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“‘Please your honors,’ said he, ‘I’m able, by means of a secret charm, to draw all creatures living beneath the sun that creep, or swim, or fly, or run, after me so as you never saw! And I chiefly use my charm on creatures that do people harm: the mole, and toad, and newt, and viper; And people call me the Pied Piper.’”
-An introduction to a character that needs no introduction

For 300 years, a stained glass window depicting a colorfully dressed piper stood in the church of the German town of Hamelin. Although the window was destroyed in 1660, records detail the message enshrined upon it:

In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colors, 130 born in Hamlin were seduced and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.

Another entry in Hamelin’s town records dating from 1384 follows up with a grim assessment:

It has been 100 years since our children left.

It’s said that every folk story and fairy tale has a grain of truth to them…which can make the tale in question even more disturbing when there are written accounts to back it up. Such is the case with The Pied Piper of Hamelin. We know something terrible right out of a fantasy story did indeed happen, but the details and reasoning behind it are lost to time. From there the human imagination takes over and fills in the spaces with dark suppositions. What of this enigmatic Piper who lured so many victims to an unknown fate? Is he Death personified? One of the fae? A remnant of the mysterious dancing plague that struck 14th century Europe? Was he a colorful recruiter of German colonizers looking to settle further east? A metaphor for the Children’s Crusade, where thousands of children were rounded up to take the Holy Land only to never return? Or, perhaps, a dark manifestation of the fear of child predators?

Curiously, neither the window nor documents make any mention of a rat plague that so often accompanies retellings of the Pied Piper story. That aspect didn’t appear until the 16th century. The wonder and terror surrounding the Piper’s doings have inspired one interpretation after another. Can Faerie Tale Theatre recapture the magic, or is it full of sour notes?

Our episode starts with a rather interesting framing device in the home of real-life English poet Robert Browning (Eric Idle). He’s hosting a party while looking after the young son of a family friend. Ah, the good old days when you could leave your child at the home of your single male friend and nobody assumed the worst.

The boy, Willy, is mad that he has to go to bed while the party is in full swing. Browning’s pal Edward is all “Let the kid stay up, his folks don’t have to know” but Browning insists on being the responsible adult in the room. Edward makes a sarcastic remark about “paying the Piper” which sparks Willy’s curiosity. “Who’s the Piper, and what must he be paid?” he asks Browning. After eliciting a promise that he’ll go to sleep once his story is told, Browning begins his recitation.

From that point on the majority of the dialogue and narration is directly borrowed from Browning’s epic poem about the Pied Piper, the most influential version of the story. This means the rest of the episode is done completely in rhyme. To the show’s credit, Browning’s prose translates to the screen surprisingly well. The actors pull it off naturally. Illumination, watch and learn for your future Dr. Seuss movies.

The transition from storyteller to story is sudden but fascinating. Rats appear in Willy’s bedroom as his imagination takes over and transforms his surroundings into Hamelin. He and various people from his life fill the prominent roles, elevating the proceedings beyond mere reenactment into a child processing complex emotions and lessons.

Hamelin is a quaint village on the banks of the river Weser suffering from an overabundance of rats. And since these rodents are no good at French cooking, the townspeople can’t abide them. You can hardly go ten steps without running into a rat on the streets, in the tavern or any home no matter how well-fortified. A town assembly is held to decide further course of action; the greedy mayor and his council (also referred to as his corporation) are conspicuously absent. The killer cats, alchemy and snake oil remedies didn’t pan out, and nobody can come to a consensus about a new extermination plan.

Amidst the hubbub appears a stranger in colorful garb asking about Hamlin’s rat problem. He’s met with brusque indifference by the townsfolk. Only a poor Tiny Tim clone is nice enough to catch him up on things. The stranger reveals he’s come to do something about the rats. When the boy points him towards the mayor’s place, the stranger promises he’ll “provide protection” to him in the near future should things go sour. He also rather cryptically advises him that dreams, no matter how real they seem, are mirages no more genuine than the promise that his disfigured foot will heal, and all is but a fantasy.

“Reality is an illusion, the universe is a hologram, buy gold, BYYYYEEEE!”

