- Cat-child:Rediscovering Socks and Island Mackenzie
"I had rather be a kitten, and cry mew."(Henry IV, Part I)
There are far more cat than dog protagonists in children's books. In dog stories the dog-owner, not the dog, tends to provide the primary point of view; a typical story like Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red or Mary Stolz's A Dog on Barkham Street centers on a boy's desire for a dog or problems with it, and most of the better-known exceptions—Lad, Lassie, White Fang, The Call of the Wild—seem to have been originally written for adults.1 In cat stories the cat sits at the center. The reader sees through the Êt-eyes of Jenny Linsky, Tom Kitten, Buttons, and Orlando. Cats often dominate even a human protagonist; they run the show in The Cat in the Hat and Time Cat, and in Millions of Cats overwhelm by sheer numbers.
The comparative rarity of dog protagonists can be accounted for by the common view of dogs as wholly dependent on human beings for their fulfillment. The classic boy-wants-dog story is a kind of proto-love story, in which the dog's unquestioning devotion is highly satisfying to the (usually male) protagonist; most children naturally prefer to identify with the power position in this relationship. The cat-human relationship is ambiguous, and cats play more varied roles in children's literature. A cat may be a magical guide, an urbane adult, a toughminded nonconformist, or perhaps most often, the child itself.
The common view of cats as essentially independent of human society as well as the traditions linking cats with witches and sorcerers are reflected in the cat's literary role as magical guide or intermediary. In cat stories of this type, the cat dominates the young protagonist—whether providing for his welfare as an animal helper (as in "Puss in Boots"), initiating him into another world (as in Lloyd Alexander's Time Cat or Nicholas Stuart Gray's Grimbold's Other World), or simply inciting magical anarchy in this one (as in Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat).
Other cat stories, in which human beings are often of peripheral importance, give cats a society parallel to ours. The British folktale "The King of the Cats" suggests that the cat drowsing by the fireside may have a secret, even royal identity in its own world. The "Cat Club" stories of Esther Averill and Kathleen Hale's "Orlando" books portray cat societies [End Page 111] in tireless and loving detail, as does Tad Williams's recent fantasy Tailchaser's Song. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, cats simply enter human society on equal terms. Stories such as these allow children to identify with protagonists who are in charge of their own lives, like adults, yet who also suggest alternatives to adult supremacy.
In still other stories the cat's role is that of the nonconforming individual. Kipling, in "The Cat Who Walked by Himself," shows how such an individual, who insists on making his own terms with society, faces inevitable hostility from leaders (the Man) and followers (the Dog) alike. Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat also deserves mention here. It is the only inhabitant of Wonderland that Alice calls "friend" (in introducing it to the Queen), and William Empson suggests in Some Versions of Pastoral that the Cat and Alice are in fact "the same sort of thing" (274), representing Carroll's own "ideal of intellectual detachment." The Cat
can disappear because it can abstract itself into a more interesting inner world; it appears only as a head because it is almost a disembodied intelligence, and only as a grin because it can impose an atmosphere without being present. In frightening the king by the allowable act of looking at him it displays the soul-force of Mr. Gandhi; it is unbeheadable because its soul cannot be killed. . . .(273)
Unlike Kipling, Carroll presents his nonconforming cat as invulnerable even to the highest social authorities, the King and Queen.
In addition to political and intellectual nonconformists, yet another type is the creative...