I and our little ones are having a fantastic time reading some of the tales in Scudder’s Book of Legends. One of our favourites is entitled “The Little Thief”. We have the little book, a hardcovered little volume published in 1900, and distributed to students of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It must have been of great nostalgic value to the owner, to have kept it for well over a hundred years. There’s still a bookmark in it, with the former schoolchild’s name, written in a small child’s immature hand, though the ink has faded and I can no longer read the name.
Horace E. Scudder was the former editor of The Atlantic (then known as the Atlantic Monthly) and numerous other publications. He wrote biographies on Noah Webster and George Washington, other collections of children’s literature, and a large textbook, aimed at young children, on the history of the United States preceded by a few pages on the history of the European continent from the Middle Ages up to the Age of Exploration. As to be expected from this (and his collection of legends), there is an emphasis on the common, unifying “Christian” character of the European and Western identity. Never mind the blood between the Protestants and the Catholics, and all the wars waged in Europe and across their colonies over simple, earthly matters of market share and resources.
I looked up the origin of this specific tale—it is originally a Middle Eastern folktale that can be traced to The Arabian Nights.
There was a young maidservant working in one of the great palaces of the city, for a Lady of great import. The girl was a good and honest soul with no family. She worked very hard every day, and although there were many jewels and florins in her Lady’s chamber, she never took anything.
But one day, on the night of a great ball, the lady’s pearl necklace went missing. It had been laid on the table, on a warm night, and the window had been left open.
The girl looked outside to see if it had fallen to the streets below, but instead, she saw the statue of Justice, shining as if it were floating—she couldn’t see the pillar at all. So entranced was she that she did not notice her lady, for a very long time, standing in the doorway, and the lady flew into a great rage convinced that the girl had hidden it—she was not looking for it, after all—and she had the girl brought before the city’s magistrates, who sentenced her to death.
The gallows were set beneath the statue of Justice’s feet. It was a dark day, as if the sky itself were glowering at the whole city. The girl was brought to the gallows, and stood to be hung, and then—a bolt of lightning struck down the scales held in Justice’s hand.
And in the scales was a little magpie’s nest, and the pearl necklace strewn about the little twigs and leaves.
That is the general outline of Scudder’s version. Of course, I have changed it myself, too.
In the original Arabian version, the accused girl is a travelling holy woman of great renown and the lady is a Queen, who has given the devotee her necklace to keep safe whilst she visits the bathhouse. It is still a magpie who steals the necklace, but this time it is the King who sentences her to death—and also the King who chances upon the magpie.
By 1866 the story had moved to Florence, and the accused female had become a simple commoner participating in secular society, who continues to do so after justice is done to her—though it is worth noting that in some European versions the girl is executed just a moment before the magpie and necklace are found. In contrast, the Arabian holy woman becomes a hermit and vows never to enter another person’s house again.
The Renaissance humanist embodiment of Justice, versus the revered consecration of one’s life to the Abrahamic God. In this they are very different stories—but the magpie remains the same. A little thief!