Rogues in Fiction

A plague of rats and other misguided bounties

There’s an oft-quoted passage in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music illustrating the mentality of Ankh-Morpork and the practical genius (or extremely efficient common sense, if you will) of Lord Vetinari:

“Shortly before the Patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats – and then people were suddenly queuing up with tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around. Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instinct of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: ‘Tax the rat farms.’”

So this actually happened (minus the taxing) in Vietnam under French colonial rule, aka French Indochina, around 1900. There was an outbreak of the bubonic plague, brought by rats which hopped on the new colonial trade routes along with all the people, and then shacked up in Hanoi’s brand new sewers –  ironically built to improve the city’s hygiene. They found no predators there but plenty of food, so they multiplied like an invasive species. And they carried the plague, to both cities. (Hanoi, in typical colonial fashion, was separated to the “European city”, spacious and luxurious, and the Vietnamese one, with all the overcrowding you expect. But that was only topside: the sewer system ran through the whole city.)

So rats were immediately identified as a lethal threat, and locals were hired for the extremely unpleasant and dangerous task of going through the sewers and killing them. When that wasn’t enough (rats multiply… a lot), someone had a bright idea:

“To fight the infestation citywide, the colonial administration added vigilantes to its team of professional killers. Appealing to both civic duty and to the pocketbook, a one-cent bounty was paid for each rat tail brought to the authorities (it was decided that the handing in of an entire rat corpse would create too much of a burden for the already taxed municipal health authorities). Unfortunately, this scheme backfired. Despite initial apparent success, the authorities soon discovered that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. As soon the municipal administrators publicized the reward program, Vietnamese residents began to bring in thousands of tails. While many desk-bound administrators delighted in the numbers of apparently eliminated rats, more alert officials in the field began to notice a disturbing development. There were frequent sightings of rats without tails going about their business in the city streets. After some perplexity, the authorities realized that less-than-honest but quite resourceful characters were catching rats, but merely cutting off the tails and letting the still-living pests go free (perhaps to breed and produce more valuable tails).

Later, things became even more serious as health inspectors discovered a disturbing development in the suburbs of Hanoi. These officials found that more enterprising but equally deceptive individuals were actually raising rats to collect the bounty. One can only imagine the frustration of the municipal authorities, who realized that their best efforts at dératisation had actually increased the rodent population by indirectly encouraging rat-farming. Evidently, this was not what the French had in mind when they encouraged capitalist development and the entrepreneurial spirit in Vietnam. Faced with such fraudulent schemes, the colonial regime scrapped the rat bounty program. In the end, the campaign failed miserably.”

Michael G. Vann, “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History (French Colonial History, Vol. 4, 2003). See also Vann’s graphic history, illustrated by Liz Clarke, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2018), and his interview on the Infectious Historians Podcast Episode 28: “The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt”.

What I find fascinating is that, as far as I can tell, the article I cited above is the one which introduced English speaking audiences to that incident, and it was written 9 years after Soul Music. So in all likelihood,Terry Pratchett didn’t know about it. (At least, that’s my best guess.) But he may have know similar ones, from fact or fiction.

  • There’s an anecdote that in Delhi under British colonial rule, the government offered a bounty for dead cobras. This led directly to cobra-breeding, and their population dramatically increased. [x]
  • I saw someone claim that the exact same thing with the rat tails happened in early 20th century Brazil, with the efforts of Oswaldo Cruz to battle the bubonic plague. I don’t know if it checks out or if it’s a myth. [x]
  • There was apparently an old joke about Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek fascist dictator (late 1930s), that he went to Bulgaria on a state visit, and saw forests everywhere and was very impressed, so he asked the King of Bulgaria “how do you do it? how do you get so many forests? we hardly have any!”. The King said “easy, I shot all the goats.” The dictator comes back to Greece and proclaims a bounty for goatheads. Immediately everyone starts breeding goats. [x]
  • From the Autobiography of Mark Twain: “Once in Hartford the flies were so numerous for a time, and so troublesome, that Mrs. Clemens conceived the idea of paying George a bounty on all the flies he might kill. The children saw an opportunity here for the acquisition of sudden wealth. … Any Government could have told her that the best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India, is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then every patriot goes to raising them.” [x]

And there’s probably more. What I didn’t find in any of them was taxing the farms. That’s probably all Pratchett.

What’s a Thieves’ Guild and where did it come from?

In a nutshell, Fritz Leiber invented the Thieves’ Guild, and D&D pilfered it. As for where Leiber got the inspiration, we can certainly speculate.

