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!

Horst Kornberger on Harry Potter and Narnia


Horst Kornberger offers the following opinion on Harry Potter (I haven’t decided what I think about his comments yet, but it’s one opinion!):

“I am in two minds about Rowling’s creation,” Kornberger writes, “particularly as literature for young children. I think the books and films are often encountered too [-p.143] early. Harry Potter is great fantasy, but a certain foundation of soul needs to be established before a child enters the gothic labyrinth of Hogwarts.
The Potter books are based on the mystery novel and the emotional suspense created by this genre. In most mystery novels we do not know who the murderer is until the very end. In the Harry Potter books, the murder is yet to come. Though we know it is the Dark Lord who is attempting to kill Harry, we do not know under which mask he is hiding. This makes the books even more harrowing for the soul than conventional mysteries.
The dark forces in the Harry Potter series are hidden and unscrupulous, and ever more brilliant as the books progress. The portrayal of evil echoes the racial ethos of the Nazi regime and procedures of black magic. All this may be exciting and highly stimulating reading for the imagination-deprived teenager, but it is not appropriate for younger readers, who need to know who is good and who is bad so they can morally orientate themselves in a story.
In fairytales, evil and cruelty are dealt with imaginatively. The wolf that devours Red Riding Hood spills no blood and the child is soon revived. But the killing in Harry Potter is real and irreversible. The blood that is spilled is ‘real’ blood that will leave a mark on a young child’s soul. The cruelty of a sinister figure like Voldemort is too convincing to be digested before a child is equipped to face him. Too young, they may fall prey to his schemes – and as the book tells you, he is eager to kill then as young as he can.
I recommend you to the advice of the world expert in all matters concerning Harry Potter and the care of the magical and endangered child: Albertus Dumbledore, Director of Hogwarts School of Magic. The wise Professor protected Harry from all contact with the shady and dangerous world of magic until he had reached the age of eleven. I take this as the story’s own explicit advice for its appropriate use: children should reach this age before being admitted to the school of sorcery.
I have said I am in two minds about Harry Potter. While I am concerned about its premature use, it nevertheless provides a good dose of fantasy for teenage consumption. It also speaks directly to contemporary myth – its popularity shows that the stories answer a dire need in our culture:  the story deprivation of contemporary childhood.
Children recognise themselves in Harry. Like the modern child he starts off deprived of imagination and magic, denied his birthright to be an adventurer in any realm other than this world. Like the modern [-p.144] child he is endowed with imaginal gifts and has been brought up by parents who are ‘muggles’ – totally unmagical folk. Most parents are ‘Dursleys,’ not only lacking imagination, they suppress it with any means at their disposal.
The imaginal part in every modern child is as maltreated by parents and education as Harry Potter is by the Dursleys, while the child’s conventional and unmagical part is as spoiled as his stepbrother Dudley – who is the very kind of insensitive and competitive bully our world seems to reward while the Harrys are locked in closets and punished for who they are.
Harry Potter exemplifies the drama of the imaginative child. This is what makes his story a modern myth. He is the hero who escapes the prison of convention, breaking though the brick walls of King’s Cross Station into a new dimension of imaginal adventure. Harry is a symbol for the imaginal child and her adventures in this world and the next – but for a young child there are smoother ways to break the brick walls of convention. A new dimension may be more easily entered through an old wardrobe hung with fur coats.”  (pp.142-144)

Harry vs The Chronicles of Narnia

Interestingly, Kornberger also compares Harry to The Chronicles of Narnia:

“C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are a masterpiece of children’s literature. A nine year old can appreciate the imaginative treasures this series contains, and there is no need to censor their use, for the stories have a purity that will protect them from misuse. The children who are the heroes of many of the Narnia tales are aged between seven and twelve, and that seems a good indication of their age-appropriateness.” (p.144)

“Harry Potter is fantasy with mythological elements. The Chronicles of Narnia are much stronger myth, a product of exact imagination, revealing realities beyond the apparently real. The Narnia stories meet the soul on its own home ground. They speak the imaginative language of the heart and carry the power of transformation that only this language can provide.
It is this transformative capacity that Harry Potter lacks. He is a likeable hero and remains so, even as he becomes more adept in magic. He is protected by the love of his mother, but he is not touched by the love that changes the heart. He remains a somewhat superficial hero, the master of outer accomplishment and victories. He is Superboy equipped with magical powers and all the gadgets of the trade: owls and broomsticks, invisibility cloak and miraculous maps.” (p.145)

Again, I’m not yet sure what I think of these last comments, but I do find them interesting.

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Horst Kornberger (2008) The Power of Stories: Nurturing Children’s Imagination and Consciousness. Floris Books: Edinburgh

Hmmm – Fallen Princesses


“Fallen Princesses” is an ironic look at children’s parables, from Grimm fairy tales to Walt Disney. By placing iconic characters such as Little Red Riding Hood or Snow White in modern situations, the series became a commentary on such everyday scourges as poverty, obesity, cancer and pollution.
The book is a collection of essays, online discussion, letters, published works and antidotes about the making of the project.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales read aloud


Note – reading of Grimm’s Fairy Tales on Radio New Zealand National:

“Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales was first published in 1812. Some of the stories were folk tales the brothers collected from a wide range of people, others re-tellings of already famous tales.

