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The Pied Piper of Hamelin: legend, story or poem for kids?

Updated on January 29, 2016
TolovajWordsmith profile image

Tolovaj is a small publishing house specializing in literature for children. The theory of fairytales is one of our passions.

Kate Greenaway's illustration of Pied Piper of Hamelin
Kate Greenaway's illustration of Pied Piper of Hamelin

The truth behind the Pied Piper

In the 13th century, something terrible happened in the German town Hameln (Hamelin). Nobody knows what. We may only guess. It was probably connected with rats, plague, broken promises and great losses.

How was that connected with a man in colorful clothes, the man called Pied Piper? How much truth lies behind the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin? With a help of pictures, we'll check its summary, make simple analysis and try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

(Image by Kate Greenaway, all images (except for Amazon's) on this page are in public domain and royalty free)

Pied Piper of Hamelin's Story

Town was infested with rats...
Town was infested with rats...
Pied piper saved the town from rats
Pied piper saved the town from rats

A short summary is pretty simple.

The town of Hamelin was infested with rats. Citizens were desperate and when a stranger in colorful clothes offered his help, they promised him good payment.

He started to play his pipe and soon rats started to come out from everywhere. Pied piper walked through the Hamelin and all rats followed him in sort of trance. They walked out to the river and rats, one by one entered the water.

They drowned and the city was saved!

But ...

The Pied Piper Demanded His Payment

They will not pay!
They will not pay!

The major refused to pay the piper. Why should he keep his word anyway? The rats were already gone and they will not come back, right?

Kids will leave forever
Kids will leave forever | Source

So the piper leaves the Hamelin in anger.

Not for long. He soon got back, this time with a different tune of his pipe. This time, its melody didn't charm the rats. Instead, kids followed him. All kids, older than four, including major's daughter.

Their parents couldn't stop them. Nothing could stop the kids going after the piped piper. Out of the city. Nobody heard about them again.

But what they will remember forever ... Something all of as will remember ...

They should pay the piper!

For all the visual types... - (and free for premium users)

The legend about the events in Hamelin inspired many works.

Pied Piper of Hamelin - 1958 - Color
Pied Piper of Hamelin - 1958 - Color

This movie from the middle of 20th century presents the story pretty faithfully to the written versions by Grimms and Browning.

You can watch it through stream and get a feel of dark ages which were not so different than today's situations ...


Piper took the children for good

Parents were devastated
Parents were devastated

The summary of The Pied Piper of Hamelin above is not just a retelling of something that might or might not happen many years ago. It is telling us how important is to keep one's promise.

This is not a classic fairy tale about an importance of a given word like a story of frog king. It is more a cautionary tale like a story of red riding hood.

Major against piper (Oskar Herrfurth)
Major against piper (Oskar Herrfurth)

It's a legend, not a fairy tale

Although the Piper of Hamelin was included in earlier editions of fairy tales by brothers Grimm (illustrations are from the poem by Robert Browning, written about half century later), it is really not a fairy tale. It is more appropriate to be classified as a legend.

Legends are in general based on true people and true events. It doesn't matter they can be exaggerated beyond recognition. It doesn't matter if there are some magical objects (like the flute in this case) included. We can only compare the elements, typical for the genre and here we go:

* We know the place (Hamelin, Germany)

* We know time (13th century)

* We know people (not exactly, but somebody, probably a stanger arrived and had agreement and likely a disagreement with a major and/or some influential people in town)

* We know something bad happened to children in town (maybe not all of them and maybe they were not real children).

What is your opinion?

Was reaction of the pied piper justified?

See results
What really happened in Hamelin?
What really happened in Hamelin?

Let's take a step back.

History can only rely on proofs.

This is what we know:

* In the 13th century, many cities in Europe had problems with rats and diseases related to these rodents. Bubonic plague was one of them. A rat catcher was a common profession.

* Many diseases were related to lesions and these lesions stayed visible at many survivors of diseases.

* Children were most vulnerable and they made the majority of victims.

* Diseases were not the only problem in those times. Famine, wars and other dangers were part of everyday's lives.

* Buying and selling children was a common practice.

And this is what we can speculate:

His clothes can represent lesions
His clothes can represent lesions

* A stranger came into the town of Hamelin in times of plague. Visible lesions (in the story presented as a colorful cloth) proved he survived the disease and is now immune. So he was able to offer some sort of help but didn't receive the payment he expected.

Maybe his price was too high, maybe he demanded more than they agreed, at first, maybe the major decided to deceive him, maybe something else happened, but we can pretty safely assume some kind of dirty game was involved.

Why kids left the town of Hamelin?
Why kids left the town of Hamelin?

* No matter what happened, it was closely connected with children and water. But the word children was maybe used metaphorically. Citizens were sometimes called 'the children of the town', so the victims (if any) could be adults too. There is a theory that children (real or adult or both) left the town for some reason.

And water can be used only as a medium for transmission of disease or as a path through kids left.

* In the 13th century, The Children's Crusade happened (although several decades before the event in Hamelin). This is not well documented and is often mixed with different wars and selling people (not necessary kids) into slavery.

* In those times many people from some areas in today's Germany (including Hamelin) moved to Eastern and Central Europe where Mongol invasions devastated huge areas and suddenly a huge amount of free land was available.

Only handicapped were spared of military obligations

According to the poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin only two handicapped kids stayed in town
According to the poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin only two handicapped kids stayed in town

* Of course, wealthy people didn't risk with such voyages, but poor ones, orphans and others could be somehow forced to try their luck. This theory is supported by a study of surnames in some areas in Eastern Europe which are surprisingly similar to surnames in Germany. Surname Hamel (from Hamelin?) is surprisingly often in Polish phone books!


Check the position of Hamelin (Germany) and Poland as one of the possible destinations!

show route and directions
A markerKids left the town -
Hamelin, Germany
get directions

B markerPoznan, Poland -
Poznan, Poland
get directions

We will probably never know what really happened in this German town. What we do know is ...

Always pay the piper!

If you liked the story... - can continue the voyage!

I collaborate at several on-line projects dedicated to fairy tales and vintage picture books. Feel free to explore following addresses.

Do you believe stories as The Pied Piper of Hamelin should be included in collections of books for children? - (Or they are just too dark and pessimistic?)

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 2 years ago from Ljubljana

      Yes, peachpurple, it is a legend with historical background. We'll never know what really happened, but this should not stop us from learning a lesson. Thanks for stopping by!

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      So this is a legend story not just a fairytale, tq

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 2 years ago from Ljubljana

      Thanks, C.V.:)

    • C.V.Rajan profile image

      Disillusioned 2 years ago from Kerala, India

      Good extrapolation!


    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Thanks for stopping by.

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