Thieves’ House

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser #1: “Ill met in Lankhmar”, art by Mike Mignola

The OG Thieves’ Guild is located in the city of Lankhmar, where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (the OG fantasy rogue) operate. It’s first mentioned in the short story “Thieves’ House” (1943), which was later republished in the collections Two Sought Adventure (1957) and Swords Against Death (1970). Ankh-Morpork and its own Thieves’ Guild (which hilariously operates like a proper historical guild, recognised and regulated by the state) is inspired by Lankhmar, too.

“The house had a bad reputation. People said it was the den in which the thieves of Lankhmar gathered to plot and palaver and settle their private bickerings, the headquarters from which Krovas, the reputed Master Thief, issued his orders—in short, the home of the formidable Thieves’ Guild of Lankhmar.”

The Guild is powerful, merchants pay tribute to it, and Krovas the guildmaster just hates it when independent thieves attempt to make a buck, too. In the story, said independent thieves are our (anti-)heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. And that notion of a trade monopoly obviously comes from historical guilds, whose entire point was that no one was allowed to practice a trade unless they were members of the relevant guild.

Rogue Literature

So where did Fritz Leiber get the idea of a Thieves’ Guild? We can’t know for sure, but his parents were Shakespearean actors and he was into Elizabethan theatre, and do you know the book The Rogues and Vagabonds of Shakespeare’s Youth? If Leiber did, he knew rogue literature, and that explains both Thieves’ Guilds (not the term, just the content, the term is all his) and Thieves’ Cant.

English rogue literature is an early modern (rather than anything medieval) and largely urban genre, which appears around 1600 with pamphlets describing the wicked ways and language of beggars, thieves, and conmen, all out to get the upstanding, respectable, and all too gullible good people of (usually) London. Around 1700, the first cant dictionaries appear, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) is probably the first novel of the genre. Meanwhile, there are a lot of plays that are at least inspired or informed by it, from Shakespeare himself to John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera.


Now, if we take the early Elizabethan pamphlets at face value (and we should NOT, since all our sources were outsiders who aimed to shock – and titillate! – their law-abiding audience), thieves and beggars were organised in associations or fraternities with strict hierarchies. There were ranks and offices, and elaborate initiation rites and oaths to the devil, and codes of conduct and chains of command, and even kings of thieves with prima nocta privileges. And lots and lots of greed.

Most of that is bullshit, it’s made up or wildly exaggerated. Some of it makes a lot of sense, though, if you take out the fanciful stuff. A certain level of organisation is necessary for urban crime to work. After all, thieves need fences and beggars need real estate (I mean, they need to call dibs on their spots and somehow ensure that other beggars will respect that). And we should keep in mind that rogues (people without masters) and vagabonds (people without homes) were a world apart from respectable society: not only did they not enjoy whatever protections the state extended to its subjects, but they were considered criminal elements merely for existing without masters and without homes. So their only recourse was each other. A fraternity where all the thieves of London somehow worked together is mere fancy, but there was certainly a lot of mutual aid (if you were lucky) and internal exploitation (if you weren’t).


As we move on to the 1700s, London’s criminal underworld booms as much as the city itself, and the pamphlets (and now the newspapers!) have plenty of material to talk about. And for a hot second, there arguably is a thieves’ guild, run by a sinister guildmaster, a criminal mastermind who controls the thieves of London with one hand – and with the other, serves law-abiding people and retrieves their stolen property for but a small fee. His name is Jonathan Wild, and like Lankhmar’s Krovas, he hates it when independent thieves try to make a living in his city. And also he’s an utter bastard.

The infamous Thief-Taker General and his elaborate organisation may have been an inspiration for Fritz Leiber’s Thieves’ Guild, or perhaps it was second-hand from Professor Moriarty, who was also partly inspired by Jonathan Wild.

The Court of Miracles

La cour des Miracles” by Gustave Doré, illustration for Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

In 1939, four years before “Thieves’ House” was published, a very important film came out: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It included a colourful depiction of the Court of Miracles “where the scoundrels of Paris collect in a lair”, to quote another version. That must have been an influence, so let’s see what it was about.

The Court of Miracles really existed in Paris, and it wasn’t just one, there was a whole mess of them in the general vicinity – except that all this was happening in the 17th century and Victor Hugo took some liberties and projected it back to the 14th. And what he described was a heavily mythologised version of the real thing.