The townsfolk protest the mayor and his corporation’s failure to deal with the rats outside of the town hall. The mayor’s feeble attempts to quell the populace winds up with him getting egg on his face (literally). For an hour the council sits pointing fingers at each other instead of formulating a plan.

The humble beginnings of the GOP.

It’s then the stranger enters and introduces himself as The Pied Piper. He promises to rid Hamelin of its rats by means of a charm on his flute that lures all loathsome creatures to his side. His past exploits with pest extermination wins over the mayor and his corporation. When he says he’ll do the job for only a thousand guilders, the council is so enthusiastic that they up the price fifty times over! The Piper’s all “Nah, that’s way too generous, but hey if you’re offering…”

The Piper steps into the streets and begins playing his pipe. The rats come out of the woodwork and gather around him in a frenzy. “So many rats,” says Browning, “it looks like dreaming.”

Or a nightmare. Nightmare works too.

The Piper advances to the outskirts of town with the enchanted rats following in his stead. He leads them to the river Weser where they plunge in and perish. Hamelin celebrates, and the mayor and his corporation are all too happy to take the credit for their good fortune. But before they can break open the beer kegs, the Piper returns asking for what’s owed to him.

It turns out the mayor drastically underestimated the council’s budget. Only fifty guilders sit in their coffers. Not fifty thousand, fifty. None of the corporation are willing to part with their own riches, and they wouldn’t dare risk losing the midterms by raising taxes. After hemming and hawing, they convince themselves that the Piper’s magic was just some trickery on his part; hardly worth fifty thousand guilders, let alone his original asking price. And besides, the rats are all dead, so it’s not like he can bring them back to Hamelin if he’s unsatisfied with the deal. The corporation congratulates themselves on this cunning bit of logic with pay raises and steak dinners all around.

The mayor invites the Piper in and says “Thanks, you did a great job, but you knew we were just kidding about the fee, right?” He “magnanimously” offers the paltry sum of fifty guilders instead. The Piper cuts right through his bullshit and refuses to accept anything less than what was agreed upon. He ominously states that he can play even more dangerous kinds of music when he’s mad. To this the mayor blusters “Do your worst! Blow that pipe until you burst!”

The Piper exits the town hall cursing Hamelin. The corporation begins to have second thoughts, but the mayor shrugs and states that it’s just politics. One traveling musician is powerless against their corporate machine.

Storm clouds darken the sky as the Piper pulls out his flute once more. His song echoes throughout Hamlin – only this time, he’s not luring out rats. The mayor and his corporation are frozen where they stand, forced to watch as the Piper puts all of the town’s happy little children under his spell.

For one horrifying moment it looks like he’s about to doom them just as he did the rats in the river, but instead he spirits them into the woods. The children blissfully skip and clap along like it’s a game, but to every powerless adult, it’s a death march. The Piper opens a glowing portal in the mountainside. The children joyfully step in after him…

…all except the poor lame boy, who couldn’t keep up with everyone. Despite being spared their fate, he spends the rest of his days lamenting that the illusory wonders in the Piper’s song are forever beyond his reach. That act of kindness promised to him is indeed a cruel one.

Alas, poor Hamlin. The streets that once rang with the squeaks of a thousand rodents and the merry laughter of children are filled with weeping. The mayor sends out villagers to search for the Piper and have him return their sons and daughters, but in vain. In time, everyone accepts that neither Piper or child will ever come back. On July 22nd 1376, the street where the children were last seen is officially renamed Pied Piper Street, and all music is forbidden there. A stone marker detailing the Piper’s exodus is also erected outside the spot where he vanished, and a stained glass window of him is added to the church so no one will ever forget Hamlin’s folly and tragedy.

“So what’s the moral of the story, Willy?” “That the short-sighted greed of politicians and corporations routinely screw over future generations?” “That’s my boy!”

The Pied Piper of Hamlin is one of the more serious episodes of Faerie Tale Theatre – then why is it so much better than its dour sister outings like Hansel and Gretel or Beauty and the Beast? For one thing, the clever rhymes mingled with political satire add levity to the proceedings. Weaving them together with phenomenal acting and an atmosphere that’s at once mysterious, hostile and fantastical creates a magical experience, one that truly captures the story’s essence.

