As with any animal in folklore a good number of folktale cats turn out to be enchanted royalty who, after assisting the protagonist with some impossible or at least improbable task, request that they be cut in half and promptly regain their human form. All very interesting to the folklorist, but in many ways interchangeable with any number of other animal helpers from frogs to foxes, so maybe not as quite as interesting to the purist cat lover.
Sitting on the line between transformed human and magical pet is one of the most famous feline tale types which I have in versions called variously The Master Cat, The Ashlad and the Cat, Cattenborg, Lord Peter, and… Puss In Boots to name just a few. It is found all across Europe from Norway to Italy. This story generally starts with the death of poor parents, leaving such meagre estate that the youngest child inherits only the family mog. The furry companion, who can talk of course, then sets about finding a potential monarchical mate for the hard up homo sapien by simply claiming they are of royal birth and stealing a magnificent castle off a troll to prove it. Some variants have the cat transform at the end but most leave puss, booted or otherwise, to a life of fluffy leisure after they have raised their primate from homeless penury to a regal state.
So we come to the true ailurophile’s* favourite tales: those that are about fabulous furry felines rather than about the humdrum hairless apes they associate with. Two things are expected from this type of yarn. First they should demonstrate a knowledge of our mousing mates that we recognise; some essential trait of character apparent in the moggies snoozing on our sofas, pawing at our pantries, and staring intently at our ceilings for no readily apparent reason. The second thing we want the narrative to do is pull back the curtain on the secret life we all suspect that cats live when no human eye is looking.
Scattered around the world, each of these tales brings the flavour of it’s home culture with it. From England comes a gem that I remember as one of a very few stories that I was told by my parents: The King Of The Cats. If you don’t know it, it features an old couple living near the village church. One day the fella comes home all of a bother “I’ve just seen the strangest thing” he tells his wife. “I was coming back through the church yard and there I saw a procession of cats with a little coffin on their shoulders”. At this point old tabby Tom who had been napping in the armchair by the fire woke up and looked intently at the old gaffer, who continued “They were all saying ‘Miauw’ at the same time”. Old Tom suddenly stood up and let out a loud “Miauw!”, “Yes, just like that” said the husband “And there was one black cat walking in front, and seeing me he stood up on his hind legs and walked towards me.” Tom stood up on his tabby hind legs and walked towards the man saying “Miauw” again. The Old lady nearly dropped the teapot. The old man’s eyes were as wide as saucers “Yes, just like that. And then it spoke”, “No it didn’t! Husband you’ve been drinking!” “Not a drop my dear. It spoke clear as you or I. Looked me right in the eye and said ‘Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.’ I nearly feinted!“. There was a moment’s silence, but before the old dear could ask who Tom Tildrum might be or how her husband might be expected to pass the message he had been charged with on to him, Old Tabby Tom, still on his hind paws announced in perfect English “If Tim Toldrum’s dead then… I’m the King Of The Cats!” And with that he shot up the chimney and was gone, never to be seen again. A purrfect tale if ever I heard one.
* Ailurophile = Cat lover
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.