Faith and Fairy Tales: Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots by Gustave Dore

Titled “Costantino Fortunato” in its original Italian, the tale that has come to be known as Puss in Boots first appeared in The Facetious Nights of Straparola in the mid-1500s. Roughly eighty years later, Giambattista Basile wrote another version, “Cagliuso,” but the most famous iteration comes to us courtesy of the French author Charles Perrault in the late 1600s.

In Perrault’s now classic telling, the cat of the title is inherited by the youngest son of a miller. As the two elder brothers inherited the bulk of the estate, the young man is understandably upset at getting only a single feline. But the cat — who can talk! — promises to make his master’s fortune if he will just do as the cat says. And so a series of cons, lies, and violent threats follow, eventually leading to the death of an ogre, the (fraudulent) inheritance of the ogre’s estate and title by the miller’s son, and an introduction to the king and his beautiful daughter. A marriage between the now-entitled miller’s son and the princess is hastily arranged, and the cat lives out his days as a pampered pet.

It is probably obvious from my summary that Puss in Boots is not among my favorite fairy tales. It’s probably among my least favorite, actually. The title character is a liar and a cheat, the miller’s son is lazy and rather stupid, and the king and princess are even more venal and idiotic. Despite Perrault’s noted conservatism on social matters, the story comes across as nothing less than a satire of the nobility and the entire class structure of 17th century France.

Puss in Boots is a fairy tale in only the broadest sense of the term. In the Italian tale, the cat is a fairy in disguise, true, but in the French version he is a cat who is just a little bit more. The only hint of magic lies with the shapeshifting ogre, and he is neither smart enough nor powerful enough to defeat the cat.

The eponymous feline, however, does bear the hallmarks of a Trickster. While he shares qualities with Coyote, Raven, Hermes, and Loki, he is less Deific boundary-crosser than self-interested con artist. He’s more Bugs Bunny than culture hero.

So how can we take this tale of deceitful self-advancement and turn it into a Pagan fable? One option is to take the story further back, in a sense, to make it truly Trickster-ish. Two other options are to take some of the core ideas of the story and use them as foundations for tales of religious freedom, devotion, oath-keeping, friendship, and socio-political revolution.

Let’s consider that first option and try a creation myth. Let’s drag the cat backwards, as it were; make him more Deific, more primal; a Trickster who upsets the established order to create a new norm. In the beginning (let’s say), there were no sun, no moon, and no stars, no day and night. Instead, humans and animals alike existed in a perpetual grayness, scrabbling and fighting for what resources they could get. At the center of creation stood the castle of the Great One, and from behind its high walls people would catch occasional glimpses of light and dark, and they could even smell good things for which they had no names. In this grayness, a man is wandering when he comes across an injured cat. Most people would move along, or even kill the cat; but the man does not. Instead, he cares for the feline and, when it is ready, the cat reveals his origins to the man: the cat hails from the castle of the Great One and, if the man will do as the cat says, all of the treasures that are being hoarded behind those walls will be his. The man agrees. Through a series of lies and frauds, the cat and the man eventually make their way through the gates and beyond the walls, and into the castle of the Great One. The man is astounded at the sight of the sun and moon and stars, and at the trees and fruits and flowers, none of which grow in the grayness outside. While the man gathers sun and sunlight, moon and moonlight, day and night, stars and seeds and petals, the cat confronts the Great One within their palace. The Great One cannot conceive that something as small and insignificant as a cat could possibly be a threat to them, and that is their downfall. When the cat challenges the Great One to prove their greatness by shifting and sliding into different forms, it is easy — until they take the form of a tiny mouse. The cat pounces. The mouse is slain. The cat rejoins the man and, together, they leave the castle of the Great One. The man throws the sun and moon and stars into the sky, and scatters the seeds and petals across the earth. The grayness recedes and the world as we know it comes to be: a world of day and night and green growing things. And as for the cat, well … he did eat the Great One, after all. Some say he still wanders the world, looking for adventures and curious souls to walk at his side.

Another option for a retelling is to take a closer look at the original Italian version, in which the cat is actually a fairy. But why would a fairy be in disguise, and why would they help a poor mortal? How about this: there is a woman who is a midwife, who is carried away to the land of Fairy to help a noble fairywoman give birth. In gratitude, the fairy promises to come to the aid of the midwife’s own daughter if she should ever need it. The midwife returns to the mortal world, but is ostracized by her neighbors, who fear and hate the fae. Years later, the midwife dies, leaving her daughter alone and with few resources or prospects. The girl, determined to make her way in the world and escape the prejudice of her neighbors, sets off down the road. She is soon joined by a strange cat (none other than the fairywoman in disguise, of course). The more they travel, the more they encounter political and religious oppression centered around belief in and interactions with the fae; people are being imprisoned, tortured, and even executed, all on the orders of a tyrant who uses the people’s fears to maintain his grip on power. …. Well, you can guess what comes next. A tale of grand adventure, magic, narrow escapes, and derring-do as the midwife’s daughter and her feline fairy godmother lie, cheat, steal, and ultimately rally the people to overthrow the tyrant. As the people learn the truth of how they have been manipulated, proper relations with the fae are re-established. The fairywoman returns home, and the midwife’s daughter settles down for a quiet life … for a while, anyway ….

Finally, one other possible way to paganize Puss in Boots. Feline Deities and Deities associated with cats large and small are common in world pantheons. Just a few of them include Bast (Egyptian), Freyja (Norse/Northern Europe), Hecate (Greek and Roman), and Tezcatlipoca and Tepēyōllōtl (Aztec/Mexica). And that doesn’t count all of the mythical and folkloric felines, such as the bakeneko, the cat sith, the Jólakötturinn, and the King of Cats. Writing a story in which your cat is either a servant of one of these Deities or a being of folklore would be relatively simple. — For example, let’s set a story in the modern world. A little girl has been gifted a cat by her family’s Wiccan coven. The cat has mostly black fur, except for his legs, which are white; since he looks like he’s wearing boots, the family names him after the famous fairy tale character. The little girl and the cat become best friends; he even accompanies her to the local lake and sails around with her on kayaks and other boats. But one day the girl falls (or is knocked) into the lake, nearly drowns, and ends up in a coma. The cat is convinced that there is a malevolent spirit living in the lake and that it has stolen the girl’s soul. He needs to save her and get rid of the entity before anyone else can be hurt. A night of adventure follows as he seeks advice and wins tools from (and makes promises to) a baker/seer, an exiled fae Princess, a forest ranger, and finally the King of Cats himself. Finally, the cat dives to the bottom of the lake where he finds the cave of the monster, and all the souls that the monster has collected. Using the knowledge and tools he has acquired, the cat defeats the monster and frees the trapped souls. He returns to the hospital, where his little girl has awakened — but he is there to say good-bye. He owes favors to those who helped him, and he will spend the rest of his nine lives paying that debt.

So there you have them: three ideas for creating a more Pagan-friendly Puss in Boots.

How would you retell the story?

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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