The real thing was, more or less, a collection of slums. It’s where the excess of people went in a city whose population had just exploded. Paris had become a sprawling metropolis again, coming back from the disasters of plague and war, and attracting people from all over. So where will all the rejected and marginalised go? It’s quite simple: if there’s no housing they’ll make a shanty-town and shack up there, and if there’s no jobs they’ll resort to begging and petty crime. What else are they supposed to do? Meekly starve? Fuck you, they won’t.

Out of that reality, we got a mythologised literary version of the Court of Miracles, much like the rogues of England were treated in the pamphlets. Again we read about complex hierarchies, a Prince of Thieves and a King of Beggars, elaborate initiation rites, and a secret thieves’ cant – the argot. And crucially, this underworld has a space of its own: a lair, a den, a headquarters. This feature doesn’t appear in English rogue literature, but Leiber’s Thieves’ Guild has it (it’s in the title!), and so does any D&D-related or inspired thieves’ guild, so I think it’s not a stretch to attribute it directly to the Court of Miracles.

The 1939 film, inheriting Victor Hugo’s anachronisms and liberties, portrays the Court of Miracles as a single, fixed, and secret place in the middle of medieval Paris (which had abruptly become the largest city in western Europe in the 1300s, but then the Black Death hit). The portrayal is stunning and memorable. The scene where the hapless Gringoire is asked to demonstrate his thieving skills by balancing on one leg on a stool and pickpocketing a mannequin full of little bells is iconic. This is the stuff that inspires whole genres, and I believe it did exactly that. The roguish side of Sword & Sorcery and Dungeons & Dragons owes a lot to English rogues and vagabonds, but we shouldn’t overlook their enormous debt to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939, dir. William Dieterle)


Meanwhile, in 17th century Istanbul, the Thieves’ Guild (“the corporation of thieves and footpads who… pay tribute to the two chief officers of the police”) and the Beggars’ Guild (which had a “sheikh”, i.e. a leader, a guildmaster) once joined a very official procession of the guilds on the city streets. Or at least, that’s what The Book of Travels says. But all the research I’ve read about Ottoman guilds considers this passage uncovincing. There certainly may have been thieves and beggars in the procession, but they didn’t have a legally recognised guild – an esnaf.

Spanish picaresque novels had been around since the mid-16th century, and Cervantes describes something like a thieves’ guild in Seville. A French jargon of thieves, along with assorted poetry and literature, is attested from the 15th century. Rogue characters/anti-heroes appear in Arabic literature from the 9th century, and the early emergence of big cities in the Islamic world leads to various associations of thieves and beggars in places like Cairo and Baghdad. A loose co-fraternity of rogues, the Banu Sasan, pops up in every corner of the Arabic world, from al-Andalus to India.


There’s a lot of material out there, and I barely scraped the surface. Our earth is big and rogues are the salt of the earth, and wherever there’s property there’s also thieves, and whenever a city raises domes and spires to the heavens, that city’s outcasts will converge to its underbelly and mingle and, well, associate. It’s only natural. If you decide to include a Thieves’ Guild in your D&D setting, your character backstory, or your worldbuilding, you can draw inspiration from anywhere, as long as you know where to look and are willing to do a bit of digging.

However, I don’t think Leiber or Gygax were too familiar with… most of that. So as far as the D&D origins of Thieves’ Guilds are concerned, I believe we should stick to Fritz Leiber, English rogue literature, the Court of Miracles, and whatever kernel of historical truth lies behind them. And there you have it.

[original post]

Between heaven and hell

summary / translation of the 1924 short story “Ο Κάτω Κόσμος” (The Underworld) by Andreas Karkavitsas

A sailor comes back to his native island after many years on the sea, sporting a brand new suit, and as he’s walking home it starts to rain. He doesn’t want his new suit to get wet, it’s all he has. So he looks around, sees there’s nobody else on the road, strips naked, puts the suit in a bag, and keeps walking. He’s a sailor, he can handle some rain on his skin.

When the rain stops, he takes the suit back out and puts it on, and at that point he meets the Devil. (Technically it’s a devil, as in one of many demons.) The devil marvels how this man’s clothes are dry after heavy rain, out in the wilderness and with no shelter in sight. The sailor says “I know a trick”, the devil says “teach me your trick!”, the sailor says “only if you let me shag you”. The devil balks at that, since mortals have tricked him before. One time he transformed to a donkey to scare some children in a village, but the children caught him, rode him, and since there were too many of them to ride on his back, they shoved a stick up his ass and climbed on that too. Darn kids. But in the end the devil agrees. So the sailor shags the devil, and then tells him what he did to keep his clothes dry: he put them in a bag. That was all? The devil is furious but of course there’s nothing he can do, a deal’s a deal.

