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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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You have to kiss a lot of frogs…


Well, actually, no. You don’t. There really is no point at all in going round randomly kissing amphibians in the hope that they will become lovestruck royalty, and even less in killing them. All else aside, they have to be able to talk or the chances of them being a magical creature are slim, and even then just because our cat appeared to call me a “wingnut” the other day doesn’t make her magical. We want whole clear sentences from them, ideally ones offering assistance with a tricky situation or high speed transportation.

It’s not just frogs either, all sorts of animals can come along and start chatting away; the White Cat from the story of the same name is a sophisticated conversationalist with her own castle; the fox of The Golden Apple (well it is midsummer, they were bound to come up) from Norway is witty and erudite. One thing most of them will never do is tell you that they may be royalty, gorgeous or highly eligible and the answer to your prayers in some other way. Often it is a condition of the curse which gave them animal form that the actions they ask of you be unbiased by their previous political clout or social and financial status.

Don’t worry, statistically they are fairly unlikely to ask for a snog or even a peck on the cheek in a traditional folk tale. It is far more common for these loquacious animals to help you along with your quest and save your skin on numerous occasions, often when you are only at risk because you ignored their initial good advice. They will repeatedly prove a loyal bosom buddy to you, before politely and kindly requesting that you cut off their head. Not what one normally expects from a good friend.

So if you’ve been given a list of impossible tasks to do and the local wildlife has come over all verbose:

1) DON’T assume it’s all down to the ale or that you’re going mad and ignore them hoping they’ll go away

2) DO exactly what they say, and I mean exactly, follow those instructions carefully, you will only make more work for yourself in the long run if you don’t.

3) DON’T get smart and think you know better than they do or tweak the details because it was only a pond dweller who advised you. They’re animals that can talk so they probably do know what they’re talking about, have they not proved that on your quest?

4) DO for just a moment put aside any emotional attachment you might have to keeping them with you, if they have asked you to ritualistically decapitate them it is probably the only way to release them from their cursed state into their human form so they can make all your dreams come true (not just the weird ones involving talking animals)

5) DON’T however, get ahead of yourself and start slaughtering garrulous critters unless they specifically request you to do so (over-enthusiastic slaying has already rendered them endangered, we see very few of them around these days)

6) DO be aware that not all chatty beasts are marriageable material: some turn out to be your dead parents come back to look after you or they might just be honest to goodness, straight up, every day, perfectly normal talking animals. But that’s a story for another Folk Tales Corner.

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

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Filed under Animals, Fairytale, Folk Tale, Quest, Storytelling, Summer, Talking Animals, Transformation