The Pied Piper of Hamelin is unusual, in that it is both a fairy tale (a story with magical elements) and a legend (a story based on real events).
The story is a simple one. The town of Hamelin (or Hameln, a real town in Germany) was overrun by rats. The people tried many remedies without results. Finally, a mysterious stranger appeared and offered to get rid of the rats. The mayor (or sometimes the people of the town) offers him a fee, and the stranger plays a magical tune on his pipe that causes all the rats to follow him out of town. When the stranger returns for his fee, the mayor refuses to pay him, since all he did was play a tune. The stranger plays a new tune, one which causes all the children of the town to follow him out of the town. Neither the piper nor the children is ever seen again. In some tellings of the story, there is one disabled child left behind, and that child is sad to have been unable to go along.
The effects of the piper’s tunes are the magical part of the story.
As for the real basis of the story, no one is quite sure. It seems that something happened in Hamelin in June of the year 1284. There are ancient inscriptions in the town, and records of a stained-glass window commemorating the event. There is a gate that says that a magician took 130 children away. Street names reflect the sorrow of the loss. There are even rats decorating the cobblestones as a reminder.
Some scholars say that “children of Hamelin” should not be taken to mean children, just people from Hamelin, and that the story refers to a mass migration of people from Hamelin to Eastern Europe. Others believe that something terrible really happened to the children of Hamelin, whether it was a plague, a Children’s Crusade, or some other event. No one knows for sure.
- Read and Understand Fairy Tales & Folktales, Grades 1-2 has an easy reader version of the story with plenty of reproducibles.
- Scholastic’s Fluency Practice Read-Aloud Plays: Grades 5-6 includes the story of the Pied Piper. Use this play as a follow-up to reading the story, or have students write their own.
- Robert Browning wrote a version in verse. Consider a dramatic reading of the poem as an alternative to a play. You might prefer to have Browning’s The Pied Piper Of Hamlin as a picture book illustrated by Kate Greenaway; the title link will take you to it.
- “Ma Hsiang Rids Hangchow of Rats” is reminiscent of the story of the Pied Piper. This story does not include the luring away of the children, so it can’t really be considered the same story. However, in it the rats are removed by means of excellent persuasive writing. Read this very brief story as part of a discussion of what other options the villagers might have had, and use it to kick off your study of persuasive writing.
- The word “pied” is not used very often nowadays, but it is a word in English, and it means “multicolored.” Words that people don’t use much any more are called “archaic.” Check out The Phrontistery for a good list of some archaic words you are likely to encounter in a fairy tale. If the class is interested, pull out all the stops and share The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten with them.
- Try out online activities which not only check comprehension, but also offer practice with the mouse, drop-down menus, and so forth. This should cover some technology requirements as well as English.
- Play “Follow the leader.” Click the link to find rules, or just have the leader wend his or her way through the classroom, while all the other students follow along, copying the leader’s movements.
- What is the moral of the story? The importance of keeping promises is sometimes suggested, or the dangers of greed, but I am not so sure that there is a moral. I think it would make a good writing prompt.
- The term “pied piper” is often used nowadays to describe someone very popular, or with leadership ability. Being described as “the pied piper of math” is readily understood as meaning that the person so described is able to make people very excited about math, and so to lead them. Challenge students to design and make a Pied Piper award for the kids in your class who show leadership ability.
“The Pied Piper” lends itself to legal questions. Any of these simulations will provide opportunities for research and critical thinking, as well as written and oral communication practice:
- Draw up a contract between the mayor and the piper that will prevent the problems that arise in the story.
- Hold an investigation into the mystery of the children’s disappearance, with a mock trial of the Pied Piper. There is not enough information in the story to provide an outcome, so this will require imagination and/or research into the historical theories, depending on the ages of the students.
- You could also have a mock civil suit brought against the mayor by the parents.
- You have to study woodwind instruments when you read this story, though there are versions in which the piper is replaced by a fiddler. An Australian opera company has an advanced resource with interesting lessons for the music class. Try out recorders with a classroom practice book.
- Pass out the recorders or kazoos and play “Following the Leader” from Disney’s Peter Pan with the leader playing a phrase and the rest of the students copying. Make the passages of music longer and more difficult as you go along, or allow students to take turns being the leader.
- The music link above has good science content, and all science lessons involving sound could fit well with this story.
- You might also want to learn about rats. Here is a PDF file with T/F questions about rats. The second page refers to a comic book about rats as scientific subjects, and may not be useful without access to the comic book, but the first page gives an opportunity to look at rats in a more positive light.
- If you don’t want to view rats in a positive light, you could also study bubonic plague, a disease spread by fleas carried by rats. A Bubonic Plague Role Play will help students understand why the rats were so unwelcome in Hamelin. Connect this historic tragedy with the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. What’s different? What’s the same? Note that many people went into quarantine during the plague. Shakespeare wrote King Lear while under quarantine. Isacc Newton worked out his theory of gravity. Help students think about goals or projects they may want to work on while under stay-at-home orders.