"TO PAY THE PIPER" AND THE LEGEND OF "THE PIED PIPER
In the year of the 700th anniversary of the
German legend of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (1284-1984) it
might be of interest to take a glance at how this folk
narrative has also survived in the short form of a
proverbial expression.1 In
the German language we have the expression "Er ist ein
chlauer Rattenfänger von Hameln" (He is a smart
rat-catcher [pied piper] of Hamelin) or also simply
"Ein Rattenfänger sein" (To be a rat-catcher [pied
piper]).2 This phrase
can be used and interpreted positively or negatively, just
as the original legend itself actually portrays the pied
piper as an ambivalent figure, both good and evil. As a
rat-catcher he is altogether a benevolent magician, but as
an abductor of 130 innocent children (young adults) he
becomes malevolent and evil as the devil himself. Once the
legend became popular in the Anglo-American world through
Robert Brownings well-known poem "The Pied Piper of
Hamelin" (1842),3 a similar
phenomenon can be observed for the English language as well.
The legend that was retold in Brownings extremely
popular poetic version resulted in the short proverbial
expression "To be a pied piper" which is used to refer
positively or negatively to various types of figures who
want to bring people of all ages and walks of life under
their spell. Such modern pied pipers could be politicians,
leaders of religious sects, rock stars, teachers or whatever
but all attempting to lead people to some kind of
In both German and English (and in most European
languages for that matter) we find these ambigous
connotations of the proverbial expression "to be a pied
piper" or the mere title: "Pied Piper." But for the English
language there is an additional curiosity that must be
looked at, since many people connect the proverbial
expression "To pay the piper" with the Pied Piper of the
Hamelin legend as well. A check into the standard proverb
collections reveals that this is actually a shortened
version of such proverbs as "Who pays the piper, calls the
tune" (1611), "Those that dance must pay the music" (1638),
"He who pays the piper may order the tune" and "He who pays
the piper can call the tune," for which 1611 is the earliest
reference, but which are probably older.4
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The full text of this
article is published in De
Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue
electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.
In the meantime, the figurative meaning is listed in a
number of the large dictionaries of the English language, of
which three must suffice as final examples:
Pied Piper a person who induces others to
imitate his example, esp. by means of false or
pied piper one that offers strong but delusive
enticement; a leader who makes irresponsible promises. 16
pied piper a person who entices or misleads
Judging by these figurative meanings, the negative
characteristics of the legendary Pied Piper are definitely
being stressed. Yet many modern examples of the use of the
"Pied Piper" exist that indicate a very positive
understanding of this metaphorical expression. The editors
of such dictionaries would be well advised to stress the
fact that today the Pied Piper is seen as an ambigous person
who can fit almost any leadership situation -- from the
worst political demagogue to an innocent little drummer boy.
But no matter which Pied Piper we might choose to follow, we
will certainly have "to pay the piper" in the end.
Permission to publish this article
granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder,
University of Vermont, USA).
Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp.
a detailed account of the origin and history of this legend
see above all Willy Krogmann, Der Rattenfänger von
Hameln. Eine Untersuchung über das Werden der Sage (Berlin: Emil Ebering, 1934; rpt. Nedeln/Liechtenstein:
Kraus, 1967); Wolfgang Wann, Die Lösung der Hamelner
Rattenfängersage (Diss. Würzburg, 1949);
Heinrich Spanuth, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Vom
Werden und Sinn einer alten Sage (Hameln: C. W.
Niemeyer, 1951); Hans Dobertin, Quellensammlung zur
Hamelner Rattenfägersage (Göttingen: Otto
Schwartz, 1970); Norbert Humburg, Der Rattenfänger
von Hameln, Ein Lese-, Lieder, Bilder-Buch (Hameln: C.
W. Niemeyer, 1984). For the modern survival of the legend in
literature, art and mass media see Wolfgang Mieder, "Die
Sage vom Rattenfänger vom Hameln in der
modernen Literatur, Karikatur und Werbung," Muttersprache (im Druck).
Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, Deutsches
Sprichwörter-Lexikon (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus,
1877; rpt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,
1964), vol. 3, col. 1495, "Rattenfänger" No. 1. See
also Lutz Röhrich, Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen
Redensarten (Freiburg: Herder, 1973), vol. 2, p.
a discussion of Robert Brownings importance for the
legend in the English speaking world see Arthur Dickson,
"Brownings Source for the Pied Piper of
Hamelin," Studies in Philology, 23 (1926),
Morris Plamer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in
England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann
Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1950), p.
541; Vincent Stuckey Lean, Leans Collectanea,
ed. T. W. Williams (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1903; rpt.
Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1969), vol. 3, p. 494; G. L.
Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London: J. M. Dent, 1929; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co.,
1969), p. 487; F. P. Wilson, The Oxford Dictionary of
Proverbs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p.
Richard Verstegan, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence
in Antiquities (Antwerp: Robert Bruney, 1605; London:
John Norton, 1634), pp. 85-87. Also reprinted in Dobbertin,
for example Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting. A
Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial
Expressions (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1958), p. 131.
A. C. Mounsey, "England must pay the piper," Notes and
Queries, 6th series, 9 (March 29, 1884), pp.
248-249. Brewer repeated his claim in The Readers
Handbook (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1893), p.
9See Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, revised
by Ivor H. Evans (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 812
and pp. 832-833.
M. Hyamson, A Dictionary of English Phrases (New
York: E. P. Dutton, 1922; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co.,
1970), p. 274.
N. Lurie, Everyday Sayings. Their Meanings Explained.
Their Origins Given (New York: G. P. Putnams Sons,
1928; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1968), pp.
Urdang and Nancy LaRoche, Picturesque Expressions: A
Thematic Dictionary (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980),
1816 Grimm version of the legend (the composite standard
form in the German speaking world) was not available in
English translation, even though Browning probably knew it
through its German text. In 1981 Donald Ward, superb
translator of Grimms legends, could claim that his
translation is the first printed English text of the Pied
Piper legend; see D. Ward, The German Legends of the
Brothers Grimm (Philadelphia; Institute for the Study of
Human Issues, 1981), vol. 1. P. 393 (the translated legend
is to be found on pp. 207-208).
Random House Dictionary of the English Language, ed.
Jess Stein (New York: Random House, 1967), p.
Third New International Dictionary of the English
Language, ed. Philip Babcock Gove
(Springfield/Massachusetts: Merriam, 1971), p.
World Book Dictionary, ed. Clarence and Robert Barnhart
(Chicago: World Book, 1976), vol. 2, p. 1578. It is
interesting to note that the figurative meaning is not yet
included in The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1933; rpt. 1961), vol. 7, p.
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405