- Crossing Folkloric Bridges: The Cat, the Devil, and Joyce
Joyce’s interest in children’s rhymes and riddles, particularly as they are played out in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, is well known, but his own children’s story, The Cat and the Devil, has received little scholarly attention. Its posthumous book publication put the story that began as a private letter to Stephen James Joyce into a new, illustrated context, but even in its “original” epistolary form, the tale already had its antecedents. This essay traces the story’s development from its roots in folklore to Joyce’s 1936 letter and 1964 children’s book, showing how he not only provides his grandson with an amusing tale but also enriches our understanding of folkloric tradition even as he modifies that tradition to create a subtle yet penetrating critique of modernity.1
As folklorists note, The Cat and the Devil falls under the Aarne-Thompson tale type 1191, stories known as “Devil’s Bridge” variants.2 In these narratives, a devil agrees to build a bridge in exchange for the first soul to cross it and is then cheated out of this soul when a clever human sends an animal across instead. Sometimes this animal is a goat, other times it is a rooster, and in still other variants it is a dog. In Joyce’s version, which follows the medieval legend of Beaugency, it is (as the title suggests) a cat. But Joyce imbues the cat—the chosen animal of several “Devil’s Bridge” variants3—with personal significance for his grandson, who was a four-year-old when he received Joyce’s 10 August 1936 letter: “My dear Stevie: I sent you a little cat filled with sweets a few days ago but perhaps you do not know the story about the cat of Beaugency” (SL 382). The treat-filled cat sent to Stephen Joyce may explain why Joyce chose as his source text the Beaugency tale, with its heroic cat, over the other “Devil’s Bridge” variants he may have read about in Henry Bett’s Nursery Rhymes and Tales, a copy of which he owned.4 He might instead have written about the “gilt cock which many travellers have noticed upon the Sachsenhausen Bridge at Frankfort” or about any of the three hungry dogs who, in pursuit of bread, unwittingly ran into the devil’s arms “over the Reuss in the St. Gothard’s Pass,” at “Aberystwyth,” or at [End Page 537] “Kilgrim Bridge in North Yorkshire,” as discussed by Bett (35). Joyce chose not to use any of the specific Devil’s Bridge variants mentioned by Bett, suggesting both that he used a different source text for The Cat and the Devil and that he had reasons for preferring the cat over other animals.
Indeed, although Janet Lewis wrote in 1992 that there is “no surviving evidence that he visited Beaugency” apart from an inconclusive photograph taken of Nora and two friends,5 one of Joyce’s newly discovered unpublished letters in the Zurich James Joyce Foundation carries a dateline from Beaugency, indicating that he visited the French town and may have heard the local legend there. This letter to Giorgio from the Hôtel de l’Abbaye in Beaugency also indicates that Joyce was composing his children’s story based on personal associations and not from distant sources. The letter, thought to have been composed in the summer of 1936, suggests that the story would have been fresh in Joyce’s mind when he wrote to Stephen Joyce on 10 August. A postcard Joyce sent from Beaugency to Giorgio, also held by the Foundation, is dated “ferragosto” (August holiday) 1936, and Roger Norburn records that Joyce stayed in the city from approximately 30 July to 7 August; furthermore, Norburn cites a postcard Joyce sent on 3 August “to Carola Giedion-Welcker which shows a photograph of the bridge at Beaugency.”6 Joyce, then, was not only drawing upon folkloric tradition as he composed what would later become The Cat and the Devil but was also integrating his recent travel experiences into the narrative.
The cat of Beaugency thus fills both a personal...