Cats in real life are awesome and therefore cats in fiction are also awesome – this is a fact. So what better way to acknowledge this than to discuss top fictional cats in literature? And because why not really? 🙂
Cheshire Cat – Alice in Wonderland
One of the most famous of literary cats, the Cheshire Cat is best known for its mischievous grin which, when the rest of its body disappears, is the last thing to remain visible before also disappearing. The Cheshire Cat in the novel is rather philosophical spouting riddles that tend to baffle and annoy Alice but compared to many other characters, the Cheshire Cat is actually rather pleasant and helps Alice from time to time. Sometimes the Cheshire Cat appears with just its head and as the Queen of Hearts angrily realises, how can one behead a being when it’s just a head?
The Cheshire Cat actually predates the 1865 novel and there are numerous theories about the phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” in the English language. One is that the English county of Cheshire boasts many dairy farms so cats grin because of the abundance of milk and cream. Another was provided by English writer Samuel Maunder in 1853:
This phrase owes its origin to the unhappy attempts of a sign painter of that country to represent a lion rampant, which was the crest of an influential family, on the sign-boards of many of the inns. The resemblance of these lions to cats caused them to be generally called by the more ignoble name. A similar case is to be found in the village of Charlton, between Pewsey and Devizes, Wiltshire. A public-house by the roadside is commonly known by the name of The Cat at Charlton. The sign of the house was originally a lion or tiger, or some such animal, the crest of the family of Sir Edward Poore.
The Disney version helped not only popularise the book (obviously), but it also helped popularise the character of the Cheshire Cat which previously had few post-Alice allusions. The Cheshire Cat has since been referenced to in screen media (film, TV and video games), print media (literature, comics and art), and also non-media contexts such as music, business and science. The science one is especially interesting as the Cheshire Cat has been used as a metaphor to explain scientific phenomena on numerous occasions such as in quantum mechanics where a particle and its property may behave as if they are separated,or when a particle separates from one of its physical properties. Meanwhile, the ‘Cheshire Cat’ escape strategy has been used to describe when the ocean algae Coccolithophore resists the haploid phase of its life cycle:
…[T]aken from Lewis Carroll, we liken this theory to the strategy used by the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of making its body invisible to make the sentence “off with his head” pronounced by the Queen of Hearts impossible to execute…CC dynamics, which rely to some extent on separation of the sexual processes of meiosis and fusion in time and/or space, release the host from short-term pathogen pressure, thus widening the scope for the host to evolve in other directions.
Cheshire Cat – I salute your wonderful influence.
Mog – Mog Series
The many adventures of Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr began in 1970 and in each book, egg-loving Mog would get into a new conundrum with a character or event. Unusually for a popular children’s book series, Mog died peacefully in the 2002 Goodbye, Mog teaching children about loss, although she was revived for the 2105 Mog’s Christmas Calamity for the supermarket’s Sainsburys’ Christmas advert. A special edition book and plush was then sold exclusively by the chain (and consequently ran out very fast) with all profits going to the charity Save The Children.
According to a Telegraph interview, Judith Kerr drew cats because as a child refugee, she couldn’t have one. She later had many pet cats including the real-life Mog who almost never meowed but made wonderfully expressive faces. Kerr told The Telegraph in 2013:
“Mog was a composite of many cats. Every cat is extraordinary – they all do different, very strange things. Our cat Wienitz was the strangest one: a very solid cat who was terribly fearful. She was frightened of heights and she was terrified of Christmas trees. I never meant to do a whole lot of books about Mog but I thought I could do a book about that.”
Mog might not have contributed to scientific papers, film inspirations, philosophical concepts or whatever but how can you not love that sweet, little face? And besides, we probably all know a cat like Mog, right? The ones that seem quiet and then do something completely weird like spinning about on tables or hiss at the kettle or the like. Yeah, cats are strange but we still comply to their demands.
Forgetful, clumsy but ever lovable.
The Cat in the Hat
This much-loved classic sold over 1 million books three years after its debut and is probably Dr Seuss’s most famous work. The Cat in the Hat centres on a tall, anthropomorphic cat who shows up unexpectedly to a house one day and shows the two children there several tricks to entertain them despite their fish’s objections, and in the process accidentally wrecks the house. He cleans everything up and disappears before the mother returns and next appears in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.
The Cat in the Hat is actually quite a special book as it was created in response to a debate in the United States about literacy in early childhood and the ineffectiveness of traditional primers such as those featuring Dick and Jane, helping children learn how to read. The problem with these primers is that they were essentially, well, boring. That and they were criticised for teaching reading through word recognition rather than phonetics. The 1954 Life magazine article by John Hersey titled “Why Do Students Bog Down on First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading” criticised the Dick and Jane primers:
In the classroom boys and girls are confronted with books that have insipid illustrations depicting the slicked-up lives of other children… All feature abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls…. In bookstores anyone can buy brighter, livelier books featuring strange and wonderful animals and children who behave naturally, i.e., sometimes misbehave… Given incentive from school boards, publishers could do as well with primers.
After detailing many issues contributing to the dilemma connected with student reading levels, Hersey asked:
Why should [school primers] not have pictures that widen rather than narrow the associative richness the children give to the words they illustrate—drawings like those of the wonderfully imaginative geniuses among children’s illustrators, Tenniel, Howard Pyle, “Dr. Seuss”, Walt Disney?
