Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2020 Puss in Boots – Part One

Gustave Doré

Cat Tale

Thalia reaffirms she has broadened her literary tastes in fairy tales. As her audience gathers for the evening reading in the study—an audience of me, Johannes, and the brownies—I see her enter the room with her fairy on her shoulder and Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book in her hand. She is not exclusively Grimm in her story selections.

We take to our comfy chairs, window seat, or comfortable, dark corner. The fairy flutters to the mantelpiece to rest upon the bust of Wilhelm.

“This evening,” Thalia announces, “I will read a tale for Johannes.”

The cat eyes her suspiciously.

Puss in Boots,” says Thalia.

Johannes grins and curls up to listen.

A poor miller wills his possessions to his sons, the youngest getting only a cat. However, the cat instructs the youth to give him a pair of boots and a bag, promising to make the young man’s fortune.  

With the bag and a few tricks, the cat catches rabbits and partridges, which, with great flourish and compliments, he presents to the king in the name of the cat’s master, the Marquis of Carabas. This flow of presents goes on for a number of months.

Puss in Boots discovers on what day the king has decided to “take the air” in a coach along the riverside with his daughter. The cat launches his plan into action, telling his master to undress, get into the river, and leave everything else to him.

As the king passes by, the cat calls out that his master has been set upon by thieves and is drowning in the river. The king’s men save the Marquis of Carabas and the king sends back to the castle for a suit of royal clothes for the unfortunate young lord.

The cat runs on ahead, calling out to the reapers and mowers he encounters, who are working the fields, declaring they are to say these lands belong to the Marquis of Carabas or they will be chopped up as fine as herbs for the pot.

Johannes’s tail twitches from side to side and he nods approvingly.

As the king, his daughter, and the marquis drive down the road, the king stops to ask to whom these fields belong. The frightened workers reply, “The Marquis of Carabas.”

On ran Puss in Boots to the castle of the ogre, to whom the fields really belonged. The cat professes he cannot pass the castle without paying his respects to the ogre. Flattered, the ogre receives the cat.

Puss in Boots asks if it is true that the ogre can change shapes. The ogre obliges by turning himself into a lion, quite frightening the cat. Then Puss in Boots asks if it is possible—expressing some doubt—that the ogre can turn himself into something as small as a mouse. Again, the ogre obliges and is immediately pounced upon and eaten by the cat.

Johannes is crouching and ready to leap in reenactment of the scene.

The end of the ogre comes just in time, as the king’s carriage arrives and Puss in Boots rushes out to welcome them to the castle of the Marquis of Carabas. Impressed, the king wishes the marquis to marry his daughter, who during their ride has fallen madly in love with the handsome young man.

The tale concludes that Puss in Boots becomes a great lord and never again has to catch his own mice.

I have never seen Johannes look quite so satisfied with a story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2020 Puss in Boots – Part Two

From Couverture des Contes du temps passé 1843.

Uncle Cornelius

“I know,” I say to Johannes after everyone else has drifted off to their nighttime abodes, “that I read this tale to you once before, but this time you really identified with Puss in Boots.”

“Well I should, since that time I have found the tale springs from my Great, Great, Great, Great Uncle Cornelius.”

“You mean to say Charles Perrault was recording history?” I exclaim.

If cats could roll their eyes, I think Johannes would have. Instead, he closes them as if in pain. 

“Let me correct you on more than one account,” he says with a bit of a growl. “First, Cornelius told his story to Fiovanni Straparola. That was around 1550, but Fiovanni got most of the facts wrong, or simply didn’t believe all of Uncle Cornelius’s amazing story.”

“Wait, are you taking about The Facetious Nights?

 “That might be what he called it.” Johannes blinks, then continues. “Great Uncle Cornelius’s son tried to set the record straight by telling the tale to Giambattista Basile. That version appeared around 1634, but with less accuracy.”

“OK,” I say, “now you are referring to the Pentamerone.”

“Perhaps,” says Johannes, “but he wasn’t any better than Fiovanni. Why he even changed Uncle Cornelius into a female.

“By 1697 the family gave up on the Italians to set things right, and tried a Frenchman, whose English version we heard tonight, namely Perrault’s. He did better. He remembered the bit about the boots that the earlier two neglected to mention, and at least gave Great Uncle Cornelius a nom de plume, ‘Puss in Boots.’”

“It is too bad the Grimms never got hold of this tale,” I say.

