- The Pied Piper: A Handbook
The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (der Rattenfänger von Hameln, literally meaning “the rat catcher of Hamelin”) is short and easily re-told: in 1284, the town of Hamelin in Germany was plagued by rats and hired a piper dressed in colorful clothes to get rid of them. He played the pipe and led the rats out of the town to drown in a nearby river. However, the town fathers refused to pay him his fee, so he played his pipe again, this time leading 130 children out of the town as revenge. And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity, the story of the Pied Piper has served as inspiration for numerous stories, poems, artworks, and advertisements, among others. To cite a few relevant examples, poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Browning, Bertolt Brecht, and Ambrose Bierce are rooted in the tale; a variety of cartoons inspired by the story have appeared in periodicals like The New Yorker; and the Pied Piper has been used to hawk toys, computers, automobiles, and pest control, among other products. Beyond this, numerous scholarly studies of the legend have appeared; the town of Hamelin bills itself as “the Pied Piper’s town” (e.g., on the town website, http://www.hameln.com/) and has developed a substantial tourist industry based on the legend; and “pied piping” has been adopted as a technical term in theoretical linguistics.
There is, however, relatively little scholarship on the Pied Piper available in English. The volume reviewed here, one of the Greenwood Folklore Handbooks, aims to fill that gap. The author, Wolfgang Mieder, professor of German at the University of Vermont, is exceptionally well qualified to write such a book, having authored numerous previous studies of the Pied Piper legend, including an earlier book in German (Der Rattenfänger von Hameln: Die Sage in Literatur, Medien und Karikaturen [The Pied Piper of Hamelin: The Legend in Literature, the Media, and Caricatures], Praesens Verlag, 2002). While I have a few reservations about the work, as discussed below, in general, Mieder has done an admirable job of making the Pied Piper legend and the relevant scholarship more accessible for Anglophone audiences.
The book is divided into four chapters, as follows: chapter 1, “Definition and Classification,” lays out the story and discusses the relevant sources. Here Mieder carefully presents the source material, ranging from various inscriptions in Hamelin to a 1553 chronicle by Hans Zeitlos, and reviews some theories as to why the children were led out of Hamelin in the first place. (Such proposals include links to the Children’s Crusade of 1212, or to the Black Death, or to the colonization of Eastern Europe.) The chapter also deals with the spread of the legend, its significance and proverbial use (in phrases like “to pay the piper”), and the ambivalence of the Pied Piper as a symbol.
The second chapter, “Examples and Texts,” gives a number of relevant texts. These include the first printed German version of the story, by Jobus Fincelius (published in 1556); the 1816 version of the story, edited by the Brothers Grimm and published in their Deutsche Sagen (German Legends); various later German versions of the story; a number of English versions (e.g., that published by Andrew Lang in 1890 in The Red Fairy Book); and several folk songs that retell the story. All of the texts, including those originally written in German or Latin, are given in English.
Chapter 3, “Scholarship and Approaches,” gives a concise overview of some of the relevant scholarship on the legend. This chapter is divided into four sections, covering “Comprehensive Studies” (e.g., the seminal works by scholars such as Willy Krogmann and Hans Dobbertin, as well as Mieder’s own 2002 book); “Historical Analyses” (i.e., works on the historical aspects of the legend); “Folkloristic Investigations” (works on the folklore aspects [End Page 383] of the legend); and “Literary Reconsiderations” (studies of literary reworkings of the legend, e.g...