Puss in boots by Fred Marcellino
Animals play many roles in literature. We have seen them in fables, beast epics, bestiaries, and high fantasy literary works, but we haven’t looked at animals inhabiting fairy tales.
By and large, in animal fairy tales, a witch, or a fairy godmother has transformed a prince or a princess into a frog or a toad. Usually, if three conditions are met, the curse is lifted and there appears a prince or a princess. There are exceptions to this scenario, yet it remains a common narrative.
However there are other narratives. For instance, we have magical cats, and our best example is Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots. In Puss in Boots, the protagonist, or main character, is the third son of a miller. One of his brothers has inherited the mill, the other a donkey, but Puss’ master has inherited a mere cat, nothing more. His fate could be worse. He’s not a prince who has been turned into a frog or toad, but he feels he has been cheated. However, proud Puss does not consider himself an inferior inheritance and sets about to take his master from rags to riches.
Puss in Boots has made earlier appearances in Giovanni Francesco Straparola (c. 1480 – c. 1557). Straparola is considered the father of the literary form of the fairy tale in Europe, but fairy tales constituting Charles Perrault‘s Tales of Mother Goose (1697) are the versions we know and belong to literature. Between 1550-1555, Straparola wrote Le piacevoli notti or The Facetious nights.
Charles Perrault also drew his content from Giambattista Basile (c. 1575 – 23 February 1632), the author of Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (Neapolitan for “The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones”), a work also known as the Il Pentamerone, published posthumously in two volumes, in 1634 and 1636. But this is a story that may date back a thousand years or more and has been transmitted orally. A fairy tale enters literature, or the “learned tradition,” when it is presented in writing.[i]
Fairy tales and seventeenth-century French salons
To recapitulate, although Puss in Boots may date back thousands of year, the immediate known sources of French 17th-century fairy tales are Italian. However, these fairy tales could not be told to children, unless they had been translated and refined to meet the expectations of salonniers and salonnières (see Salons, Wikipedia).
Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots is a well-written Puss in Boots, a product of late seventeenth-century French salons. As we know from earlier blogs, Charles Perrault had worked at Versailles, he was an habitué of salons and a member of the French Academy.
Summary of the story
The third son of a miller is disappointed because all he has received as his inheritance is a cat. However, he will soon know otherwise. First, Puss asks the third son to provide him with a sack and with boots.
Deep within the human psyche lies the wish to travel quickly and, particularly, to fly. In Puss in Boots, no one has wings. But fairy tales also feature magical boots called bottes de sept lieues, or seven-league boots. They allow extraordinary mobility. It could be therefore that Puss has been provided with bottes de sept lieues, but I doubt it. The boots seem a prop befitting the genre, a signature. Puss does not need them, except to appear human.
The Marquis de Carabas
Yet, Puss does put on the boots, but what he shows is exceptional ingenuity, which is a characteristic of Reynard the Fox who succeeds in talking himself out of a death sentence. As for Perrault’s Puss in Boots, he starts killing game, putting it in his sack, and offering it to the King on behalf of a his renamed master.
Puss has therefore transformed the third son a miller into the Marquis de Carabas. But this is not an instance of metamorphism, but one of ingenuity. It is Puss, a clever cat, and not a fairy godmother, who has turned the third son of a miller into an aristocrat.
Puss in Boots, by Fred Marcellino
Next, when Puss in Boots hears that the King and his daughter will ride along a river, he asks the new Marquis to get into the water. He then screams out that the Marquis is drowning. So the King stops, the Marquis de Carabas is saved, he is given appropriate clothes, and the King’s daughter falls in love with him. Clothes make the man.
Puss then reflects that a Marquis has to be a landowner. He sees peasants mowing a meadow and does so at the right moment: kairos – explained further down – and asks them to tell the King, when he passes by, that these fertile fields are the property of the Marquis de Carabas. Puss uses a ruse worthy of Reynard, the cunning fox.
The Ogre’s Castle
Puss in Boots and the Marquis de Carabas then come to a castle, kairos as opposed to chronos. In this castle, resides the landowner: an Ogre. This Ogre claims he can transform himself into other animals and, to prove it, he turns himself into a lion. Puss being very clever quickly asks the Ogre to turn himself into a mouse. The Ogre, who is not very clever, does as he is asked and Puss in Boots eats him up.
Just then, at the opportune moment, kairos, the King happens to come to the beautiful castle. The moment is in fact all the more opportune since the Ogre has a banquet ready for guests. When the Ogre’s guests arrive and see the King’s carriage, they flee. Consequently, a banquet is ready for the King. The King is so delighted with the events of the day that he tells the Marquis de Carabas that if he, the Marquis, says the word, he, the King, will take him for his son-in-law.
So, after renaming his master and three ruses: the river, the land, the castle, the third son of the miller has become a rich landowner who lives in a beautiful castle, and will marry the King’s daughter. Fairy tales end as comedies do. There is a marriage. The banquet is the dénouement or outcome.
A few comments
Note that the number three is important. The miller has three sons. As for events, the first could be the river, the second, the ruse concerning ownership of the land, and the third, the acquisition of the castle. But the first could also be renaming the third son of the miller, except that renaming his master perhaps encompasses the three events, or the name of the strategy.
Moreover, it should be pointed out that, in Ancient Greece, time was seen in both its vertical, kairos, and chronological, chronos, dimensions. Æon (Latin for the Greek word koine) was time eternal, which was sometimes represented by the same figure as chronos. In Buss in Boots, as in most fairy tales, things are there when they are needed and events happen at the opportune moment. That is kairos, time in its vertical dimension and time which could be called magical. We have finally shed light on the word kairos.
It is also true that the Ogre can transform himself, which is the stuff of fairy tales. But Puss in boots can’t. Puss is not an Ogre, he is simply very smart and resourceful. And it is because of these qualities that Puss can be considered a magic wand or fairy godmother, which gives this one fairy tale a lovely new twist.
[i] I am using Malcolm Arthur’s translation of Le Chat botté, illustrated by Fred Marcellino (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990).
Domenico Scarlatti (26 October 1685 – 23 July 1757)
Ivo Pogorelić (born 20 October 1958)
© Micheline Walker
9 November 2011
Revised on 21 March 2013
Puss in boots by Fred Marcellino