Manuscript vs Myth: Little Thieves
Much like the musical ‘Wicked’ and the movies ‘Maleficent’ and ‘Cruella’, Margaret Owen’s ‘Little Thieves’ gives the villain of an established story a chance to tell their side of the tale. The novel reimagines the Brothers’ Grimm tale ‘The Goose Girl’ from the perspective of Vanja, the servant who stole her mistress’s identity, and – in the fine tradition of Brothers Grimm – died gruesomely for it.
The original story of ‘The Goose Girl’ tells the story of an unnamed Princess who sets out to travel to the kingdom of her betrothed. Accompanying the Princess are her (also unnamed) servant and her speaking horse, Falada. Before sending her on the journey the Queen had given the Princess a charm, three drops of her own blood on a white cloth, which would protect the Princess from harm. Sadly, only a short while into her journey the Princess lost this token. Seizing her chance, the Servant declared that she would no longer serve the Princess, stealing her clothes, her horse and her place.
When they finished their journey, the Servant was married to the Prince, and the Princess was sent away to work as goose herder, taking the geese out of the city each day to feed in a nearby meadow. The Servant grew worried that Falada – who had witnessed her crimes – would spill her secrets. She told the prince that the horse had irked her on the road, and asked for him to cut off its head. The Prince agreed. The head of the horse was placed on the city gate, and the Princess passed it each day. Each day the skull – which could still speak – would talk to the Princess, addressing her by her titled, and lamenting her fate. One day the King overheard.
Upon learning the truth, the King brought the Princess into the household. With the Servant still unaware that the ruse had been discovered, the King described a similar situation to her own crimes and asked what should be done with the criminal. The Servant suggested that they should be stuffed into a barrel studded with nails and dragged through the city until dead. The King announced that this was to be her own fate. With the Servant dead, the Princess and Prince were free to marry, ruling over their kingdom for many prosperous years.
While bearing echoes of the original, the story that Owen tells is far different.
It begins on a dark night, with a desperate mother taking her young child into the woods as an offering to the goddesses of Death and Fortune. Though it is not always quite so literal, this is how many fairy stories start, with a child (or set of siblings) either being sent off to find their fortune or abandoned to die in the forest. One of the most famous of these is ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ the story of two siblings abandoned by their parents to starve in the wood, only to survive by their own merits. As with many of these stories, the mother in ‘Little Thieves’ finds herself with thirteen children and not enough money and food to support them. To save the rest of her family she takes the youngest (and if fairy tale traditions are to be believed, cleverest) of her children into the wood to give over to Death or Fortune. In this instance, the child is lucky enough to be chosen by both. The girl is, of course, Vanja, our villain, our protagonist, and the thief that the novel is named for.
The story then jumps forward several years to take place after the initial theft, when Vanja is firmly established as Princess Gisele, fiancée to Adelbrecht. Vanja may have stolen Gisele’s name, but she has no intention of stealing her husband. It seems that the gods do nothing for free, and as her seventeenth birthday approaches, Vanja finds herself in the unenviable position of her debts coming due. With the gods of Fortune and Death at least partially bound by country, Vanja intends to flee and escape them. To do this, she needs money and, under the cover of night, Vanja dons the guise of the Pfennigeist, a notorious thief targeting the rich and privileged.
Vanja is aided in her thievery by a string of pearls which she wears constantly. Stolen from the original Gisele, these pearls replace the blood-stained charm which appears in the original Goose Girl story. Like this charm, the pearls were given to Gisele by her mother, the Queen, and were intended to protect her, which they do in two ways.
Firstly, the pearls cast an illusion to change the wearer’s appearance, replacing Gisele with a seemingly more beautiful version of herself. Secondly, the pearls encourage those who encounter the princess to think of her fondly, feeling protectiveness and even love for her. With the pearls Vanja is able to shift between Gisele’s face and her own, granting her free reign of the houses she is stealing from and, importantly, anonymity. The pearl can’t save her from everything though, and with an Investigator from the Godly Courts close on her trail, it seems that Vanja’s time is running out.
