The Thief Lord, Childhood, and Adults

Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan, Or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction has already been mentioned quite a few times on this blog already, particularly in interviews with authors, so I shan’t get into that particular fascinating and controversial work here. What I would like to do, however, is raise similar questions of adult views of childhood, and child views of adulthood. Here’s a passage from Cornelia Funke’s story The Thief Lord, in which Prosper and Bo, orphan brothers of twelve and five years old, respectively, run away from their relatives the Hartliebs, who then hire Victor, a private detective, to find the boys:

“The two of them are very close!” Victor shouted back. “Can’t you understand that?”

“We’ll get Bo a dog,” Max Hartlieb answered calmly. “And then you’ll see how quickly he forgets his big brother.”

Victor stared at Mr. Hartlieb as if he had just unbuttoned his shirt and shown him an empty heart. “Please answer me one question,” Victor said. “Do you actually like children?”

Max Hartlieb frowned. “Children in general? No, not really. They’re so fidgety and loud, and often quite dirty.”

Victor stared down at his shoes again.

“And,” Max Hartlieb continued, “they have no idea of what’s really important.”

Victor nodded. “Well,” he said slowly, “it must be a miracle, then, that such useless creatures grow up into something as great and reasonable as you, don’t you think?” (p. 198)

The central conflicts in The Thief Lord hinge on the misunderstandings and mistreatment, even to the point of abuse, that adults force upon children, and the rebellions through which children resist adult machinations and cruelty. *SPOILER ALERT* Prosper and Bo run away from their aunt and her husband, who are willing to adopt the angelic-looking Bo but not Prosper, who is seven years older than his brother and who doesn’t fit their idea of the perfect (i.e. sweet-looking and meekly obedient) child. Scipio steals from his parents and poses as a thief who is completely independent of adult restraints because he is so sick of being treated like an incompetent imbecile by his powerful father. Hornet and Mosca ran away from their unloving families, and Riccio prefers the streets to living in an orphanage.

Of course, living as thieves is not as free of adult danger as sounds. Hornet, Mosca, and Riccio aren’t doing well before Scipio ‘adopts’ them, and even his double life isn’t free of hazards. The only pawn broker who will deal with children is Ernesto Barbarossa, who cheats the children in every transaction; Prosper and Bo’s aunt is in town looking for them; and she has hired a private detective, Victor Gratz, who despite his empathy for their plight, both underestimates their abilities and simultaneously has a better understanding of the precarious nature of their situation, caught on the margins of society.

And then there’s the carousel, the magical merry-go-round that makes adults into children and children into adults. The mysterious Conte and Contessa want to ride it so that they can enjoy the childhood they never had. Barbarossa wants it so he can recapture his younger, but still adult, vigor. Scipio wants it so that he can escape his father’s rules. Prosper is tempted by the idea of shoving his horrible relatives aside and rescuing his brother. Each is caught by personal illusions and delusions about what the other side – children or adults – are able to do. The grass is always greener …

“Children as a group have almost no sense of history at all. They are by their nature the most forward-looking section of the population. They are intent on growing up. Most of them can’t wait to be adult.” (Diana Wynne Jones)

Throwing off restrictions – being able to play as a child, being able to order one’s own destiny as an adult – only goes so far. As each of the riders of the merry-go-round discover, there is a lot they have forgotten – or never learned – about being a child or an adult. The Conte admits that playing with tin soldiers is rather boring. Scipio doesn’t regret his decision, but wonders what adults do all day. Barbarossa… well, the nasty little twerp gets a better fate than he deserves, but even he has to face the fact that by becoming a child again, he has cut himself off from pretty much all the indulgences of adulthood in which he had basked.

I am reminded of a few pages from Parry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer’s The Pleasures of Children’s Literature (3rd ed.), in which the authors describe an exercise with university students studying children’s literature. Asked to determine which famous works were and were not suitable for children, most students felt that Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” should not be read to children. The vocabulary was too advanced, the students worried. Children would be put off by not being able to understand, and might come to reject literature entirely. Their teacher asked the students to define the more peculiar words in the poem, which they said they themselves enjoyed. What was, for instance, a runctible spoon? It turned out that the students didn’t know. In fact, there is no such thing as a runctible spoon;* Lear had made up words, as had Lewis Carroll in his “The Jabberwocky.” For the students themselves, in short, not knowing the meaning of every single word did not detract from enjoyment of the poem and delight in the effect the sounds created, yet they expected that children would not be able to enjoy the work unless they understood absolutely everything that went into it. Their own experience contradicted their beliefs about what children were and were not capable of.

