Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Odysseus. Jacob. Hermes. Bilbo Baggins. Robin Hood. Pretty Boy Floyd. Danny Ocean.

Why do we love thieves?

There's a revision of the old folk tale Jack and the Beanstalk that disapproves of our love of thieves. Jack is met at the top of the beanstalk by a fairy who lets him know that everything the giant has really belonged to his father--presto, Jack's not a thief!

This is a very boring story, naturally.

While we can justify our love of Robin Hood with the old "redistribution of wealth" claim, it seems that not every version of even Robin Hood's story includes that justification. And we can hardly make the claim for Pretty Boy Floyd or Odysseus. Bilbo is hired to reclaim the dwarfs' property from Smaug, of course, but even he comes to suspect this isn't entirely true; and certainly the Ring is no more his than it is Gollum's.

As a child with more younger siblings than older ones I always thought Jacob was an out-and-out thief; I had way more sympathy for Esau, even if he was a "hairy man."

Still, we like stories about thieves. And the Jacob story may give us a clue as to why: we're supposed to think, I think, that the wealthy, the privileged, the first-born, deserve to lose their property or their position. We don't mind if they suffer a little--they have so much. And the thief is smarter, quicker, funnier, than his prey. He's romantic, dashing, clever, more cultured than the property owner. Somehow he deserves to win.

Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia trilogy (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia) exploits our sympathy for the thief: we root for Eugenides, her thief, but we also know, I think, that our sympathy has its root in a romantic fiction. He is indeed well-born, for example, just as much as his victims (and as his name would suggest). He's a thief for hire, it seems--but a thief with a history, a family, a background. Over the course of the trilogy he's also a thief who has to come to terms with living out in the open, with a public life rather than the privacy he's cultivated so carefully. To say more would be to give too much away, but the fact that I finished them last week and am still thinking about them is a good sign--most books just float through my consciousness and fade away before I get around to talking about them.

The plot twists in the series are astonishing, but it's the subtle characterizations that fully engage the reader. These books are terrific. And they made me think about thieves in a while new way--though I still have every intention of locking up every night and holding on to my own stuff. (Thanks to Light Reading's Jenny Davidson for pointing me in their direction.)


  1. nice jack version... I want to read more now...

    I still don't quite know what I think about these thieves, but you've definitely got me thinking, anyway.

    I like the idea of the clever - almost moral - thief, and that, in the Jack tale, for example, a strong distinction was made between thieving to right wrongs and killing (at least at first). Jack is told to avenge his father's death using intelligence, not murder - to right wrongs with brains, not blows.

    Perhaps this is a weird way to think about it, but I guess it's "easier" to kill someone if you want to steal their stuff; it's harder to evade them. And it's "smart," almost moral thieving if you know who could stand to lose a thing or two - and perhaps deserves to lose, because he/she oppresses others.

    And there is something fabulous about killing the giant by cutting down the ladder -- something very egalitarian, anti-progress if it means exploitation and class divisions. Level the playing field, stop being so capitalist, and preclude the creation of giants. So it's almost as though he didn't kill him, so much as he symbolically prevented the giant's existence by removing the desire/ability to acquire excessive wealth by exploiting/consuming others.

    Hmmm... not sure any of that made sense, but I'll keep thinking...

    Hey - one more thing... Isn't it the person with the $$$ (the person on top) who loses their privilege and calls the thief a thief / proclaims this as wrong? What if someone else was doing the name-calling? How would the thievery look to someone else's eyes? Do we need a new word or are we reclaiming/re-envisioning the thief?

  2. Hmmm, will have to add those to my list. You've got me thinking...thanks!