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Picture of the Pied Piper of Hamelin by Blanche McManus


 
June 26, 1284
Robert Browning   (1812 - 1889)
 
Pied Pipers
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1284, the Pied Piper lured the children away from Hamelin, to something better or worse, depending on which legend, poem, play, film, song, scholar or physician you consult. The oldest document for the event is a note in Latin, written 150 years after the fact, although possibly earlier sources include a stained glass window with an inscription describing how there "came a colorful piper to Hamelin and led 130 children away to calverie on the koppen mountain." Perhaps the piper was a Rattenfanger, and perhaps he played a drum, or nothing at all. Perhaps the children were infected by the Plague, and led out to a mass grave; perhaps they were conscripted for the Crusades, or to be settlers; perhaps they had St. Vitus' Dance (Sydenham's Chorea), and were deemed contagious; perhaps they were destroyed by natural disaster or accident while participating in Midsummer celebrations.

One theory interprets "children" to mean merely the citizens or offspring of the town, and links the Hamelin tragedy to the mass dancing hysteria that periodically swept northern Europe in the middle ages. Whether a desire to escape boredom, hardship or oppression, these dancing "plagues" could be protest-based - "flamboyant forms of what might be called ecstatic dissent," says Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Street. In any case, the dancing is well-documented, some accounts indicating that the authorities, hoping to contain or dissipate the activity, even encouraged it - paid the piper in order to call (and call off) the tune. Ehrenreich concludes that "the capacity for collective joy is encoded into us," and laments that the prospects for a widespread revival, at least in spontaneous forms, are slim.

Of the countless direct and indirect treatments of the theme in literature, perhaps the most well-known is Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," especially as illustrated by Kate Greenaway:
    For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
    Joining the town and just at hand,
    Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
    And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
    And everything was strange and new;
    The sparrows were brighter then peacocks here,
    And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
    And honey-bees had lost their stings,
    And horses were born with eagles' wings;
Jethro Tull's "Pied Piper" (on their Too Old to Rock 'n Roll, Too Young to Die album) takes a somewhat different approach to the legend:
    So follow me. Trail along, my leather jacket's buttoned up
    And my four-stroke song will pick you up when your last class ends
    And you can tell all your friends
    The Pied Piper pulled you, the mad biker fooled you
    I'll do what you want to
    If you ride with me on a Friday anything goes

    So follow me, hold on tight
    My school girl fancy's flowing in free flight
    I've a tenner in my skintight jeans
    You can touch it if your hands are clean

    The Pied Piper pulled you, the mad biker fooled you. . . .
When Atom Egoyan made his movie version of The Sweet Hereafter he added parallels to Browning's "Pied Piper"; author Russell Banks said afterwards, "I wish I'd had that idea. If I were to publish a new edition of the novel today, I'd add that poem. It is so perfectly at home in the story." It is so added, with the Greenaway illustrations, to the DVD of the film.

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