David Beagley, editor

The Legend of the Pied Piper in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Grimm, Browning, and Skurzynski

Mary Troxclair Adamson

Mary Troxclair Adamson has a M.A. in Writing for Children from the University of Central Lancashire (UK) and holds a B.A. in History from Sul Ross State University (Texas, USA). She is an independent scholar who combines her interests in history and literature as an assistant at the Bronte literary museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire. She writes for storytelling to young audiences in the classroom, while her research interests include Jewish history and historical archetypes in fairy tales and religious text.

Abstract: This paper examines the changes that were made in the literary telling and retelling of the story of the Pied Piper during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comparing the folktale “Die Kinder zu Hameln” (1816) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”(1842) by Robert Browning, and the book What Happened in Hamelin (1979), by Gloria Skurzynski. A combination of New Historicism (a method based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts from specific time periods), and comparative methodologies will be used to consider the impact of historical context, different authorial intentions via-a-vis child and adult audiences, and the intertextual relationships between these three texts.


The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is not without historical basis. Reportedly, the earliest recordings that were referenced, but have since been lost, are the Hamelin town chronicle, “Donat,” circa 1311 (Skurzynski 174) and a stained glass window in the town’s church of St. Nicholas (Wilkening 180). These refer to the disappearance of 130 children in the year 1284 A.D. after the appearance of a piper in the town of Hamelin, Germany.

In the nearly ninety years from the time of the supposed incident to the first preserved written account, changes in the legend may have been due to who was telling the tale. The earliest surviving record, according to Bernard Queenan in “Evolution of the Pied Piper,” is estimated to have originated around 1370, as a Latin endnote in a copy of the “Catena Aurea” of Heinrich von Herod. It is written in the style of a monk scribe and juxtaposes Arabic and Roman numerical figures, a feature of 14th century writings that were influenced by Mediterranean areas that spread across Europe (Queenan 108).

Although subsequent literary versions of the Pied Piper vary, explicit intertextual references to the Bible in some form can be seen as significant in the texts chosen and can be found in the early Latin text. The English translation by Heinrich Spanuth establishes a point of reference as the earliest written record of the ‘event’:

To be noted is a marvellous and truly extraordinary event that occurred in the town of Hamelin in the diocese of Minden in the year of the Lord 1284, on the very feast-day of Saints John and Paul. A young man of 30 years, handsome and in all respects so finely dressed that all who saw him were awestruck by his person and clothing came in by way of the bridge and the Weser Gate. On a silver pipe which he had, of wonderful form, he began to play through the whole town, and all the children hearing him, to the number of 130, followed him beyond the eastern wall almost to the place of the Calvary or Gallows field, and vanished and disappeared so that nobody could find out where any one of them had gone. Indeed, the mothers of the children wandered from city to city and discovered nothing. A voice was heard in Rama and every mother bewailed her son. And as people count by the years of the Lord or by the first, second and third after a jubilee, so they have counted in Hamelin by the first, second and third year after the exodus and departure of the children. This I have found in an old book. And the mother of Herr Johann de Lude, the deacon, saw the children going out. (Queenan 108)

Qeenan notes that the mother referred to was the mother of Deacon Johann de Lude, who died in 1378, making it conceivable that she had been an eye witness to a real event (108). Biblical intertextuality may imply that the story is symbolic or allegorical, or even a veiled account foreshadowed in Biblical times, such as the disturbing reference to the killing of Jewish babies by the order of a king in a previous era: “A voice was heard in Rama and every mother bewailed her son” (Matthew 2:18).

The Church likely influenced later tellings of the Pied Piper legend. Early printed versions were for a literate adult minority. As many folktales were adapted by clerics for teaching from their pulpits, the Pied Piper may have been read to general audiences in churches (Zipes, Origins 27). The first published literary form of the tale was by theologian, Hiob Fincelus in “Wunderzeichen,”(1556) which gives an account of the Devil coming to Hamelin 180 years earlier and luring the children into a hill with his piping as God’s retribution for sin (Queenan 107).

The medieval writer of the Latin text used “adolescens de XXX annis” for the piper (an adolescent of 30) and “omnes pureri” for the children (boys, children, or young people) (Queenan 109). This matches the terminology that Philippe Airies in Centuries of the Child  uses to point out the differences between the medieval concept of childhood and that of today where  “adolescens” could mean ages 14 to 30 or 35 years, and “pueritia” could refer to a youth of 7-14 years.  In the Middle Ages, the concept of childhood was associated with the idea of dependence rather than age, and the concept of “adolescence” as we know it today did not exist until the twentieth century (Aires 32-34).

