The various uses and functions of feline characters


I’m interested in fictional animals for various reasons. Maria Nikolajeva wrote an article some time ago in which she considers “the various uses and functions of feline characters by a discussion of some famous and less-known literary cats.” (p.248) She writes “These characters are employed for various purposes and play more or less prominent roles in the narratives, from peripheral figures used as decorative details to protagonists and plot engines. Their portrayal depends on the view of cats at different historical periods, from divine in ancient Egypt to evil during the Middle Ages in Europe, from enigmatic and exotic to sweet and friendly. Their nature reflects feline as well as human traits, and the most challenging images combine the two.” (p.248)

“During the Middle Ages in Europe, cats became connected with evil powers, which was based partly on the popular beliefs about cats’ lewdness, partly on their Christian association with Satan.” (p.250)  “Such attitudes led to cats’ connection with witches; indeed, black cats, together with ravens, frequently appear in folktales as witches’ familiars (such as Grimalkin, a cat from Celtic lore, also featured in Macbeth), and witches also turn into cats, a fact reflected in the Harry Potter books when Professor McGonnegal occasionally takes the shape of a cat. An evil cat monster appears in King Arthur stories. Bayun-Cat in Slavic folklore is a giant hostile black cat who imposes irresistible sleepiness on people, often by telling tales or singing songs. However, this image is ambivalent, since it portrays the cat as creative and wise….” (p.250)

“By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cat’s repute was exculpated and cats became popular pets in upper- and middle-class families, which is, among other things, manifest in numerous nursery rhymes—for instance, “Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been.” This very simple rhyme tells us something essential about one of our favorite pets—not about their true nature, but rather about how we perceive cats. The versed animal can talk and recall his adventures; he can walk about as he wishes, including to Her Majesty’s chambers; but he has no respect for the high and mighty, seeing the world from his own perspective.” (p.251)

“Cats are also widely featured in fables… Eventually they enter numerous cartoons, children’s stories, and picturebooks. Cats became benign and often sweet characters, adapted to children’s and family reading. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928), and Kathleen Hale’s Orlando the Marmalade Cat (1938) are good examples. Most modern cat stories are picturebooks portraying anthropomorphic cats, representing humans. The shape is arbitrary and interchangeable: the figures could just as well be bears, rabbits, mice, or blotches of color. It is hardly worth mentioning the abundant felines rubbing against their owners’ feet or purring on their laps merely to create an atmosphere. In hundreds of books a child gets a kitten for pet. Occasionally, a black cat may prompt the idea, often erroneously, that its owner is a witch. In the Harry Potter books, a sneaky she-cat belongs to the likewise devious janitor at Hogwarts, while Hermione’s familiar is quite appropriately an orange tomcat.” (p.251)

Because of their trickster nature, cats can be easily employed as carnival figures, turning order into chaos and interrogating higher authorities. The most famous American cat is the figure created by Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957), who incorporates both the trickster and the magical helper aspect of the folklore cat. In this brilliant, hilarious, marvelously dynamic story, chaos invades the everyday order, all rules are abolished, and the whole house is literally turned upside down. This is carnival in its purest form: wild, uncontrolled, and nonsensical.” (p.254)

Quite a different use of cat images is metaphoric, symbolic, allegorical— that is, various forms of nonmimetic representation. Eugene Trivizas’s The Last Black Cat (2001), one of the relatively rare cat stories employing first-person perspective, is an allegory of the Holocaust.” (p.256)

In modern fairy tales and fantasy, cats are widely featured as magical helpers and bearers of magical powers, especially assisting the hero in transportation between the everyday and the magical realm. Among authors who are especially fond of feline characters, Lloyd Alexander and Diana Wynne Jones can be named.” (p.260)

NB Nikolajeva discusses a number of texts that make use of cats, including: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, CoralineThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, etc. The analyses she offers are thought-provoking.

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Maria Nikolajeva ‘Devils, Demons, Familiars, Friends: Toward a Semiotics of Literary Cats.’ Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2009), pp. 248–267


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