Years pass and the man dies, and since he’s a sailor, he naturally goes straight to hell. In front of the gate, there’s scores of people waiting to get in, all the fine society, lords, gentlemen, bishops. Behind the gate, there’s fire and brimstone and demons with pointy instruments. And on guard duty that day is that particular devil, who sees him and starts yelling “noooo, don’t let that one in, send him away, he’s the one who shagged me, he’ll shag us all!”. So the devils kick him out of hell.

The sailor then goes to heaven, Saint Peter wouldn’t let him in but he slips in anyway. It’s nice there, but it’s boring, so he starts stirring some shit up. He tells one saint “hey, it’s none of my business, but why aren’t you sitting next to Jesus? that Saint Anthony who got the seat of honour, methinks he suffered a lot less than you for our Lord!”. He keeps spreading discord like that, and soon there’s murmurs and complaints, and finally a huge brawl breaks out in heaven, saints pulling each other’s beards, harps breaking on heads, it’s a mess. God wakes up and he’s pissed, he grabs a bullwhip, whips them all to shape and then bellows “WHO STARTED THIS?”. Everyone points at the sailor, and god kicks him out of heaven.

So now the sailor is banished from heaven and hell, and he can’t go back to the land of the living because he’s dead. Now what? He scratches his head and says “you know what? fuck the lot of you”. He plucks all the hairs off his body, head, arms, chest, everything (he is apparently a very hairy dude), and he weaves them to a sail. He cuts off a tree branch that was hanging outside the wall of paradise, fashions it to a pole and sticks it to the ground. Then he pulls the sail over the pole, and pitches his tent right there in the void, between heaven and hell, fearing neither god nor devil.

And though I don’t know his name, I’ll pour one out for that man who showed us the way: when I die, I’ll be heading straight for my tent. So fuck heaven, fuck hell, and long live all the sailors!

[originally posted on tumblr; please note that this retelling is exceedingly liberal, and there’s not a single instance of the word “fuck” in the original]

Parallels: Olidammara the Laughing Rogue / The Cynics Diogenes and Menippus

Olidammara the Laughing Rogue (Deities & Demigods, 2002, illustration by M. Cavotta) / Diogenes bites Plato (Existential Comics #219)

1. Hecate’s Supper

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 – 323 BCE) was like the Oscar Wilde of his time. His snark was immensely popular, and for centuries after his death, if you wanted to say something sarcastic and make people pay attention, you’d just go ahead and say it and attribute it to him. (Which is why it’s so hard today to determine what Diogenes actually said and what he didn’t.) Alternatively, you could write a book with Diogenes as the protagonist, maybe another Cynic as well, and use them as your snarky mouthpieces.

That’s what Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 – 180 CE) did, in his Dialogues of the Dead. These take place in Hades, and feature the philosophers Menippus of Gadara (3rd century BCE) and Diogenes, now dead, snarking from the Underworld and pumping the cynicism to eleven. And I remembered this wonderful satirical work while I was reading an old article in Dragon Magazine about Olidammara the Laughing Rogue, the classic D&D deity (in the Greyhawk pantheon) of thieves, beggars, and bards. It says:

“Shrines of Olidammara’s faith are far more common than temples and may be found in urban or rural areas. Usually the shrine is just a pile of stones or an outdoor alcove bearing his mark where worshippers can pour an offering of wine or leave a bit of tasty food and a few copper coins. It is not considered an affront to the god for someone truly poor to take these coins, although stories exist of misers being punished for daring to take what is not their due.”

A humble shrine to Olidammara, illustration by Andrew Hu (Dragon #342)

This bit about poor people pilfering offerings from a god’s shrine was familiar. In Dialogues of the Dead, when Menippus dies, he gets immediately in trouble with Charon, the boatman, because he’s supposed to have coins for the fare and he emphatically doesn’t. (He’s a Cynic, being penniless is his thing.) When Charon insists to be paid, Menippus wisely explains that he cannot give what he doesn’t have, and when he gets frisked, all he has to show are lupin beans and a “Hecate’s supper”. Now lupin beans are basically livestock food, humans only resort to them when destitute. And Hecate’s supper? Well Hecate was the goddess of roads among other things, and she had shrines in street corners (particularly where three roads meet). People left offerings there every month “and these offerings were at once pounced upon by the poor, or, as here, the Cynics.”

