Trickery, Social Climbing, and Possibly Fish: Puss in Boots

Some folktale heroes must climb mountains of glass, or reach the ends of the world, or fly upon the back of the west wind to obtain their happiness and good fortunes.

Others just need to inherit a cat.

In direct opposition to many fairy tales, which open on a happy note before proceeding directly to disaster, Charles Perrault’s “Puss in Boots” opens on disaster: the death of an apparently not very successful miller. I say “apparently not very successful” since, at the end of his life, the miller has very little to leave his three sons—one mill, one donkey, and one cat. Since none of these are all that easy to divide (although they probably could share in the mill), the sons agree that the oldest son will get the mill, the second son will get the donkey, and the third son just a cat.

This leaves the third son in an inexplicable depression. Yes, inexplicable. I mean, come on, kid. Your oldest brother got the mill, which means he’s going to be stuck working there for the rest of his life. Your next brother only got a donkey. But you—you—you got a CAT. The cat currently guarding the most comfortable part of my couch assures me that this is the equivalent of inheriting a Faberge egg—and she would certainly know.

Not to mention that this cat talks—and not just about the importance of filling her food bowl, or her right to be on pillows designed for humans, or her need for the cat treats that the vet has said she isn’t even supposed to be eating just now. No, this cat talks about the importance of high fashion—boots—before setting out to work. Of a sort.

At this point in the tale, I suspect that many of my fellow cat servants are nodding along, delighted that at least one fairy tale writer is fully cognizant of the value of cats, while other cat servants are—how to put this—feeling that author Charles Perrault is engaging in just a little bit of wish fulfillment about his own cat. Just a little. A feeling that I must confess I share. I don’t want to cast aspersions on a cat that, I must assume, was a model of elegance, grace and beauty, but it does seem possible that Perrault’s cat was just perhaps not the sort of cat focused on improving the life of Charles Perrault, but more the sort of cat focused on finding the most comfortable place to take a nap. Which presumably was frequently right on top of whatever manuscripts that Perrault was working on. Or right on Perrault’s favorite chairs.

No, I am not projecting. I merely speak from experience.

Meanwhile, I’m asking, if all of this kid has in the world is this cat, how exactly can this kid afford to buy presumably handmade boots for his cat? Boots elegant enough to trick a king, no less? I’m kinda wondering about this kid here, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, once properly dressed, Puss in Boots—you know, kid, while we’re having this conversation, you probably should have named this cat something else, but moving on—begins his elaborate plan to trick the local king into believing that the young miller’s son is, in fact, the Marquis de Carabas—a trick that works largely thanks to the size of the French noble class during the time of Louis XIV.

This was Charles Perrault’s world: the world of Versailles and the nobility. Exact numbers are difficult to calculate, but at least 100,000 people in France at the time could claim some sort of noble title—even if many of these titles were simply courtesy titles given to the younger children of nobles. (About a century later, this number was estimated at about 300,000.) It was also possible for the very wealthy to, well, not exactly purchase titles, but purchase estates associated with titles and use said titles. Others could and did claim titles from other countries—many perfectly valid, some rather less valid. And a few others simply faked their titles completely. France did keep records, but in casual situations—which presumably included such things as a talking cat bringing a gift of dead rabbits—the records were not always checked.

It was thus impossible for the king of France to know every single member of the genuine French nobility, let alone the less genuine—a truth that “Puss in Boots” plays with. Indeed, the rest of the tale echoes the actual methods used by both genuine and considerably less genuine nobles to curry favor with the French court—something that Charles Perrault, as a member of the court of Versailles, personally witnessed. The cat delivers lavish gifts of fresh meat, a traditional gift of nobles to the kings; claims that his master just happens to be completely naked at the moment thanks to some unfortunate bad luck, and takes over a castle from its previous landowner (an ogre), in a direct imitation of wealthy French citizens who were purchasing estates to gain titles and better access to the king.

Only one part of the tale rings historically false—the moment when the princess marries the “marquis.” Princesses of France were, in general, only allowed to marry other royalty, or enter convents. But even that part of the tale is not, perhaps, all that far-fetched: Perrault had seen at a distance (and possibly met) Louis XIV’s illegitimate daughters, and watched them use their royal blood and wealth to marry noblemen. He may also have known of Louis XIV’s secret marriage to a mere marquise.

Thus, for all of its trappings of folklore, “Puss in Boots” is rooted in realism. Like another tale of Perrault’s, “Cinderella,” it serves as an example of the social climbing rampant in the court of Louis XIV and elsewhere in France at the time—something that Charles Perrault, who directly benefited from these opportunities, thoroughly approved of. After all, his two most blatant social climbers—Cinderella and the Marquis de Carabas—end up happily married and rewarded for their efforts.

At the same time, Cinderella earns her happy ending through hard work, patience, courtly skills, and the luck of having a fairy godmother. The Marquis de Carabas, in contrast, does very little except to go along with his cat (showing some sense at last) and charm a lovely princess, evidently quite willing to be charmed. Most of the “work”—to use that word lightly—is performed by the cat, and although at first, this includes the genuine work of hunting rabbits and bringing them, mostly untouched, to the king, this later is nothing but trickery and lies.

Granted, one of these tricks—gaining the castle of an ogre—does require the cat to speak to an ogre, at considerable risk, and the cat also has to spend considerable time running around to ensure that he stays ahead of the king and the princess, something that unquestionably interfered with his very much needed nap time. But it’s hardly the same type of manual labor performed by Cinderella, or, as we’ll see later, Donkey-Skin (for different reasons). Rather, it’s a focus on deception and verbal trickery.

European folklore, of course, had a long history of talking and trickster animal figures, with cats playing a large role in these tales—presumably thanks to the tendencies of certain cats to, say, knock things off shelves for fun, or, when given the choice of throwing up on easily cleaned tile or not nearly as easily cleaned furniture, choosing the furniture every. single. time. Like SERIOUSLY, CAT, WE’VE DISCUSSED THIS so, yes, you ARE DOING THIS ON PURPOSE. In that respect, “Puss in Boots” is simply another part of that tradition.

But in another sense, “Puss in Boots” serves as both warning and comfort. Warning—as a note that not every noble at court was, well, of noble birth, let alone focused on telling the truth. And comfort—giving hope that with a little bit of luck and a lot of cleverness, anyone, even the poor third son of a miller with very little to leave, can become a noble someday. After all, a cat is the sort of animal that almost any listener could have the hope of befriending—assuming, of course, that the listener is the sort of person who properly appreciates cats, and has access to chicken or fish. (Preferably tuna.)

And, well, even if that cat decides that gaining a castle of an ogre is just a bit too much work, thanks – well, I think most cats would agree that mere friendship with a cat is enough to give any human a taste of nobility. In that sense, “Puss in Boots” isn’t a fairy tale, but simply truth.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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