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  • The Evolution of the Pied Piper
  • Bernard Queenan (bio)

In the English-speaking world, the Pied Piper of Hamelin has achieved status as a standard figure of reference. According to context, he can be cited as typifying the cheated journeyman who exacts a terrible revenge, the piper who must be paid by anyone who has called for a tune, the seducer of the young, or the mysterious and sinister sorcerer who lures the susceptible to disaster by the irresistible sweetness and charm of his spell.

His physical appearance, attributes, dress and background are likewise well established. Tall, swarthy, lean, blue-eyed, cleanshaven, clad in an old-fashioned costume of red and yellow, he is a poor wandering musician who earns the respect and patronage of the wealthy and powerful—Caliphs, Nizams, Chams and their like—for his extraordinary skills in the extermination of animal pests.

In the children's literature of other languages and cultures, the character and outward showing of the piper are more prosaic and less clearly marked. A flutist, ratcatcher, or run-of-the-mill magician, he simply appears from nowhere and departs again in the half-light of legend, without offering any information on his origins or background. He comes. He clears Hamelin of its rats. The townspeople fail to deliver the promised reward. The magus collects the children of the place and leads them to a nearby mountain. With the children, he passes into the mountain, never to be seen again.

The more vivid and circumstantial version of the story, and its widespread circulation in English, is undoubtedly due to its treatment by Robert Browning in the long poem that has become a classic of children's literature. Browning originally composed the work in 1842 for the amusement of a little boy who was confined to his room by illness. The child was William C. Macready, Junior, eldest son of William Macready, the highly popular and successful tragedian with whom Browning had long been friendly and for whom he had written several theatrical pieces. The poet intended Willie to use his verses as the subject of drawings or paintings in the production of which he had already shown some talent. [End Page 104]

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Three Pencil Drawings, by William Macready, Junior, illustrating "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." After seeing the boy's illustrations for "The Cardinal and the Dog" Browning sent him the Pied Piper poem and these drawings are the result. The drawings are labeled I, II, and III and represent Willy Macready's imaginative concept of various episodes in the story. Each of the drawings is about 7 1/4 inches (vertically) by 10 inches (horizontally). These drawings are reproduced with permission of Baylor University Browning Interests. Despite the poor quality of the reproductions, their direct association with the composition of Browning's poem makes their inclusion here of particular interest. [End Page 105]

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[End Page 106]

For source material, Browning apparently turned to a version of the legend printed in Nathaniel Wanley's "Wonders of the Little World" (1678). He may further have consulted Richard Verstegen's "Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities," published in 1605. It is possible also that he added details picked up from verbal accounts narrated inside his own family circle, or taken down from story-tellers encountered during his journeys through Germany in 1834 and 1838. The accounts found in the publications of Wanley and Verstegen both repeat uncritically the substance of earlier printed works in German. The tradition of the Piper had attracted the attention of chroniclers and historians at the period when the printing press was giving circulation in fixed and permanent form to narratives which had up to that point mainly been current only in oral form.

The first known version of the story in print is in the "Wunderzeichen" of the theologian Hiob Fincelius, which appeared in 1556. Fincelius reports that about 180 years before, the Devil had appeared in Hamelin and attracted many children, through his piping, to follow him to a hill where they were lost. This he considers to have been an awe-inspiring example of the...