Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

One of the best-known Beast Fables about an animal helping a human. The modern version comes from "Le Maître Chat ou le Chat Botté" ["The Master Cat or the Booted Cat"] (1697) by Charles Perrault, but did not originate with him, probably having an Arabian source. An early Indian version has been translated as "The Monkey and Mr Janel Sinna" in Three Tales of Monkey (coll 1967 US) by Ruth Tooze (1892-1972) (see also Monkey). The tale was first written down in Europe in volume 2 of Le Piacevoli Notti ["The Delectable Nights"] (coll 1553) by Gianfrancesco Straparola (?1480-1558), and was repeated with little variance as "Gagliuso" in Lo Cunto de li Cunti ["The Story of Stories"] (1634; vt The Pentameron 1674) by Giambattista Basile (1575-1632). Only in Perrault's story does the Cat wear boots, but otherwise the storyline is almost identical. A miller dies and his sons inherit in turn the mill, his ass and his cat. The youngest son believes he is most hard done-by with only the cat, but the cat through Trickster skills, elevates him such that he marries the princess of the land. In Basile's version alone we learn that the Master is so pleased that he promises the cat that after it dies it will be preserved in a golden cage. To test this the cat feigns death and hears the master order that the cat be thrown from the window. At this the cat confronts the Master with his ingratitude and leaves.

The story is almost completely amoral, suggesting that fortune can be achieved through deceit and trickery – almost certainly how the general populace regarded the gentry in the Middle Ages. This made it less easily adaptable as a story for Victorian children, though it had become established as a Pantomime by the end of the 18th century. Surprisingly, Mrs Craik left the story unchanged in The Fairy Book (anth 1863), but George Cruikshank totally rewrote it for his Fairy Library (coll 1870). In Cruikshank's version the cat reveals it was a man changed into a cat for not appreciating his good fortune, and that the miller had been a real Marquis. Laura Valentine (1814-1899) rewrote the beginning for The Old Old Fairy Tales (anth 1889) to show that the son was not ungrateful but had been devoted to his father, by contrast with his two selfish brothers – shades of Beauty and the Beast.

The equivocal nature of the story lends itself ideally to Satire, as adapted by Ludwig Tieck in his play Der Gestiefelte Kater ["The Booted Cat"] (1797), and provides a good basis for further interpretations. In The Master Cat: The True and Unexpurgated Story of Puss in Boots (as "From 'Puss in Boots'" in A Chatto & Windus Almanack anth 1926; exp 1974), David Garnett develops Basile's version; he continues the cat's story after it leaves. Sylvia Townsend Warner uses the same starting point for "The Castle of Carabas" (in The Cat's Cradle Book coll 1940 US). There is something of the theme in "The Cat King's Daughter" (in The Cat King's Daughter anth 1984 ed Fiona Waters) by Lloyd Alexander, wherein a cat advises the princess how she might gain love and fortune, although this may owe as much to the Legend of Dick Whittington. The Whittington story, based on the historical Richard Whittington (?1358-1423), may have cross-fertilized with the tale developed by Straparola.

The story was taken to heart by Nicholas Stuart Gray, who developed it into its most complete form, providing a life history and full set of feline adventures in The Marvellous Story of Puss-in-Boots (1955) and The Further Adventures of Puss-in-Boots (1971). [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.