Grip the Raven

Charles Dickens’s pet raven Grip helped inspire Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven.

In the first half of the 19th century Charles Dickens had a pet raven named Grip who, by all accounts, was quite the handful. Grip was talkative, bossy, and aggressive. She intimidated the family’s mastiff Turk (she would steal food from his bowl) and would also bite the Dickens children. Eventually Dickens exiled Grip to the shed where, being a mischievous raven, she got into a can of white paint (which contained lead). On March 12, 1841 Dickens wrote to his friend, the illustrator Daniel Maclise, that Grip had died.

Because he loved Grip Dickens had her stuffed and mounted in a case complete with a woodland setting of branches and leaves. He also had Maclise create a portrait of her. Despite Grip’s difficult personality it didn’t put Dickens off to having more ravens as pets, the next of which he also named Grip (who, according to Dickens’s daughter Mamie, was also a handful).

Grip the raven inspired by Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe.

Quoth the Raven …

In 1842 Dickens and his wife traveled to America. As part of his tour around the states he met with Edgar Allan Poe who had favorably reviewed Dickens’s 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge. In the novel the titular character of Barnaby Rudge has a talkative pet raven whose name just happens to be Grip. Poe was particularly interested in Grip, whom he described as “intensely amusing” and liked that Grip the character was based on Dickens’s own real pet Grip.

A few years after learning about Grip, Poe would write his most defining work, 1845’s The Raven. In the poem a raven flies into the room of the grief-stricken narrator, tormenting him that he will never be reunited with his lost love. It’s widely believed by Poe scholars that the inspiration for the bird in the poem was Grip the raven (both the real Grip and the fictional Grip). There are numerous similarities between the bird in The Raven and Grip the raven in Barnaby Rudge.

the Free Library of Philadelphia

After Dickens died in 1870 Grip was sold at auction. She was eventually bought by Colonel Richard Gimbel (a wealthy member of the Philadelphia department store family) who was an avid collector of both Dickens and Poe. He also purchased the Philadelphia home of Edgar Allan Poe which was later donated to the National Park Service. Grip, as well as the rest of the Gimbel collection of Dickens and Poe artifacts (including the only known copy of The Raven written in Poe’s hand), were bequeathed to the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1971. Today Grip can be found, still in her case, at the end of a series of hallways on the 3rd floor of the Central Library in the Rare Books department.

Grip at the end of the 3rd floor hallway in the Rare Books department of the Philadelphia Free Library
Grip sits in her case at the end of the hallways in the Rare Books department of the Philadelphia Free Library central branch on Vine Street.
Plaque from the Friends of Libraries

Grip the mischievous raven inspired two literary giants. The Raven the poem then went on to inspire untold others including the naming of the Baltimore Ravens (the only football team named after a piece of literature).

Added info: Grip was not the only Dickens pet that had a life after death. After Bob the family cat died Dickens had one of his paws turned into a letter opener.

Also, while crows and ravens are fairly similar there are some easy ways to tell them apart. It’s frequently written that “ravens are larger than crows” but without seeing the two side-by-side it can be difficult if you haven’t previously seen both species. Perhaps the easiest way is the tail feathers which, when in flight, the feathers of a raven come to a point like a “V” (like the “v” in “raven”). A crow’s tail feathers are more of a straight line.

MacGuffins

The thing that drives the plot but doesn’t really matter.

In storytelling, a MacGuffin is something that drives the plot but exactly what the thing is doesn’t really matter. It’s a catalyst that gives the characters something to pursue, something to destroy, something to protect, all while revealing their morality, their motivations, etc. A MacGuffin helps to generate action and suspense but ultimately doesn’t directly affect the plot. It has theoretical value to the characters but has no real value to the story. The moment a MacGuffin significantly changes the plot it ceases to be a MacGuffin.

The term was created by screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock (who in turn made the concept famous by using it in several of his films). While the term is new the idea of the MacGuffin is as old as storytelling itself. For example Helen of Troy prompting the siege of Troy in The Iliad, Sleeping Beauty and other classic damsels in distress in need of saving, the Holy Grail motivating the The Knights of the Round Table, etc. are all MacGuffins driving the story but having little impact on the plot.

One of the best examples of a MacGuffin is the statue in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon. The search for the Maltese Falcon statue drives the plot but the fact that it’s a statue of a bird is irrelevant – it just needed to be something of value/importance to the characters. Whether it was a statue, a painting, secret plans, etc. it just had to be something to motivate the characters.

