Cats are good at hiding. This is probably why, in our human stories, we like to anthropomorphise cats and imagine they are in disguise. This probably accounts partly for why cats are the number one suspect when it comes to witches’ familiars. Humans have the ability to ‘know’ something is there, even if there is zero evidence, e.g. witches. We also have the ability to attribute intent where none is there; a bug in our comparatively advanced cognitive empathy.
There is a strong link between women, girls and cats. In fiction, for instance, women are frequently described as cats (and also as birds).
Then there’s the witch link between women and cats, who are thought to be witches’ familiars. During the witch craze, a small proportion of men were also tried for witchcraft, but the modern witch archetype is an old woman who sometimes transmogrifies into a beautiful young woman in order to trick men or to test them.
Nine lives: Cats are said to have nine lives, and women ten cats lives.from a 1703 dictionary of slang
Then there’s the modern dismissive archetype of the ‘crazy cat lady’, for which there is no male counterpart.
Below are some artworks celebrating the relationship between women, girls and their cats.
The fishbowl is a common symbol of surveillance, as is a glass house. For house cats, the fish bowl is a miniature version of the pond or lake — domestic version.
Brigid Lucy tries to be good, but it doesn’t always work. This could be due to the invisible imp hiding in her hair. When Biddy’s pet slug dies in tragic circumstances, Dad promises to buy her a new pet. But Dad is allergic to almost every pet in the shop! Things get even worse when the invisible imp in Biddy’s hair decides to get involved. She can’t help but encourage Biddy into trouble.
When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.
It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.
The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?
Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom – the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it – somehow.
Header painting: George Dunlop Leslie – The Goldfish Seller
Below is a collection of artwork and illustration featuring cats looking out of windows. I bet they’re wishing they were outside.
And of course you can’t have cats wishing to head outside without cats also wishing to come back in. So here are a few catslooking inside a window from the outside.
The Cat At Night is a picture book written and illustrated by Amrican Dahlov Ipcar (1969). Like many children’s authors and illustrators, she lived a long life (1917-2017).
Join the farmer’s cat on his fascinating nighttime journey through fields, farms, forests, and even the city to see what only he can see after the sun sets. Legendary artist Dahlov Ipcar mesmerizingly alternates between dark night scenes and vivid color to deliver a beautifully illustrated children’s classic.MARKETING COPY
Ipcar’s paintings are described as ‘kaleidoscopic’. Take a look at these ones and you’ll see why:
But in this particular story, Ipcar makes heavy use of the silhouette, putting me more in mind of Lotte Reiniger, the underrated animator whose technology was ‘borrowed’ by Walt Disney.
In The Cat At Night, the silhouette is used as part of a game, designed to get young children talking with their adult co-readers in a go-to-bed story.
Below is an example of how Ipcar creates a spread of silhouettes then, after a page turn, reveals the scene in full colour.
PICTURE BOOKS AS HYPNOGOGIC OBJECTS
I’ve seen scholars of children’s literature use the word ‘hypnogogic objects’ to describe certain kinds of children’s books. The O.G. hypnogogic object is the fob watch dangled before the eyes, designed to lull a person into a hypnotised state. Some picture books appear to have a similar aim in mind, especially those in which the main character goes to sleep themselves, modelling what the child is supposed to do. This picture book is an early example of what we now call an ‘interactive book’, though the word most often now refers to books read on a digital device. This silhouette-to-colour transition is exactly the sort of ‘device’ perfectly suited to digital technologies.
IS THIS A SCIENCE PRIMER?
The cat is not any cat in particular, but stands in for all cats. We know this because of the ‘universal he’. (A contemporary picture book would be more likely to replace the singular with the plural and avoid gendered pronouns altogether.)
The whole premise of this story rests upon the idea that cats can see in full colour at night. The more modern misconception is that cats can’t see colour at all. In fact, cats do see some colour, but their world is nowhere near as colourful as our own (nor as colourful as this picture book). Cats are like colour blind humans.
- Cats can see shades of blue and green.
- Reds and pinks may appear more green.
- Purple can look like another shade of blue.
- To cats, none of these colours are as saturated.
The idea that other animals see the world completely differently is a fascinating one, and we know more about cat vision now than we did in the mid 20th century. I suspect that in 1969, readers really did believe that cats have a magical ability to see at night. The cat in this story is black for several reasons: It matches the silhouette artwork, and also puts us in mind of a witch’s cat.
Despite assertions in the text, humans are much better at detecting colour than cats are. They can’t see distant objects as well as humans can, so a scene such as the rooftop spread below would not be what a cat sees at all, despite the folk art treatment. A cat has to be at 20 feet to see what an average human can see at 100 or 200 feet.
The double spread is a good feline choice though, because cats have a slightly wider field of vision than we do (200 degrees compared to 180.)
