An introduction to a classic fairy tale – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
A classic example of the fairy tale featuring ‘the animal as helper’, ‘Puss in Boots’ entered the canon of classic fairy tales when Charles Perrault included it (as ‘Le Chat Botté’) in his 1697 collection of fairy stories, although like many of the greatest fairy tales, an earlier version can be found in the 1634 Pentamerone, a collection of oral folk tales compiled by Giambattista Basile. How we should analyse ‘Puss in Boots’ has troubled authors, commentators, and illustrators over the years. George Cruikshank objected to ‘a system of imposture being rewarded by the greatest worldly advantages’. Before we look more closely at this aspect of the tale, here’s a brief summary of the ‘Puss in Boots’ tale:
A miller dies and leaves his three sons all he has: he leaves his mill to his eldest son, an ass to the middle son, and to the youngest son, he leaves his cat. The youngest son thinks he’s drawn the short straw with the cat, but the cat promises that if the son gets him some boots made, he will prove to be a worthy and helpful pet. Once the cat has some boots and a little bag he can wear, he goes off and hunts for rabbits. Having caught a rabbit, Puss in Boots takes it to the King, telling him that it’s a gift from the Lord Marquis of Carabas, the cat’s master.
Shortly after this, Puss in Boots caught some partridges, and once again he took them to the King and announced that they were a gift from the Lord Marquis of Carabas. This happened for several months. Then, one day, Puss in Boots hatched his big plan: he commanded his master to wash at a certain point in the river, and waited until the King’s coach came riding by, with the Princess accompanying the King in the coach. Then, having concealed his master’s clothes under a rock, Puss in Boots jumped out in front of the coach and asked for help, claiming that his master, the Lord Marquis of Carabas, had been robbed, and all of his clothes had been taken.
The King, recognising the cat that had brought him so many gifts of fine food in the past, commanded the coach to stop and sent his servants to fetch some clothes for the cat’s master. The Princess, seeing the handsome ‘Lord Marquis of Carabas’ dressed in one of her father’s finest suits of clothes, was instantly smitten by him, and the King asked the Lord Marquis of Carabas to ride with them.
Puss in Boots had told the local farmers and mowers that if anybody asked them, they should reply that the land they work on belonged to the Lord Marquis of Carabas, otherwise they would be chopped up like herbs. As the King rode through the land in his coach, he stopped and spoke to some of the people working the land, and they all told him that the land belonged to the Lord Marquis of Carabas. Puss in Boots’ plan had worked.
The King’s coach approached a large castle, and Puss in Boots told him that the owner of the castle was the same person who owned all of the land they had travelled through. Travelling on ahead of the castle, Puss in Boots managed to get inside and spoke to the owner of the castle, who was an ogre. The ogre, it was said, could transform himself into many different animals, and to prove his point, promptly turned himself into a lion. Puss in Boots was impressed (and slightly scared) by this, but as soon as the ogre had returned to his normal shape, he decided to outwit him. ‘I hear that you can also change yourself into a very small creature, such as a mouse,’ he said to the ogre. ‘But I don’t believe this is possible.’ Offended by this statement, and determined to show off his skills, the ogre transformed into a little mouse, and Puss in Boots, seizing his chance, promptly jumped on the mouse and ate him up.
When the King’s coach arrived at the castle, Puss in Boots announced that the King and all his retinue were welcome to the Castle of the Lord Marquis of Carabas. The King was impressed to learn that the cat’s master owned this vast castle as well as all of the local estates, and they went in and feasted, and the Princess, clearly in love with the cat’s master, was betrothed to the Lord Marquis of Carabas, and they were married the same day. Puss in Boots became a lord, and they all lived happily ever after, apart from the ogre, who was dead.
The story of ‘Puss in Boots’, as this summary demonstrates, contains several classic features of fairy tales: the enterprising helper (Puss in Boots himself), the hero and the beautiful princess, and the ‘rags to riches’ story of a character from humble beginnings rising up to become part of the nobility. The story ends with marriage and with the plucky cat being rewarded for his cleverness. We might analyse ‘Puss in Boots’ along these lines, and view it as one of a number of classic tales of social climbing – but what marks it out is the presence of the cat (though we should remember that Dick Whittington, the Lord Mayor of London in the famous pantomime, also had a cat – although there’s no evidence the real Richard Whittington ever owned a pet cat).
But what is the moral of ‘Puss in Boots’? As we’ve discussed previously in our analysis of the Goldilocks fairy tale, fairy stories often don’t appear to have clear morals. The ‘moral’ of ‘Puss in Boots’ seems to be: lie, cheat, threaten the local populace, and you will be rewarded with a lordship (not very realistic, that someone known for lying and cheating and mistreating others would be showered with honours, eh?). On the other hand, we might view Puss in Boots as a creature who makes the best of his (and his master’s) bad lot in life: he does everything he does in order to create a better life for his luckless master (and, by extension, for himself). But why a cat? Dogs are more celebrated for loyalty and service than cats (although, let’s face it, cats are far and away the better animal). But cats are known for hunting, and this quality comes in useful both at the beginning and the end of Puss in Boots’ plan, when he catches the rabbit and partridges, and then kills the ogre having cheated him into transforming himself into a mouse. Perhaps ‘Puss in Boots’ is supposed to cause us unease: cats are known for their cunning, and they can be deadly hunters, but they are also useful creatures to have around.
But like a number of classic fairy tales, ‘Puss in Boots’ existed before Perrault’s famous 1697 volume brought it to a wider readership. In the 1634 Italian book Pentamerone, we find the story of a beggar’s son who inherited nothing from his father but a cat. The cat promised to make him rich, and every morning the cat went to catch fish which it took to the King of Naples, claiming they were from a mysterious benefactor named Lord Gagliuso. Eventually, the King wanted to meet this generous Lord, so on the day on which a meeting was arranged, the cat turned up and pretended that his master had had all of his possessions stolen in the night, so he didn’t even have any clothes to wear in which to visit the King. The King sent some of his own clothes (via the cat), and the cat promptly gave them to the beggar’s son and told him to dress up in them. The beggar’s son was wined and dined by the King, and the cat told the King that ‘Lord Gagliuso’ was so wealthy that the King would be wise to forge an alliance with his Lord. The King sent his servants out to survey Lord Gagliuso’s (supposed) estates, and the cat followed them, telling them that everywhere they went there were robbers roaming the land, and the best way to protect themselves was to report back to the King that all of the land they surveyed belonged to Lord Gagliuso.
When the King heard that Gagliuso owned such extensive lands, he suggested that his daughter marry Gagliuso, to forge an alliance. The beggar’s son was promptly married to the Princess, the cat having negotiated a large dowry from the King for the marriage – money which ‘Gagliuso’ used to buy a large estate. Although this is the point where Perrault’s rendering of the story ends, in the Pentamerone the tale continues: the cat requests that when he dies, ‘Gagliuso’ will honour his memory by burying him in a gold coffin. The former beggar’s son promises to honour this wish, but to test him, three days later the cat pretends to be dead, and is shocked to hear his master command his wife to sling the cat out of the window. Angered by this, the cat storms out and never returns, leaving ‘Gagliuso’ to fend for himself in future. So in the Pentamerone, there’s a twist in the tale (or the tail). (This summary of the Pentamerone tale of ‘Puss in Boots’ is itself a summary of the Opies’ description of the story, in their indispensable and authoritative work on the subject, The Classic Fairy Tales.)
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Puss in Boots, via Wikimedia Commons.