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Grimm Brothers "The Master-Thief", analysis.

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The Grimm Brother's Tale of Thievery

A long lost son, a deadly bet, robbery, attempted murder, and much deception all contribute to the allure of the Grimm Brother's folktale, "The Master-Thief". While the folktale appeals to the human romanticism of crime, specifically of excellent criminals, the basic story carries morals and a hidden cognizance of human perception that not always does good outdo evil.

"The Master-Thief" boils down to a story of tests. A peasant farmer meets a well-off gentleman and soon discovers the gentleman to be his long lost son. But the gentleman went from poverty to riches through being a thief. The father sends the son to the local lord, because he fears for his son's safety. The thief goes in order to ensure that he will not be caught and hanged, but rather can confront the lord while still having the possibility of ensuring his own life. The lord outlines a test for the thief's skill. First, the thief must steal the lord's horse from the guarded stable. Second, he must steal the lord's bed sheets and wedding ring, and finally he must steal the parson and the clerk from the church. The thief successfully completes his tasks and avoids having his neck stretched but still ends up banished from the lord's lands.

The mere summary of "The Master-Thief" cannot express the moral of the story as clearly as the Grimm brothers themselves did so. The moral of "The Master-Thief" is that even the most excellent criminal who can support themselves through their trade, in the lap of luxury, will end up alone, deserted and near death at all times. Perhaps the greater moral may be one of money not being happiness, but the story itself communicates the former moral more clearly then the later. Indeed, the Grimm brother's describe the thief in the beginning of the tale as 'a richly-dressed man' who has 'a splendid carriage'. Indeed, the peasant father confuses the thief for a duke or a count, since the thief has so many luxurious things. Also, the thief is excellent at his trade. He is able to complete the Local lord's three highly difficult task through cunning. But even with his wealth and skill, the thief is not to have happiness nor a simple life.

The master-thief, despite money and skill is far from having a 'good' life. During the second challenge, the thief is almost killed by a bullet from the local lord, and throughout the thief must work with the idea that failure equates to a trip to the gallows. The thief takes pleasure only from completing his difficult tasks, and almost being killed in the process. But the ultimate statement of how wealth and skill do not equal a good life is in the last line of "the Master-Thief". Although the thief has escaped having his neck stretched, and has completed the 3 most difficult tasks of thievery which could be imagined, still "the arch-thief took leave of his parents, once more went forth into the wide world, and no one has ever heard of him since." The thief leaves the area alone, and for all his skill and wealth, remains nameless and unknown, as well as, ultimately, a wanderer. The moral of the story ends up being that even though the man has money and is highly skilled, these things do not equate to happiness since they are used for an immoral purpose.

Neither the summary of "The Master-Thief", nor a discussion of the moral of the tale could explain the odd recurrence of the number 3 within the story. The number 3 appears first in the number of major characters, second in the number of tests, and third, in random other places, where it is less obvious, but still present. The first group of 3 is in the main characters of the tale. First is the thief himself. Second, is the father of the thief who appears in the beginning of the tale in order to help direct his son. Third is the local lord, a count, who gives the thief his tests and also is the one to threaten the gallows. The second group of 3 is in the tests themselves, which are given as 3 separate tests, each of which must be completed by the Master-thief.

The tale, "the Master-thief" has other occurrences of the number 3, most in the oddest of places. For instance, to complete the first task, stealing the lord's horse, the thief "bought the clothes of an old peasant woman... stained his face brown... filled a small cask with old Hungary wine..." He does exactly three things in preparation. During the first task he must put some soldiers to sleep. Inside the stable, there are three soldiers. During the second task, he brings a ladder, a lantern and a dead body to his work. Again, three things used in preparation. For the last task, the thief brings "... a long sack... a bundle... and a lantern." Once more, three pieces in preparation. Also during the last task, the thief dresses as a monk, and is attempting to capture a pastor of the church, and a clerk of the church. Therefore, three church-related characters are there during the last task. Even the title contains exactly three words. While these other three's seem more random then planned, their existence helps to draw a stronger correlation between the story and the number three.

"The Master-Thief" is many things. It is an interesting story, a tale that contains a strong moral, and a solid link between the Grimm brothers and the use of the number three in their stories. In this, "The Master-Thief" makes itself a prime example of a good folktale by the brother's Grimm and an interesting device for the communication of a point.

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