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

The removal of sexuality from children’s fairy tales


“The removal of sexuality from children’s fairy tales paralleled the evolution of housing in Europe. By the seventeenth century, living arrangements had evolved to provide segregation between quarters for working, food preparation, and sleeping. Usually there was a main room used for dining, entertaining, and receiving visitors, but servants and children began to have their own smaller, adjacent rooms. During this same century fairy tales began to transform into works intended primarily for children. The transformation of living spaces parallels the changes that greatly impacted children, including attitudes regarding teaching proper behaviour and attitudes towards dying and death.” (P.546)
I wish I had a proper reference for this, but all I know is that it was a section titled ‘Literature for Children’ (pp.543-549) in some sort of reference book!

Los desmaravilladores


los-desmaravilladores-elsa-bornemannOkay, so back to thinking about desaparecidos en literatura para jovenes. Another book that touches on the theme is Los desmaravilladores (10 cuentos de amor, humor y terror), by Elsa Bornemann. The final story (Los desmaravilladores, from which the book takes its name) addresses the problem of discovering that your adoptive parents have (in this case unwittingly) adopted you after your biological parents were disappeared.

The story is framed as a short story being submitted under a pseudonym to a historical story competition run by the Academia Nacional de Historia de la Republica de Sudaquia. This short story itself is framed by the book of short stories in which it is published and to which it gives its title. This frame seems full of meta-narrative! But the story itself is fairly straight forward.

(Question: Is setting this story in the Republic of Sudaquia like re-claiming an insult – like has been done more classically with the terms nigger or gay? There is a publishing house by the same name: and a blog but this is new to me and as far as I can tell it comes from an insult that has been reclaimed ( …I don’t know!)

NB One site describes the book: “Un libro de cuentos que habla de los primeros encuentros con el terror. Cuentos que además recrean leyendas populares o acontecimientos reales, con la valentía de quien sabe que para los chicos no existen temas difíciles. Sólo se trata de saber contarlos.”

la memoria de los seres perdidosThe story did also put me in mind of La memoria de los seres perdidos by Jordi Sierra i Fabra, though the two approach the theme quite differently.

anti-authoritarian characters in children’s fiction


hombreSo I just read another book that had me thinking about representation of the dictatorship (Argentina)…

El hombre que creía en la luna, by Esteban Valentino (Ilustraciones de Pez. Bogotá, Grupo Editorial Norma, 2000. Colección Torre de Papel; serie Torre Azul.)

I won’t argue that this is such a representation. (Metaphorically, one might make such an argument, but those kind of extrapolated readings annoy me.) What I could say is that this is a story about a village that is convinced so strongly to turn their back on the moon (refusing to mention it, discuss it, acknowledge it, etc.) that they stop going out at night and chastise their children for even hinting at it. (This is engineered by baddies who want to sell the night to turn a quick profit.) hombrecreia2So, what I really did make note of is the character of the Uncle, the lone voice who speaks out against this regime, leaving propaganda in obvious places, challenging people’s fear, talking about the moon to his nephew and generally trying to rally people back to the moon’s cause, in spite of the climate of fear he finds on his arrival. This story turns on the appearance of his character (even though it is told through the eyes of a child protagonist).

So what other books celebrate such characters?

How do child protagonists respond to such characters? (and how ‘should’ they respond?)

What about the adults in such fiction?

Are these characters contextualised by the presence of other characters (eg. here, Los Vendedores de la Noche)

Are particular characters important to the children’s literature of a society (eg. with regards to making sense of a difficult history for its young)? It seems they must be. Do such characters appear with as much regularity in one society as in another? (eg New Zealand / Argentina)… just wondering

Emil and the detectives


Just a brief thought… There is a little blurb that suggests a brief (and I don’t know how accurate) history of child detectives in the back pages of the Vintage Classics translation of Emil and the Detectives (2012, translation by Eileen Hall). There will be books on the subject, but still… under the title, ‘Child Power‘ the publishers include these words

“When Emil and the Detectives was published in Germany in 1929 Emil was one of the first child detectives to appear in a book. Emil and his friends are heroes, they stick together, they outwit the thief and accomplish something that even the policemen hadn’t been able to do. Today you can read all sorts of brilliant stories about clever child spies (The Famous Five, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl) but little Emil Tischbein was the very first!

“The children’s author Philip Pullman loves this book because he says ‘it is a great political story: democracy in action’. And it is true, Emil and his friends are organised, they share their money, cooperate and they are extremely disciplined about a common cause – bringing a thief to justice.”

Add to that the fact that Kästner’s books were burned by the Nazi regime and I think it is an interesting analysis.

Ref: np. Author not named (emphases in bold highlight the critical focus I found interesting)

Emil and the detectives / Erich Kästner ; translated from the German by Eileen Hall ; illustrated by Walter Trier. Vintage Books London 2012