It’s not clear what Hecate thought about this plundering of her shrines, or what people imagined she thought. It’s abundantly clear that the hungry didn’t particularly care. But Olidammara approves as much as Menippus (and Lucian), which is pleasing. And that’s not the only parallel.

Diogenes Sitting in His Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860)

2. The rich remember

Olidammara drops some aphorisms

“Hoarded gold is no treasure. A man who lives alone with all of his money in a vault is poorer than a penniless man surrounded by merriment. What is the point of money and fine things if you cannot use them to bring you happiness? Better to spend your gold on food, wine, and music than let your mouth, ears, and mind go numb from nothingness.” 

“A cage of gold is still a cage. A man surrounded by valuable things may think he is happy, but if he cannot leave his home for fear of his possessions being stolen, and cannot touch them for fear they might break, he is not actually happy. Take the man’s things so he is no longer bound to them and can be free to live as nature intended.”

Meanwhile in Hades, Diogenes messages the living

To Menippus the Cynic: If mortal subjects for laughter begin to pall, come down below, and find much richer material; it is the best of sport to see millionaires, governors, despots, now mean and insignificant; you can only tell them by their lamentations, and the spiritless despondency which is the legacy of better days.

To the rich: O vain fools, why hoard gold? why all these pains over interest sums and the adding of hundred to hundred, when you must shortly come to us with nothing beyond the dead-penny?

Menippus (detail) by Diego Velázquez (1638)

and Shades of rich men file a complaint against Menippus

CROESUS: Pluto, we can stand this snarling Cynic no longer in our neighbourhood; either you must transfer him to other quarters, or we are going to migrate. Midas here, and Sardanapalus and I, can never get in a good cry over the old days of gold and luxury and treasure, but he must be laughing at us, and calling us rude names; “slaves” and “garbage,” he says we are. And then he sings; and that throws us out. In short, he is a nuisance.

MENIPPUS: All perfectly true, Pluto. I detest these abject rascals! Not content with having lived the abominable lives they did, they keep on talking about it now they are dead, and harping on the good old days. I take a positive pleasure in annoying them. Well, you scum of your respective nations, let there be no misunderstanding; I am going on just the same. Wherever you are, there shall I be also; worrying, jeering, singing you down. Yours was the presumption, when you expected men to fall down before you, when you trampled on men’s liberty, and forgot there was such a thing as death. Now comes the weeping and gnashing of teeth: for all is lost! You do the whining, and I’ll chime in with a string of KNOW THYSELVES, best of accompaniments.

3. And then they diverged

Of course, Olidammara isn’t all Cynic. Cynics rejected wealth and luxury altogether and snubbed everything not necessary for survival, in the name of (basically) independence. The Laughing Rogue, on the contrary, wants you to grab all the finer things in life with both hands, and have a good time.

“The kernel of Olidammara’s philosophy is that life should be enjoyed, for a life of misery and boredom is a life wasted. Mortals should laugh, enjoy the company of friends and the playing of music, taste good food, and drink good wine. Although he is not a hedonist and doesn’t believe that mortals should be, he knows that a lifetime of meat, fruit, wine, and song is better than a a life of bread, water, and silence (unsurprisingly he has no ascetic or monk worshippers). His faithful should treat music as the art it is and strive to be as skilled at it as their patron. People should make jokes and laugh when the joke is on them, and try to avoid misery, temperance, and solemnity, for they are the greatest poison to the soul. He encourages people to practice occasional mayhem not for its own sake but to add excitement to boring lives and rattle the self-built cages of materialists.”

And, to return full circle to Hecate’s supper, Olidammara is something more than that. He discovered a source of fulfillment, joy, and bliss that all the squabbling philosophers in the time of Diogenes somehow failed to grasp. That shifty thieving scoundrel is sharing.

Olidammara’s Aphorism: “What is good alone is better with others. Any pleasurable thing is greater when you can share it with someone else. A fine wine is sweeter when raised in toast to a friend. A romantic song is stronger as a duet. A good meal is more savory when shared with a hungry man. A memory is richer when reminiscing with someone who was there.”

And you know what? I’ll drink to that.

Illustration by Andrew Hu (Dragon #342)

[All excerpts about the Laughing Rogue are from the article “Core Beliefs: Olidammara” by Sean K. Reynolds (Dragon #342, 2006). All excerpts of Dialogues of the Dead are from The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler (1905).]

[original post]

The cutthroat Robin Hood and his “inexplicable” appeal


“Then arose the famous murderer, or cutthroat, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the dispossessed, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedy and comedy, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing about above all other ballads.”