However, Ipcar is not wrong about cats and their night vision. Cats do far better than we do at night, partly because they’re making use of their other senses (and whiskers), but also because they only need one sixth of the light that we need. They have more rods in their retinas.
As this picture book progresses, reference is made to the mirror-like effect at the back of a cat’s eyes, and which I’m sure has contributed to their reputation as witches’ familiars. This glowing-eye effect is caused by cells in the tapetum, which helps them to pick up any light in the environment.
Picture books rely heavily on the (human) sense of sight, so it’s inevitable that a picture book can’t come close to conveying how a cat experiences the world. We’re unlikely to ever know that.Continue reading “The Cat At Night by Dahlov Ipcar (1969)”
How tf did lions become the symbol of bravery? They are the biggest and the strongest and they use that strength to eat the weaker animals. What exactly makes them brave??Existential Comics (@existentialcoms) November 17, 2019
Tiger is big. Tiger is tough. And Tiger has an important note for you.
Dear Reader,WATCH OUT FOR WORMS! They are everywhere! They might even be in this book!Your friend,
P. S. Tiger is afraid of worms.
“Does everything in the world go to sleep?” the little girl asks. In dialogue between a not-at-all sleepy child and understanding parents, the little girl decides “in a cocoon of sheets, a nest of blankets,” she is ready to sleep, warm and strong, just like a tiger.
Some stories refuse to stay bottled up…
When Lily and her family move in with her sick grandmother, a magical tiger straight out of her halmoni’s Korean folktales arrives, prompting Lily to unravel a secret family history. Long, long ago, Halmoni stole something from the tigers. Now, the tigers want it back. And when one of those tigers offers Lily a deal–return what Halmoni stole in exchange for Halmoni’s health–Lily is tempted to accept. But deals with tigers are never what they seem! With the help of her sister and her new friend Ricky, Lily must find her voice… and the courage to face a tiger.
SAINT GERASIMOS OF THE JORDAN
Humans like to think we can tame lions as we can dogs. The following has a very Aesop ring to it.
Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan resscued a lion when it was injured. The lion became his pet and a valuable addition to his monastic community. The lion was called Jordanes. When Saint Gerasimos died, the lion lay down on his grave and died as well.
WOMEN WITH TIGERS (AND OTHER BIG CATS)
SMALL CHILDREN WITH TIGERS
KITTENS WHO FANCY THEMSELVES TIGERS
TIGERS BEING TIGERS
CORRESPONDENCES: An integral part of the medieval and Renaissance model of the universe known as the “Chain of Being.” The idea was that different links on the Chain of Being were interconnected and had a sort of sympathetic correspondence to each other. Each type of being or object (men, beasts, celestial objects, fish, plants, and rocks) had a place within a hierarchy designed by God. Each type of object had a primate, which was by nature the most noble, rare, valuable, and superb example of its type. For instance, the king was primate among men, the lion among beasts, the sun among celestial objects, the whale among fish, the oak among trees, and the diamond among rocks. Often, there was a symbolic link between primates of different orders–such as the lion being a symbol of royalty, or the king sleeping in a bed of oak. This symbolic link was a “correspondence.” However, correspondences were thought to exist in the material world as well as in the world of ideas. Disturbances in nature would correspond to disturbances in the political realm (the body politic), in the human body (the microcosm), and in the natural world as a whole (the macrocosm). For instance, if the king were to become ill, Elizabethans might expect lions and beasts to fall sick, rebellions to break out in the kingdom, individuals to develop headaches or fevers, and stars to fall from the sky. All of these events could correspond to each other on the chain of being, and each would coincide with the others.Literary Terms and Definitions
SUPERNATURAL LARGE CATS
Alien Big Cats was recorded in September 2013 at the Folklore Society conference ‘Beasts in Legend and Tradition’. The talk, presented by writer and folklorist Steve Patterson, examines the zoological phenomenon of out of place cats in the landscape. Whilst there is plenty of evidence to suggest that big cats do live in the British landscape, Steve discusses the ways in which these cases feed into the folklore narrative of the creatures before moving on to discuss the image of the cat in mythology.
Note: “Panther” is a name for black variants of leopards and jaguars, all belonging to the genus Panthera.
Tawny Scrawny Lion is a Little Golden Book first published in 1952, written by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The same team worked on The Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947).
This picture book is an interesting example — indeed, the peak example — of how storytellers for children must cast aside certain unpleasant food chain facts when anthropomorphising animals.
Specifically: lions cannot live on carrots. Carrot soup does not provide nearly enough calories required to live as a lion. Even when made with fish, a lion would need a hell of a lot of it.
Nor do rabbits eat fish. The fish in this story are not considered live, empathetic creatures. Unlike the land animals, their eyes are dots. (The lions and rabbits have human-like eyes, with ‘whites’ (yellows) indicating where they are looking.
Why is the tawny lion so scrawny even though he catches everything he chases? There is no realworld biochemical reason. This is classic fairytale physics, in line with the nonscientific cooling rates of the three differently sized bowls of porridge in Goldilocks And The Three Bears.