The addition of the rats appeared sometime around 1550, nearly 300 years after the story’s origin, when stories of rat catchers in other towns around Europe also began to appear (Wilkening 181).  Theories abound about what might have happened to the children of Hamelin that include death by an epidemic disease. Although the rat-transmitted bubonic plague did not reach Europe until 1348 -1500, after the 1284 date of the original legend of the Pied Piper, this theory may explain the addition of the rats to the tale which appear in the Grimms’ version, and why Browning chose a later date for the setting of his poem. The Brothers Grimm may have taken the addition of rats from the earliest (1605) English version of the story by Richard Verstegan (Jacobs 142).

“Die Kinder zu Hameln,” which translates as “The Children of Hamelin,” is a folktale which was published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1816 as no. 244 in volume 1 of Deutsche Sagen (German Legend 1816/1818). This text is a collection of German legends that was meant to compliment the Grimms’ fairytale collection, Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales 1812/15); although it was not as popular.The Grimms sought to distinguish the timeless tales found in the Household Tales from those legends in Sagen, which were thought to be based on true events with a connection to time and place. Indeed they viewed their collection as being “survivals of memory” (Michaelis-Jena 84). The Deutsche Sagen was published in two volumes using legends that had been recorded by historians, such as Gregory of Tours and Tacticus, and from German chapbooks, as well as collected from material that had been orally documented from friends in Westphalia.

The Grimm’s version contains intertextual elements from the early Latin version, such as time, place, piper, crying mothers, number of children, and Biblical reference of time. The idea of the Piper as a thirty year old “adolescens” is preserved, but the tone of the piece has become ominous. The Piper’s clothing is emphasized and used to predict a sinister intent: “In the year 1284 a mysterious man appeared in Hameln. He was wearing a coat of many colored, bright cloth, for which reason he was called the Pied Piper.”(Grimms, translated) After he rid the town of rats, and the town refused him his fee, “he went away, bitter and angry. He returned...now dressed in a hunter’s costume, with a dreadful look on his face and wearing a strange red hat” (Grimms, translated).

The Grimms’ tale pays more attention to the children: more detail is paid to gender and age (they are younger than the “omnes pueri”,7-14 years); more is made of their loss. Also, the human qualities of the children left behind are enhanced, as their disabilities or unpreparedness:

He sounded his fife in the streets, but this time it wasn’t rats and mice that came to him, but rather children...In total, one hundred thirty were lost. Two, as some say, had lagged behind and came back. One of them was blind and the other mute…One little boy in shirtsleeves had gone along with the others, but had turned back to fetch his jacket and thus escaped the tragedy. (Grimms, translated)

This focus on the children accords with an increase in attention given to the parent-child relationship and child rearing practices in the eighteenth century. Although Aires and Cunningham argue that, at least among the peasant classes, there was little change in the view of childhood from medieval times until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the views on child-rearing of philosophers John Locke (1632-1734) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) had made an impact on society. Locke claimed that the purpose of childhood was to learn how to become an adult in an expected role. On the other hand, Rousseau in Emile was the first to express the idea that childhood may be the best time in life and should be enjoyed for itself (Cunningham 65).

It is now well-known that one of the Grimms' aims in publishing folktales was to create a sense of national identity; but, it is equally feasible that they were also trying to reform their compatriots by drawing attention to certain aspects such as the rearing of children.  In his essay “The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Folklore Encounters Malevolent Cults,” Stanley Rosenman theorizes that the tale of the Pied Piper was an unheeded call to change the culture-destroying childrearing practices found in the German society of the time (including infanticide, abandonment and absent fathers) and points out that the German language has its own unique word for enmity of children: “Kinderfeindlichheit” (49). This supports Zipes’ summation that the tales of the Grimms (whose father died when they were ten and eleven) were infused with “their own psychological needs, utopian dreams…and socio-political views” (Zipes, Brothers 29). He goes on to point out that recurring themes in their tales are “loss, and fear of separation from loved ones” and the role of the father as “the foundation for all respect for authority.” When that paternal authority collapses, he argues, a new father figure is sought (Zipes 30). With specific application to the Grimms’ Pied Piper, it is significant that there is no mention of fathers and the children are drawn to follow a new authority figure.

Like the Grimms, Robert Browning did not write for children as a rule; however his 1842 poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is expressly addressed to a nine year old child named William Macready. Browning’s “Piper” is a flowery poem, written in the third person past tense but, which changes to second person to address the child audience at the end. In contrast to the Grimms’ tale, it includes dialogue and its tone is light and amusing.