Roger Wilson reads the Grimm versions of some of the fairy tales, which are kind, cruel, occasionally shocking and other times just absurd… but always entertaining! Enjoy!

Gallery: Illustrations from the history of fairy tales

Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of the fairy tale. (7′34″)

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Snow White
Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of the fairy tale. (14′25″)

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Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of the fairy tale. (5′19″)

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The Moon
Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of the fairy tale. (2′12″)

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Hansel and Gretel
Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of the fairy tale. (12′25″)

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Golden Goose
Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of the fairy tale. (4′45″)

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Stardust as Allegorical Bildungsroman – Paula Brown


“Stardust is very intentionally a fairy tale, but I didn’t want to set it in a sort of never-never historical period. It’s very solidly set in Victorian England, actually in a period after fairy tales were done with, but it’s a fantasy in the tradition of Dunsany or Hope Mirrlees. (Neil 66)”

“In defining the genre of Stardust,” Paula Brown writes (in reference to the above quote), “Neil Gaiman’s own input is invaluable, though unfortunately incomplete. Gaiman defines Stardust both as fairy tale and fantasy, yet sets it off ironically with a quotation from John Donne’s “Song,” a poem skeptical of idealistic quests after “strange sights” (line 9), a succinct plot description of either of Gaiman’s chosen genres. This ironic framework, suggesting the raised eyebrow and the self-conscious pose of a post-modern perspective, allows the novel to transcend the category of Victorian pastiche. That is, the strategic placement of Donne’s poem suggests the metafictional intent of the tale, questioning the perspective from which the typical postmodern reader views the fantastic quest. The implicit question is whether the reader of the present day can overcome any more successfully than Donne could in the seventeenth century a culturally entrenched cynicism for idealistic pilgrimages and female chastity.” (p.216)

“Additionally,” Brown continues, “the placement of the poem emphasizes the quality of poetry, something Gaiman closely associated with his own novel as well as with the [-p.217] fantasy tradition of Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees. Stardust is, in Gaiman’s own words, “probably the most poetic book I’ve written” (67). It is poetic not merely in its language but in its allegorical structure. If one defines a fairy tale as Stephen Prickett does in Victorian Fantasy, as having a picaresque, “loose episodic structure and fantastic events” (175), then Stardust is something of an anomaly. Its allegorical plot, like a poem, emphasizes the elements of image and symbol. The allegory has idealistic designs: in Prickett’s words it is “constructed around a sense of a larger whole in which it is suggested that there is a hidden order permeating all existence, and that the growth of [the hero] is achieved both through its guidance and eventually, by discovery of it” (185). Prickett is referring here to the tradition of the Bildungsroman, demonstrating the degree to which a foreign poetisch novel at odds with a dominant realistic fiction influenced the development of the British fantasy novel. It is this lineage to which Stardust belongs.” (pp.216-217)

Stardust challenges the assumption that the quality of sentiment, still commonly associated with the fantasy genre as well as with a Victorian ethos, is necessarily an outmoded trait. Tristran’s quest to find his heart’s desire, ostensibly an old-fashioned fairy tale, has many qualities readers associate with post-modern fiction: a framing structure that provides a skeptical attitude towards the fairy tale action; an imperfect rather than heroic protagonist who does not recognize his own heart’s desire and who must discover or refine it as the plot proceeds at a breakneck speed; and finally an ambiguous take both on Victorian values such as sentimentality or “true love” and modern naturalist definitions of human nature.” (p.217)

“[The protagonist,] Tristran’s problem is not his belief in heroism and true love but his inflated rhetoric and lack of understanding. The word for this sort of emotional trap, sentimentality, may be defined as an “invitation to unexamined response, indulgence of inappropriate emotion” (Swerden 747).” (p.222)

Note that her discussion of Tristran’s two loves, their (mutual) objectification and development into authentic beings (pp.222-223) is really interesting…, it’s just not what I’m working on right now…

“In the Victorian world of Gaiman’s text, the villains of the novel, the witches and the princes, operate from the same assumption as the Modernists, that reality abides within the material object. Yet this materialism appears to be deconstructed as perverted idealism. The witches worship at a black altar that mirrors a beauty without substance and reality.
The world of Stardust insists on parallel rather than hierarchical significations, undermining the reader’s certainty about reality. In the world of Faerie the star is alive, whereas in the “real” world on the other side of the wall she is dead. The living being is represented as a more persuasive entity, however, whereas the dead “reality” appears to be desecration of a luminous, ethereal soul, an interpretive act just as cruel as the murder the witches look forward to so viciously.” (p.224)

Stardust makes the ancient conflict between the angelic and human strange and new by positing a fantasy world in which the natural basis of reality is non-materialistic.” (p.224)

Not incidentally, the love of a star has a long history in Western literature. The Petrarchan tradition of poetry customarily represents a doomed passion of a courtier for a maid who cannot ever succumb to his charms. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella tells the tale most famously, perhaps, recounting the sad passion of the poet Astrophil for a beloved woman, Stella (or star), impossibly remote, inconceivably perfect, who is, alas, ultimately unattainable. Nevertheless, the expended passion is not represented as something wasted because physical consummation is not the primary object of interest. The interest is metaphysical: tucked inside what is “true” in the expression true love; which is precisely the object of attention in Stardust.” (p.228)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Paula Brown (2010) Stardust as Allegorical Bildungsroman: An Apology for Platonic idealism. extrapolation 51(2); pp.216-234