First up, The Pied Piper is not technically a fairytale. It is a legend. Hamelin was a real place, and it is believed that once, in this German town of Hamelin, all of the children really did disappear one day.
June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are several theories.
The story itself suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. People who were able to write generally wrote to other towns nearby to let them know what was happening and what they might expect.
Another popular theory is that they were taken away for The Children’s Crusades. This is a very dark story dating from The Middle Ages. Young charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. There’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. They were almost certainly much smaller than we’ve been lead to believe. There’s no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit. It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier these days (around June 20-22).
Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania. There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. There were injuries. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.
But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a news story similar to that.
This snippet turned into a proper tale (similar to the fairytales we read to our children today) in the next few hundred years. It was even said that someone in particular (named) saw it with his own eyes. At first there is no mention of rats. (In the 1400s version.)
When did the rats come into the story? Rats were a problem in every town and city throughout the history of cities. They’re still a problem today. Rats have often represented the worst of humanity since they thrive in urban environments we’ve come to associate rats with other urban ills such as crime and overcrowding and disease.
The Ratcatcher is a fairytale in its own right. The Brothers Grimm recorded The Ratcatcher (in 1839) which is separate from The Pied Piper, also collected. There are no disappearing children in this fairytale. Instead, it is much more concerned with a magician who can charm rats. A Danish version of the tale similarly elevates the role of the ratcatcher to an almost godlike status. In the Grimm version of The Pied Piper, the children are taken through a portal into Transylvania (a spooky country where vampires live according to modern ideas). At this point in history Transylvania lay dormant. Good land was going to waste. Other places such as Germany were overpopulated and starving. Many Germans settled in places such as Transylvania during this time. They would drum up volunteers to go with them. Is it possible that the children of Hamelin disappeared because they were taken by fellow townspeople migrating? People who needed young, healthy workers? Perhaps the parents even sold the children, or at least gave them permission to leave, knowing that starvation was the other option. They may have been lead away with a persuasive, military march. Perhaps people joined this march without too much in the way of thought.
It looks like the fairytale of The Ratcatcher (as collected by the Grimms) combined over time with the real story of the missing children of Hamelin and now we have a fairytale/legend hybrid. This seemed to happen in the 15th century. By the mid 16th century they seem permanently intertwined. The first written version of The Pied Piper was penned by a guy with the wonderfully fairytale name of Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern, and that included the rats.
After it was re-written in German a couple of times (including the Grimm Brothers of course) Robert Browning wrote a considerably more cheerful version. By this time the disappearance of the children of Hamelin is truly mythic. There is a street today where the young people supposedly disappeared and it is called The Street Without Drums (Bungelosentraße). No one is allowed to play music or dance there to this day.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE PIED PIPER
Below: You probably recognise whose these illustrations are. Arthur Rackham.
Illustrator Errol Le Cain chose a similarly limited, warm palette.
I have realised in the writing of this blog that I have a harder time working out the ‘main character’ of fairytales than I do of modern stories. Every now and then in a modern story you find the ‘main character’ is actually an ensemble cast a la Little Miss Sunshine or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Winnie-the-Pooh, in which each member of the cast represents a different facet of human nature. Fairytales are like that, I think. Normally we can ask ourselves: Which is the character who changes the most? That is your main character. But what if, as in this legend, an entire town changes forever?
In this case, unusually, The Town is the main character, but the town is personified by the men who run it.
The town is overrun with rats.
The town wants to get rid of the rats
Well, there are the rats of course. But these rats are not the slightest bit anthropomorphised, so lets treat them like any other natural phenomenon such as a tsunami, earthquake or flood.
The opponent is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the town council. (Some see him as the personification of death.) He appears in the form of a piper who wears a long, brightly coloured gown. At first he appears to be an ally, but his motives are entirely selfish. He is just as morally lacking as the town council who refuse to pay him. He sacrifices the lives of an entire town’s worth of children, collateral damage.
The Pied Piper is depicted by illustrators in a number of different ways, largely dependent on the era.
Most recently we have ‘hot’ pipers.
He’s very often skinny, with pointed feet, nose and hat, with long fingers. See Errol Le Cain above, who may have influenced character design in Shrek. Why all the skinny, pointed representations? I suggest the illustrators see the Pied Piper as a symbol of death — whereas he does have skin, he is nevertheless a skeletal/skeleton figure, not so different from many depictions of the grim reaper.
Eleanor F. Brickendale (who died in 1945) even made him slightly androgynous — he could almost pass for an old woman.
Promise to pay the piper and then not pay him. We don’t know if this is because the town can’t pay him or they won’t. It is implied they simply will not.
When the piper drowns all of the children
Oh. We should have honoured our promise. (Audience: honour your promises. Retribution is often way out of whack with your original misdemeanour.)
A town with no children. The town of Hamelin is no longer on the map — the children are a community’s future.
For more on the legend of The Pied Piper listen to this episode of The Singing Bones podcast.