They fought the dogs and killed the cats!
And bit the babies in their cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats.
And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,… (R. Browning)

Rather than claiming to be an accurate account of an event, Browning uses poetic license to change the district of Hamelin’s location in Hanover to Brunswick. The elements that Browning’s poem shares with the Grimms’ tale include the town, rats, colorfully clothed piper, and a mayor, although these could be intertextual references to earlier versions by  Wanley and Verstegen that he is thought to have used (Queenan 107).

The main departure from the Grimms’ version is that the Piper, rather than being the abuser, is portrayed as abused by the town leaders, and justice is thus served when he takes the children from the adults. The adults appear foolish and greedy:

For council dinners made rare havoc
With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock;
And half the money would replenish
Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish. (R. Browning)

The children however are described as innocently happy and carefree:

All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparking eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter. (R. Browning)

Unlike the Grimms’ tale, where the children are feared to have a tragic ending, the implication is that their fate is utopian. It is conveyed to the reader by a child who is left behind because he is lame:

It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me;
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 […]
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still, and found myself outside the hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
           And never hear of that country more! (R. Browning)

Browning’s wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published a poem called “The Cry of the Children” in the same year that he wrote the “Pied Piper.” Her poem decries the plight of working children deprived of childhood. Juxtaposed with the little cripple boy’s lament in the “Pied Piper” of his playmates, who disappeared into a cave for a country filled with natural beauties, “The Cry of the Children” whose protagonists had lost their lives to the mines of England seems to mirror some of the same sentiments:

The young lambs are bleating in the meadows;
The young birds are chirping in the nest;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free[...]
‘It is good when it happens,’ say the children,
‘That we die before our time!’[…]
‘For oh,’ say the children, ‘we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap —
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep […]’ (E.B. Browning )

In light of this poem, Browning may be implying that the missing children in “The Pied Piper” died and went to heaven. Written during the Industrial Revolution, when working-class children worked in factories and mines, his purpose appears, on second glance, to be a call to consider the plight of the child.

In contrast to the utilitarian and puritanical views of reforming the child, romanticism encouraged the view that childhood should be a happy time and instilled a hope that qualities from childhood carried into adulthood would improve the world (Cunningham 143-144). The mid-nineteenth century was a turning point in the world’s view that a child had rights and these rights took precedence over the parents and laws that would protect the child were lobbied for, and compulsory education introduced. (Cunningham 143-144).

Browning’s version of a Pied Piper ends with a didactic moral. Rather than addressing the evils of kidnapping perpetrated by the Piped Piper, the warning, despite being addressed to Willie, is to greedy officials: a promise made should be kept. An explicit reference to Jesus’ words from Matthew 19: 24 is used for the officials:

There came into many a burgher’s pate
A text which says, that heaven’s Gate
Opes to the rich at as easy rate
As the needle’s eye takes a camel in![...]
So, Willy, let you and me be wipers
Of scores out with all men—especially pipers;
And, whether they pipe us free from rats of from mice,
If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise. (R. Browning)

Oftentimes children’s literature was used to make a political statement and this appears to be the case with Browning’s poem. Hence to nineteenth century parents reading to their children, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” may have been a thinly veiled warning to greedy government and factory officials who made empty promises to legislate and enforce laws to protect children.
As we move into the twentieth century -“The Century of the Child” - the way was paved for women writers who took advantage of opportunities to market their skills and have their voices heard (Cunningham 163). What Happened in Hamelin was written in 1979 by Gloria Skurzynski, who used the tale of the Pied Piper set in medieval times to alert and inform her audience about the pitfalls of the century in which she was writing. The book is a historical novel for children in the ‘tween’ aged category (Slotan 34).

The nineteen sixties and seventies of Gloria Skurzynski’s America can be considered to be troubled times marked by parent-child conflict and drug abuse among adolescents.  Cult leaders who exploited these youths abounded (Rosenman 30). The drug L.S.D. (lysergic acid diethylamide) an ergot fungus derivative was commonly used for its hallucinogenic effects.

As did Grimm and Browning, Skurzynski used the theory that the Piper legend may be rooted in the kidnappings that occurred to colonize Transylvania in the twelfth century. She also included the theory that the Piper poisoned the children of Hamelin with ergot fungus from rotted grain. The Dancing Madness, a documented illness of medieval times, is now thought to be caused by ergot poisoning: its victims were said to appear relieved when they danced, so musicians would be hired to play for them. (Queenan 112).  Skurzynski weaves her Piper into one who manipulates the people through their fear of the rats. Then, poisoning the town’s children with ergot, the “cult leader” uses the children to kill the rodents.

Skurzynski’s book, contrasted with Browning’s poem, reveals a depressing side to the medieval town of Hamelin’s peasants.  This New Historicist trend to foreground marginalized groups appears to result from “a more widely embracing understanding and empathy with the underprivileged” (Pinset 174).

