Paying the Piper


I’m sure you know about the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the fairy tale character who was hired by a town in Germany to use his pipes to lure the rats out of the city and drown them. When the town elders refused to pay him for this service, he took his revenge by luring out the children as well. I wonder how many different hypnotic songs this guy had. Was there one that would attract dogs? What about pigs? Did any town ever hire him to drive out all the lawyers? Anyway, there’s apparently some truth to the story, as Drew Mackie reveals in his post on the story, which also compares it to A Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s a record of children really leaving the town en masse, the explanation for which I remember hearing involves their going off to war, but there are other possibilities as well. Some historians tie it to the Children’s Crusade of 1212, although the exodus of the kids seems to have occurred in 1284. Since the original Children’s Crusade was a spectacular failure (if it even really happened), why would they have tried another one? Well, I guess the first one worked out all right for the slave traders, and maybe Hamelin was too isolated to know what had happened to that last batch of kids. Regardless of why the children left, the tale is apparently a fanciful explanation for a true event with details that had been lost to time. The rats were not known to appear in the tale until the sixteenth century.

For what it’s worth, Hamelin is located in Lower Saxony, on the River Weser. There’s also a town called Hamlin in Dragon Quest II, and while it has no known connection to rats or missing children, it IS where you find the enchanted Princess of Moonbrooke.

Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld book geared toward a young adult audience, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, is a variation on the Pied Piper story. Maurice is a talking cat, who runs a scam with a flute-playing boy and a bunch of magically sentient rats. The story features a rat king, which is a group of rats with their tails stuck together.

The legend is that a rat king can move around as sort of a collective animal, but it’s now considered unlikely that this is really the case. There are preserved rat kings in museums, but there’s no way to know whether they formed naturally or were stuck together by humans. The Rat King is also a character in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles universe, and while the 1987 cartoon series usually showed him being able to talk to rats, his very first appearance had him using a flute to control them.

So the whole thing comes full circle, I suppose.

This entry was posted in Discworld, Dragon Quest, Fairy Tales, Germany, History, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Terry Pratchett, Video Games and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Paying the Piper

  1. ozaline says:

    Is that where the multi-headed Mouse King from The Nutcracker Prince comes from?

    Anyway, the Fables novel: Peter and Max, by Bill Willingham is primarily foccused around the Pied Piper… although there are two pipers in it, it’s an interesting read.

    • Nathan says:

      Is that where the multi-headed Mouse King from The Nutcracker Prince comes from?

      It seems likely. While the ballet was Russian, the original Hoffmann story was German, and most legends of rat kings are also German.

  2. Pingback: Everybody Loves Bremen | VoVatia

  3. Jake says:

    I just bought “The Pied Piper:A handbook” (it was going really cheap on amazon so i snapped it up) and that and other research I’ve done suggests the migration theory is the one that is currently considered the most likely. It’s worth reading if you can get hold of a not too expensive copy, it has lots of different retellings in it as well. I’ve also got my eye on “In Search of the Pied Piper” by Radu Florescu

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