As a child I used to love stories about cats: Jeffy the Burglar’s Cat, Gobollino the Witches Cat, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – basically if it had a cat in it I would read it.
My all time favourite was the trilogy of stories by Barbara Sleigh charting the adventures of a little girl called Rosemary Brown and the witches cat Carbonel. I loved these books because they revealed a whole night-time kingdom ruled by cats that coexisting alongside, but unobserved by the humans in their humdrum daylight world. Plus, it also explained the purpose of those big colourful jars of liquids often seen in the windows of chemists shops: a prescription from one jar allowed you to understand the language of animals, from the other vice versa (I can’t tell you how much of my childhood was spent plotting how to get hold of some!)
The King o’ the Cats
Little did I know that the Carbonel tales were based on the British folk tale about the King of the Cats. The tale exists in several forms in England, Scotland and Ireland.
The tale usually features an individual who is ordered by an animal or a disembodied voice to tell ‘A’ that ‘B’ is dead (and they usually both have weird names such as Dildrum Doldrum etc). The individual then retells his tale to his friends or family and finds out that ‘A’ is in fact his pet cat (or other animal). The recipient of the news then disappears never to be seen again.
The story is a folk narrative – which Kevin Crossley-Holland describes as a tale of enchantment placing magic alongside the mundane; and in which folk beliefs may be expressed but within an entirely fictional context. The listener is not supposed to believe that the events actually happened. (p333). For those of a technical turn of mind, DL Ashliman in his ‘Death of an Underground person’ article on http://www.pitt.edu classifies the story as:
“Death of an elf (or cat)” tales are classified as type 113A tales in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale classification system, or as a migratory legend type 6070B in the Christiansen system”
Cats, especially black cats, feature strongly in folk-lore and superstition (and are still considered lucky in England) and the idea that your homely moggie might in fact be more that he or she seems is very appealing; the death of a cat is, as noted by Ashliman, also often linked to elves and fairies in the folk tradition. In short cats are magical creatures.
The idea of the King of the Cats appears in many traditions. In Ireland the Imtheacht na Triomahaimhe has a king or lord of cats, and books by Lady Jane Wilde, WB Yeats and Padraic Colum all included tales of feline royalty.
Dating the tale
In the 16th Century the phrase ‘King of the Cats’ was used by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, suggesting that it was a well-known phrase (although Wikipedia notes Shakespeare was probably not referring to the folk tale itself). A horror ‘novel’ from 1561 called ‘Beware the Cat’ may be influenced by the folk tale – it depicts a secret world of talking cats (I wonder if Barbara Sleigh was influenced by this as well….?)
The first recorded version of the tale appears to be from the late eighteenth century and appears in a letter written by Thomas Lyttelton in 1782. The story seems to have existed in oral tradition prior to this, as Walter Scott was familiar with the story as a child. Once written down the story seems to have spread to more a more literary audience including Percy Bysshe Shelley, then to folklore collectors such as Joseph Jacobs and Charlotte S Burne.
During the nineteenth century there was a growing sense that the oral folk tradition should be recorded before it was lost in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and growing urbanisation. Little did those early folklorists suspect that were there is folk there are invariably tales; and if the abundance of contemporary (Urban) legends is anything to go by folk traditions are going strong even in the digital age!
Joseph Jacobs (1854 -1916) was a folklorist and historian who published numerous collections of folk-tales: Indian, Celtic and English as well as collections of fairy tales; and edited the journal Folklore from 1899-1900. Born in Australia, he studied at Cambridge and lived in England for many years before finally settling in America. Despite his ‘outsider’ status (he never made it into the ‘in crowd’ of British Folklorists) he was inspired by the ‘romantic nationalism’ of the day. He wanted to collect distinctly English folk-lore/fairy tales that English children could read - as distinct from the European tales they were more familiar with through the works of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
Jacobs included ‘The King of the Cats’ in his 1894 book ‘More English Fairy Tales’ and in his notes he freely admits that this is his own version based on up to 5 variants of the tale (which he lists) rather than a verbatim account from original sources and this allows him to incorporate all of the best elements of these tales.
So, this may not be the ‘purest’ version of the King of the Cats, but I think it is one of the most appealing from a literary perspective. Heck, it even features a grave-digging sexton (sextons: such stalwarts of folk tales!)
Here then, is Joseph Jacobs entertaining retelling of the British Folktale ‘The King of the Cats’. Enjoy…
One winter’s evening the sexton’s wife was sitting by the fireside with her big black cat, Old Tom, on the other side, both half asleep and waiting for the master to come home. They waited and they waited, but still he didn’t come, till at last he came rushing in, calling out, “Who’s Tommy Tildrum?” in such a wild way that both his wife and his cat stared at him to know what was the matter.
“Why, what’s the matter?” said his wife, “and why do you want to know who Tommy Tildrum is?”
“Oh, I’ve had such an adventure. I was digging away at old Mr. Fordyce’s grave when I suppose I must have dropped asleep, and only woke up by hearing a cat’s _Miaou_.”
“_Miaou!_” said Old Tom in answer.
“Yes, just like that! So I looked over the edge of the grave, and what do you think I saw?”
“Now, how can I tell?” said the sexton’s wife.
“Why, nine black cats all like our friend Tom here, all with a white spot on their chestesses. And what do you think they were carrying? Why, a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of gold, and at every third step they took they cried all together, _Miaou_–”
“_Miaou!_” said Old Tom again.
“Yes, just like that!” said the Sexton; “and as they came nearer and nearer to me I could see them more distinctly, because their eyes shone out with a sort of green light. Well, they all came towards me, eight of them carrying the coffin, and the biggest cat of all walking in front for all the world like–but look at our Tom, how he’s looking at me. You’d think he knew all I was saying.”
“Go on, go on,” said his wife; “never mind Old Tom.”
“Well, as I was a-saying, they came towards me slowly and solemnly, and at every third step crying all together, _Miaou!_–”
“_Miaou!_” said Old Tom again.
“Yes, just like that, till they came and stood right opposite Mr. Fordyce’s grave, where I was, when they all stood still and looked straight at me. I did feel queer, that I did! But look at Old Tom; he’s looking at me just like they did.”
“Go on, go on,” said his wife; “never mind Old Tom.”
“Where was I? Oh, they all stood still looking at me, when the one that wasn’t carrying the coffin came forward and, staring straight at me, said to me–yes, I tell ‘ee, _said_ to me, with a squeaky voice, ‘Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum’s dead,’ and that’s why I asked you if you knew who Tom Tildrum was, for how can I tell Tom Tildrum Tim Toldrum’s dead if I don’t know who Tom Tildrum is?”
“Look at Old Tom, look at Old Tom!” screamed his wife.
And well he might look, for Tom was swelling and Tom was staring, and at last Tom shrieked out, “What–old Tim dead! then I’m the King o’ the Cats!” and rushed up the chimney and was never more seen.
Joseph Jacobs 1854 -1916
You can find several other versions of the tale (including the version above) at: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type6070b.html#kingcat).
Crossley-Holland, Kevin, Folktales of the British Isles, Folio, 1985
Jacobs, J., More English Fairy Tales, New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons; London: D Nutt, 1984
Simpson J and Round S, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press, 2000