If you couldn’t tell from my user name, I’m a huge fan of the “Puss in boots” story. There are a couple of reasons for that. If I’m being honest, the fact that it stars a cat is probably the biggest one.
Still, it’s an interesting fairy tale because it has perhaps the most obnoxious main character of all the classic fairy tales, and the cat’s behavior would have rendered it a villain in many other stories.
In Puss in boots, for those unfamiliar with the tale, a miller dies and leaves his posessions to his three sons: the eldest inherits the mill, the middle son inherits the mules, and the youngest son inherits the cat. Initially despondent, the youngest son uses his remaining funds to buy the cat a pair of boots. The cat, through a campaign of bribery, theft, threats, and deception, manages to trick the king into thinking that the young son is actually a wealthy noble. The son marries the princess, and everyone lives happily ever after.
It’s an interesting story. The human characters are completely passive. The son does whatever his cat tells him, however nonsensical. The princess has no personality whatsoever. Divorced from its fairy-tale context, Puss in boots is the story of a con artist who manipulates his gullible master into riches. Perrault’s moral is that even without a rich inheritence it is possible to be successful with hard work. The fact that the miller’s son does absolutely nothing and ends the story a wealthy noble married to the princess notwithstanding. The second moral, which doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with the story, is that being young and well-dressed makes it easier to win the love of a princess. Puss in boots is, according to illustrator George Cruikshank “a clever lesson in lying”. The real moral of the story is that it’s easier to trick your way to wealth and success than it is to earn it honestly. In an attempt to mitigate this issue, according to the link above Cruikshank changed the story so that the miller’s son was in fact the deposed marquis of Carabs. The cat’s activities were then justified as an attempt to regain his master’s rightful position.
The fact that the miller’s son’s first inclination is to eat the cat could provide a different interpretation to the story: the cat’s activities are his desparate attempts to save his own life. Still, one thing that’s interesting is the human hero of the tale is largely passive and almost completely irrelevent. Unlike the other “clever trickster” type tales in the commonly accepted Mother Goose canon, the youngest child isn’t particularly clever or special at all.
We are supposed to root for the heroes of Puss in boots not because of their behavior, but because they are the ones the story is about. There’s a similarity to one of the four classics of Chinese literature: The water margin (Shui hu zhuan, also translated as “All men are brothers” or “The outlaws of the marsh” and widely known under the Japanese version of the name: Suikoden). The water margin is the story of a group of bandits who hole up in a fortress in a marsh and fight the government. It’s true that the government officials they fight are corrupt, but the majority of the story involves the “heroes” taking part in more traditional bandit-type activities, including robbing passing travelers and kidnapping the daughters of wealthy merchants. One of the bandits is initiated into a monastary by a wealthy benefactor in order to avoid the authorities. He ends up drinking heavily and laying waste to the temple.
It’s a fun story, but along the same lines of Puss in boots: the “heroes” behave more like the villains of other stories.
There’s a saying in Chinese, it translates to “The young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The romance of the three kingdoms”. Like Cruikshanks’s view of Puss in boots, The water margin is seen as sending an inappropriate message to children. The Chinese saying goes on to suggest that The romance of the three kingdoms, a story largely focusing on political scheming and betrayals sends an inappropriate message to older people. The water margin will be the subject of a later post, if this blog still exists at that point.
Now that I consider it, Journey to the west has its share of this issue as well, and it’s a common theme in Chinese literature. It’s also found in the the Japanese Momotaro stories. The various Native American trickster figures, the most well-known of which is Coyote, the European Reynard stories, the Anansi stories of Africa and the Caribbean … all feature the trickster animal whose motives are frequently selfish rather than altruistic. As I write this, it seems to me that Puss in boots stands out less for its irreverent amoraliy than the fact that it takes the classic trickster animal story and places it in a mainstream collection of fables ostensibly presenting good moral guidance.
I love Puss in boots because it’s the anti-fable. Also, it portrays a disturbingly accurate picture of what life with a cat really is like: you do whatever they tell you to, and you end up the better for it.*
*Results may vary.