Title: The Porcelain Cat
Publisher: Little Brown
Author: Michael Patrick Hearn
Illustrators: Leo and Diane Dillon
Once upon a time, a sorcerer had need of basilisk blood to complete a spell. And so he sent his apprentice to the Witch Beneath the Hill to acquire it. But the Witch would only trade the basilisk blood for pink shellfish from the Undine. So the apprentice walked through the tangled wood to the Undine’s home at the headwaters of the stream. But the Undine would only fetch the shellfish in exchange for red mushrooms that grew deep in the woods …. And so it went all through the night, with the apprentice meeting one magical being after another as he sought to fulfill his quest ….
I fell in love with the Dillons’ artwork years ago when I read Earth Mother(written by Ellen Jackson) and The Race of the Golden Apples (written by Claire Martin). I’ve kept watch for their titles at my local used bookstore since then, so I was very excited when a copy of The Porcelain Catappeared.
First, the story. This is a delightful tale about perseverance and keeping one’s promises (“A bargain is a bargain.”), as well as not judging others by their appearance. The apprentice is initially frightened of the Centaur of the Wood, but soon learns that he is an honorable being. The language is rich, almost poetic, e.g., “the moon was full and ripe” and the Undine spoke “in a whisper that would have silenced a storm at sea.” And I love the little quirks that give each character their own personality; for example, the Witch Beneath the Hill never sleeps, and the Sorcerer is so delighted to finally have the basilisk blood that he leaps around the room on his left foot.
The art by the Dillons is wonderful. It is warm and inviting; almost like the illustrations found in medieval European manuscripts, but toned down with sepias and soft greens and grays. The Undine is elegant and beautiful (though not sexual), while the Centaur is powerful and muscular. The forest in which all of these beings live looms high above them all, the trees silvered by moon- and starlight.
The Porcelain Cat will make a wonderful addition to any fairy tale or mythology library. Originally published in 1987, the book long ago fell out of print, but used copies are readily available through various online retailors. Highly recommended to fans of Hearn and the Dillons, as well as fans of The Blue Book of Fairy Tales from Golden Books, The Wild Swans by Angela Barrett and Naomi Lewis, The Prince of the Dolomites by Tomie dePaola, and The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch, among many others.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]