Eric Idle is the real standout, though. He was not the first choice to play the Piper; David Bowie was originally cast but had to step out for unknown reasons. While there’s no doubt he would have been excellent in the role, Idle absolutely kills it. This may be the only non-comedic role I’ve ever seen him in and it’s a perfect bit against typecasting. He’s charismatic, enigmatic, hypnotic, always one step ahead of the game, and at times, terrifying. He hardly raises his voice against the overbearing mayor yet commands the entire room. Plus, unlike the previous month’s episode, the narration in his mellifluous voice never overstays its welcome.

Going back to what I said before about established characters playing the roles in the story-within-a-story, each one is a distinct parallel to their fantasy counterpart. Willy and the lame boy are wide-eyed innocents, have yet to understand the nature of the promises made to them, and are victims of the adults’ actions. The mayor and Edward are frivolous and think nothing of breaking a promise if it means more personal gain in the short-term. The Pied Piper and Browning are well-meaning authoritative figures who have a soft spot for their ward but do things the others consider unpleasant because they’re men of their word. When Willy and Browning hug afterwards, it’s an affectionate gesture that reads like a mutual understanding on the nature of keeping oaths. On a metaphorical level, the Piper and the lame boy are reconciling over promises both broken and kept. It’s a beautiful and touching spin on the poem’s finale, and the perfect note to end this episode on. This entry seems like the odd duck out compared to the lighthearted, cheesier episodes in the Faerie Tale Theatre canon, but it’s no less entertaining and thrilling.


  • Real rats were used throughout this episode; the ones that jump into the water were specially trained for it.
  • My favorite subtlety of this episode is that the Pied Piper’s colorful checkered cloak is also Willy’s blanket.
  • One of the corporation members grouses using choice words from Oliver Hardy: “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”
  • Like Rumpelstiltskin and Goldilocks before it, this episode also has a deleted scene…one where a rat who calls himself “Julius Ceasar Rat” monologues to the audience about being the only rodent in Hamelin to escape the Piper. The setting of a dug-out hole in the ground is the same as the one Shelley Duvall films the intro. Apart from compromising the verisimilitude of a rather sober episode since none of the rats were anthropomorphized prior to this, the rat costume is disgustingly nightmarish (and the poor video quality doesn’t help), so don’t watch unless you want to stay awake tonight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIar6UUEtLY. This is one excluded scene that I do not miss.
  • To further underscore the terror of the Piper’s revenge, moments before he strikes you can hear a child saying “He’s heeeeeere…” like in Poltergeist.
  • I actually like rats, they’re very intelligent and even cute. They just get a bad rap because of the fleas on them spreading the Black Plague. That’s not to say I like hordes of rats, but these animals tend to be hated on needlessly.
  • Also, this is my 300th post! Drinks all around!

Hey, Was That…: Director Nicholas Meyer has the best of the Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Kahn, under his belt. The Mayor/Edward is television actor Tony Van Bridge. Keram Malicki-Sanchez plays Willy/The Lame Boy. Peter Boretski, who voiced Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker Prince, makes a small appearance as Bernard The Necromancer. And give it up for THE James Horner for providing such a haunting score to complement this eerie tale.

Also I also swore that one of the councilmen was Frank Oz, but apparently it wasn’t. Eh, you can’t win ’em all.

Who’s The Artist?: The provincial town, bucolic forests and fourteenth-century garb of Hamlin brings the works of Flemish painter Jan Brueghel to life. *chef’s kiss*

Better Or Worse Than…?: Though the Piper’s been the subject of film, television and theater for generations, this is easily one of the finest adaptations of the story. I also have a soft spot for Happily Ever After’s version where the Piper plays some real smooth jazz; the animation’s not the best since this was made during the second season, but damn do I love the music. And of course, it’s been adapted and parodied by the likes of Disney for the Silly Symphonies and the Looney Tunes.

Ranking: For the sheer talent on display in the reworking and performance of such a prominent rhyming tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin gets the Number 5 spot between The Three Little Pigs and The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers.

Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre, it looks like some of those rats will be put to good use after all – Cinderella‘s got a ball to get to!

Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th of each month. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!