Year of the Witch: The Thief and His Master

It’s that time again when I feel obliged to talk about a Grimm brothers story, so apologies in advance for whatever 19th century nonsense we’re going to stub our toes en route. It begins with a man named Jan who goes to church to get careers advice for his son, overhears the sexton talking about thieving and connects the dots with devout conviction. After announcing to his son that he’ll be going into trade as a thief, the next step is obviously to find a master to apprentice the boy to, so off the pair of them go into the woods. Logic is already out the window but given the number of brigands who hang out in the deep dark forest in fairy tales, this is probably a good location to start looking for a really dedicated thief.

They find a cottage that is home to an old woman and her son, who claims to be such a spectacular thief that if Jan recognises his own child after a year of training, he’ll get his money back – because he’ll be paying a hefty sum for all that education if the thief is as good as he says. Jan agrees and leaves his son to hone his criminal tendencies. Also witchcraft, which is why I chose this story in the first place. No wonder the master thief excels in the art of larceny, if he’s employing magic on the job.

A year later Jan heads off to meet with his son but starts to worry, much too late, about whether he really will be able to recognise him or not. As he walks along, a dwarf comes up beside him and enquires into the source of his distress. Jan explains his predicament. Not only is he second-guessing the wisdom of his agreement with the master thief, he has no money to pay up if he actually can’t identify his son.

The dwarf has a solution. If Jan stands beneath the thief’s chimney, he will see a basket upon a crossbeam, and if tempted with a crust of bread, a bird will look down. This bird will be Jan’s son. Accepting this total stranger’s word as fact, which seems to be his strategy for every major decision in his life, Jan goes to the thief’s cottage with a piece of bread and calls down the bird, who turns back into a boy. “The devil must have given you the clue!” the thief snarls. I mean, who even knows, this is a Grimm story.

Jan’s son is eager to get out of there. As they are walking along the road, a carriage rolls towards them and the boy proves that he at least learned how to pull a con by turning himself into a handsome greyhound and instructing his father to sell him for a high price. Jan goes along with this idea. Soon he’s walking away from the carriage with full pockets and before long his son is back beside him, in his own shape.

The next day Jan’s son has a new scheme. He turns himself into a horse and tells his father to sell him again, only to be sure he takes off the bridle before handing him over so that the boy can turn back into himself. Well, Jan manages the first bit. He completely screws up the ‘make sure my son can transform back into a human’ part and guess who buys the horse? Yes, it is the master thief, who leads the boy/horse to his house and leaves him in the stable.

Luckily for the boy, a maid comes into the stable and hears him calling for help. After a brief moment of surprise at the fact he can talk, the maid obligingly takes off the bridle and the boy turns into a sparrow. In a moment the master thief is after him. They battle it out in midair and the thief falls, turning himself into a fish as he hits the water below. The boy follows him, taking fish form to fight again. The master thief turns himself into a rooster and quick as a flash the boy is a fox, chomping down on his master’s neck. The story ends with this somewhat unnerving statement: “So the master died, and he has remained dead up to this very day.” OKAY. But what about tomorrow? There doesn’t seem a real consensus on how long this whole ‘being dead’ thing is going to last.

I have been choosing stories for this project that explicitly state that at least one character is a witch and I was in two minds about whether this one counted as no one was defined as a witch. On the other hand, surely the prerequisite for becoming a witch is learning witchcraft? So I’m going to go ahead and assume that the boy is a witch. Whether he learned it all from the master thief or from the old lady too is unclear – she lives in a cottage in the woods, you know, the evidence is stacked in her favour – but either way he was obviously a natural. This is the first fairy tale in the Year of the Witch that has featured a male witch and it is intriguingly amoral. I think I would be much more interested in finding out what happened from the boy’s perspective, as opposed to his father’s repeated failures to get a clue. I would also be very interested in knowing where that boy went next with his career.

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