Why do I bring this up? Because the idea of childhood is subject to an immense amount of peculiar misunderstandings, some harmful, some merely ridiculous. Children are incapable. Children must learn only by rote. (Please note, I don’t argue against the use of rote learning in itself, but suggesting that rote learning as the only form of learning children are capable of is absurd, and both severely underestimates children’s ability to comprehend and form patterns, and curtails their interest in learning itself.) Children cannot appreciate what they do not understand.

Really? The whole of great literature and art is, in part, eternally beyond any one human’s ability to grasp. Adults spend their lives studying masterpieces without ever saying all that can be said on the subject; are children a separate species?


Which brings me to Diana Wynne Jones, who has written and talked a fair bit about her perspectives on children. The quote I want most of all I can’t find right now, but Jones is of the opinion that it is perfectly fine to put in references and patterns that children won’t necessarily recognize. Children are used to not understanding everything in the world, so they pay closer attention; adults, on the other hand, aren’t as keen and require more repetitious explanation of who and what everyone and everything in any given tale is in relation to one another. (I’m paraphrasing.) Jones relates how when she deliberately wrote a book for adults, she found it more restricting than writing for children, because she felt she had to make reading easier for the adults, who were not used to working their brains so hard all day, as children are used to doing in school. And yet, despite this, she notes, there is a widespread attitude that children’s literature is not real literature (side note: almost in the way that children are not real people):

“But why do you write for children? is the usual adult response… as if finding I have gone to all this trouble, they think I go on to waste it on people who are immature.” (Jones)

Which brings us back to Prosper and Bo, in a way. They and Scipio, Hornet, Mosca, and Riccio are children fleeing adults who think that children aren’t really people, because they aren’t mature. They don’t care about the things that really matter, like money and prestige. They have different ideas about what they want from life and how they are going to get it. And the answer isn’t a magical merry-go-round, although that helps.

People help, too. People – both children and adults – who know that fitting into whatever mold the powerful adults in their lives happen to prefer isn’t the best, or indeed the only, option. People who take seriously the idea the children might want a say in their own lives, not because they don’t need adult love and support, but because children aren’t little automatons, little subhumans that might someday reach maturity.

Children have funny preconceptions of what adulthood is like. I can remember a few of my own. And adults have, at times, even funnier ones about what childhood is like, their own memories and experience to the contrary notwithstanding. Anyway, both in literature and in the not-written world, there are a lot of strange opinions out there. Thoughts?

* There are now a few definitions of a runctible spoon is, but these all stem from Lear’s poem. Prior to “The Owl and the Pussycat,” the word did not exist.

5 responses to “The Thief Lord, Childhood, and Adults

  1. I hear so many stories from writers about how they feel looked down upon when they mention that they write YA or children’s lit. So unjustified! So much of who I am as I writer and as a person is attributable to what I read as a child, and I’m guessing there are many, many others who would say the same. And what an enormous task for those children’s authors, to know how profound an effect their work can potentially have on a person during their formative years.

    • Mmfoley, I’m just the same. A huge part of who I am and who I have been over the years as I grew up (and keep growing up) owes a tremendous debt to the children’s and YA literature that I read, and reread many times over. Profound is absolutely the right word for the effect those works had (and have) on me and on millions of other readers.

  2. I love The Thief Lord. There are some really funny parts in it; but I really like the way that some of the kids are portrayed as adults (like Scipio) and some of the adults could be more childish than the kids. (like Barbossa) And the idea of the merry-go-round… Man! I should read this book again, and write about it in my own blog. I think the most profound thing is that it taught me that age doesn’t really matter, it’s the way that people behave which makes them seem like an adult or a child.

    • I like how The Thief Lord shows adults who have kept the best parts of childhood (Victor’s disguises, Ida’s mischief and generosity) and the worst parts of childhood (Barbarossa’s self-indulgence and greed, Esther’s self-absorption) and children who have the best parts of adulthood (Scipio’s independence, Prosper’s careful guardianship of Bo) as well as less savory characteristics (Riccio’s preference for continuing as a thief despite good, even appealing, alternatives). I think the book argues that these traits aren’t really “childish” (or “child-like”) or “adult” – they’re HUMAN traits, and that, grown-up or no, we’re all human.
      Yes, read it again :) I’d be interested to see what you write.

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