The main theme of Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord – and there could be said to more than one – is the nostalgia of adults for the innocence and freedom of their lost youth and the desires of children to rid of that same youth so as to be “free” to live as adults. The story of Scipio Massimo, the leader of a group of vagabond children and the “thief lord” of the title, Prosper, a 12-year-old orphan and his five-year-old brother Boniface, or Bo, and the boys’ efforts at locating and stealing a wooden wing while being tracked by an investigator named Victor Getz, The Thief Lord repeatedly returns to the themes of belonging and wanting to be whatever you currently are not. Early in the novel, in Chapter Six, as the boys are eluding the detective, Prosper and Riccio, another orphan member of the gang, are engaged in conversation about life:
Prosper laughed. Riccio could always make him laugh, even if he didn't feel like it. "Do you sometimes wish you were grown-up?" he asked as they crossed a bridge . . .
Riccio shook his head with astonishment. "No. Why? It's great being young. You don't stand out so much and your stomach fills up more quickly. You know what Scipio always says? . . . Children are caterpillars and adults are butterflies. No butterfly ever remembers what it felt like being a caterpillar."
And, later, in a section titled “The Island,” the boys, led by Scipio, are engaging in a transaction with a woman with whom they are doing business:
Silently, the woman handed Scipio an old bag. "Take this," she said, "and use the money to find yourself another occupation. How old are you? Eleven? Twelve?"
"With this kind of money I can be as grown-up as I want to be," Scipio answered. He took the bag and put it on the floor between him and Mosca.
"Did you hear that, Renzo?" The woman leaned against the deck rail and eyed Scipio with puzzled amusement. "He wants to be grown-up. How different dreams can be!"
The children in Funke’s novel recognize that, with the exception of Scipio, as it turns out, all they have is each other, and that they are a family of sorts. The sense of belonging that permeates the story is, as suggested above, another theme of The Thief Lord. It is the strong desire of the children to be adults and the nostalgia among the adults for their childhoods that perhaps serves as the novel’s main theme. The old movie theater in which the boys take refuge, the Stella, represents their independence, at least until, as Detective Getz discovers, it is actually owned by Scipio’s wealthy mother, Dottor Massimo. In that, Scipio, at least, is not quite as independent as he wants to believe, but his skills at theft have provided the financial means the boys need to at least survive on their own, all the while dreaming of a better life as adults.
The dichotomy of adulthood and childhood are represented in these quotes:
“Children are caterpillars and adults are butterflies. No butterfly ever remembers what it felt like being a caterpillar.”
“Are you really going to catch us and take us back to Esther? We don’t belong to her, you know.”
Embarrassed, Victor stared at his shoes. “Well, children all have to belong to somebody,” he muttered.
“Do you belong to someone?”
“Because you’re a grown-up?”