From the Maltese Falcon statue to the Dude’s rug, MacGuffins help drive the story.

Let’s chase some MacGuffins

There are many examples of MacGuffins, as well as classifications of MacGuffins, but the following are a few examples found in popular media:

  • It’s the secret military plans in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
  • the stolen $40,000 in Psycho
  • the microfilm in North by Northwest
  • It’s basically everything Indiana Jones chases after such as the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • the sacred Sankara Stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • It’s the glowing suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly, which in turn inspired …
  • the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction
  • George Lucas said that R2-D2 with the Death Star plans in Star Wars is a MacGuffin
  • It’s the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski
  • the Horcruxes in Harry Potter
  • “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane
  • It’s Pauline from Donkey Kong and Zelda in the Legend of Zelda
  • Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) in the first season of The Mandalorian
  • Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan
  • etc.

Not a MacGuffin

The ring in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is frequently thought of as a MacGuffin, but this is incorrect. While the ring could be exchanged for some other object the fact that it has a direct effect on the characters who encounter it, that Bilbo and Frodo both use it numerous times for its magical power of invisibility, and in doing both of these directly changes the plot throughout the story, means it isn’t a MacGuffin.

Added info: lest you think their bar was Scottish themed, the concept of the MacGuffin is so pervasive in film that AMC Theatres named their chain of theater bars MacGuffins Bar.

Alfred Hitchcock explains what a MacGuffin is on The Dick Cavett Show.

A Trope Talk deep-dive into MacGuffins.

the Imp of the Perverse

The urge to do the wrong thing at the worst possible time.

The imp of the perverse is the phenomenon where you have the urge to do the wrong thing at the worst possible time. The name comes from the 1845 Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name which is part essay part short story. Poe lays out his theory that humans sometimes have a destructive drive that works against their best interests. It then goes on to be a short story of murder (as Poe stories tend to do).

What if I …

Like the imps of folklore, or maybe the cartoon devil on your shoulder, we each have a mischievous side that tells us to do something wrong just because we can. It can be something benign like the urge to shout in a quiet concert hall, or maybe to throw a coin off the top of a building, to jump out and scare someone, or maybe to tip over a carefully arranged stack of cans in the grocery store. Sometimes the ideas are more dangerous like thinking about driving your car off the road, pushing someone, etc. We don’t do it, but that little thought pops up sometimes.

A special kind of imp of the perverse is the French concept of “L’appel du vide” or “the call of the void”, where you stand at the edge of a precipice and think “I could just jump right over the edge” but then quickly back away. Studies of L’appel du vide (aka High Place Phenomenon) suggest that it isn’t suicidal – quite the opposite. Researchers believe that this is your brain warning you to be careful. It’s driven by a desire to continue living rather than the other way around.

Choices and ideas

It’s not fully understood why we have these thoughts, why the imp of the perverse pops up from time to time. One possible explanation is that we like to have options even if we know we would never choose some of them. Just knowing that we could do/say something is satisfying enough without actually doing/saying it. Another possibility is that these thoughts are part of an internal rebellious drive, part of what psychoanalyst Otto Rank called our “counterwill”, where we oppose feeling confined/controlled and so we try and assert our own individuality. It could be an internal way of feeling like an individual by thinking counter to what is expected & acceptable.

That said, some of these wild ideas are useful. They might be long shots, but occasionally one of these ideas is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that’s necessary for innovation. Sure most of these ideas are “hold my beer” bad but a few come along which might just be crazy enough to work. Purely rebellious ideas like dropping a coin off the top of a tall building isn’t going to do much but thinking outside of the norm is where big innovative ideas come from.

Thinking these thoughts is normal. Our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control, helps us follow social norms and not follow through on these ideas. Still, every now and then the imp of the perverse manages to serve up something helpful.

Following the imp of the perverse, Jerry sets up Elaine for disaster.

Mount Tambora & Frankenstein

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 led to the creation of Frankenstein.

Mount Tambora is a volcano on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia and on April 5, 1815 it began a monumental multi-day eruption. The eruption is still the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, the estimated equivalent of a 14,000-megaton nuclear bomb. It was so powerful it removed the top 4,750 feet of the volcano, reducing it to 9,350 feet tall as it sent more than 38 cubic miles of debris into the sky. The explosion was so loud it was heard 1,600 miles away, the equivalent of an explosion in Philadelphia being heard in Denver.

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, cause global devastation.

