The news being what it is these days, we all have a lot on our minds, no matter where we live. Many of us (the lucky ones in many ways) find ourselves working from home, trying to do our jobs as best we can and keep up some semblance of “normalacy” to our colleagues, often in makeshift work-from-home arrangements. But real life intrudes in surprising and, thankfully, not always bad ways.
Just the other day, a coat-and-tie-wearing professor being interviewed live on the BBC from what looked like a professional-looking setting — a world wall map and glass-fronted library bookcase behind him – was astonished when his two little children crashed the interview by bursting into the room (thereby unmasked as a home office) and temporarily disrupted the proceedings; the kids just wanted to see the person who, to them, was “Daddy,” not a world expert. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the video clip of this escapade went viral – and I really wish I could use another term – on CNN, BBC, and YouTube and was widely reported and commented on in news broadcasts and TV or cable talk shows.
We all need a break from grim tidings and we could also all relate to the incident. As the Cotsen Library and the Princeton Library has been largely closed in the last week because of health precautions, those of us in Special Collections have been working from home and holding daily video conference meetings via Zoom as part of our work. At one point, somebody’s cat sauntered across the desk. Those of us in the conference all had more or less the same spontaneous reaction as those seeing the BBC video clip – we could all relate. Several of us hijacked our own cats from their early afternoon naps, held them up, and shared the view with our colleagues. Thus, the cats all, unwittingly, got their “fifteen seconds of fame”… (There was one dog too, and a puppet, but mostly cats – cats must be a librarian thing.) Lasting literally seconds, this non-agenda event eased the rest of our (otherwise serious) discussion in the same the way that a meeting-opening “ice-breaker” often does. It helped us get on with our work.
With all that in mind, I thought perhaps we could use more cats on the Cotsen blog this week. Several weeks ago in a posting about Judith Kerr – Tigers Who Came to Tea, and other Cat Tales – I’d mentioned that I hoped to do a follow-up about some of Kerr’s cat books too. That’s my excuse, anyway. So without more prologue…
While The Tiger Who Came to Tea is Judith Kerr’s best–known book, she authored some thirty-six others, including a series about Mog the cat — beginning with Mog the Forgetful Cat in 1970 and ending with Goodbye Mog in 2002 — that were also best-sellers, loved by children and cat aficionados, and a testament to Kerr’s interest in exploring aspects of the life of a cat in her books for children. The Mog series was apparently based on the Kerr family cat, who seemed to have quite a propensity for getting into trouble, causing comical mayhem, and yet somehow remaining endearing to her family (and readers alike), if the books are any indication. And doesn’t that sound like classic cat behavior? Has anyone ever had a cat that was completely quiet and obedient all the time and never, ever got into trouble?
Kerr introduces her feline heroine to readers for the first time in Mog the Forgetful Cat by telling us about her:
Mog was nice but not very clever.
She didn’t understand a lot of things.
A lot of other things she forgot.
She was a very forgetful cat.
Cat-owners will probably be attuned to the sorts of things that cats “forget”– trouble’s coming… One of the things that Mog seems apt to forget is how to use her cat-flap door to the garden to get back into the house after a trip outside to explore or use her “lavatory.” Mog’s solution to the problem of forgetting is to jump up onto the kitchen-window flower box and meow “very loud” “until someone let her in.” In the process, she trashes the flowers and causes a surprised Mrs. Thomas to drop part of the dinner she has been cooking on two separate occasions. “Bother that cat” becomes the parents’ refrain.
Then one night after having had a “bad day,” Mog races out of her cat-flap and finds herself alone out in the garden at night. Nobody is in the kitchen to let her back in. But then, she sees a faint light in the kitchen and a man moving around inside, and Mog thinks: “Perhaps the man will let me in. Perhaps he will give me my supper.” (Cats have their priorities!) Kerr’s illustration makes clear to the reader what Mog doesn’t understand: the man is a burglar robbing the house.
