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The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a classic fairy tale/folk story 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 (multi-colored, clownish) clothing appeared, claiming to be a rat catcher. The townsmen, not really taking him seriously due to his absurd appearance, in turn 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 drowned. Despite his success, the people reneged on their promise and refused to pay him. 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, he 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. 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 villagers 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.
The best-known telling of the story in english is Robert Browning's 1842 poem, which has had several media adaptations, including a Disney animated short (1933), a Cosgrove Hall stop-motion short (1981), and an episode of Fairie Tale Theatre (1985). 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).
Among the many homages, Bill Cunningham, of the celebrated comic book Fables, recently wrote Peter and Max. The story framed the Piper as a sociopath, enveloped with otherworldly powers when he abandoned humanity; the children being payment for the powers he was given.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin provides examples of:
- Adults Are Useless: Seriously, none of the adults try to stop the Piper.
- Adult Fear: He takes the children. All the children. What did he do with them all?
- Some people believe this story is based on the Children's Crusades which happened around the time period the story is set.
- In the Robert Browning version, the narrator refers to a tribe in Transylvania who claim to have been descendents of the children whom the Piper had taken.
- The Cake Is a Lie: The town never intends to pay the Piper.
- Childless Dystopia: The Punishment the Piper inflicts on the town.
- Disability Immunity
- Disproportionate Retribution: "You didn't pay your bills, so I'll kidnap your children."
- Invasion of the Baby Snatchers
- Magical Flutist: The title character is this.
- Magic Music
- Swarm of Rats: Ur-Example of the Swarm of Rats in fiction.