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Literature / The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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"...And no one Rat more perceived to be left in the Towne, he afterward came to demand his reward according to his bargain, but being told that the bargain was not made with him in good earnest ... and so offered him far less than he looked for: but he therewith discontented, said he would have his full recompense according to his bargain, but they utterly denied to give it him, he threatened them with revenge; they bade him do his worst..."
Richard Rowlands Verstegan, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1605)

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a classic German 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 in Lower Saxony, Germany was suffering from a rat infestation, a man (sometimes described as looking rather like an elderly woman) dressed in pied (meaning multi-colored or clownish, rather than pastries to the face) clothing appeared, claiming to be a rat catcher. The townsmen then 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 were drowned. Despite his success, the people reneged on their promise and refused to pay him (or offered to pay him a very measly amount of money, depending on 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, the piper returned and 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 note . Depending on the version, at most three children remained behind (one was lame and could not follow quickly enough, one was deaf and couldn't hear the music, and the last was blind and unable to see where they were going) who informed the townspeople 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 a play on the phrase "pay the piper," meaning "face the consequences." (When you've enjoyed the services of an entertainer all evening, you have to pay him at the end of the night). When the piper was denied his due wages, he took his payment in another fashion.

The best-known telling of the story in English is Robert Browning's 1842 ballad, which has had several media adaptations, including one of Disney's Silly Symphonies shorts (1933), a live-action Technicolor made-for-TV feature starring Van Johnson and Claude Rains (1957), a Cosgrove Hall stop-motion short (1981), and an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre (1985), all of which retain the rhyming verse of the poem. Other popular reference points for the story are the Brothers Grimm's "The Children of Hameln" (1816) and Andrew Lang's "The Ratcatcher" (1890).

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 musical film The Pied Piper (in which the Piper was played by Donovan), and such Young Adult Literature as Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple's Pay the Piper (a Setting Update 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). Even Russell Brand retold it (with hefty doses of Toilet Humor and Black Comedy) in the 2014 book Trickster Tales — The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Ideas and images from the story crop up in countless other places too. Among the many homages is Peter and Max by Bill Willingham, of the celebrated comic book Fables, which frames the Piper as a sociopath, enveloped with otherworldly powers when he abandoned humanity, the children being payment for the powers he was given, while Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents plays with the story in multiple ways. The Land of the Giants episode "Pay the Piper" portrays him as a shape-shifting alien who's been plying his trade across the universe for centuries. Also, The Dying of the Light, an adventure for the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has a sub-plot involving a very uncanny piper and a lot of rats.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: Don't try to weasel your way out of an agreement or contract. If you don't pay one way, you'll pay another.
  • Aesop Collateral Damage: The children of the town are taken to punish their parents. In the darkest versions, they are drowned just like the rats were.
  • Ambiguously Human: Some adaptations imply that the Piper may not be quite as human as he might appear at first glance, frequently by playing up his bizarre sense of morality.
  • Based on a True Story: Yes, really. While no one is exactly certain what happened to 130 of Hamelin's children on June 26th, 1284, historical records certainly suggest something drew them away. Who, or what, that something was remains a matter of historical speculation. One thing can be said, whoever did it wasn't an underpaid magician. There are no mention of rats in the original story, just kidnapped children. Today, the street in Hamelin in which the children were last seen is called Bungelosenstrasse, "the street without drums", because no music is allowed there.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The Piper seems to be a nice person at first who just wants the payment that's owed to him. After the town refuses to pay him, however, he shows just how far he's willing to go to get revenge on the townsfolk.
  • 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.
    • In the Faerie Tale Theatre version expanding upon the Robert Browning poem, the lame boy not making it through the portal is actually because he was polite to the Piper when the latter first arrived in town; the Piper was sparing him the fate of the other kids. Unfortunately, the boy never realizes the kindness, believing that there really was a fairyland beyond that portal — having not understood the Piper's cryptic warning about his ability to weave illusions.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: In one of the oldest versions of the legend (the Zimmern Chronicle), the town refuses to pay the piper the enormous amount they promised because they assumed getting rid of all the rats would be a difficult job, but he did it with no effort at all thanks to magic they never knew he had. The town has a point that he tricked them into agreeing to pay a disproportionate amount for something that it turned out took very little effort, but the piper has a point that, regardless, they had a deal and he did live up to his end.
    • Also, we do not know what the piper had to spend to gain his special abilities. Highly qualified specialists tend to be expensive for a reason.
  • Bright Is Not Good: The Piper is generally depicted as wearing bright colors, and many versions of the story portray him as very morally ambiguous, if not outright evil.
  • Bullying a Dragon: The townspeople refuse to pay after the Piper has demonstrated the magic of his instrument.