Mog jumps up on the window-box, as is her usual wont, and meows “her biggest meow, very sudden and very, very loud,” surprising the burglar, who drops his bag of loot, thereby making a “big noise” of his own that wakes up everyone in the house. The police are called, and a friendly Bobbie terms Mog: “a remarkable cat. I’ve seen watch-dogs but never a watch-cat. She will get a medal.” And that’s just what happens — along with the added treat of an egg for breakfast every day, which Mog had previously been stealing from the family breakfast table.
Kerr’s other Mog books generally provide variations on this pattern of misbehavior, mildly comic pandemonium, and redemption. In Mog’s Christmas (1976), which Cotsen Library has in a German-language edition, Mog is put out of sorts by all the Christmas preparations noises, smells, and worst of all the arrival of a terrifying Christmas tree — cats generally don’t like commotion or changes from their familiar routine, as most cat-owners can attest. Since the story is told from Mog’s point-of-view — as are all the Mog stories — we discover that Mog thinks the tree is some kind of horror with legs of its own. Kerr’s illustration clearly depicts the happy father, Mr. Thomas, carrying the tree for her readers, but Mog doesn’t see him — or simply can’t understand what’s going on. This ironic split between what Mog sees or seems to understand and what the reader sees and knows is one of the narrative charms of Kerr’s work, I think, and a source of much of the gentle humor in her books.
Terrified, the Mog flees up to the roof of the house, refuses to come down, even when offered her favorite food. Hungry, but too scared to come down, Mog later curls up for a nap on top of the nice warm chimney, only to come crashing down into the (fortunately fireless) fireplace, all covered in soot — a parody of sorts of Santa, or Father Christmas, making the same (utterly improbably) descent. After a bath — an indignity for which Mog’s face shows the general feeling that cats have about baths — Mog gets some nice cat toys as Christmas presents, and all’s well that ends well.
Kerr’s other Mog stories follow the same basic pattern, but each tale somehow seems fresh and new in its particulars, at least to me. In Mog’s Bad Thing (2000), Mog heads out into the garden for a nighttime trip to her lavatory, following a day spent happily playing in the garden. But she gets a shock. Instead of the familiar garden, she sees “a big white flappy-floppy thing,” flapping ominously in her direction and making a loud noise as the wind blows shifts. It’s a tent, as Kerr’s artwork makes clear, set up for a cat show the next day, but Mog thinks it’s alive, just like the walking Christmas tree was. Terrified, she races back into the house and then is so scared that she “does a bag thing. She did not mean to do it but she did it. And she did it in Mr Thomas’s chair.” Mog knows that she’s going to be in the dog-house, so to speak, so she hides in the attic the next day.
At one point, when she thinks the coast is clear, Mog tries to jump out the window, onto the tent, and hop down into her beloved garden. But there’s a hole in the tent, and Mog comes flying through it into the middle of the cat show. But the judge is so taken with Mog’s flying “through the air like a circus cat…an acrobat” that he awards her a special prize as the “most unusual cat.” Her family is so “very proud” proud of Mog that’s all’s forgiven. Best of all for Mog, the tent comes down, and “her garden reappeared. It was all there as before. The grass… the flowers… the tree… and her lavatory behind the tree. She was very happy.”
As endearing — and in many ways unique — as Judith Kerr’s Mog stories are, they also suggest what I think are some common elements found in children’s stories and folklore concerning cats. Cats are unpredictable, and their motivations mystifying to human beings, even the cats’ owners. Cats are prone to do anything — or nothing — at the drop of a hat, or the sight of a Christmas tree being carried into a home. They’re self-centered — Mog is always thinking of her food and her comfort — in a manner unlike dogs, who generally embody loyalty and devotion to people in many children’s stories and tales. Mog rescues her family from the burglar, but not by crying out at the intruder like a watch-cat, but rather by trying to get him to let her in to escape a dark, scary night. Cats tend to be disruptive: look at all the chaos Mog causes in the stories outlined above. Or at the very least, cats don’t follow “the rules” that people expect in the same way that dogs do.