The detective is far from her only problem. When Vanja makes the mistake of robbing the wrong person and angering a god, she finds herself cursed. For her greed, pearls and rubies will begin to grow on her skin, until eventually she is taken over completely by the gemstones and dies. This is an indictment on Vanja’s greed, but also an inversion of a typical fairy tale trope in which the pure of heart are usually rewarded with similar treasures. In the French fairy tale ‘Diamonds and Toads’ the protagonist is rewarded for kind-heartedness by diamonds, pearls, and flowers, which fell from her mouth whenever she spoke. In contrast, her unkind sister was cursed with toads and frogs when she spoke. Even in the legend of King Midas, his ability to turn all he touched into gold was intended as a reward for his services to Dionysus. It only turned into a curse when Midas realised that his touch worked on food, water, and even his own unfortunate daughter. Like Midas, Vanja was given what she wanted, in a way that instead turned her dreams into a nightmare. In order to break the curse and save her own life Vanja is told that she must return what she stole. This, of course, leads her back to Gisele.
Rather than tending geese, Gisele instead found herself working in an orphanage and, as she emphatically explains, she has absolutely no intention of returning to her original life. When offering a sympathetic narrative for a fairy tale’s original villain, it is often tempting to merely switch the roles – with the hero now taking the villain’s role. In ‘Little Thieves’ however, Owen steps away from the black and white morality of fairy stories. The real world is far more complicated than one pure of heart princess and the wicked servant who unjustly turned against her kind mistress. Vanja and Gisele are instead depicted as once having been the closest of friends, neither of which is innocent, and neither of which is entirely guilty. This is best summarised by Vanja; “I used to be her friend […] We might be friends again someday. But we both hurt each other. We both decided to. And when someone decides to hurt you, no matter how much you like them, it changes things”.
With both girls painted as flawed, but sympathetic, the novel finds itself in need of a villain, and it finds one in Gisele’s violent fiancé Adelbrecht. A vicious bully with a powerful army, he surrounded and intimidated Gisele’s home country in order to secure her as a fiancée. However, it seems that he has no intention of marrying her, and Vanja finds herself fending off multiple attempts on her own (Gisele’s) life. These attempts come mostly in the form of terrible nachtmären – inspired by European mythology.
A Mare (or Mara) is a Demonic creature that attacks you when you are sleeping – often by sitting on the chest and crushing you, possibly even killing you. It is these creatures that give us the origin of the word nightmare. Because the word ‘mare’ can also mean a female horse, nightmares are often personified in pop culture as equine in nature. Owen leans into this interpretation, with Vanja chased down by a demonic nightmare horse – though other nachtmären do appear in different shapes throughout the novel. Desperate to end the attacks and protect themselves, Vanja and Gisele team up with the investigator Conrad (so named for the goose herder from ‘The Goose Girl’) and a few others to attempt to expose Adelbrecht’s crimes.
In their attempts to do so, they find their most compelling piece of evidence – a horse’s skull, used by Adelbrecht in the spell which bound the nachtmären to his will. The team plan to steal the skull and bring it before the gods as evidence. The use of the skull in this manner, of course, ties cleverly back to the original ‘Goose Girl’ as, in that story, it was also a horse skull which revealed the villain’s crimes.
In addition to the ‘Little Goose Girl’, ‘Little Thieves’ also clearly references other fairy tales within the work. For example, despite his association with nightmare horses, the most of the imagery around Adelbrecht is wolfish. He is even referred to as Golden Wolf. This, combined with Vanja’s home-country’s traditionally red clothing, and her own preference for the colour brings to mind ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, emphasising the prince’s predatory behaviour and the danger that Vanja is in.
Another smaller reference may be the fact that as a child working for Gisele’s family, Vanja was given the unpleasant nickname russmagdt, meaning sootwench. This is similar to Cinderella, whose name means ‘little ash girl’, a name she was given by her stepsisters because she slept in the cinders of the fireplace and was smeared with ash. Given the way that Cinderella was famously treated by her stepfamily, this is one of the earliest clues as the treatment of Vanja in the home of Gisele’s parents.
Interwoven with these fairy tale elements is the fantastical world of the novel, a world with shapeshifting demi-gods, bureaucratic detectives and phantom thieves. A world where it seems very plausible that the villain’s downfall may come at the (metaphorical) hands of the skull of a talking horse.