The Goldsmith and the Master Thief (1961): Tonke Dragt

★★★

You know when you buy a book and mean to read it, and keep meaning to read it, but never quite get round to it, and then it’s adapted for TV and you realise that you’ve missed the moment, and that now whenever you read it people will assume you’ve only read it because you’d seen it on Netflix? Yep. That’s happened to me with Tonke Dragt’s story The Letter for the King, so I was keen to get ahead with her novel The Goldsmith and the Master Thief. I should emphasise that this is a children’s story and it’s written as such: there are no winks or extra layers of meaning aimed at adults, just a good old-fashioned fable which follows the adventures of two very different (and yet very similar) brothers. Cynics need not apply: in this world, duplicity is always punished, the misguided mend their ways, and the pure of heart are always rewarded. Reading it feels like a deliciously self-indulgent step back in time, to the days when life was simpler.

Jiacomo and Laurenzo are twins, born in the beautiful city of Bainu in the country of Babina, to a poor cobbler and his wife. It’s a beginning worthy of a fairy tale, and that’s precisely what follows, broken up into short instalments like tales from the Thousand and One Nights, and bound together by a framing narrative. We see the boys exploiting their likeness to play pranks on their school teachers, but the main story gets going when they reach manhood and must choose their paths in life. Although they may look similar, they have markedly different personalities. Laurenzo is quiet, dedicated and methodical, gifted with his hands and suited for a peaceful trade. Jiacomo is livelier, eager for travel and adventure, and unable to stay still for long. Since the twins can’t make up their own minds about what they want to do, they decide to leave it to fate: they travel together to a fork in the road on the barren Plain of Babina, and each of them takes one of the forks, agreeing to meet at the same place in a year’s time.

By the time that year has passed, each will have found his fate. Laurenzo falls in with the talented goldsmith Master Philippo, who takes his new apprentice back home to Bainu and values Laurenzo as a son. Jiacomo, on the other hand, encounters the charismatic Jannos, who invites him to study a much more dangerous profession: that of the master thief. Although Jiacomo is too public-spirited to make a living as a thief, his remarkable skills will come in useful throughout the rest of his peripatetic and adventurous life. As the brothers grow to manhood, their adventures will tempt them with the prospect of gain through wrongdoing, always challenging them to see what kind of lives they have truly chosen. They face the lure of illicit wealth – a set of gorgeous silver cups, said to be impossible to steal; or a fabled ring which is said to secure the heart of a beautiful woman. There is the trouble caused by love: one of the brothers must decide if he is prepared to do the right thing, and correct a case of mistaken identity, when not doing so might bring him the hand of a lovely wife. And there is the eternal lure of power. When the brothers are shipwrecked separately on the shores of Tirania, each of them is invited to become king in the deeply divided city of Baharan. Can the brothers outwit the members of the factions who have given them such power – and can they keep their purity of heart despite the clear advantages of sliding into corruption?

These stories are charming, but naive. It’s pleasant to read them and imagine oneself a child again, in a world where everyone ultimately turns out to be good, and honesty is always rewarded. To adult eyes it’s rather implausible that so many people, having been hard-boiled thieves, or furious lords, or sectarian activists, would change their stripes so readily and see the error of their ways, but this book isn’t aimed at us. Children, I think, would accept it unquestioningly. To read this is the literary equivalent of curling up with a bowl of spaghetti hoops with party rings for pudding: a conscious step back to childhood. Personally, I like to do this once in a while (with books, I mean, not the spaghetti-hoops part), but it won’t appeal to everyone. I realise it’d be helpful to suggest an age range for this book, although I feel rather like an impostor by so doing. I don’t have children and it’s been some time since I was a child myself, but I get the feeling that eight to ten-year-olds would probably enjoy this – and the chapters, each with their own self-contained adventure, seem to be just the right length for bedtime stories.

I see from Dragt’s Wikipedia page that this was actually her first novel, published in 1961 under the title Verhalen van de tweelingbroers (the Dutch version was renamed De goudsmit en de meesterdief for its 15th edition in 2018 and it’s this title which has made it over into English). Since I haven’t yet read any of her other novels, I wonder if her books become slightly more complex later on? And I wonder whether The Letter for the King (originally published in 1962) has the same feel as this, or whether that’s written for slightly older children, and thus more engaging for adults? Thoughts, dear readers?

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

5 thoughts on “The Goldsmith and the Master Thief (1961): Tonke Dragt

  1. Kerstin says:

    The Letter for the King and its sequel – they really need to be read together as it’s one continuing story – were among my favourite books as a child – evidenced by the fact that they are among no more than a dozen or so books I still have from my childhood days that have survived countless house moves and are still somewhere on my book shelves. I’ve only reread them once as an adult, though. Yes, the writing is very simple and clearly aimed at younger children, and the books have a strong moral message and quite a bit of a fairy tale feel to it (a deliberate choice by the author, I think), but it’s a proper adventure story with knights, and quests, and the ending of the second book made me cry buckets. They clearly appealed to my younger self (I guess I must have been around 10 or 11 when I first read them), but I’m not sure that if I had come to them first as an adult, I could have got past the simplicity of the story-telling (compared to for example Violet Needham, or Diana Wynne Jones in a slightly different genre, whose books, while also squarely aimed at children, are much more satisfying reads). I didn’t know there was a TV version – I must check that out! I haven’t read any other books by Tonke Dragt though, so I don’t know how The Letter for the King compares to The Goldsmith and the Master Thief, but the points you mention would probably apply to it as well.

  2. Kerstin says:

    I have now tracked down the TV version of The Letter for the King. Well, from the evidence of the first couple of episodes, I think you can safely pretend it doesn’t exist and has nothing to do with the book if you do decide to give the book a go 😉 Oh boy, did they take liberties with the characters and plot! “Loosely inspired by” might be a better description 🙂

  3. Daniel says:

    The only one of Dragt’s novels which I have read is The Song of Seven, and I can assure you that it is much more complex and interesting than The Goldsmith and the Master Thief.

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