In some stories dogs do cause confusion, to be sure. In the classic picture book Harry the Dirty Dog, Harry doesn’t want a bath so he runs away from home; while he’s out and about, he gets so dirty that even his family doesn’t recognize him when he finally comes back home. But most of the consequences of Harry’s misadventures affect him, not his family or his home, the symbol of everyday stability that he eventually seeks to return to.
Cats seem to be associated with disruption of everyday mundanity or even comic disorder and misrule. Perhaps that’s why they’re such good comical characters in children’s stories? Disruption of everyday order is the essence of a much traditional comedy — just think of Shakespeare’s “festive comedies,” where order and decorum consistently get overturned, only to be eventually restored at the end with a happy resolution. “Everyday” becomes “holiday” license and then reverts back to everyday, but with an increased awareness by the participants.
What character could be more disruptive of everyday order than Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat (1957)? On a boring, rainy day, he bursts into the home of two children (whose mother is conveniently away) and — grinning all the while — he introduces mayhem and anarchy while demonstrating all sorts of entertaining tricks, upending the everyday order of the house, and wrecking it in the process. Fortunately — alerted by the children’s goldfish to the mother’s impending arrival! — the cat restores order and cleans up the house via a a wonderful contraption, just before the children’s mother comes through the front door. In Cat in the Hat, children experience the comic chaos, but the usually order-symbolizing mother has absolutely no idea: “Did you have any fun? Tell me, what did you do?” The children remain silent, and Dr Seuss asks his readers, “What would YOU do if your mother asked you”? at the very end of the story.
The grinning Cat in the Hat intends to introduce comical disruption of the everyday life of two bored children, while Mog had no such intentions. She’s unaware, and the chaos she causes is unwitting and unintended. And the Cat in the Hat can, of course, both understand and talk to people, unlike poor Mog, whose lack of understanding of things is often a prime cause of her confusion and the mayhem she causes. Yet both cats are the cause, intentional or unwitting, of confusion and disorder. Kerr’s stories are very different from Dr Seuss’s in this way, as well as in many others, but it’s hard for me to imagine that she didn’t have some aspects of the chaos-causing Cat in the Hat in the back of her mind while later writing a series of some ten books about the various comical misadventures of Mog the cat.
And where have readers of children’s books seen confusion-causing, grinning cats before? Alice in Wonderland, of course! The Cheshire Cat is one of the funniest and best-known creations of both Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel in both language and visual representation. While it’s hard to say that he causes mayhem in the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland, he certainly adds to it and seems to delight in doing so, if we can possibly ascribe anything to his motivations.
Alice is “startled” to see him sitting on the bough of a tree, and at first he only grins at her. The Cheshire Cat then proceeds in his hilarious dialogue with Alice when she asks him which way she ought to go. “That depends a great deal on where you want to go.” When she says she’s not sure, but only wants to “get somewhere,” he replies: “Oh, you’re sure to do that… if you only walk long enough.” Strictly speaking, that’s a totally logical response, but one that’s also comically illogical at the same time.
The Cheshire Cat then proceeds to disappear and reappear several times, the final time beginning with his tail and ending with his grin, which lingers for some time after the rest of him is gone. Alice responds: “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin … but never a grin without a cat.” Somehow the grin seems to be the essence of the comical cat in a mad, mad world. And as the Cat comments before his final fade to nothingness, “We’ll all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” He proceeds to contrast his behavior in the mad world of Wonderland with that of a dog, presumably one in the normal world, which “growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased.” He and Alice then debate the difference between growling dogs and purring cats for a few lines. Thus, the Cheshire Cat himself invites a comparison between cats and dogs!