The eruption immediately killed over 10,000 people on the island. All of the island’s vegetation was destroyed and the water was poisoned which led to starvation and disease killing a further 37,825 Sumbawanese people. As the tsunami it generated, and the ash it expelled, spread to other islands, it killed off more vegetation and more people. Over 71,000 people are believed to have died in the immediate area of Indonesia from the eruption. However, with so much material being sent into the sky, the full impact of the eruption was only beginning.

Into the Stratosphere and Around the World

The long-term effects of the eruption were caused by the gases & ash sent into the stratosphere 141,000 feet into the sky. The sulfur dioxide (SO2) released caused a global greenhouse effect, blocking out sunlight and changing weather patterns. While the effects were spread around the world they were worse in the northern hemisphere. The cold weather and constant rain (such as the 8 weeks of “unceasing and extraordinary rain” in Ireland) killed crops around Europe causing food shortages in what became the worst famine in 19th century mainland Europe. Over 65,000 people died around the British Isles as a result of a typhus epidemic which was made worse by the volcanic induced weather. A new strain of cholera also developed in this weather, killing thousands more.

In North America a dry fog descended on the northeastern states which lasted for months. The extended cold was felt up & down the eastern seaboard. On the 4th of July the high in Savannah, Georgia was only 46° F. Rivers and lakes were still frozen in Pennsylvania in August. The extreme weather and bitter cold is believed to have been a catalyst for the westward expansion across America – people wanted to find a place that wasn’t awful. The eruption of Mount Tambora lowered global temperatures by 0.7 to 1.3 °F but its particularly brutal effects on the northern hemisphere is why 1816 came to be known as the “year without a summer.” The initial volcanic eruption, the extreme cold, the unusual weather patterns, as well as the spread of diseases resulted in a global death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Silver Lining

Despite the adversity there were some positives. German inventor Karl Drais was motivated to find an alternate means of transportation to the horse (since horses require food which was in short supply at the time). He invented the first bicycle, the Laufmaschine, in 1817.

The eruption caused strange dark colors in the skies captured by a variety of painters of the day.

In the arts painters were inspired by the unusual hazy skies. Particulate matter from Mount Tambora hung in the stratosphere frequently blocking the shorter wavelength colors of blue light. A study of paintings from between 1500 to 1900 found that the paintings around 1816 got redder & darker than other time periods. The polluted skies might have made for more depressing daily life but they made for some great paintings.

But perhaps the greatest byproduct of the year without a summer was in literature. In the summer of 1816 a group of English friends traveled to Cologny near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They hoped to escape the bad weather of England but ended up in even more rain. Sitting around with nothing to do Lord Byron proposed everyone write a ghost story. John William Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, took a story idea by Byron and eventually wrote 1819’s The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story.

The year without a summer generated two of the most influential stories in Gothic horror.

An 18 year old Mary Godwin had trouble coming up with a story until (literally) one dark & stormy night, sometime after midnight, she had a “waking dream” of a pale man kneeling beside the thing he had put together that showed signs of life. With the encouragement/help of her soon to be husband Percy Shelley, Mary (Godwin) Shelley had the beginnings of Frankenstein. In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, considered the first science-fiction story.

From one miserable vacation, caused by a volcano thousands of miles away, two of the most defining works of the Gothic horror genre were born.

The Necronomicon

The most famous magical book of occult knowledge that sounds real, but isn’t.

Possibly the most famous book that doesn’t exist, the Necronomicon is a fictional book of dark magic invented by weird fiction / horror author H.P. Lovecraft. First mentioned in 1924’s The Hound, the Necronomicon is part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, a dark collection of cosmic horror, ghouls, inter dimensional monsters, and unspeakable evil all set in an uncaring indifferent universe. The best interpretation of the name “necronomicon” is “book considering (or classifying) the dead”. Supposedly written in 738 CE by Abdul Alhazred (who was later eaten alive by an invisible monster in broad daylight), the Necronomicon is a dark book of forbidden knowledge and most Lovecraft characters who read it come to horrible ends.

Lovecraft felt to produce terror a story had to be “… devised with the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” As such the Necronomicon is very much treated as if it were a real book. Lovecraft enjoyed making his fictional world seem believable. For example, in a list of real books he would throw in a few real-sounding fake ones (such as the Necronomicon) – blurring the line between reality and fiction. Similarly he wrote that there were copies of the Necronomicon held by 5 world institutions: the British Museum, Harvard, Bibliothèque nationale de France, University of Buenos Aires, as well as Miskatonic University … which is a fictional school set in the equally fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts. Again, including a fictional creation in a list of real places making something fake seem real.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon can be found in a host of movies, books, comics, and more.

