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The Real Thief

by William Steig

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The Real Thief asks a number of questions about wealth, justice, and forgiveness.

Gawain the goose is Chief Guard of the Royal Treasury for King Basil and he takes his job very seriously. But trouble starts when numerous jewels and gold disappear from the treasury. Who could have taken these treasures when only Gawain and the King have keys?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Gawain agrees to be the Chief Guard at the Royal Treasury, even though the job bores him. He accepts the position because of his affection for King Basil.

  1. Have you ever done something that you really didn’t want to do simply to please someone that you like? Give examples.
  2. Is there a limit to what you might do to please other people? Explain your answer.
  3. Do you ask other people to do things that they might not want to do? If so, why?
  4. Is there a limit to what you might ask others to do for you?
  5. Do you think there should be a limit?

After the Kalikak diamond is stolen, Gawain feels that the King suspects that he is the thief.

  1. Has someone that you like or admire ever accused you of doing something that you did not do? If so, how did you respond?
  2. Have you ever suspected that someone did something wrong and later you found out that the person was innocent? What happened?
  3. If you don’t know anything about a person, it is better to be trusting or suspicious of his or her actions? Explain your answer.
  4. How do you know when to be trusting and when to be suspicious of others?

King Basil tells his court that Gawain has deceived them and stolen royal treasures.

  1. What evidence shows that Gawain is a thief?
  2. Has anyone ever accused you of doing something wrong? Was there any evidence?
  3. Have you ever accused someone of doing something that they really did not do? Did you have any evidence?
  4. What kind of evidence should the King see before accusing Gawain of stealing from the Royal Treasury?

When King Basil sentences Gawain to imprisonment, Gawain escapes by flying out of the courtroom.

  1. Have you ever been punished for something that you didn’t do? How did you react?
  2. If you were Gawain’s lawyer, how might you help him in court?
  3. Why might someone think that Gawain should go to jail?
  4. Someone who thinks that Gawain is innocent might feel that he should escape. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.

Derek accidentally discovers a passage into the Royal Treasury.

  1. Do you think it is o.k. for a king to be wealthy? Explain your answer.
  2. Why are rubies and diamonds valuable?
  3. Might a king have a treasury filled with candy instead of jewels? Explain your answer.
  4. Do countries really have great wealth inside their treasuries? Explain your answer.

Decorating his home with jewels makes Derek feel wealthy and important.

  1. What possessions make people feel rich and important?
  2. What possessions make people feel poor and unimportant?
  3. Do some people need to feel more important than others? If so, why?
  4. What might you do to feel important?
  5. Are some actions more acceptable than others?

Three days before Gawain’s trial, Derek realizes that he is a thief.

  1. Why doesn’t Derek realize that he a thief immediately after he has stolen the royal treasures?
  2. Derek looks in the mirror and doesn’t think he looks like a criminal. Do all criminals look alike?
  3. Derek regrets stealing from the Royal Treasury. Do you think people should be given a second chance when they do something wrong? Think of reasons for and against the second chances.
  4. Derek doesn’t understand why he stole the rubies. Is it possible to do something and later forget why you did it? Think of examples.

After Gawain flies away, Derek steals more treasures so that everyone realizes that Gawain is not the real thief.

  1. Eventually, Derek returns the stolen treasures. Why didn’t he think of doing this earlier in the story?
  2. What reasons does Derek give himself for stealing?
  3. Is he fooling himself into thinking that stealing is right?
  4. Do you ever fool yourself into believing something that is not true? Explain your answer.
  5. How can you fool yourself into believing something that you already know is not true? Since you know that you are fooling yourself, you might not be fooled.

Derek finds Gawain and asks for his forgiveness. Gawain says that he can gladly forgive Derek but not the other townspeople.

  1. When might you forgive someone?
  2. What is forgiveness?
  3. Is it a feeling or an action?
  4. Why might Gawain forgive Derek and not forgive the King and the townspeople?
  5. Can you show forgiveness without saying the words “I forgive you”? Explain your answer.

Gawain asks Derek whether he will confess his crimes to the King and the townspeople.

  1. Why is it important to admit a crime?
  2. Why do you think Gawain should confess to the court, even though he isn’t the real thief? Think of several reasons.
  3. Why do you think Gawain should keep quiet in court? Think of several reasons.
  4. If you were Gawain, what might you do in court? Explain your answer.

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Mary Cowhey and Thomas Wartenberg. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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