The Cheshire Cat makes another appearance, later on — at least his floating, disembodied head does — during the Queen of Hearts’ Croquet Game — the one played with flamingos and hedgehogs, as you may remember. As comical absurdities pile on top of each other, we really know that we’re not in Kansas anymore, if we didn’t before. And the Cat adds to the absurdity with his comments mocking the proceedings and the participants, particularly the King and Queen of Hearts. The angered King and the characteristically-enraged Queen want to lop off the Cat’s head for his impertinence, and the executioner is summoned. But a comical debate between them follows about if and how the executioner can cut off a head if there’s no body attached to it. In response, the Cat’s head fades away, making mockery of the harridan Queen and her imperious commandments. Carroll’s language of nonsense and illogic and Tenniel’s depiction of the grinning cat perfectly complement each other in scenes with the Cat; it’s hard to imagine one without the other, as so often is the case with Alice.
The Cheshire Cat is clever, at least rhetorically, and a master of tricky language. The cleverness of cats is another frequently-mentioned aspect in children’s books. Cats are identified as predators, full of guile and deception, at least when it comes to mousing, one of their traditional roles in human society. Guile and trickiness can be double-edged swords, admirable in proper service but a source of suspicion in other contexts. There’s a long European folklore tradition expressing suspicion of cats as being somehow tricky, untrustworthy, and connected with magic, sometimes even witchcraft.One of the most famous clever cats in literature is Puss in Boots, whose story was famously adapted by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697) and first published in an English translation by Robert Samber in a 1729 edition. The Cotsen Library has a 1737 second edition, with parallel text in both French and English, issued by Richard Montague and Joseph Pote: Histories, or Tales of Passed Times, which also contains: Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, along with others. As most of us remember, the story or Puss in Boots concerns a poor miller’s third and youngest son, whose only inheritance is his father’s cat. But this cat can not only talk, he’s very very clever! Through a series of cunning ploys, Puss makes various gifts to the king, convinces him that his penniless master is really the Marquis of Carabas who has been robbed of his clothing (thereby getting rich clothing from the sympathetic king), tricks an ogre with a large castle into turning into a mouse, which Puss then eats, and helps pass off the castle as belonging to his master. Suitably impressed, the king allows his daughter to marry the miller’s son, allowing Puss to obtain a fine estate too. Many artists and children’s books adapters have tried their hand at Puss in Boots. One of my favorites is Walter Crane’s “toy book” version of Puss in Boots — featuring vivid color wood-block (chromoxylograph) illustrations by Edmund Evans, which are full of rich detail and visual allusions to fairy tales and the lives of cats in the background (mousing, encountering dogs, etc.).
As Robert Darton points out, Puss is basically a cunning, fox-like trickster, who succeeds with his deceptions, but his success raises a certain level of suspicion about the merits of Puss — who succeeds by deception not virtue — and the merit of his master, whose good fortune stems largely from following his trickster cat’s cagey directions. Darton adds that this suspicion and a general fear of tricksters — especially ones with apparently supernatural powers like Puss — is not unrelated to the horrible treatment that cats often suffered in early modern Europe.¹ Folk tales and superstitious beliefs can cut both ways.
Dogs, however, typically seem presented with less distrust and suspicion than cats in children’s stories and other writings. Dogs are demonstrated to be exemplars of loyalty, reliability, and obedient fidelity to their human masters. This goes way way back in time. In the Odyssey (termed the “basis of all Western literature” by one critic) — Odysseus returns home after twenty years, and nobody recognizes him after such a long time, even his son Telemachus. But as Odysseus approaches his old dog, Argos does recognize him: Argos “lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears” and “he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch.”² (The language of Robert Fagles’ peerless translation of the Odyssey is so moving that I just had to quote it directly.) Odysseus cannot acknowledge his dog for fear of discovery by the hoard of predatory suitors who have descended on his hall over the years, but the sight of his ancient dog’s loyalty brings tears to his eyes, which Odysseus must also conceal for fear of revealing himself too soon.