Skurzynski’s predecessor, Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), a pioneer writer for children, often pointed out the deficiencies of the day by using a past time in history (Rahn 9). Unlike Nesbit’s stories that forge the best of the past and present to create a utopian outlook for future societies, Skurzynki’s conclusion does not offer such optimism for the future of Hamelin’s childless society. Instead, she implies amidst a perverse generation, rather than be a part of the enslaved masses who follow a path that seems right but leads to destruction, personal freedom is found when an individual comes to recognize their own value and the value of others and follows their conscience. For the book’s protagonist, Albert, and the girl whom he loves, Hilda, this means a life in the Church. In medieval times, the Church would have been a viable alternative and refuge for children who had no parents. 

Unlike the other versions examined, What Happened in Hamelin is written in the first person narrative voice. Albert is a fourteen year old, abused orphan, who works for the town baker, Master Hermann. Covered with flour from the bakery, Albert is called “Geist”- the German word for ghost- through most of the story, until he emerges at the end with a sense of himself as a person.

The effects of Albert’s abused childhood are seen as contributing to his willingness to be manipulated by the Piper, called “Gast,” who plays on Albert’s fears and desires: “No one in Hamelin had ever valued me before. If I was noticed at all, it was to be cuffed or ridiculed […] Though his words excited me, my own feelings of worthlessness made me falter” (11). Even as Albert begins to suspect the duplicity of Gast, the void filled by his association with the Piper is stronger than this knowledge. Through Albert, the Piper is introduced to the town’s children and the Piper manipulates the children into a frenzied killing spree of rats. This is a very different picture from children as depicted in the Browning version:

The children grew frenzied in their desire to kill rats; split rats apart, trample them, and drown them. The faces of the children glowed with effort and heat and they laughed in high, unnatural squeals as the massacre became more vicious. (49)

During Albert’s journey to find his identity, he learns the difference between a relationship with God, tradition or self.  His early years are spent with loving nuns before he is torn from them to work for an abusive man who attends church. Later, he is beguiled by Gast, the Piper, who does not claim to be a Christian but uses religion when it benefits him to win Albert’s trust: “When Father Johann elevated the host, Gast folded his hands as if in prayer. I dropped my head to my hands in total confusion. Was I wrong about Gast?” (55). Again, Gast uses the language of the church to play on the trusting and undiscerning so that the adults will trust their children to him: “I believe that the children must dance while their parents are praying to God for a cure,” Gast announced” (146).

In the end, Albert realizes the full impact of his part in the Piper’s scheme and refuses to go with the Piper.  When the Piper tries a final bribe, Albert compares the bribe to the one Judas betrayed Jesus for: “‘Twenty pieces of silver!’ I laughed wildly. ‘Shouldn’t it be thirty?’” (158). Ultimately, when the Piper’s bribes fail, the malevolent leader exposes his true feelings for Albert: “You are a fool…you’re no better than the rest of the swine in Hamelin” (159).

Skurzynski’s Pied Piper shares more in common with the Grimm version than the Romantic Browning piece: it is set in the year 1284 and the fate of the children is a tragic one. The blind and mute children from Grimms’ become Albert and the baker’s daughter and, as the Grimms’ version, Skurzynski ends with notes about factual evidence that can be found in the town of Hamelin.  Although she addresses various forms of abuse in her story- drug, inhumane treatment of animals, physical, mental and sexual discrimination - her purpose in writing may be viewed as a call to young readers of the later twentieth century to avoid falling under the control of powerful adults, perhaps even cult leaders.
The tale of the Pied Piper is one that has been changed and adapted many times through the last seven hundred years and this paper is by no means exhaustive in regards to possible reasons behind its transformations. In spite of the changes, many elements from its earliest form have been retained in Grimms’ “Die Kinder zu Hameln,” Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and Skurzynski’s What Happened in Hamelin. Despite being written across two centuries and representing different views of childhood, the authors of all three versions can be seen as sharing a common purpose of preserving the child. The Grimms’ tale brings awareness to adult readers of childrearing practices that may have been detrimental to the creation and preservation of a nation. Browning’s warning to adults reading to their children is that the promises of child labor reform needed to be kept. Skurzynski’s novel informs the child, or tween reader, of the dangers that exist in drug abuse and mind control. In this light, the authors of these versions of the Pied Piper seem to reflect a knowledge that to affect change “[C]hildren’s literature is one of the most obvious and influential ways of reaching the next generation” (Reynolds 3).


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---“Origins: Fairy Tales and Folk Tales.” In Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories, eds. Janet Maybin, and Nicola J. Watson. Milton Keyes:  Open UP, 2009: 26-38. Print.


Mary Troxclair Adamson

Volume 17, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2013

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