—  Entry for the year 1266 from the 1440s chronicle Scotichronicon by Walter Bower (cited in The History of English Podcast, Episode 136: The Real Robin Hood).

This chronicle was written is Latin, and the word used for “murderer, or cutthroat” was sicarius. [Hence the Spanish and Italian sicario, meaning “hitman”.] It was based on an earlier Scottish chronicle, which also noted that Robin Hood was popular with the masses, but wasn’t critical of that fact, it simply said the outlaw was deemed “good”.

As an aside, I am always endlessly amused when upstanding respectable folks complain in indignation that the masses find violent criminals cool. “Why would they do such a thing, it’s inexplicable!” Gee, I don’t know mate, but riddle me this first: why does the public like ANY stories of violence? Why does it root for warriors and knights and soldiers? Why does it relish tales of war, the most mindless and destructive mass violence humans ever got into? Why the hell are battles entertaining? You figure that out first, and THEN come ask why criminals are popular.

Until then, allow me to offer a morsel for thought: unlike killers in uniform, criminals get to decide for themselves who to to rob and who to kill and who to not. For example:

‘Master,’ then said Little John,
‘An we our board shall spread,
Tell us whither we shall go,
And what life we shall lead;

‘Where we shall take, where we shall leave,
Where we shall abide behind,
Where we shall rob, where we shall reave,
Where we shall beat and bind.’

‘Thereof no force,’ then said Robin;
‘We shall do well enow;
But look ye do no husband harm
That tilleth with his plough.

‘No more ye shall no good yeoman
That walketh by greenwood shaw;
Nor yet no knight nor no squire
That will be a good fellow.

‘These bishops and these archbishops,
Ye shall them beat and bind;
The High Sheriff of Nottingham,
Him hold ye in your mind.’

~ A Little Geste of Robin Hood, c. 1450, emphasis – gleefully – mine

[original post]

Define “Rogue”

we-are-monk asked: What do you think really is the core of rogue? Ungentlemanly tactics? Affinity for the city? Willingness to do crime? Or is there something else that defines them, when you take away the daggers and sneak attack and leather?

At the end of the day,
the Rogue is simply the one who strays.

Who abandons the straight highway
and takes the crooked road,
who slips through the window and turns a back alley,
who veers off the path and hops over the fence,
descends to the gutter and climbs up the roof.

The stray sheep,
the wayward daughter,
the vagabond son.

They aren’t where you left them,
they aren’t where you assumed they’d be,
and they sure as fuck aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

Where are they, then? Who knows.
The lookout is ahead, the craven behind,
the daredevil above and the devil below,
while the rambler has fucked off to nowhere at all,
but in their right place?
Nay, none of them, never.

And maybe it’s for gold, maybe for the thrill,
maybe for the sweetness of the forbidden fruit,
maybe it’s for love, or for lack of choice,
maybe it’s an itch, a desire, an ache.

But whatever it’s for and wherever they stray,
no matter how selfish or selfless they are,
all Rogues prove the same thing,
simply by virtue of existing on the same plane as you,
surrounded like you:

There’s another way. There’s another path.
When the walls close in,
you can take the crooked road

and escape.

[original post]

Lockpicking in The Canterbury Tales

the merchant's tale.jpg

The Merchant’s Tale,  illustration by W. Russell Flint, 1913

While there’s no lockpicking per se in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387 – 1400), there’s something similar. In The Merchant’s Tale, a knight named January (60yo m) elects to take May (18yo f) for his wife, ignoring his friends’ advice that the match is ill-suited. May, for her part, unsurprisingly elects to bang instead a young squire named Damian. The old knight is jealous and won’t let her leave his side for one minute, but fortunately the young lovers’ tryst is helped by the noble art of counterfeiting keys:

This noble knight—that is, old January—
Took such delight in walking in this garden
He wouldn’t trust the key to anyone
Except himself; he carried in his pocket
A silver latchkey to unlock the wicket
—The little garden-gate—at his good pleasure.
And when he wished to pay his wife her due,
He would go thither in the summer weather
With May his wife, and no one but they two. […]

The lovely May, of whom I spoke before,
Took in warm wax an imprint of the key
To the little wicket-gate that January
So often used when entering his garden.
And, knowing what she had in mind, Damian
Secretly forged a copy of that key.
There’s no more to be said; but presently
A miracle, connected with that key,
Will come about; you’ll hear it if you wait.

