We’ve already realised that I love cats, and because I am very very allergic to them I can’t have one so I tend to live vicariously through other cat owners and cat related things. Hence cats in literature are getting their very own blog post!
Cats, as we know, have been with humans for a long time so it is no surprise that they have a prominent place in art and literature of both today and the past. They are complicated creatures but cats, in stories and poems, tend to be portrayed as clever and wily, as independent and cunning, and as mysterious and enigmatic. They are shown to be witch’s familiars, travellers companions, heroes and villains. In some writings they take centre stage and in others, supporting roles.
In folklore, cats tend to be haughty and proud, sneaking and clever, wise and helpful. This sits gratingly against the less flattering cat related metaphors we use; fat cat, copy cat, pussy, pussy footing, cat burglar, alley cat, have kittens, wild cat, catty and so on. Even miow, when said the right way, is derisive. There is something about the cat that means we use it to say lazy, to talk of sexual behaviour and to deride sexual women. I’m actually going to look a bit closer at cats and women when I focus in on gender within nature and writing so I shall leave that thought with you for now.
As well as metaphors, there are also a host of interesting sayings involving cats which are great for sparking the imagination! It can be raining cats and dogs whilst children fight like cats and dogs and suddenly curiosity kills all these cats, except the one in the cat’s pajamas!
Cats in stories
To get a flavour of the many different cat characters found in fiction, here is a small sample:
- Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat, a cunning, clever and manipulative beast.
- The range of cats which appear in the books of Beatrix Potter, portrayed anthropomorphically but still retaining a number of elements of their natural life and are playful and a little mischievous.
- Mog from Judith Kerr
- Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams
- Garfield created by Jim Davis
- The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber
- The Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale
- There are even cats in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
And big cats aren’t neglected either
- Aslan, the lion from the Narnia books. I don’t know much about the Christian imagery in the series but I do know that Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus.
- The tiger in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- Bagheera from the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
- There is also the Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
In addition to these examples, cats show up in a range of fiction types, from children’s books to science fiction and beyond. They are familiar creatures with an array of different personalities and habitats which give authors a lot of scope to work with. Because there are a lot of metaphors and symbols that can be found in the cat, they can be used to add depth to work and as shortcuts in creating character traits.
Naturally, cats also crop up in Aesop’s fables, written about 500BC, so the use of cats in fiction is not a modern idea. In one of the fables, Belling the Cat, the cat is cast in the role of enemy and hunter, as does the Town Mouse and The City Mouse. Obviously, perspective is important when considering the traits of any animal. Of course, most stories told from the point of view of mice are going to show the cat as evil and dangerous. And stories told from the point of view of a dog would probably exaggerate the cat’s faults and tar them with aspersions which emphasise their own strengths. If you were a dog who was trying to show everyone how fast and hardworking you were, you’d tell everyone how lazy the cat was.
There are lots of folk tales (I nearly did go there and say tails…) regarding the cat but here are just three, from very different cultures, which help give a flavour:
- The boy who drew cats, Japan. In this tale, the cat is shown to protect the boy and to be helpful towards humans whilst not expecting anything in return.
- The cat who came indoors, Africa. This is a story which illustrates how the cat domesticated itself and thus how the cat is independent and strong minded.
- Puss in boots, also known as the master cat, Europe. Here we see the cat as clever, planning ahead and getting what it wants (and escaping death).
We also find cats all over the world in mythology playing the roles of gods and goddesses as well as guides and guardians of humans. They were often considered magical and portrayed as moving between worlds; night and day, this world and the other. As we’ve seen before, cats in Egypt were associated with pregnancy, motherhood and the feminine and this was also the case in Norse mythology where they were sacred to Freya, goddess of love and beauty and fertility.
Cats in poetry
As the subject of poetry, cats appear across the centuries and from both male and female writers. There are serious poems and playful ones, ones where the cats are adored and ones where the cat is barely tolerated…
The earliest cat poem I found was written in 550AD by Agathias about a cat attacking one of his partridges… Not a great start to a literary career but by the 9th century, in Ireland at least, they were faring better; Pangur Ban tells of a monk and his cat. However, cat poetry seems to have become more popular from the mid 1700s which makes sense when you think about the timeline of cats and humans. Prior to this, they were considered more as pest control than pets and just before this time, they were associated with witches and thus were not popular to keep around.
Again, I just want to provide a few examples to show the scope of cats in poetry:
- T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
- Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat gives us a characteristic rule breaker, showing the more chaotic side of our feline friends.
- Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat, 1868
- William Blake, The Tyger, 1794
- William Wordsworth, The kitten and the falling leaves, 1804
- Emily Dickinson, She sights a bird – she chuckles, 1800s. Don’t you think even the title brings to mind a cat?!
- Eleonor Fargeon (1881-1965), Cats.
- Cat Kisses by Bobbi Katz (at the bottom of the link)
- Black Cat by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
- Edward Thomas, A Cat. It turns out not everyone is such a fan…
As you can see, there are a very diverse range of cats hiding within the pages of our books and we’ve not even looked at plays and films and tv programmes. Or even cats in non fiction such as Elsa in Born Free. And we’ve only glanced at cats in myths.
You can find out more about big cats as symbols and their role in myths and beliefs in my animal spirit posts:
Who are your favourite literary cats? Let me know, I’d love to hear and I’m always up for book recommendations (about cats or even, I suppose, not about cats).