  • The Cake Is a Lie: The town never intends to pay the Piper. And this comes back to bite them hard.
  • Childless Dystopia: The Punishment the Piper inflicts on the town.
    • Averted in the Russell Brand version: He spirits away the rotten children who live in the town itself, leaving behind the kind lame boy. But just outside of the town is a home for all the "defective" children the adults had previously banished, and that goes untouched. As the adults realize what their evil ways led to, by way of starting over these children are accepted back into the community and eventually it becomes something of a utopia, with the lame boy now its mayor.
  • Contrived Coincidence: A total stranger with the random, narrow power to magically control rats — who's never been to this town before — just happens to show up when the town's in the middle of an unbearable rat infestation...? It's no wonder more than one version theorizes the piper was the one responsible for the rat invasion in the first place.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Some modern retellings posit Hamelin as a fundamentally corrupt place that needs to be punished because it's The Only Way They Will Learn, and/or as a place the children need to be rescued from. Russell Brand's version plays this trope to the hilt, with the lame boy and his mother two of the very few good residents of a town that is obsessed with status and perfection to the point that the most popular residents are also the worst bullies.
  • Deal with the Devil: In some versions where the Piper is the villain, he demands an unreasonably high payment from the town, which they cannot hope to repay. The Piper then takes the children away to spite them.
  • Did Not Think This Through: In the Walter Lantz version, the piper locks the rats in a cage and the Mayor gives him just a bag of beans as payment without considering that the piper might retaliate by releasing the rats, which he eventually does.
  • Disability Immunity: In some versions there is a deaf child that is immune to the Piper's tune and/or a crippled child who tries to follow the Piper but is unable to keep up, so they stay behind when the other children disappear into the mountain. The lame boy is featured in the Browning version.
  • Disneyfication:
    • The earliest accounts of the story, including the possibly historical ones, make no mention of rats whatsoever. The children are simply led away one day, though by whom is left obscure.
    • 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) such as Jacques Demy's 1972 take.
    • There are also numerous pastiche and parody versions in which the Piper is a straight-up good guy who doesn't kidnap kids or anything like that, including two Looney Tunes shorts where Porky Pig plays the role, and the Doctor Who Expanded Universe short story "The Scruffy Piper", in which the Second Doctor (he of the recorder) rescues Space Station Hamlyn from a hidden plague of Cybermats.
    • There are also versions which split the difference — the Piper does take the kids for good, but he takes them to some sort of Utopia or fairyland where they'll be happy. In this version the crippled kid who can't keep up gets just a glimpse of it before the door slams shut.
    • The Peanuts version It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown has the Piper played by Snoopy. He has an accordion instead of a flute, the town is plagued by sports-playing mice instead of rats, the intended payment is dog food instead of money, and there's a mayor instead of a king. The biggest difference is instead of taking the children (who were already on his side), he takes the mayor and his council to the middle of nowhere, which can be more justified as they were the ones that broke the promise.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: "You didn't pay your bills, so I'll kidnap all your children." Though in some tellings, it's less about punishing the adults and more about helping the kids in some way.
  • Downer Ending: In some variants, such as Robert Browning's, the children resurface in Transylvania and become Romani-esque vagabonds. In others they are gone for good. In any case, they never return to Hamelin and their parents.
  • Eccentric Exterminator: The Piper claims to be a rat catcher, and for all practical purposes, he is. He just uses unusual methods.
  • Exact Words: In one version, the mayor agrees to pay one shilling a head. When the piper claims his fee, the mayor demands he show the heads. The piper, after being offered a meager sum instead, declares he'll be paid by the town's heirs. The townsfolk think this is a great joke...
  • The Fair Folk: An inscrutable, capricious magical entity who reacts badly to being ill-treated and kidnaps children? Yep. The Piper fits the bill.
  • Greed: In the Browning version the Mayor and Corporation are initially willing to pay as much as fifty times the Piper's fee of a thousand guilders out of desperation, but after he gets rid of the rats their desire not to forgo the luxuries they're accustomed to leads to them claiming a "Just Joking" Justification and only offering him fifty guilders instead.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It: In Browning's version and some others, the town makes a decree that all legal documents should contain a reference to how long it has been since the Piper took their children.
  • I Lied: At least one version depicts the mayor/townsfolk as never intending to pay the Piper at all.
  • Invasion of the Baby Snatchers: If you don't pay him.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: In some tellings such as Browning's, the townspeople claim they were just joking about paying the Piper's full fee. This works out poorly. In some Lighter and Softer retellings, it is the Piper that commits this, and releases the children when the townspeople repent.
  • The Kindnapper: Some versions imply — if not outright state — that the Piper thinks he's doing the children a favor in taking them away from the town of Hamelin. Whether he's right or not varies.
