Illustration by Errol Le Cain from The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1989.

I always knew today’s tale as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” but the version I found most easily on-line was “The Pied Piper” by Joseph Jacobs. It seems that there are several versions of this story taking place in different towns. Wikipedia states the earliest mention of the story seems to be on a stained glass window in the Church of Hamelin around 1300. Reportedly, the window showed a colorful figure of the Pied Piper and several children dressed in white. It is believed the window was in memory of an actual, tragic, historical event experienced by the town. The town chronicles also have an entry from 1384 stating, “It is 100 years since our children left.” What happened to the children is not clear. Was it a plague or natural catastrophe? Did the children leave as part of a military campaign or pilgrimage? In whatever case, the rats weren’t added to the story until approximately 1559.

And those rats are what starts the events in Jacobs’ version. The town of Newton is overwhelmed by rats. The people can’t get rid of them. They try cats, poison, but still there seem to be more and more rats. One day a mysterious man arrives. He is dressed in a rainbow of colors, pied actually means multi-colored which I didn’t know, and introduces himself as the Pied Piper. He agrees to rid the village of the rats in exchange for 50 pounds. He takes out his pipe and plays while all the rats follow him down to the harbor. He steps in a boat and pulls away from shore, so all the rats follow straight into the water and drown.

When the piper goes to collect his reward, however, the mayor and council go back on their promise, offering first 20 pounds and then refusing all together. The Pied Piper warns that he can play many songs, but they ignore him. So the Pied Piper smiles a little smile and starts playing again, a happy, cheerful song, drawing all the children from houses, schools, and workplaces. As the adults look on, all the children follow the piper, laughing and dancing out of town and deep into the woods.

All the while, the elders watched and waited. They mocked no longer now. And watch and wait as they might, never did they set their eyes again upon the Piper in his parti-coloured coat. Never were their hearts gladdened by the song and dance of the children issuing forth from amongst the ancient oaks of the forest.

What a sad story. Imagine a town without any children. Somehow I think it was the Pied Piper’s plan all along. Someone doesn’t just decide to take all the kids away, presumably luring them to their deaths, just because you don’t get paid. The Pied Piper is an interesting character- colorfully dressed, playing beautiful music on his pipe, but full of evil intentions. And the fact that there may be some historical basis for this figure, either as a personification of the plague or an actual person who took the children away makes it even more fascinating.

You can find the story at Sur La Lune.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.