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A Purrfect Tale


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.

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Look How Far We’ve Come


One of the side effects of researching old folk tales is one can’t help but develop an awareness of history. Whilst the history that is taught in education and sighed over in costume dramas is mostly from a fairly well to do perspective, folktales carry memories of the history experienced by the less fortunate. Stories like Hansel and Gretel remind us the nobility of the Middle Ages kept the agricultural peasantry on such barely subsistence wages, that a bad harvest or a passing pestilence could leave parents choosing which children to feed and which to abandon to their fate. Those without patronage, employment or pension were so hard pressed for food that, in difficult times, the madness of hunger actually did drive some to eat human flesh. Maybe alongside the famous Henry Tudor wife tally of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” We should learn the cost of medieval royalty’s lifestyle: “Starving, Abandoned, Died. Starving, Abandoned, Cannibalised.”

Uncomfortable as these reminders are, they are easy to pass by as the product of extremis, circumstances way beyond anything we are likely to encounter ourselves. However, now and then I come across a tale that can still shock me, it’s horrors not being so long ago or far away, and presented with such everyday banality that it sends shivers down my spine.

My next virtual online zoom performance is going to be about cats. A fairly safe topic one might have thought, relatively low in the jeopardy stakes with a minimal body count mostly tallied in rodents. I was not prepared for “The Lazy Cat”, a purportedly “humorous” tale from Hungary. It starts with the sentence “A lad married a rich and lazy maid and solemnly promised he would never beat her”. On the surface this may seem like a good thing but there are two warning signs in this one statement. Firstly, in folk tales of this type the opening sentence tends to be a pretty good guide to the main topic of the story: this is going to be a story about domestic violence. Secondly, the simple fact that his oath is worth mentioning means the cultural norm for the society was that husbands beat their wives. In case you are in any doubt about that, the story continues: the wife does no work around the house, spending her days in idle gossip “And still he kept his word and never raised his hand against her.” Yes, we are seriously being asked to give him points simply for not being a thug.

The husband solves the conundrum of how to discipline his unruly spouse without breaking his vow by turning to the cat. He orders the poor feline to do all the housework and have his meal ready for when he gets back under threat of a whipping. When he returns and puss has unsurprisingly failed to lift a paw he ties the cat to his wife’s back, whips the cat and the cat claws the wife. After a couple of days of this the wife starts to do the cat’s chores and all is well.

The shocking realisation that in an anecdote from not that long ago we are being invited to consider violence by proxy a clever work around; that the animal cruelty is almost casual; and the “joke” hinges on the foolish act of forsaking direct violence; shows that things have improved over the years. Our reaction to it gives us perspective. It’s a bit like reaching a hill top on a long walk. There is still a long way to go before we reach true equality between the sexes (women are still payed less than men for the same job despite legislation that says otherwise, just as one indisputable example), but just turn around, face back along the rocky path a moment and look how far we’ve come.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Seasonal Tradition


Tradition is a tricky beast. Call something “traditional” and it instantly acquires the authority of an age old practice.  The general impression one gets is that anything “traditional” has been going on long enough that it’s origins are lost in the mists of time. However, I once heard that for something to be considered tradition it only has to pass through three generations, whilst the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines tradition as “a custom handed down” saying nothing about how many hands are required to qualify.

I mention this because Christmas, probably the highest concentration of traditional activity in the modern year, has only held it’s current form for a very short period of time.  Your traditional roast turkey, for instance, is only just scraping through on the most generous interpretation of the COD’s definition. Unless you are American, your grandparents are far more likely to have considered a goose as the traditional bird.  You would only need to go back another generation or two to find people being shocked at the idea of standing a tree up in the corner then covering it in pretty stuff; and Ivy was never brought in to the home as it was generally considered to be infested with fairies, and you wouldn’t want them loose in the house!

So what sort of tales are “traditionally” associated with Yuletide? For those of us brought up with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Roger Moore sprinkling cheese all over our afternoon present giving, it may come as a surprise that the tale types most common to this time of year are dark tales of desperation and struggles through unbearable loss.  The Victorians, who gave us much of what we think of as a traditional Christmas, typically whiled away the festive evenings telling ghost stories. Dicken’s Christmas Carol neatly combines these concepts to forge a classic that straddles the transition from what was to what is.  Going further back in time, Scandinavians used to tell stories of Odin who, as one of the precursors to St Nicholas, led the wild hunt in a mad career across the Yuletide skies on his eight legged horse, not only giving out gifts to those who were good but punishments to those who were bad, an element we seem to have totally lost today (Just like bankers getting bonuses whatever happens).

Whilst we are in historical Scandinavia, let us pause for a moment in Norway at a place called Dogre. It is on a fell near the mountains and the tradition was to provide hospitality to all-comers during the mid winter feasting.  One year, on the eve of the feast, a traveller arrived at a house asking for lodgings for him and his bear.  The owner explained that he was welcome to stay but he and his family were just leaving as, being so close to the mountains the house was annually overrun by coarse, ill-mannered trolls.  The stranger said he was too tired to go any further and would take his chance with the trolls, then installed himself and his bear by the fire.

A cute polar bear with a present

The trolls duly arrived in all their grotesque ugliness and made themselves at home, toasting sausages in the flames.  One of them approached the bear saying “Kitty want a sausage?” and shoved the hot charred item on to the unsuspecting beasts nose.  Naturally the bear lost its temper at the provocation and chased the trolls from the house.

The next year, as the family were preparing to forsake their home once again a troll poked it’s head round the door and said “Have you still got that cat?” thinking quickly the Owner responded “Yes and she’s had seven kittens who are all growing with remarkable speed!”
They were never troubled with trolls again.

Merry Christmas to you all!

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Filed under Christmas, December, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Tradition, Winter