Crawling Chaos

Part of the appeal of the Necronomicon (beyond the spooky name) is that, like all good suspenseful horror, Lovecraft gives the reader just enough details to understand the idea of the Necronomicon but the exact contents (or even a good physical description of the book) are left open to your imagination. This vagueness also kept the door open for future expansion of ideas. Soon other authors began to include the Necronomicon in their work, and so it spread.

Today the Necronomicon has gone beyond the works of Lovecraft & his friends and has appeared in countless other projects. It’s in books, movies, cartoons, comics, video games, music, etc, each with their own take on exactly what the Necronomicon is, but it’s always a book of dark magic. It’s in the The Evil Dead series, it’s in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, Mr. Burns mentions it at a meeting of republicans in The Simpsons, it’s the name of a German thrash metal band, it’s the name of H.R. Giger’s first collection of artwork, Michael Crichton and Stephen King have both referenced it, etc. The book of the dead lives on, spreading its tentacles across dark fiction. Cthulhu fhtagn.

Added info: The fictional Arkham Asylum in the DC Universe, where many of Batman’s foes are frequently locked away, was named after the fictional Lovecraft town of Arkham, Massachusetts.

Mr. Burns has Bob Dole read from the Necronomicon.

In a cleverly titled episode The Collect Call of Cathulhu, the Ghostbusters discuss that the Necronomicon will be on display at the New York City Public Library.

The Butler Did It

The whodunit murder mystery trope that the butler is the culprit goes back to one book, The Door.

The first known instance of the butler being guilty of a whodunit crime is the 1893 Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, where Brunton the butler tries to locate & steal a hidden treasure (spoiler). The next known instance was 1921’s The Strange Case of Mr Challoner by Herbert Jenkins, but being published at the dawn of the Golden Age of Mysteries the work got lost in the shuffle and nobody really took notice (of the butler or the story). It wasn’t until 1930’s The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart that the trope really took off.

Mary Rinehart was a very successful early 20th century writer, known particularly for her murder mysteries.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was the “American Agatha Christie”. She was a best selling author in the Golden Age of Mysteries who was enormously popular. When her sons launched a new publishing company she wanted to give them a successful novel to produce so she quickly wrote The Door and had the butler be the murderer. Also, as an example of a false memory / Mandela Effect, while the butler did it nobody every says “the butler did it” in the book.

It was around this time however that critic and writer S. S. Van Dine wrote the article Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories where one of his rules was that “A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit.” The success of The Door, combined with the turning literary tide against making a servant the villain, quickly made “the butler did it” both a popular plot device and a cliche joke. It began to pop up in other detective stories, it was satirized, and today it lives on as a trope of early 20th century whodunit stories.

Added info: Mary Rinehart was the victim of a real-life murder attempt. Her chef, Blas Reyes, was angered over not being promoted to the position of butler, which Rinehart filled with an external hire. On June 21, 1947 Reyes couldn’t take his frustration anymore, he walked into the library where Rinehart was, pulled out a gun, and from five feet away he fired … or tried to fire. The bullets were so old they didn’t fire. Rinehart ran for the kitchen door and what followed was a chase through the house with Reyes picking up kitchen knives as he ran after her. Eventually he was subdued by other staff members of the house and turned over to the police.

Also (far less dramatic), in regards to the duties of a butler, they vary greatly by household but a butler is typically the head of the dining room, wine cellar, and pantry. They are not usually an all-around assistant, but they can be depending on the employer.

Charles Dickens and the Little Ice Age

Charles Dickens spent most of his life in the “Little Ice Age” where his earliest Christmases were snowy, which influenced later pop culture.

The Little Ice Age was a several hundred year period of unusually cold weather around parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Depending on how you want to define it, the period ran from either the 1300s or 1500s to around 1850. There are various suggested causes for this cold weather, but the result was cooler summers and especially cold winters.

In England the winters could get so cold that the River Thames would freeze. Over the centuries there were 24 times when the river was solid enough to host the River Thames frost fair, a winter celebration on the frozen river complete with vendors, dancing, sports, and more. The last such festival was in 1814 during which they walked an elephant across the frozen river.

Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim in a snowy London from A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

Born in 1812 in the south of England, Dickens’s family moved to London in 1815. As part of the Little Ice Age, the first 8 Christmases of Dickens’s life were snowy white Christmases. At a developmental stage in his life these white Christmases had a significant influence on Dickens’s idea of what Christmas should be. Dickens included a white Christmas in several stories, the first of which was 1836’s The Pickwick Papers and later, and most famously, in 1843’s A Christmas Carol.

