The plan for Puss in Boots and Other Cat Tales From Around the World was to always have a sizable section devoted to the most famous of fairy tale cats, Puss in Boots. I say famous, but the cat has waned in recognition over the years even with the boost provided by the Shrek film franchise.
There are 25 variants of Puss in Boots offered in Puss in Boots and Other Cat Tales From Around the World in addition to two articles--examples of early scholarship--about the tale and two additional translations of two of the earliest versions. That alone was enough to create a sizable book--165 pages are devoted to Puss in Boot stories.
Today I am sharing some excerpts from my introduction about the tale type in general and the earliest recorded versions, both Italian.
From the book's introduction:
The best known tale type featuring cats is ATU 545: The Cat as Helper which includes a cycle of related tales, primarily ATU 545A: The Cat Castle and ATU 545B: Puss in Boots. ATU 545B is the most prevalent tale in this cycle of tales. The earliest recorded variants of the tale in Europe feature cats as the helpers and true protagonists. A brief history of those tales follows, but it is important to note that once the tale leaves a concentrated European area, the helper is rarely a cat unless the tale is an obvious descendant of the early literary versions. In Europe, if the animal helper is not a cat, it is most often a fox. Moving into Asia, the animal may be a fox, but is most often a jackal, especially in India. In the Philippines it is a monkey. In Africa, it is a gazelle or a lion instead of a domesticated cat.
Briefly, the ATU 545B type tells of a young man, often a youngest son, whose sole inheritance is a cat. He bemoans his fate and poverty. The cat, however, proves resourceful and through deceit, trickery and some murder—never fear, the victim is an ogre or other monster, an acceptable death in folklore—the cat helps the man reach the upper echelons of wealth and society, including a societal marriage to a princess. The morality of the tale is problematic for rarely do ill consequences fall upon the cat or the supposed master for their deceptions. Some tales offer a coda showing various levels of reward or honor provided to the cat, often focusing on the lack thereof, for the master is usually quick to forget that all he owns is due to the cat’s loyalty and cunning maneuverings.
[Footnote: The cycle also includes ATU 545A*: The Magic Castle and ATU 545D*: The Pea King. These tale types are rare and hard to find in English translation. They are not represented in the present volume since they rarely, if ever, feature cats in the narrative. The best example of a Pea King tale—in which an enchanted bean provides many services similar to those rendered by Puss in Boots—can be found in Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales (1980) as “Dealer in Peas and Beans” which was in turn adapted from the tale “Don Giovanni Misiranti,” found in English translation in The Collected Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Giuseppe Pitré (2009). The Pitré collection also includes a rare ATU 545A* tale, “The Enchanted Dog.”]
The earliest literary versions, both from Italy:
Le piacevoli notti, most often translated as The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights, by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, was first published in two parts in 1550 and 1553. Little is known about Straparola—most likely not his real surname—but he is often called the father (or godfather) of the literary fairy tale since his Le piacevoli notti contains several tales that are precursors to later literary fairy tales. This is open to debate but nevertheless his work has an important notch on any timeline of fairy tale history. Whoever the author and whatever his sources and methods, Le piacevoli notti gathers tales presented under the conceit that they were shared at a thirteen day festival in Venice, similar to the framing conceit of many collections around this era, including The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. They range widely in subject and style with many ribald and extremely violent elements. It has rarely been translated into English with one of the earliest English translators, W. G. Waters, translating some parts into French instead of English to protect the sensibilities of his readers.
The first tale of the eleventh night is not titled—none of the tales are—but is familiarly known as “Costantino Fortunato” or “Costantino and His Wonderful Cat.” Waters fortunately considered this tale tame enough to be rendered completely into English. His translation is provided in the current collection. The tale is the first known recorded version of an ATU 545B tale. Another excellent English translation with extensive commentary and resources can be found in The Pleasant Nights, Volume 2 by Giovan Francesco Straparola edited by Donald Beecher (2012). Beecher offers an extensive commentary on the tale, one of the best and most recent articles on the tale’s history.
Based on the widespread prevalence of this tale type and the inclusion of many common folktale elements, most scholars think that the tale was well-known before Straparola recorded it in enduring print for the first time. Its close resemblance to Perrault’s “Puss in Boots” also leads to the majority conclusion that Perrault was familiar with the tale and drew from Straparola as a major source of inspiration.
Over eighty years later, Lo cunto de li cunti, overo Lo trattenemiento de ‘peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones), also familiarly known as Il Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile was first published posthumously in 1634-6. The book is a collection of fifty tales told within a framework story. Many of the tales are early literary versions of popular fairy tales, just like Straparola’s collection.
The fourth entertainment of the second day, “Gagliuso,” also known in some translations as “Cagliuso,” is an ATU 545B tale that differs significantly from Straparola. One key commonality between the two tales, however, is that the cat is female. In Perrault and most of the later recorded ATU 545B tales, the cat is male when the gender is described. Two translations of “Gagliuso” are included in the present volume.
For further reading and one of the most authoritative English translations of Basile, consult Nancy Canepa’s Giambattista Basile's “The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones” (2007). Despite the title’s implications, the book was not intended for a child audience but rather conveyed the “low class” or folkloric entertainment the tales emulated. While not as ribald as Straparola, much of the content would not be considered suitable for a modern children’s audience.