SETTING OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION
At first I assumed Tawny Scrawny Lion is set in a utopian, picture book jungle, looked harder at the pictures and realised it was probably a savannah, then saw a Golden Book Video Classic called ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’s Jungle Tales’ and realised the setting is meant to be a coded as a jungle. Compared to other picture book jungles, there is comparatively little typical jungle imagery. (Compare to The Saggy, Baggy Elephant, full of classic jungle imagery.)
The social world of Tawny Scrawny Lion starts out more like a real savannah/jungle (where larger carnivores eat smaller ones) and ends in a place completely divorced from a real world place. In any picture book starring animals, those animals will be anthropomorphised to some degree. Normally the storytellers pick a spot on that continuum and stay there, though animals in the same story are frequently positioned at different points on the anthropomorphising continuum.
The rabbits in this particular story are more civilised than the lion, who must become equally anthropomorphised before any of them can live in harmony. (The rabbits have access to bowls, spoons and a cauldron for cooking their carrot soup. They also have access to fishing lines and, most importantly, wear clothes, which are gendered.) Becoming more civilised (more like a human) is the lion’s main character arc. Tawny Scrawny Lion moves from wild animal to gentrified patriarch.
The poor old fish remain as foodstuffs. It’s clearly more difficult for humans to empathise with fish than with land mammals.
Tenggren’s illustrations are appropriately folk arty for this fantasy picture book world, with just the suggestion of savannah, and shapes placed on the page without an attempt at real world perspective.
The implicit ideology is clear; if animals could live more like (vegetarian) humans, the savannah would be a kinder, less brutal place.
This is what dates the book. Mindfully leaving vegetarian ideology aside, we now know how vital large animals are to an ecosystem. Taking wolves as an example, the reestablishment of just one pack of previously eradicatedwolves to an ecosystem can do an amazing amount of good… precisely because they hunt and kill. Lions are equally important.
STORY STRUCTURE OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION
Once there was a tawny scrawny lion who chased monkeys on Monday—kangaroos on Tuesday—zebras on Wednesday—bears on Thursday—camels on Friday—and on Saturday, elephants!
So begins the funny, classic Golden story of a family of ten fat rabbits that teaches the hungry lion to eat carrot stew—so that he doesn’t eat them!marketing copy
The Tawny Scrawny Lion has a fantasy medical condition where the more animals he catches the scrawnier he becomes.
The lion seems content enough continuing to chase animals, probably never understanding what satiety feels like. The rabbits seem to understand that if they can persuade the lion to eat carrot soup, the benefits will be two-fold: The lion will feel more vigour and the rabbits will have saved all the animals further down the food chain (including themselves) from getting eaten.
Since lions eat rabbits, they are natural opponents.
Though this is left off the page, I imagine a belling the cat scenario in which the rabbits have a meeting, make a plan to invite the lion to change his diet, then invite him around to eat carrot soup.
But we only see the plan being carried out.
Anyone who knows anything about lions will be expecting disaster, but anyone who knows anything about Little Golden Books from the mid 20th century will know that this is a cosy story and the animal characters will be friends by the end.
The prose contains plenty of suspense. When the little rabbit stops to catch some fish ‘this is almost too much for the hungry lion’. The illustrations support the reader’s fear that the lion will lose control and gobble the little rabbits up.
Peak danger: four little rabbits ‘plumped themselves down in the lion’s lap’. Don’t you love the author’s use of ‘plump’? And the illustrator’s depiction of a wide open lion mouth, with those tiny, crazed pupils…
Turn the page and we learn that the carrot soup has worked as a magic potion to quell the lion of hunger. ‘And somehow, even when it was time to say goodnight, that lion wasn’t one bit hungry!’
The lion realises he feels much better eating carrot stew, albeit made with fish stock. He will give up hunting and from now on live the more civilised life of a stew eater…
… so long as the rabbits keep making it for him.
It’s true that large cats (or any wild animal) won’t hunt unless they are hungry. Humans are the only species who kill more than we need for our own sustenance.
So long as the rabbits keep feeding the lion that soup, and so long as it contains plenty of fish, maybe I can believe this happy scenario will continue forever.
It could be argued that this storybook world is so far removed from reality that young readers wouldn’t draw any connection between morality and diet. But that’s not how children’s stories work at all. The surface interpretation is clearly fantasy. Covert ideology carries a story’s resonance; in this case, that animals who eat animals further down the food chain are morally wrong, and until they mend their ways, they will lead an unhappy life.
Adults love a story for children in which enemies become friends. Over the second half of the 20th century The Tawny Scrawny Lion stood the test of time a popular picture book character and sequels followed. ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’ was now ‘THE Tawny Scrawny Lion’.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
For more on Gustaf Tenngren, see the article on him at Animation Resources.