It’s hard to do justice to all the stories and nonfiction about dogs, and there are certainly many nuances of presentation. But perhaps one children’s book can at least suggest the way that dogs are characteristically portrayed: Hector the Dog, a “toybook,” first issued by Frederick Warne & Company (London) in about 1870 and then later reissued by New York’s McLoughlin Brothers (©1889). The book is prefaced by an epigrammatic paean to “the noble dog,” which begins:
Man loves the dog, the dog loves man:
The dog is trusty, strong, and brave,
And God has on the dog bestowed
The power and will man’s life to save.
Leaving aside this book’s over-the-top sentimentality, religious tone, and “man”-only world, its general view of dogs is clear: they’re loving, trustworthy, brave, and both willing and able to save people’s lives.
In Hector the Dog, a traveler decides to go hiking in the Swiss Alps on Christmas Eve, despite the warnings from his inn-keeper about an impending storm. Of course, there is a storm, and the exhausted hiker collapses unconscious on a mountain. But he is rescued by a group of “kindly” monks from a mountain-top monastery, led by their four St. Bernard dogs, who are made “restless” by the storm and seem to sense that someone needs help. Off they go, braving the “storm-blasts’ rage,” led by the “noble hounds [who] will do till death what their life-saving law commands.”
The monks and their St. Bernards manage to find and rescue the stranded hiker, but not before catastrophe strikes. “Brave Hector… the bravest of the brave” is lost, buried by an avalanche. The other dogs seek frantically for Hector; “with whine and cries, they scratch the appalling mound of snow” left by the avalanche. But their efforts are all in vain: “Thousands of tons of ice and snow, / Heaped up in one vast funeral pile / Poor Hector hold entombed below. Heavily anthropomorphized terms, like “mighty courage” and “noble hounds,” abound in this illustrated story to describe the dogs and their efforts.
The language, chromolithographed visual presentation, and sentiments in Hector the Dog might be products of nineteenth-century sensibility and book technology. Nevertheless, I think the book encapsulates some attitudes towards dogs that seem to characterize children’s books generally from early printed books onward to the contemporary works. Maybe that’s something to look at more closely in another blog posting some day?3
But cats do get their due too, at least from some book collectors. One of my favorite bookplates among all those I’ve encountered so far in Cotsen Library books includes a stern-looking cat as part of the heraldic crest of former, nineteenth-century owner, Sir John Dawson (1820-1899), on the front paste-down of all three volumes of a 1791 set of The Natural History of Birds, originally sold by Joseph Johnson, a London bookseller of the previous century. As you can see if you look closely, the bookplate features a cat with a mouse in its mouth. That cat looks pretty “noble” too and apparently excels at its job. While I don’t know much about Sir John Dawson, I’d be willing to bet that he was a cat-lover!
- Robert Darnton, “Peasants Tell Tales” and “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre” in The Great Cat Massacre & Other Episodes in French History (Basic Books, 1984) pp. 29-33 & 90-101.
- Robert Fagles, trans., The Odyssey (Penguin Books, 1996) pp.363-364.
- As an aside to the depiction of dogs in Hector the Dog, it’s interesting to see that the illustrations of the heroic monks in the book seem to have been adapted from McLoughlin Brothers’ earlier toy book-version of a Winter’s Tale — collected together with three other fictionalized versions of Shakespearian [sic] Tales in Verse, ©1892 — which includes several depictions of cloaked and hooded, distinctly monk-like figures, including a group of men seated in front of a roaring fire, one of whom, an “old shepherd,” tells “his Winter’s Tale.” McLoughlin was not above repurposing artwork, or even entire stories themselves, in later — sometimes slightly differently-titled — stories for children; they were real forerunners in terms of reusing and recycling material to keep publication costs low and commercial profits as high as possible. Why pay for new, when you can recycle?