The excerpts are from David Wright’s verse translation. In Chaucer’s words, May “in warm wex hath emprented the clyket”, where clyket means “(a) the latch of a door or gate; a kind of latch which can be locked with a key, a locking latch; (b) a latch key; ( c) a strong box with a locking latch”. So possibly the latch of the little garden-gate looked like this.


And the key that Damian “counterfeted” may have looked like this:


(Silver keys appear in literature all the time but I believe it’s poetic licence, since it doesn’t sound too practical.)

As for counterfeiting keys, it was not uncommon in Chaucer’s time. In 1394, an Ordinance of the Blacksmiths of London decreed that “no manner of man following the said trade in the City, or in the suburb thereof, shall make any manner of key from any kind of impress thereof, unless he have the key itself present, or the lock to which the same key has to be made; by reason of the mischiefs which have happened, and which may happen in time to come.”

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Rogue deities

We’re mostly into deities of trickery, thievery, mischief, and travel. And booze, come to think of it.

  • The classic choice is Olidammara the Laughing Rogue, patron god of thieves and bards in the Greyhawk pantheon. Mischief and hedonism, what’s not to love?
  • Another classic is Lady Luck (Tymora in Forgotten Realms, aka Our Smiling Lady). We’re not getting anything done without luck. Trust me on this.
  • Brandobaris the halfling is hilarious, he’s a prankster, trickster, thief, and daredevil extraordinaire.
  • The Moonweaver (the adaptation of Sehanine Moonbow for Critical Role), goddess of moonlight, misdirection, love, and trickery. If she’s good enough for Molly, she’s good enough for your rogue.
  • Fharlanghn the elf wanderer, aka the Dweller on the Horizon. I just LOVE gods of travel. “What do you worship?” “The road.” It’s so poetic!
  • If we’ve got anything like a greco-roman setting, Hermes is a no-brainer, though the truly classic choice would be Athena. I’m also super fond of Dionysus.

Honourable mention #1: the Crooked Warden, aka the Nameless Thirteenth, aka the Thiefwatcher, aka the Benefactor, aka the Father of Necessary Pretexts. From Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. A bit thin on the lore, but 100% on point on the mission statement. “Thieves prosper, the rich remember” is all I ever wanted from a creed.

Honourable mention #2: the Many-Faced God from A Song of Ice And Fire (but NOT from Game of Thrones, all the best stuff is missing in the show). So the standard stuff is valar morghulis, right? But the best stuff is some tantalising hints: That this god’s original followers not only led a massive slave revolt/escape from Valyria (which would eventually lead to the founding of Braavos), but caused the Doom of Valyria itself. And that the role of this weird spooky death cult in the city is, oddly enough, checks and balances: the rich and powerful will think twice before fucking over people’s lives too much, because if one of the exploited gets indignant enough, he’ll make a donation to the House of Black and White and they’ll mysteriously depart from this world. (It’s SO important that the donation is relative to the donor’s fortune, and therefore even paupers can make one.) In summary, this god is like the dark twisted twin of the Crooked Warden, and I love it.

See the archive’s tag #patron deity for more ideas.

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Hades in popular culture

hades isn’t a badass. hades named his three-headed-guard-of-the-underworld-dog spot. hades whispers to his flowers to make them grow. hades grows fruit. there’s no sun in the underworld.
~ autisticenjolras

Of Chronos’s sons, I always felt like Hades was probably the least ignoble. Modern portrayals of him as being synonymous with the devil are ignorant and prejudiced–and probably somehow the Victorians’ fault.
~ heroineimages

Aww, those poor Victorians get blamed for everything. 🙂

Hades/Pluto has been conflated with the christian Devil/Satan/Lucifer since late antiquity. It’s very common to turn an old god into a demon so that the new god can take over, and the distinction between ruler of Hades and ruler of Hell is soon lost. This goes on through the Middle Ages, with Hades taking aspects of the Devil and vice versa. In the Divine Comedy, Pluto presides over the 4th Circle of Hell.


The nuance of the original myth resurfaces during the Renaissance and later Romanticism (early Victorians included), with the rediscovery and idealization of all things Greco-Roman. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice becomes wildly popular, and Hades stops looking like a bad copy of Satan. However, he’s still associated with death (duh), and therefore the macabre (“the Night’s Plutonian shore” and all that).

(Meanwhile, it was another deity that was vilified by Christianity, idealised by classicism, and then sent back to hell by the Victorians: Pan. Arthur Machen wrote The Great God Pan in 1890, identifying him with the Devil himself. Of course, in all likelihood, Pan and similar deities were the reason why the devil got horns and cloven hooves in Christian folklore in the first place.)

