My first ever D&D character was a thief. My brother’s group was playing the Dragonlance setting (in fact, they were playing through the actual modules of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Saga) when I started playing with their group (they were in their 20s, I was someone’s annoying kid brother). He was a ginger Kender thief called Arthur, and I went on to play a lot more much beloved thieves (my favourite was the my cowardly thief Villa who backstabbed a dragon to death with his shortsword).
There are a huge number of mythological tricksters, but they weren’t right for this article. Most of them have hugely unfair advantages (e.g. they can change shape, or they’re very often Gods, or the children of Gods). Also, they don’t steal things in the right way. Yes, it’s important that Prometheus stole fire. I’m very grateful for fire, but it isn’t the same as stealing cold, hard cash.
However, I have managed to come up with a couple of thieves from the history of folklore who were exactly that: thieves.
The Master Thief
Pharaoh Rhampsinit is a fictitious Egyptian king from the works of the Greek historian Heroditus. In addition to talking about giant ants who mined gold, Heroditus wrote down the Egyptian tradition of stories featuring the mythical king.
The Master Thief is probably the least D&D thief of the ones here, in that he’s more a con man. After the king hires a builder to make him a perfectly secure room where his treasures can be kept. The builder complies, except for one loose stone that can be used to access the chamber. Many years later, when the builder is on his death bed, he tells his two sons about the secret of the loose stone and they decide to help themselves to some of the contents of the king’s treasury.
Naturally, after a while the king gets peeved with this, and hires another (more trustworthy) builder to place traps around his treasure chamber. The Master Thief and his brother sneak into the Palace, but the brother fails his find/remove traps roll and gets stuck in a snare. Horribly wounded and not daring the shame of being caught stealing from the king, he persuades the Master Thief to behead him, so that his body can’t be identified.
Enraged, the king has the corpse displayed above the palace gates, where anyone showing any grief will be arrested. Naturally, the Master Thief finds this excessive and decides to set things right: he disguises himself and loads down a donkey with wineskins. When he’s outside the king’s guardhouse, he tears one of the wine skins and pretends that the donkey did it, flying into a rage at the animal until the guards come out to see what the matter is.
The guards are quickly able to calm down the Master Thief, who pretends to be sufficiently grateful to give them all enough wine to get horrifically drunk, allowing him to return at night and steal his brother’s body.
Finally, desperate to capture the thief who stole the body of the other thief, the king gets his beautiful daughter to pass herself off as a prostitute at the ‘Royal Brothel’ (Heroditus’ words not mine). Aware of the king’s plan, but really, really wanting to have sex with the hot princess, the Master Thief cuts off his dead brother’s arm and puts it up his sleeve.
When the time to do the act comes, the princess asks the Master Thief to describe his darkest deed, which he obliges by telling her of his decapitating his brother in the royal treasure store. The princess, realising that she is in the room with the thief, grabs the Master Thief’s fake/dead arm, which he jettisons, dashing off to safety.
At last, the king realises how clever the Master Thief is, and offers the princess’ hand in marriage if the Thief will identify himself. Happy that the king is sincere, the Master Thief reveals himself, and the king honours his promise, making the Master Thief his heir.
Francois Villon Couldn’t Stop Stealing
Francois Villon has the distinction of being a real person. Born in 1431 in Paris, he was a gifted poet, writing works that renovated and reversed the ideals of the courtly forms to create stories that celebrated his roguish buddies. In his 1461 work, La Testament there are even eleven poems in a real version of Thieves’ Cant (although scholars now believe some of them to be fakes), and his other works star characters named after thieves, prostitutes and policemen from the Parisian underworld.
Villon’s thieving career was probably successful because of his knack for scoring royal pardons. After he killed the priest Cheroye during a street fight (allegedly, like Greedo, the priest drew first), Villon fled Paris and was banished for over a year, until a royal pardon came through.
Unfortunately, barely a year after scoring the pardon that allowed him to return to Paris, Villon was involved in a burglary where five hundred gold crowns were stolen from the College de Navarre’s chapel. Villon fled Paris, but his work was sufficiently good that the authorities did not discover the robbery until the March of the following year, and there was no trace of a lead that would link the crime to Villon until two months later.
By the Summer of 1461, Villon was in prison, although possibly not for the Paris burglary, and was released by a pardon from the newly enthroned King Louis XI. Unfortunately, the authorities now had Villon in their sights, and they charged him with the Navarre burglary, only to be foiled by a successful application for bail… which didn’t last very long, since Villon almost immediately got involved in a street fight that saw him arrested, tortured and sentenced to be hanged.
Thankfully, his limitless supply of pardons hadn’t run out, and he was able to get his sentence commuted to banishment, leaving Paris seemingly never to return.
Elbegast, Charlemagne’s Party Thief
I’ve discussed a couple of times before that the peers of Charlemagne were one of the great influences from real world folklore and history on the development of D&D. Charlemagne’s party had everything: a Ranger, a Cleric, a magic-user, and a bunch of Paladins. Not only that, but it would seem they had a party thief.
The story goes that Charlemagne dreamed one night that an angel telling him to immediately head out in the countryside and steal. Charlemagne initially ignored the dream, until the Angel returned, threatening the loss of Charlemagne’s soul if he failed to comply.
Spurred on, the Emperor went out into his kingdom at night, realising how difficult life was for the peasants, and who great the penalties were for those who stole even the most trivial items.
At last, the king fell in with the warrior-thief Elbegast, clad from head to toe in jet black armour. Charlemagne and Elbegast fought, but a fighter verses a thief only ends one way, and Elbegast lost. Offering himself to Charlemagne, the Emperor instead exhorts the thief to help him rob the Emperor’s treasury.
Despite being an outlaw, Elbegast is outraged, and refuses, suggesting instead that they rob the treasury of Charlemagne’s brother in law, who has a reputation for cruelty and murder. The two knights agree, and dig their way into the castle, only to find that Eggerich’s (the brother in law’s) bed has an exquisite caparison made of gold and covered with bells. In order to prove his abilities as a thief, Elbegast takes it upon himself to steal the precious saddle ornament, but upon stumbling wakes up the Emperor’s brother in law.
Thankfully, Elbegast is better at hiding in the shadows that moving silently, and he melts into the darkness, taking the caparison with him. When Eggerich casts about the room with his sword, his wife asks why he’s so nervous.
This is where Eggerich shows his true colours: he tells his wife that he will take his followers to the Emperor’s palace and kill Charlemagne in the morning, taking the Empire for himself. When his wife, Charlemagne’s sister, objects, he gives her a savage beating the leaves her unconscious.
Unable to tolerate such vile behaviour, Elbegast returns to Charlemagne, and tells him that his brother in law is plotting to take the Emperor’s throne. Finally, Charlemagne tells Elbegast who he is, assembles the rest of the party, and the evil Eggerich is hanged from ‘a gibbet fifty feet high’.