This caught the attention of William Spaulding, director of the education division at Houghton Miffin, who, having met Dr Seuss during WWII, asked him to write a more entertaining primer. While Seuss gave varying accounts, the one he told most often was that he was so frustrated with the limited word list William Spaulding gave him he eventually scanned the list and picked out the first two words that rhymed, those being cat and hat.
As Seuss was under contract at Random House at the time, Random House retained trade rights to sell the book in bookshops while Houghton Miffin kept education rights to sell the books to schools. While the school edition did not sell so well, having many Dick and Jane devotees, the trade version instantly sold well, initially selling 12,000 copies a month then rapidly rising. The book directly led to the creation of Beginner Books, publishing house centred on producing books like The Cat in the Hat for beginning readers and thrust Seuss into the United States literary debate. For his part, Seuss said in 1983 that “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.”
The Cat in the Hat: not just an entertaining figure but an educator that revolutionised learning reading skills.
Puss in Boots – Various Fairy Tales
Appearing in fairy tales all over Europe, the oldest written record about this cat appears to be by Giovanni Francesco Straparola who included it as part of The Facetious Nights of Straparola (c. 1550-53). Another version was later penned by the ever-prominent Charles Perrault which appeared in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé which was an instant success and has remained popular ever since.
Apart from displaying excellent fashion sense, the eponymous Puss in the tale helps the miller’s third son gain a position of fortune and marry a princess through a combination of wits and charm (and eating an ogre whom he tricked into transforming into a mouse – could have put that in Shrek, huh?) and really, when was the last time you heard a cat do that?
Puss in Boots has over the years inspired composers, choreographers, artists and pantomimes in the UK but most recently and prominently as the badass, snappily-dressed mercenary in the Shrek films. Puss got his own film, not to mention a series of shorts. Donkey didn’t. So who’s the cooler one here? That’s right.
Firestar – Warriors Series
Warriors is a series of juvenile fantasy novels that follows the adventures of four Clans of wild cats: ThunderClan, ShadowClan, WindClan, and RiverClan, in their forest and lake homes. The first series describes the experiences of a pet cat named Rusty who wanders into the forest and is accepted into ThunderClan and renamed FirePaw. Despite his outsider status, Firepaw grows into the warrior Fireheart and eventually is able to assume leadership as Firestar, despite protests from those, such as the cruel Tigerclaw, who believe that once-domestic cats have no such place in the clan system. Firestar not only has to contend with Tigerclaw/Tigerstar who enlists the aid of BloodClan, but also Scourge, the traitorous leader of BloodClan who aims to take over the forest himself.
The idea of a fantasy involving warrior cats, healer cats, mystical prophecies and so forth is pretty cool and unique, offering a different experience from human-dominated fantasies. Intially, when editor Victoria Holmes was asked by HarperCollins to write a fantasy series about feral cats, she was unenthusiastic believing that she wouldn’t be able to come up with many ideas. However, she worked with the concept and expanded the storyline with elements of war, politics, revenge, doomed love, and religious conflict. The various authors on the series have cited several inspirations including Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, Shakespeare, Jacqueline Wilson and far more.
While the series hasn’t won any awards yet, it has seen many nominations and recognitions such as being shortlisted for the Children’s Choice Book Awards. The bestselling series has seen popularity in Trinidad, Germany, Singapore and China and has been translated into many languages including Czech, Finnish, Lithuanian, Russian and more. The series has also seen life in manga and as forum-based role-playing games by the fandom.
You don’t mess with any of the cats in this series!
Greebo – Discworld Series
OK, the Discworld series by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett is amongst my all-time favourite reading material so really, I had to include Greebo.
Featuring in most books involving the witches, Greebo is a foul-tempered, one-eyed, grey cat despite Nanny Ogg’s insistence that he’s just a big softy. He has probably fathered most of the cat population in the tiny kingdom of Lancre and fears nothing except the notorious Nac Mac Feegle, the black cockerel Legba, a voodoo witch’s familiar (though is more probably mutual respect) and You, a pure, white kitten belonging to the infamous Granny Weatherwax. Cross her at your peril.
A vicious cat, Greebo has killed two vampires, eating one of them, not to mention an elf as well who are most definitely not the sparkly, whimsical kind of elves we’re most familiar with. In Witches Abroad, he was transformed into a human for reasons good at the time although unfortunately, this has left him with a tendency to switch between cat and human forms when completely cornered. It is quite possible that Greebo is some sort of demon in cat form.
Greebo’s overall attitude is best described with an allusion to Schrödinger’s cat:
Greebo had spent an irritating two minutes in that box. Technically, a cat locked in a box may be alive or it may be dead. You never know until you look. In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.
Shawn dived sideways as Greebo went off like a Claymore mine.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Magrat dreamily, as the elf flailed at the maddened cat. “He’s just a big softy.”
In other news, the Cretaceous conifer species Sciadopityoides greeboana is named after Greebo. As you do.
So what are your favourite literary cats? But whoever your favourite is, cats are forever! 😀
All Cheshire Cats under Public Domain or Fair Use.
Mog, Judith Kerr. Fair Use.
The Cat in the Hat, Dr Seuss. Fair Use.
Perrault Puss in Boots under Public Domain. Shrek Puss in Boots under Fair Use.
Greebo, illustrated by Paul Kidby. Fair Use.