Y’all know how scholars are: they like to keep facts and fantasies categorized according to type. They’ve even taken folklore and reduced it to a series of what they call motifs–a central idea that can have endless variations.
Well, one of my favorite motifs in folklore is the King of the Cats, which may have had its origins in the medieval period. The basic tale is usually told like this:
A man is walking home from his work one night when he comes up on the strangest sight he’s ever seen. He tells his wife about it when he gets home. He had come up on what appeared to be a cat funeral. There was one large cat marching in front, walking on its hind legs, followed by twelve cats, six on each side, also walking on their hind legs, who are carrying a board on which lies the body of a dead cat. When they see him, the leader gives an imperious gesture which stops the other cats in their tracks. And then the leader speaks to him, in screechy but recognizable human speech: “You!! Go tell Dildrum, Doldrum’s dead!”
When the man reaches that part of his story, their old house cat, who has been lying drowsing by the fire, leaps up, shouts, “Then I’M the King of the Cats!” and vanishes up the chimney, never to be seen again.
Like all folklore motifs, this one has myriad variants. One such can be found in C.B. Colby’s 1988 book World’s Best “True” Ghost Stories; the story is recounted under the title of “The Witch Cat of the Catskills” as it’s supposed to have taken place in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Instead of a royal funeral, there are two cats dragging the body of a third between them; they lay their burden down long enough for one of them to tell the human protagonist to go home and tell Molly Myers that she can come home now because Old Man Hawkins is dead. When he recounts this at home, the housecat, without a word, goes up the chimney and is never seen again, the implication being that she is Molly Myers.
My favorite variant though is a short story by the American writer Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943). Best known for his variant on the deal with the devil motif “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, Benet wrote his story “The King of the Cats” in 1929 for Harper’s Bazaar. In his story, the mysterious M. Thibault (the French version of Tybalt, Prince of Cats), a disturbingly feline orchestra conductor who actually has a tail, has taken Manhattan by storm, even managing to woo away the girlfriend of a young Manhattanite. The young suitor goes to great lengths trying to find out how to break M. Thibault’s spell over his girl, until finally he and a friend hatch a plot to tell the story of the king of the cats at a fancy dinner party, with predictable results.
In the course of the story, though, it becomes plain that the lovely girl whom the suitor is trying to woo back from M. Thibault has some disturbingly feline traits herself. Still, the suitor soldiers on, but the results aren’t all he hopes for.
Benet tells the story with great panache and wit. The young suitor’s bumbling over the story is masterful, and it does bring about the desired effect; M. Thibault vanishes with a French-accented shout of “Then I’M the King of the Cats!”
And shortly thereafter, so does the lovely feline young woman. 😉
Ah well. At least M. Thibault got a happy ending, with his Queen of the Cats. 😀
May I add here that so far my kitty Blackadder has never come out and said he’s the King of the Cats. For one thing, he hasn’t gone scampering off when the words are mentioned. Based on his behavior, though, he thinks he’s the King of the Cats, and I can but serve. . . 😉