“Oh, but they did!” Johannes stares at me. “Their source was Jeanette Hassenpflug, one of a family of sisters who told many of the stories that the Grimms collected. What the Grimms didn’t know was that Jeanette pretty much paraphrased Perrault. While this version of the story appeared in their first edition, 1812, it was omitted thereafter.”

“I’ll assume, “I say, “that is why Thalia chose Perrault’s treatment.”

“I’ll suppose,” answers Johannes, “but, while liberties were taken again, either by Jeanette or Wilhelm (here he glances up at the bust on the mantelpiece), I rather like the Grimm version.

“Oh, everyone is amazed that a cat can speak, a given in the other stories as it should be. Our cat confines itself to catching partridges, the king’s favorite fowl. The king gives our cat good welcome and gold in exchange. There are a hundred workers in the fields. There are also foresters felling trees. The ogre is turned into a sorcerer.  The young man is a count, but with no fancy name and no moral at the end, as with Charles.”

“Moral?” I ask.

“Yes,” Johannes sighs, “it was left out by Lang in The Blue Fairy Book. He should have included:

If the son of a miller so quickly could gain

The heart of a princess, it seems pretty plain

With good looks and good manners and some aid from dress

The humblest need not quite despair of success.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2020 Puss in Boots – Part Three

Gustave Doré

Cat Helpers

I have opened the bay window to let in the night air. It flows in over the sleeping cat on the window seat and over me as well as I perch beside him. I look out across the lawn toward the Magic Forest above which hangs the moon. I contemplate cats as animal helpers.

Johannes is, of course, not an ordinary cat, but rather a sith cat. With a little research, after Johannes alluded to the Facetious Nights, I found that Straparola does describe the cat as actually a fairy, jiving with Johannes’s claim.

Cats do make an appearance in Grimm beyond the omitted Puss in Boots. Perusing the table of contents, I find the Companionship of the Cat and the Mouse, which does not end well for the mouse. A cat plays a part in the Bremen Town Musicians. The Fox and the Cat is a short cautionary tale. There is also The Three Army Surgeons, which does not, in this case, end well for the cat. And there is a moment when cats appear in the Tale about the Land of Cockaigne.

I may have missed one or two references to cats in Grimm, but not one of them, after you subtract Puss in Boots, has a cat as an animal helper to the protagonist.

Outside the Grimm canon things are not much better. There is the motif of a sailor, or merchant, or youngest son, who has a cat and comes to a kingdom overrun with rats and thus makes his fortune. But the cats in these cases are just being cats.

Sometimes the cats are sinister. In the Scottish tale King of the Cats, a poor gravedigger encounters a burial party made up of cats, who tell him to tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Tildrum is dead. When the gravedigger tells his wife, their tom cat rises up on its haunches saying, “Tim Tildrum’s dead? Then I’m king of the cats,” and disappears.

In the Danish tale, Gabriel Rider, a poor soldier solves the mystery of why a mill is being burned down every Christmas Eve. It turns out twenty-four cats come to visit the mill on that night to dance with fire. The soldier thwarts the cats’ design with a bit of magic and the sign of the cross. He is able to harm each one before they can escape.

The next day he goes to the village to find which women have received wounds during the night and cannot make it to church. He bribes each of the twenty-four women, who are witches, also making them promise to never again burn down the mill. He leaves the village a wealthy man.

While the soldier benefited, it was not because the cats were helpful.

Sitting here on my window seat, gazing at the Magic Forest, the only tale of a cat-helper that comes to mind is The White Cat; again, to be found in The Blue Fairy Book.

A king tasks his sons with three trials. First is to find the smallest of dogs and he grants a year to fulfill the task. In his wandering, the youngest comes across a society of cats, the White Cat being their queen. At the end of the year, the queen gives him an acorn containing the smallest of dogs to give to his father.

The second task is to find the finest of muslin, which can pass through the eye of a needle. The White Cat aids him in this task as well.

The third task is to find a worthy bride. As the third year draws to an end, the White Cat insists the prince cut off her head. With reluctance he does and she transforms into her true shape, the most lovely of princesses.

One could argue she is a cat-helper, but she was not truly a cat, but a princess in cat form, cursed by the fairies.

To my knowledge, this makes Puss in Boots the only cat-helper in the entire fairy-tale genre.

I eye Johannes sleeping beside me. This is a credit to his family, but I don’t think I’ll mention it.

Your thoughts?