Not even Pharaoh can give orders to a cat.
–Time Cat, Lloyd Alexander
Later in life, fantasy author Lloyd Alexander was to say that his best friends and teachers were books. He claimed to have spent most of his childhood with a nose buried in a book, particularly books by Charles Dickens. This sort of life left a mark, and by the age of 15, he had decided to become a poet. It was not, alas, a career he could launch into immediately, partly because his father thought the idea just slightly impractical.
Instead, Alexander spent a few unhappy years at a bank before joining the U.S. Army after the start of World War II. By his own account he was not an asset to the Army, but the experience did bring him to Wales, later to have a strong influence on his works, and to provide him with a thoroughly romantic introduction to his wife. He did not, however, give up the hopes of a literary career, penning several unpublished novels before finally breaking into publishing with some translations and humorous work, including several novels intended for adults, now mostly forgotten.
In the early 1960s he decided to try something a little different: a children’s book about a time-travelling cat, Time Cat. It was to transform his career.
Time Cat starts off on a decidedly questionable note, as the narrator informs us that Gareth, a black cat, belongs to Jason, a boy, when everyone knows that cats own humans, not the other way around. And Lloyd Alexander claimed to know and understand cats. Moving on. Gareth finally admits to Jason what everyone owned by or living with a cat has already know: cats are quite capable of travelling through time (Gareth is silent on whether they can also jump into alternative dimensions.) That is, cats can travel back to any of their nine lives, and Jason can come along, if he wants to. And since Jason has been having a thoroughly bad day, he claws at the chance.
(Oh, come on. You would have made the same pun. Plus, I have a cat watching me right now as I type, and he insists on having a feline touch in this post.)
Sure enough, Gareth almost immediately gets both of them into serious trouble when he refuses to entertain, adore, or purr for Pharaoh. To his sorta credit, Alexander takes this opportunity to refine his earlier statements about cats:
…Neter-Khet said. “I’m supposed to give orders.”
“That doesn’t mean anything to a cat,” said Jason. “Didn’t anybody ever tell you?”
“Nobody tells me,” Neter-Khet said. “I tell them. Besides, they were my cats, weren’t they?”
“In a way they were,” Jason said, “and in a way they weren’t. A cat can belong to you, but you can’t own him. There’s a difference.”
Getting closer, Alexander, but you still have the relationship backwards.
Anyway, eventually some of the issues with cat behavior are somewhat straightened out, just in time to fling Gareth and Jason to one of Julius Caesar’s legions. This naturally involves omens with eagles and some intense practicing on How To Be a Cat, as well as the inevitable Invasion of Britain and complaints about British weather. (I remain stunned at just how many time travelling children just happen to end up arriving in either Britain or Gaul just as Julius Caesar is about to invade or just landed. I smell time-travel conspiracy.)
Then it’s off for Ireland and St. Patrick (my idea of a time-travelling conspiracy is just getting stronger); the Imperial Court of Kyoto, Japan (much faster than the ancient Egyptians at realizing that cats cannot be ordered to bow); Leonardo di Vinci’s home in Italy; Peru just as Pizarro is doing his explorations (conspiracy!); the Isle of Man as the Spanish Armada is destroyed nearby (although they miss much of this); possible witch burnings in Germany (I rather wish another time in Germany had been chosen, especially since this incident includes a side mention of the deaths of several cats); and, naturally, colonial America on the eve of Lexington, Concord, and Paul Revere’s Ride. All of which involved, as it turns out, a lot more cats than you may recall from your own studies of history. Historians do leave so much out.
In the process Jason learns a touch—a very, very small touch—of history, and teaches many other people about cats.
Incidentally, although Jason can’t read Leonardo di Vinci’s special backwards writing, the language issues are otherwise completely handwaved here. As someone fortunate enough to dwell with trilingual cats (English, Spanish, and Meow), I can only assume that cat magic picks up on this special cat gift for human languages and expands it, allowing a magical time travelling cat to also function as universal translator. I’ve had to assume much less likely things.
A few of the adventures—notably the stopover in Germany—contain quite a bit of tension, since Jason and other characters find themselves threatened with death. Other adventures, however, contain considerably less of this, instead focused on whether a girl can accept that she can still be beautiful even if she looks a little bit different, whether Leonardo di Vinci will get to pursue art or not (I’d spoil this, but I think you can all guess the ending), whether a cat will be willing to jump into a boat, and so on. Surprisingly, even the adventures taking place near or during actual or planned invasions tend to be relatively free of actual death; this is probably the gentlest account of Pizarro’s arrival in Peru that you will ever read. The only exception is the battle of Lexington and Concord, which happens right after the author quietly lets us know that Jason’s travels have matured him a bit. He has not just learned something about human nature: he has also become interested in girls (sorta) and is almost ready to face violence. And that, as it turns out, is the signal for him and Gareth to return home.
I can’t exactly claim that this book will spark an interest in history for any of its readers—the trips happen too quickly, and too lightheartedly, to make much of an impact. This does have the advantage of sparing Alexander from the need to do any real research since he hardly has to give readers many details. And it means that instead of focusing on historical facts, Gareth the cat (and through him, Alexander) can instead use each trip to make a few observations about human behavior. And some rather pointed observations about leaders, particularly leaders who isolate themselves or find themselves isolated from ordinary people, or people with false ideas of their own importance. The comments are usually delivered humorously, or through a cat, and are thus not overly preachy. But if this isn’t a history lesson, it can still be a lot of fun.
Time Cat is hardly among Lloyd Alexander’s great books, and some will find his casual treatment of previous historical periods somewhat repellent. But the book contains moments of great fun and light-hearted dialogue, and is well organized for reading out loud. It was a promising start to a major career in children’s fantasy.
(And yes, this means The Chronicles of Pyrdain are coming up next.)
Mari Ness has been fortunate enough to be allowed to live with a black and white cat who thinks he should be sitting on you right now, and a grey cat that refuses to discuss details of her inter-dimensional travels. They usually live in central Florida—when, that is, the grey cat consents to remain in this dimension, which isn’t, as you can all understand, always.