- Underestimating Badassery: In the Robert Browning version, the Mayor and Corporation's (his advisors) decision to renege on their promise to pay the Piper the agreed-upon fee involves this. Since the rats were drowned and "What's dead can't come back to life", there's nothing the Piper (a wanderer whom they regard as beneath them) can do in retaliation for the promise being broken. He warns them that he can use his music as an instrument (so to speak) of revenge, but they don't take the threat seriously and effectively dare him to try it...
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The story might be an allegory for how the town of Hamelin lost its children. The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384, saying: "It is 100 years since our children left." Some historians believe that a plague killed all the children, while others posit that the children were forced to emigrate due to overpopulation.