The Pied Piper is not technically a fairytale. It is at least part legend. Hamelin was a real place, and it is believed that once, in this German town, all of the children really did disappear in a short space of time.
The street in Hamelin, where the children were last seen, is today called Bungelosenstrasse, translated to ‘street without drums’. No one is allowed to dance or play music there. This street is now a tourist attraction — alternatively, you can check it out on Google Earth, though it appears the Google street car has yet to traverse the area.
Any cultural image in which children follow an adult playing music is likely to conjure images of the Pied Piper.
SETTING OF THE PIED PIPER
Hamelin is a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin. 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 a number of theories.
THEORIES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE PIED PIPER
THE BLACK DEATH THEORY
The story of the Pied Piper 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. In Black Death days, those with literacy skills generally wrote to other towns nearby to warn them of it.
According to Marina Warner, in No Go The Bogeyman, The Pied Piper legend warns that the fey and the pied, the eldritch and the elf, are dangerous to humans in their capriciousness. They personify the unpredictable mischief making of fate. The Pied Piper story is dated to 1240 when Hamelin is known to have suffered a similar plague and in several ways its hero prefigured many spectres who come to haunt Germany. Though not devilish or otherwise monstrous the piper appears in the motley sometimes worn by the devil and even more by the fool who mocks truth while the mountain, which uncannily opens when he plays in order to swallow the children, is the familiar habitat of elves and deserves and giants and other messengers from the dark side.
THE PIED PIPER INVENTION AS COGNITIVE BIAS
It’s perfectly reasonable to think there was no human figure leading the children away, that it’s all metaphor. Throughout history there is evidence a persistent cognitive bias — humans have a tendency to find meaning in the universe by imputing agency to events that might as plausibly or more plausibly be due to chance.
A better documented historical example are the French famines. Under the old regime, the population could never accept that nature was solely responsible for the dearth. The general assumption was that people were hoarding grains somewhere, driving the prices up. The actual cause, we are sure now, was a bad harvest. This particular conspiracy theory is known today as the Pacte de Famine.
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADES THEORY
However, there may have been a person involved. Another theory involves children taken away for The Children’s Crusades. In this 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’. However, there’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. The crusades were almost certainly much smaller than legend has it. There remains no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit.
THE CULT RECRUITMENT THEORY
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 those days (around June 20-22).
THE DANCING PLAGUE THEORY
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. Injuries were sustained. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.
THE ABDUCTION THEORY
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 terrible news story similar to that one.
THE RAT PLOT
In early, 1400s versions of the Pied Piper tale there was no mention of rats. Of course, by the time Robert Browning turned it into a poem, rats seemed vital to make the story work.
Why and 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). At this point in history Transylvania lay dormant. Good land was going to waste. Other places such as Germany were overpopulated and starving. This leads us to another theory: 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? By 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 led away by a persuasive, military march. Perhaps people joined this march without too much in the way of thought. Hunger is a strong motivator.
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 by the Grimm Brothers of course) Robert Browning wrote a considerably more cheerful version. By the mid 1800s, the disappearance of the children of Hamelin is truly mythic.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE PIED PIPER
Below: You probably recognise whose these illustrations are by. Arthur Rackham.
Illustrator Errol Le Cain chose a similarly limited, warm palette.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN”
Robert Browning’s version, and similar adaptations. This is the version you probably know. This is the one I grew up with.
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. This surface level problem will highlight the inadequacies of the town.
The town wants to get rid of the rats. But then the desire shifts. For the second part of the story, the men who run the town don’t want the town to fall into poverty by paying what they promised.
Well, there are the rats of course. But these rats are not the slightest bit anthropomorphised, so let’s 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 the Pied Piper as the personification of death.) He appears in the form of a piper in a long, brightly coloured gown. It’s significant that it’s ‘pied’, because this means he’s pieced it together out of bits of rag. In an era where clothes were clear signifiers of wealth (due to the expense of clothing), the ragtag clothing suggests someone wearing a mask — a duplicitous person who pretended to be more important than he was.
The Pied Piper is the subcategory of False Ally Opponent because at first he helps the town. However, his motives are revealed to be 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.
Or is he? Do you come down on one side or the other? The tale of The Pied Piper endures partly because it asks us to think about the nature of altruism. Is the Pied Piper an altruist?
To be genuinely altruistic an action has to satisfy two conditions:
- Proactive not reactive
- Anonymous (not clear cut when God comes into it, because in some cases the agent believes God is watching)
The Pied Piper was proactive. He wasn’t asked to save the town — he offered. However, he is a businessman. He’s doing it for money. So he is quasi-proactive.
He’s not anonymous. He could have simply gotten rid of the rats without telling anyone, expecting nothing in return.
But what if the Pied Piper was starving and needed payment in order to eat? Does that change our calculation of his altruism? The modern leftie view is that all people deserve a living wage, and the modern right-wing view is that people who contribute a lot to a society deserve a very large living wage. So according to any point along the modern political spectrum, the Pied Piper should garner some sympathy.
DEPICTIONS OF THE PIED PIPER
The Pied Piper is depicted by illustrators in a number of different ways, largely dependent on the era. The unifying feature is of course his clothing, but we can group his body type into a few distinct categories.
Most recently we have ‘hot’ pipers.
But he’s more traditionally very skinny, with pointed feet, nose and hat, and long fingers. See Errol Le Cain’s version (above), which 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, but if the town has suffered famine for an enduring period, it’s also likely they cannot pay him.
Would you have lied to the piper in order to save your town? This is similar to the moral dilemma posed by philosophers: If you were dying and a drug company possessed a drug that would keep you alive — but they charged so much you couldn’t afford to buy it — would you steal it?
In the Robert Browning poem, the Battle is dramatised with the scenes between the Pied Piper and the council.
The death big struggle takes place off the stage, 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.)
The mid 1800s were an era which favoured retributive justice, so Browning would have written his poem influenced by this idea: That if someone does not honour their promise, you are fully justified in meting out retribution. However, he would have been influenced by the ‘eye for an eye’ idea. That phrase is often mistaken today to mean, “If someone takes your eye, feel free to take theirs.” It’s actually an expression urging moderation — “If someone takes your eye, do not take both of theirs — you may take only one in return.” (In other words, don’t go batshit when dishing out punishment.)
So the Pied Piper’s actions, killing all the children, will have been seen by the 1800s audience — as they are today — as completely over the top evil.
A town with no children. The town of Hamelin is no longer on the map — the children are a community’s future.
MORE ON “THE PIED PIPER”
- For more on the legend of The Pied Piper listen to this episode of The Singing Bones podcast.
- The Legend of the Pied Piper in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Grimm, Browning, and Skurzynski
- Musician Thomas Ades created an eerie, remarkably unpleasant (to my ear) soundtrack to The Pied Piper. It’s called Under Hamelin Hill. I won’t link to it.
- The Lost Children of Hamelin from Daily Grail
I wrote a re-visioning of The Pied Piper. It’s called “The Magic Pipe“. I wondered when, exactly, children became immune to the music. Did it happen overnight? Adolescence takes a while. There must have been a group of adolescents or young adults who heard it but faintly, sufficiently conscious of the draw of the music to perhaps resist it. What would that story look like?