The enormous popularity of A Christmas Carol, and the popularity of Dickens in general, greatly influenced our western cultural idea of what Christmas should be. It helped revive the celebration of Christmas in Britain, which had been on the decline during the Industrial Revolution. Snowy white landscapes, crackling fires, hot meals, mulled wine, mistletoe, wrapped packages, carols & merriment, it all became part of the ideal Christmas.

The 1942 movie Holiday Inn gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby. The 1954 movie White Christmas (seen above) also featured Bing Crosby singing White Christmas.

Our idea of a snowy white Christmas is directly linked to the staying power of Charles Dickens and that, for a young Dickens, Christmas was always white. After the Little Ice Age ended southern England has not see many white Christmases. Today there is around a 9% probability of a white Christmas in London, but the idea of a snowy Christmas persists. The 1942 movie Holiday Inn, which gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby, only furthered the Dickens idea of a snowy Christmas.

The Headless Horseman

A legend of a headless horseman and the need to cross a body of water for safety isn’t unique to Washington Irving.

Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow centers around an encounter with the headless horseman (the restless ghost of a Hessian soldier of the Revolutionary War whose head was shot off by a cannon). After attending a harvest festival at the Van Tassel house our protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is pursued in the night by the headless horseman. Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the Pocantico River because the headless horseman’s power ends at the boundary of the river. As Crane and his horse Gunpowder cross the bridge the horseman gives one last attack by throwing his own head at Crane (or so the story goes).

Headless Riders

Irving’s story is an American classic but it’s also part of a larger tradition of supernatural headless horsemen. The British Isles and Northern Europe have a variety of spectral headless riders but one of the most famous are the dullahans of Ireland. The dullahans are a kind of sinister magical creature. They’re dress in black, riding black horses (who are also headless in some versions), and when they stop riding it’s only to announce the name of someone who is about to die. Their decapitated head, which they carry in their hand, is said to have magical sight and speaks the name of the person to die. In their other hand they crack a whip made of a human spinal cord.

In some parts of Ireland a dullahan doesn’t ride a solitary horse but instead is the headless coachman of the Cóiste Bodhar, the death coach. The death coach rides to pick up someone who is about to die and carry them to the afterlife.

A dullahan as imagined by Ryan Van Dongen

Take Me To The River

In The Legend of Sleep Hollow Ichabod Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the bridge and reach the other side. This supernatural nighttime chase, and trying to reach the other side of the river, is similar to Robert Burns’s 1790 poem Tam o’ Shanter. In the poem, the titular Tam o’ Shanter has ended an evening of drinking at the pub and sets out into the night on his horse Meg. As he is riding along he sees an old abandoned church with light coming from inside, so he stops to take a closer look. Inside is a satanic witches’ sabbath complete with the Devil playing bagpipes.

Upon seeing a witch in a nightshirt that is just a bit too small, an intoxicated Shanter comments aloud, which is heard by the supernatural creatures. The lights go out and what follows is a daring chase where Shanter has to reach the other side of the River Doon. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, the witches won’t cross the river and so Shanter’s only chance of survival is to make it to the other side. As he gallops across the Bridge of Doon a witch pulls off Meg’s tail.

A detail from Tam o’ Shanter and the Witches, with Tam looking in from the window

Added info: Beyond being an inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tam o’Shanter is also the naming inspiration for the Scottish hat of the same name. The Bridge of Doon which Tam crosses, aka the Brig o’ Doon, is the inspiration for the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon and its fictional town that appears once a century.

Tam o'Shanter inspired the name of the Scottish hat as well as the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon. In this image is the Tam o'Shanter hat and the Brigadoon record cover.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The witches’ ingredients for the cauldron in Macbeth are mostly coded names for medicinal plants.

Macbeth’s Act 4 opening scene is probably one of the most well known scenes in Shakespeare. The Three Witches (aka the Weird Sisters) are in a dark cave with a boiling cauldron at the center. The witches gather and begin an incantation of dark magic, adding ingredients as they go. “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Each witch then lists a series of ingredients that, at face-value, sound disgusting and macabre. But the ingredients are not what they seem.

