There are many ways of rendering cats in illustration. By letting ink run into the paper, cats can look beautifully soft and furry.
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.Continue reading “Women and Cats in Art”
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.
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)”
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.
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.
Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.
What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.
The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.
This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999
SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON
- PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
- DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
- LOCATION — rural Sweden
- ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
- MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
- NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
- WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
- THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.
STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE
Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.
The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.
Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way?marketing copy
Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.
We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.
Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.
The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.
Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.
The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.
Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?
On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.
On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.
The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.
This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!
We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)
The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.
Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.
In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.
Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).
In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.
It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.
Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.
That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:
If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.
If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.
If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.
If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.
If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.
If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.
If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.
If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.
If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.
That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?Goodreads
This story might align more closely to the carnivalesque picture book story structure if it weren’t for the bull sequence.
The animals in this story span a broad section of the ‘animal-ness continuum’, with Findus basically human (a child), and the hens who are middle-aged gossipy women archetypes and also this bull who is nothing more than an actual bull.
The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).
The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.
Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.
Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pie is an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.
Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.
This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.
Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.
PIES IN STORYTELLING
MORE MEN AND THEIR CATS
‘Belling the cat’ is idiom which means that it’s all very well to come up with good ideas as a fix, but executing those good ideas is another matter. It comes from a fable of yore, in which rats come up with a great idea for foiling a predatory cat. They’ll put a bell around its neck. But who will dare do that?
This feels like one of Aesop’s, but actually that’s unclear. It’s part of that tradition, though.
Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) included this story in his book “Fables”. It still says something very true about committees and hierarchy and how things get done (or not). Wikipedia sums it up nicely: This fable is about ‘the fundamental opposition between consensus and individualism’.
The Council of the Rats
OLD Rodilard, a certain cat,
Such havoc of the rats had made,
’Twas difficult to find a rat
With Nature’s debt unpaid.
The few that did remain,
To leave their holes afraid,
From usual food abstain,
Not eating half their fill.
And wonder no one will,
That one, who made on rats his revel,
With rats passed not for cat, but devil.
Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,
Who had a wife, went out to meet her;
And while he held his caterwauling,
The unkilled rats, their chapter calling,
Discussed the point, in grave debate,
How they might shun impending fate.
Their dean, a prudent rat,
Thought best, and better soon than late,
To bell the fatal cat;
That, when he took his hunting-round,
The rats, well cautioned by the sound,
Might hide in safety underground.
Indeed, he knew no other means.
And all the rest
At once confessed
Their minds were with the dean’s.
No better plan, they all believed,
Could possibly have been conceived;
No doubt, the thing would work right well,
If any one would hang the bell.
But, one by one, said every rat,
“I’m not so big a fool as that.”
The plan knocked up in this respect,
The council closed without effect.
And many a council I have seen,
Or reverend chapter with its dean,
That, thus resolving wisely,
Fell through like this precisely.
To argue or refute,
Wise counselors abound;
The man to execute
Is harder to be found.
While fables use nameless animals to stand in as proxy humans, this poem opens by giving ‘a certain cat’ an individuating name — the name of Rodilard. This name is made up for the purposes of the poem and remains associated with this particular work: Rodilard is from Latin rodo (“gnaw”) and lardum “lard”. I imagine a few people have named their pet cats Rodilard.
In stories across history, especially in children’s stories, a cat often functions as the Minotaur opponent. This is very frequently the case in stories about mice and rats. He (and he is almost always masculo-coded) will be an irredeemable murderer, because that is part of his nature. Everyone else has no choice but to either kill him or protect themselves. As the poem states explicitly, this kind of opponent is basically ‘the devil’. And devils aren’t that interesting in their own right. A story with a Minotaur/devil opponent will be about the conflict that happens between his victims.
It’s therefore interesting that this cat has ‘a wife’. I think this is comically interesting for precisely the reason that Minotaur opponents have no ‘humanity’ (and family indicates humanity), but also because cats don’t have wives; this tom is out on the prowl, clearly. The story requires a reason to keep the Minotaur opponent occupied with something other than food. Another base instinct.
First, though, the poem depicts a world of ‘havoc’. This cat has been causing upset for quite some time. Like many children’s books in particular, the story opens in the iterative, describing what has been going on every day. Now it will switch to the singulative: Now, on a day…
It’s significant that ‘the dean’ comes up with the idea rather than, say, an underling. People in charge are good at coming up with ideas that will put underlings in danger rather than themselves. Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” is all about that.
Come you masters of warMasters of War, Bob Dylan
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
In this case, the dean of a chapter of rats doesn’t have sufficient power to force an underling rat to bell the cat, so the meeting closes with the idea tabled and no plan. While other stories would start right about now, this story ends before it kicks off, because not a single character dares carry it out.
In case the reader has failed to realise what the rats realised, four lines at the end summarise the message for us.
We can extrapolate that the rat community continues to suffer, with the cat keeping the rat population down. Rats are not typically sympathetic characters in stories, which makes them an appropriate choice for this particular fable.
CATS AND MICE IN ART
ISLAND OF THE SKOG
The Island of the Skog is a 1973 American picture book by Steven Kellogg which is basically an allegory for cosy colonialism. There is an animated version, including a clear ‘belling the cat’ scene. The mice, who have fled persecution as ‘underdogs’ and decided to make a new life on an almost deserted island, know they must first defeat the Skog, fearsome by reputation. They come up with a plan, but who will carry it out?
Listen to Betsy and Kate discuss The Island of the Skog on the Fuse 8 n Kate podcast.
Header image: Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats, 1868.