  • Magical Flutist: The title character uses a magical pipe, flute, or other wind instrument (depending on the version) to hypnotize rats (and later, children) into following him.
  • Mind-Control Music: The Pied Piper can use his music to make people or animals follow him. 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 idea of Paradise is.
  • Monster Protection Racket: A few interpretations have the rats being secretly unleashed by the Piper on Hamelin, allowing him to move in for the profit. Others have the townspeople accuse the Piper of same, as (part of) their justification for not paying him.
  • The Music Meister: You won't have to look long to find versions where the Piper makes the kids dance out of town, not just follow him.
  • My God, You Are Serious!: In the earliest English version of the legend (by Richard Rowlands Verstegan in 1605), the town truly was just joking when they promised the piper an enormous amount of money because they never thought he could actually get rid of all the rats. When it turned out he could and did...
  • Opportunistic Bastard: The interpretation that the Piper tried to take advantage of Hamelin's rat crisis in order to profit for himself, and resorted to killing/taking away the children as spite for not being paid.
  • Painful Rhyme: Browning's poem ends with an attempted rhyme of "from mice" and "promise".
  • Revenge by Proxy: Some versions of the story have this be the Piper's reason for taking away the children. You stiff someone on a job without expecting he can retaliate — but instead of punishing you, he punishes your CHILDREN.
  • 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.
  • Saved by the Church Bell: Some versions of the tale refer to the happy people ringing the church bells when the rats are dead.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: The rats in at least two versions.
    • In the Walter Lantz version, the piper merely cages the rats and, after luring the townspeople minus the Mayor by posing as "Hank Swoonatra", releases them.
    • A Looney Tunes version consists of cats trying to get Porky Pig to release the rats. The rats are never seen but the plot implies that they're alive.
    • The Disney cartoon reconstructs this. The crippled child isn't spared and manages to keep up with the Piper. Though in this interpretation, it means he gets to thrive with the other children in the secret utopia rather than be stuck with the corrupt adults, and for an added bonus, he is magically cured of his lameness upon entry.
  • The Spook: While the Piper himself is historically alluded to, he's easily one of human history's biggest mysteries. Nobody knows who the hell he was, where he came from, how he was able to lure the rats away (if indeed that element of the story is true, which is hotly debated) or even scarier how he lured the children away and what he did with them. Interestingly, there is also no record anywhere else in the world (even the rest of Germany) of someone of this description (probably why so many people thought the story was just a fairy tale for so long), so we also have no idea where he went after the incident in Hamelin. Considering this story is from 1284 AD and the story has so many interpretations and variations, we'll likely never know for sure.
  • Swarm of Rats: Ur-Example of the Swarm of Rats in fiction. A massive rat infestation is what the people of Hamelin hire the Piper to solve in the first place.
  • Undead Author: Averts this by having at least one kid unable to follow the Piper. Interestingly, some interpretations have two children return mute and blind respectively, despite neither of them being that way prior to their abductions. So what in the name of god did he do to them?
  • 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 dare him to try it...
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There is evidence that the story as we know it is probably based on an actual historical event regarding children leaving the town of Hamelin. The earliest known written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384, saying: "It is 100 years since our children left." It's not clear whether "children" meant literal children or "children of the land/city" as in "inhabitants". The town also built a stained-glass memorial to this event depicting the multicolored piper leading away children. While evidence agrees that the "piper" is based on a real person, there's also a lot of debate over his reasons for taking the kids/people. Popular theories include a crusade, cult, serial killings or (the most favored) colonizationnote .
    • The addition to the rat element of the story doesn't seem to appear in current known evidence until the 1500s, leading most except perhaps the most fanciful believers to believe that the real Pied Piper had nothing to do with rats at all.
    • While the above makes a lot of in-line debate among historians, most will stand unified in rebuking the idea that the story itself originates as some kind of allegory for a plague. The reverse standpoint for the later versions being that oral storytellers co-opted the actual original story/legend for this purpose.
    • There is historical evidence that at some point there were lots of young people — not really children, but teenagers — leaving Hamelin because of bad prospects of being able to make a living in their hometown. That said, this isn't very likely to be the explanation, as migration wasn't unheard of even in medieval times and it certainly wouldn't have been noteworthy enough for the town to make note of their leaving over a hundred years later (the wording also clearly indicates the children didn't leave of their own accord nor did they know of their decision to leave Hamlin).
  • Villainous Harlequin: The Piper is almost always described as wearing unusual clothes, often those of a jester. His villainy depends on the version, with the worst ones having him kill every child in Hamelin.
  • Would Hurt a Child: In the darkest versions of the tale, the Piper drowns the children like he previously did with the rats in order to punish the town.

Alternative Title(s): Pied Piper Of Hamelin