Witches, like early alchemists, kept their knowledge a closely guarded secret. After putting all of that effort into R&D you didn’t want the competition getting a hold of your findings. But witches had other reasons for secrecy. Unlike the fictional witches in Macbeth, most “witches” were in reality female medical workers using herbs & botanicals to create medicines. In Medieval Europe medicine was a male-dominated profession and women caught practicing medicine were sometimes branded as witches. As such they had to keep their activity, and their recipes, secret. By using alternate names for their ingredients, the contents of one’s “spell book” were kept secret. Also, using alternate names worked as a safe-guard to keep their proprietary medical knowledge out of the hands of the general public who might mistakenly try to prepare these treatments themselves.

Some believe that almost all of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew are actually coded plant names, even the problematically named “liver of blaspheming Jew”. How much of this Shakespeare knew is unclear. All the ingredients together would make an unrealistic ridiculous concoction, so they were probably chosen for theatrical shock value. He may have found a list of real “witches” ingredients and used them without knowing they were coded names. Still, if you want improved blood circulation some eye of newt (aka mustard seed) might help.

A list with pictures of the 23 ingredients in the witches' brew in Macbeth
A list of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew, and their real world counterparts.
Learn more about these and other alternate ingredients.

The Missing Children of Hamelin

It is very likely the Pied Piper is based on real events

The basic story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is that in 1284 the Medieval German town of Hamelin had a rat problem. A stranger came to town who could get rid of the rats and he did so by playing music on his magic pipe luring the rats to the Weser river where they drowned. When the piper came to collect his payment the town decided they weren’t going to pay him the agreed amount and so he exacted his revenge by using his pipe to lure 130 children of Hamelin away from the town where they were never heard from again. As fairy tales go it’s pretty … grim.

In the early 19th century this version of the story was recorded by the Grimm Brothers of Germany who documented a variety of Germanic fairy tales that were part of the oral storytelling tradition. Unlike most of their fairy tales however, the curious thing about the Pied Piper is that it seems to be only partially fictional.

Not a normal fairy tale

For being a fairy tale, one of the first curious things about the Pied Piper of Hamelin is that it takes place in a real town, not a fictional location. Also, unlike the standard “a long time ago” or some other vague time frame, this story very specifically took place in 1284. Before the Grimm version, the earliest documented version of this story is in the stained glass windows of the church of Hamelin around 1300. The church was destroyed in 1660 but details of the church, its windows, and the story of the missing children were by then documented in several places. The Hamelin records of 1384 say that, for reasons not specified, 130 children of Hamelin left in 1284 and never returned.

What happened to the children of Hamelin?

At face value the idea that a piper used music to lure rats & children out of town is unlikely. That said there were instances of dancing mania in the Middle Ages, where groups of people would just start dancing as in some sort of mass psychogenic illness. Perhaps a musician initiated some mania that led the children away.

While the stained glass windows documented the loss of Hamelin children they never mentioned a piper. The earliest documentation of a piper is the Lueneburg Manuscript of 1440-50. So for over a hundred years the story may have had no piper, just missing children.

Another theory involves the rats and that the children may have died from bubonic plague or some other infection spread by rats. Here the piper goes from being a musician or magician, to becoming a rat catcher. This theory is unlikely though because, to start, why would a disease only kill the children the town and not the adults as well? More importantly, the rats didn’t become a part of the story until 1559. So for almost 300 years the story had already been told without rats.

Still another theory is that the children left on the failed Children’s Crusade of 1212 where children of Germany & France were said to have set out for the Holy Land to try and peacefully convert the Muslims to Christianity. The piper in this case would have been someone whose job was to recruit children to join the crusade. Then the children never returned because they were sold into slavery. But because of the differences in years, and that the Children’s Crusade is riddled with fictional details and inaccuracies, it seems unlikely like that this is the explanation for the missing children of Hamelin.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is found in German colonization efforts. By the 13th century there was a push to have Germanic people move eastward to colonize more land from Poland down through Transylvania. The term “children” could have been meant more as “people of the town” rather than actual little kids. In this sense these were adults who moved away from Hamelin to settle new lands. The piper in this case could have been some loudly dressed smooth talking recruitment agent who came to town to sell people on the idea of emigration. This colonization theory is supported by a documented trail of late 13th century Hamelin family names appearing in Eastern European areas. Similarly, German place names start to become the names of towns in these areas around the same time.

So rather than a magical story of children being lured away from town by a mysterious piper, the reality may be that some citizens of Hamelin decided to leave and move eastward. As a way to remember these expatriate friends & families the town commemorated the loss in stained glass and in a story (a story that got confused and changed over the years). If only they had commemorated why they left.

Added info: “Pied” means “multicolored”, so he was a piper wearing somewhat eccentric/eye-catching multicolored clothes.