When it comes to cats donning costumes, one feline–the splendid Puss in Boots –stands head and front paws above the rest. The birth of printing in the mid 15th century meant that illustrated stories became easily available to the average person, and fairytales very soon became a popular genre.
A famous early example, and one that has since has been told many times over the centuries, is “Puss in Boots”, a story which has its origins in an Italian fairytale first published in 1555. Our bold feline hero first slinked onto the cultural scene in “Costantino Fortunato,” a story in the 1550–53 compendium called The Facetious Nights of Straparola by Giovanni Francesco Straparola. In an English translation, this story begins:
“There was once in Bohemia a very poor lady named Soriana, who had three sons: one was called Dusolino, the other Tesifone, and the third Constantine the Lucky. She owned nothing valuable in the world but three things: a kneading-trough, a rolling-board, and a cat. When Soriana, laden with years, came to die, she made her last testament, and left to Dusolino, her eldest son, the kneading-trough, to Tesifone the rolling-board, and to Constantine the cat. “
At BabaBarock we are rather pleased to note that Puss in Boots was originally a Bohemian Cat!
The story’s original title “Costantino Fortunato” refers to a boy, the third of three sons, who inherits a cat from his poor mother. The cat, who is a fairy in disguise, asks for and gets a pair of boots to wear. He then becomes the protector of the boy and embarks on a plot to ingratiate his master with the King of Bohemia. After a game of cat-and-mouse involving a shape-shifting ogre in a castle, the once-poor boy gets a castle stolen from an ogre, becomes a favourite of the king, and marries a princess.
It changed a bit by the time it was rendered in English, with the reference to Bohemia dropped (our Bohemian Cats find this a great mistake!). The poor mother is replaced by a miller with three sons, and the cat is no longer a fairy but just clever and mischievous.
The story proved popular and began to appear in other versions. An early French tale of “Le Chat Botté” was written by retired civil servant and Académie Française member Charles Perrault. This was reprinted in Stories or Tales from Past Times (Histoires ou contes du temps passé) at the end of the 17th century. This had the subtitle “Contes de ma mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose Tales). The book was dedicated to Élisabeth Charlotte d’Orléans, the youngest niece of French King Louis XIV.
The volume had eight tales, some of which remain world classics: “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” “The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots,” “Diamonds and Toads,” “Cinderella”, “Riquet with the Tuft,” and “Hop o’ My Thumb.”
This compendium found its way to England, and was first printed in 1729 as Histories, or Tales of Past Times. Various editions featured illustrations by noted artists such as Gustav Dore or Walter Crane. The less formal “Mother Goose” subtitle eventually replaced the original main one. Since the stories are in the public domain, countless editions and translations have since appeared in English and other languages, with illustrations of widely varying quality.
The tale made its way into early story collections by the Brothers Grimm but was later generally left out. It also crossed over to other mediums with the cat making an appearance in Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet “The Sleeping Beauty.” The ballet’s story by Ivan Vsevolozhsky took its inspiration from the Grimm Brothers’ retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty” but also incorporated various characters from Perrault’s “Mother Goose” and other sources.
The prose Mother Goose tales often end in moral advice. The earliest one had two: “There is great advantage in receiving a large inheritance, but diligence and ingenuity are worth more than wealth acquired from others” and “If a miller’s son can win the heart of a princess in so short a time, causing her to gaze at him with lovelorn eyes, it must be due to his clothes, his appearance, and his youth. These things do play a role in matters of the heart.”
We will therefore also end this piece with a wise saying of our own invention, “You can take the Cat out of Bohemia, But you can never take the Bohemian out of the Cat!”