Thursday, December 8, 2016

Dick Whittington's Cat

Although I could share more about Puss in Boots, I wanted to move on to other tales to be found in Puss in Boots and Other Cat Tales From Around the World. One of my favorite tale types from this book is ATU 1651: Dick Whittington’s Cat. It's such a simple tale but with a rich history that can be found in many cultures, primarily the seafaring ones for obvious reasons.

I cannot think of another animal whose usefulness to humanity is explored so well in folklore. Doesn't mean there isn't, but I've not run into it yet. The crux of this tale type centers around the much needed vermin controlling aspects of cats. They are essentially unknown and thus valuable to the cultures that don't know about them in these tales. There's a subtle humor to it, too, since so many societies with cats find themselves overburdened with a feline population at times, something you realize with a little thought while reading the tale. So an abundant, but skilled animal--one that is common to us--is extraordinary and bring riches. There is a wish fulfillment aspect to that--who wouldn't like to make their fortune with an easily acquired animal, one that is about to be destroyed due to its overpopulation at the beginning of some versions of the tale?

From my introduction:

After “Puss in Boots,” perhaps the second best known cat folktale is ATU 1651: Dick Whittington’s Cat. The story is not as well known in modern popular culture, but it has been widespread and casually referenced in previous centuries with a fascinating range of variations on the theme.

The story describes how an honest and humble man finds his fortune by either directly or indirectly introducing a cat to a distant land overrun by mice and rats. The citizens are so thrilled with the cat’s prowess in controlling the rodent infestation that they pay for the cat with a great fortune. The cat is not a character in the story, but it is a key element and ultimately provides for the hero’s blessed future simply by doing what it does naturally.

This tale, too, has some fascinating examples of early scholarship to share. The first is “Whittington and His Cat” by Thomas Keightley excerpted from Tales and Popular Fictions; Their Resemblance and Transmission from Country to Country (1834). The second is “Whittington and His Cat” by William Alexander Clouston excerpted from Popular Tales and Fictions: Their Migrations and Transformations (1887). These articles share in full text some of the earliest known versions of the tale which I did not repeat as individual tales in the section devoted to ATU 1651, so be aware that there are more ATU 1651 stories in this collection than are listed in the table of contents.

Both articles discuss the history of the tale, including its strange—and inaccurate—association with the very real Whittington, a political figure in 15th century London. How a tale with a long history and wide variety of versions became so closely associated with a real historical person is unknown, but it only adds to the charm and mystery of the usually short and straightforward story. It is also a much more comfortable story since no one is truly exploited or deceived, not even the cat, but a great fortune is achieved in a much more honest method.


  1. I'm not certain if you know of this, but there actually was a Fractured Fairy Tales (From Rocky and Bullwinkle) episode centered around this fairy tale. (They actually did do a few lesser known ones besides the more popular ones, and a couple made up on the spot.)
    Of course, in this version, the cat not only talks ala Puss in Boots, he also helps Dick gain a fortune in a different manner from the original tale.

  2. It's been a while since I've watched any of the FFT. I need to sort through them all and get them on SurLaLune site in full someday.... Thanks for the reminder!