But Hades wasn’t out of the frying pan yet. In the 20th century, new mass media would draw extensively from Greco-Roman mythology. Unfortunately, its nuances were utterly lost in the Heroes Vs Villains structure. In 1926, the Italian film Maciste all’inferno would feature a very old trope: the Underworld is Hell, and Pluto is the Devil.


In 1969, the hilarious Hercules in New York (Schwarzenegger’s first appearance) features Pluto as one of the villains. The trend continues all the way to Disney’s Hercules, Xena, and Clash of the Titans. Basically, unless it’s an ambitious Orpheus adaptation, whenever Hades appears on film or television, he’s the Bad Guy ™.

hades disney.jpg

Superhero comics had a similarly slanted approach. Marvel’s Pluto is introduced in 1966 as a scheming supervillain who wants to overthrow Zeus. And DC’s Hades in the Justice League TV series is yet again portrayed as the devil, goatee and everything.

hades superhero.jpg

The last dishonourable mention goes to Dungeons & Dragons. In Deities & Demigods, the Greek pantheon gets stats and alignment entries, and Hades is Neutral Evil. D&D settings are traditionally based on the concept of opposing cosmic forces, so poor Hades gets stuck with the Evil part.

hades dnd.jpg

…And that’s exactly how Greek mythology does NOT work.

Hades, this much maligned chthonic deity, Lord of the Underworld or Persephone’s (the actual ruler’s) Consort, is depicted carrying a scepter, grains and seeds and flowers, a horn of plenty. Not a bloody pitchfork. He is feared, to the extent that humans fear death, but he’s also admired as a wise and just ruler, respected for preserving the natural order, and worshipped for his fertility aspect.

To understand him we must first understand his realm, and how it was perceived. Hades, the Underworld, is nothing like hell. While eternal punishment/reward exists, it is reserved for exceptionally vile or virtuous mythical figures, it’s not the afterlife anyone fears or aspires to. Unlike the Christian Hell, the prospect of Tartarus is never used as a cudgel to scare people into conforming with the divine law.

Hades is where the Shades of the dead reside. It’s a grim and bleak place, as death is the antithesis of life: no joy, no desire, no memory, no purpose. And no torment, either. There’s nothing deliberately mean about it, and it’s the great equaliser. It sucks for Achilles just as it sucks for the lowliest peasant. In fact, Achilles’s shade in the Odyssey declares he would much rather be a humble servant above ground than king of kings among the dead.

Essentially, Hades is a cosmic reminder that this life, here on earth, is all we really have. It’s an incentive to cherish life, an imperative to embrace it fully and love it passionately. In a strange way, the greatest gift of the god of death is an uncompromising lust for life. Because it ends.

hades and persephone.jpg


When I wrote this thing about Hades ~4 years ago, I completely forgot Hadestown, then still a relatively unknown concept album, and the only work (that I know of) which IS “an ambitious Orpheus adaptation”, and yet Hades is still the Bad Guy™. Of course, in Hadestown he’s the bad guy in a completely different way than the standard dumb and lazy interpretations: “oh he’s gotta be evil because he’s the god of death”, or “because the Underworld is Hell and he’s the Devil”. Here, he’s a bad guy because he stands for something other than the god of death: King Hades has walls to build and riots to quell.

So now that Hadestown went to Broadway and got all the awards and caused a stir, I remembered this old post, and I give you another Hades altogether:

Hadestown: Why We Build the Wall

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Killing Eve: Villanelle’s knives


For no particular reason, here are the knives wielded (or stashed) by Villanelle in Killing Eve, Season 1. (Season 2′s were less distinctive.)

1. Higonokami


A classic 20th century Japanese folding knife, simple in construction (the handle is basically a sheet of metal folded in two, and there’s no locking mechanism), usually with a flat curved blade. Appears in S1E2: “I’ll deal with him later”.

2. Minimalist Bowie


Tiny fixed blade knife, a modern design by CRKT. Appears in S1E3: “Don’t I know you”.

3. Italian switchblade / Mother of pearl handle


The classic Italian stiletto, side-opening, automatic, with a spring mechanism. Mother of pearl is pretty. First appears in S1E5: “I have a thing about bathrooms”.

4. Kitchen knife


Appears in S1E5: “I have a thing about bathrooms”.

5. Shiv


Appears in S1E6: “Take me to the Hole”.

+The Knife Drawer


Contains the aforementioned switchblade, a… dagger (???), and a Ka-Bar or similar. Appears in S1E8: “God I’m tired” .

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