The Pied Piper of Hamelin
In the late 19th Century, Robert Browning’s poem, the “Pied Piper of Hamelin: a child’s story” (1842), was adapted to a picture book and illustrated by Victorian children’s book illustrator, Kate Greenaway The picture book’s story is based on a German folktale from the Middle Ages with the moral of “keep your promises”; the town does not keep its promise to the piper, and its parents suffer a disastrous result (Browning, 11.4). Greenaway's then-popular style of illustrating increased the poem's audience, and “Pay the Piper” entered the modern lexicon as an English idiom.
Historians believe that the folktale is based on a factual event in Lower Saxony, Germany. In the summer of 1284, a tragedy is said to have taken place in the German town of Hamelin. One hundred and thirty of the town’s children disappeared shortly after the arrival of a colorfully-dressed stranger or piper. Only two children who were taken returned as witnesses to the supposed abduction and reported that the piper led the children to a cave and through a tunnel to Transylvania. The townspeople memorialized the loss of the children in a stained-glass window of the church in Hamelin.
“Rats!/ They fought the dogs and killed the cats/ And bit the babies in the cradles/ And ate the cheeses out of the vats”(Browning 2.1,2,3,4). The original account from 1284 did not include the rats, which are integral to the modern story. Rats, and their removal by the piper, was added in the mid-fourteenth century, around the time the Plague or Black Death ravished Europe and rat catchers became common in medieval towns. The original event is commemorated as Ratcatcher’s (Rattenfänger) Day, July 22, 1387, but Joseph and Wilhem Grimm’s “Rattenfänger von Hamelin” in Deutsche Sagen (1816,1818) places the actual year of the loss of 130 of Hamelin’s children as 1284.
Theories vary as to the truth of what might have happened in Hamelin, but widely accepted by historians is the theory the children were part of the Ostseidlung, the German term for colonization of Eastern Europe. The poem, and subsequent picture book pairing Greenaway’s illustrations with each stanza, presents an ending that is bittersweet. The two witness children who return to Hamelin to tell the tale speak of a better land and wishing to be with their friends, and the piper. In the final stanza of Browning’s poem, the parents grieve the loss of the children, who have forgotten them, their magical captor seemingly having removed their desire or ability to visit Hamelin again. Greenaway’s choice of colors and composition in the 1903 cover illustration (shown) conveys that the piper is both their rescuer and a villain.
In 1888, Browning’s poem was brought to visual life as a book for children through the illustrations. John Ruskin, Greenaway’s correspondent and a prominent Victorian author and critic, spoke of her illustrations for the book as “the grandest thing she had ever done”. In the beloved children’s book, the townspeople promise to pay for ridding their town of troublesome rats but break their promise and lose their children to the vengeful piper.
Kate Greenway created thirty-five watercolor illustrations for Pied Piper of Hamelin which were engraved and color-printed through the process of chromoxylography (wood blocks) by Edmund Evans. Her illustrations changed the rather grim folktale to a modern and beloved fairytale, presenting idyllic Victorian views of childhood for which she is synonymous. Early 20th century editions of the Pied Piper of Hamelin have the frontispiece from the original Greenaway edition as the cover. Greenaway’s illustration depicts a utopic scene for the children as conveyed in Browning’s poem.
Sources and further readings include:
Adamson, Mary Troxclair. "The Legend of the Pied Piper in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Grimm, Browning, and Skurzynski." The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature. Accessed July 18, 2019. http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/390/383.
"Frontispiece to "The Pied Piper of Hamelin". Accessed July 18, 2019. http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/greenaway/9.html.
Idioms. "Pay the Piper." Idioms Online. January 17, 2019. Accessed July 19, 2019. https://www.idioms.online/pay-the-piper/.
National Geographic Society. “Ratcatcher's Day.” National Geographic Society, 18 June 2014, www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/jul22/ratcatchers-day/.
"Pied Piper of Hamelin." Wikipedia. July 17, 2019. Accessed July 18, 2019. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rattenfänger_von_Hameln.
Browning, Robert. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning." Poetry Foundation. Accessed July 19, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45818/the-pied-piper-of-hamelin.
To view these and other editions of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, visit Special Collections on the 3rd floor of McCain Library & Archives, or contact Ellen Ruffin at or 601.266.6543.
Text by Jeannie Thompson, Practicum Student and SLIS Archival Graduate Student.