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New Worlds: The Thieves’ Guild Fantasy

Given that the general focus of the New Worlds Patreon is worldbuilding for speculative fiction, I think we need to take a moment to look directly at a beloved trope found in a certain type of fantasy: the thieves’ guild.

In its full form, the thieves’ guild is a remarkably well-organized institution — practically an underworld government. Its members are sorted into ranks, often with formal requirements for advancing from one rank to the next. It offers training in all manner of skills needed for thievery, with aids ranging from dummies covered in bells to teach novice pickpockets how to pilfer undetected, to a whole building housebreakers can practice their climbing and lock-picking on. That building is probably the guild headquarters, where thieves must periodically report to the guild leader — an authority figure often referred to by some euphemism like “the Upright Man.” That leader exercises control over all larceny in the city (and sometimes over other types of crime as well). Woe betide any thief who steals from a target the Upright Man hasn’t approved, or who breaks whatever code members of the guild are expected to abide by. Thieves visiting from other cities had better pay a diplomatic visit to the guild before attempting anything; otherwise they risk serious consequences.

Taken as a whole, this is very nearly as fantastical a concept as being able to shoot fire from your fingertips.

Sure, there are gangs of thieves — sometimes fairly well-organized ones. We’ve already talked about pirates and highwaymen, who had to operate in groups, but they weren’t the only ones who sometimes banded together. Housebreakers could benefit from extra hands, the faster to ransack a property and get out again. Pickpockets frequently worked in teams, one person distracting the target, a second making the lift, and the prize being passed off to a third in case the first two fell under suspicion. Modern heist narratives have made an entire system out of the mastermind, the face, the muscle, and so forth. Teams didn’t just work together for mutual profit; they could also exercise a certain amount of authority and control over their territory. If you wandered onto a random street and started picking pockets, odds were good that the local cutpurses would want to have a word with you: that was their turf, and they didn’t appreciate interlopers.

But that turf was local. A gang of pickpockets might control a neighborhood, no more; sometimes it was less, just a street or two. And while they might have different roles, e.g. the least experienced one acting as a lookout to warn the others if police were sighted, it’s not the “apprentice, journeyman, master thief” terminology borrowed from craft and trade guilds. Initiations, when they took place, would be more about proving your loyalty and reliability to your buddies than passing an examination imposed by a higher authority. Hierarchies definitely existed, but there was never any singular figure ruling over all the theft within an entire city. While the term “upright man” did exist in English slang as the leader of a crew, even Jonathan Wild, the infamous criminal mastermind I mentioned before, never had the control imputed to the singular “Upright Man” of fantasy.

So where did this idea come from?

As near as I can tell, it’s a mishmash of multiple influences. The real gangs I’ve just described would be part of it, especially since sometimes newspapers and other sources of information would impute far more reach and influence to criminal groups than they actually had. The Parisian concept of a “court of miracles” got its name from the beggars whose ailments mysteriously vanished once they returned to the slums they called home; writers of the time also claimed that such places trained up future criminals. Which was probably true, in a generalized sense, but that’s not the same place as saying a given slum was ruled by a thief king who ran an actual school for his underlings.

Mind you, there are groups with a high degree of systematization, including formal ranks and an authority figure of great power at the top: we call them mafia, yakuza, triads, and more. We’ll talk about organized crime (along with gangs more generally) more next week. For now let’s just say that these organizations are relatively modern, but as they grew, their characteristics may have filtered backward into the less structured world of historical thieves and the fantasy characters inspired by them. And likely there was influence from individuals like Jonathan Wild, or leaders in Ottoman Cairo who similarly profited through returning goods stolen by thieves under their control.

Some of it is also folkloric. Middle Eastern tales in particular abound in well-organized brotherhoods of people who live outside the law. One Thousand and One Nights features an improbable number of noble and highly-skilled thieves, and in Samak the Ayyar, ayyari are a sort of one part knight-errant, one part ninja. Their code demands they help those in need, especially commoners against their unjust rulers, and the form that “help” takes often involves sneaking into buildings by night to steal away objects or people unjustly held.

My digging for the roots of this led me to read Miguel Cervantes’ story “Rinconete y Cortadillo,” which may be the very earliest execution of the trope in its distinctive guild form, complete with trade protectionism. When the titular thieves go to Seville and begin stealing, they’re informed by another thief that they must present themselves to a man named Monipodio. At his house, surrounded by other thieves, they’re interrogated about their skills, whereupon Monipodio judges that they may bypass the usual year of apprenticeship; this frees them from certain obligations of tithing and bestows upon them certain rights about how they may enjoy their gains. The characters observe various citizens coming to Monipodio to hire his people for tasks including assault, all of which are recorded in an account book, along with notes regarding payment and who’s been assigned to which job. It all feels very much like it might have come out of a modern fantasy novel — though hopefully not the part where a prostitute is encouraged to reconcile with her abusive lover, on the grounds that his abuse is proof of his love.

The fact that thieves’ guilds in their tropey form never existed in reality doesn’t mean we can’t have them in fiction. After all, we write about many things that have never been more than imaginary. But we should recognize them as the romanticized concept they are, especially when the guild adheres to a strict code of honor that prohibits them from doing anything really objectionable. They fit best in a certain kind of story, and if a thieves’ guild exists in a narrative that otherwise aims for a feeling of “gritty realism,” I will definitely give it the side-eye.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Thieves’ Guild Fantasy”

  1. “They fit best in a certain kind of story, and if a thieves’ guild exists in a narrative that otherwise aims for a feeling of “gritty realism,” I will definitely give it the side-eye.”

    Camorr would like a word with you hehe

    1. That series both does and does not go for gritty realism — it’s an interesting mix, which sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn’t.

      EDIT: And honestly, Camorr is less “thieves’ guild” territory and more “modern organized crime,” to my recollection.

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