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 (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 followed the other children out of curiosity, 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 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. On the other hand, the expression "He who pays the piper calls the tune" implies an unrelated or inverted moral — whoever does pay the agreed rate for an employee is entitled to direct their work. The common factor, though, is that pipers expect to be paid.
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 feature (in rhyming verse) starring Van Johnson and Claude Rains (1957), 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" (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 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). 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. 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:
- Adult Fear: An eccentric stranger lures children to go with him, never to be seen again.
- Alternately, you stiff someone on a job without expecting he can retaliate — but instead of punishing you, he punishes your CHILDREN.
- An Aesop: The common phrase, "time to pay the piper" is said to derive 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 banish, which 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 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 it stays behind when the other children disappear into the mountain.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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 the children resurface in Transylvania, in others they are gone for good. In any case, they never returned to Hamelin and their parents.
- In some versions the Piper just does the same thing he did with the rats or sells them into slavery.
- And in other versions, the focus is less on the abducted children and more on the one who gets left behind, making it seem like a Cruel Mercy that he didn't get taken too.
- 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 schilling 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...
- 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 of the story, 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 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.
- 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.
- 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 killing/taking away the children as spite.
- Revenge by Proxy: Some versions of the story have this be the Piper's reason for taking away the 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.
- 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.
- 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: 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." This serves as our first considerable debate over what is actually meant by 'children' as to whether they actually meant children or the '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 unified in that there was somewhat of a real piper there is also high debate over his reasons for taking the kids/people. Some of the bigger theories including a crusade, cult, serial killer 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.
- Villainous Harlequin: The Piper is almost always described as wearing unusual clothes, often those of a jester.
- 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.