Puss in Boots
My publisher, E.P. Dutton suggested that I write and illustrate Puss in Boots. However, I ran into difficulty right off the bat.I had researched many fairy tales and folk tales before, but unlike a story like ”Little Red Riding Hood” (which is an ancient sun myth), I could find no historical clues to its origins.
So I inquired among my French friends at the University. Judith Fairchild, who was once head of the French department had an idea. The origins of the story were hidden in its title- “Puss in Boots the Master Cat”
An associate of Judy’s suggested that I read a book called “The Great Cat Massacre and other stories in French Cultural History”.
So I got the book, and though I found it very painful, I read it:
In the transition from the feudal system in which workers were treated like slaves; they were never given monetary worth for their skilled labour- such as printing. Certain men were chosen by a guild to become Masters. Masters were a bit like Union leaders. They would petition, cajole, and threaten when necessary, the rich men who controlled their pay and lifestyle.
Printers in the great shops were treated especially badly. The men were subjected to appalling hours-often being required to sleep in the shop, and rise before sunrise to begin their work.
The food they were given was minimal and often of a very poor quality.
In this story, one of the printers discovers that the owner of his shop has a wife who loves cats. There are many of them in his house, where they were fed the choicest foods and pampered by the Mistress of the house and her servants.
So, one night the printers break into the house and kill all the cats. The wife is heartbroken. Finding out the reason for the printer’s atrocity, she convinces her husband to henceforth pay his laborers proper wages. The owner relents and allows the men to be given proper wages and enough money to live on.
So Puss in Boots the Master Cat is a symbol of equality for workers.
At the time when the story was written, primogeniture was a common model of how wealth could be kept in a family. The eldest son would inherit the majority of a family’s money and holdings.
A place would be bought for the second son in the church, or perhaps the military. The third son was forced to go on his own and make his place in the world by his wits.
In the story of Puss In Boots (as written by Charles Perrault):
A Miller has died. He leaves the mill to his oldest son. To his second son, he leaves a donkey. The youngest son inherits only the cat.
As the youngest son mourns his fate, the cat tells him- “I am not an ordinary cat”. A talking cat was fairly extraordinary, so the young man listens. “If you will buy me”, the cat continues… “a pair of boots and a leather sack, I will help to make your fortune”
The young man gives the cat what he wants, though it costs much of the money he has.
In the time of Charles Perrault (who was part of the court of Louie XIV), proper attire was a must.
The heroes of the day were the Cavaliers, who wore boots. In addition, a Cavalier who was a spy was called a “Cat”.
So it is easy to see why the cat wanted boots. Millers are known to be rather magical and wise.
So in my illustration on the very first page of the book, the cat and the miller are making out the will together.
I wanted to use Clarence (model of the Post Office cat) in one more story. But he told me he was too old to wear boots. So another cat-Gypsy Rover who had wandered up to my house became the model for the book. Gypsy was a Maine Coone Cat, and he made an excellent Cavalier Cat.
Some people have complained that the moral of the story is skewed. But in fact, it portrays the youngest son as a person who has been treated unfairly by Society, and the cat is a “Magical helper”
Such beings usually respond to the kindness of the person they are helping, so “right is being restored”.
At the same time, Perrault may have created an allegory about the shallowness of the court which put such value on the way a person was able to dress. As a “Master” he is a sort of superhero who fights to help the little guy.
This story has been compared to Jack and the Bean Tree which I also rewrote and illustrated. The handling of the Ogre is comparable (see Jack and the Bean Tree.)