Aug 22 2013 2:30pm

Time Cat: The Remarkable Journeys of Jason and Gareth

Time Cat Lloyd Alexander

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 He did not, however, give up the hopes of a literary career, penning several unpublished novels before finally breaking into publishing with some translations and humorous work, including several novels intended for adults, now mostly forgotten.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.

Chuk Goodin
1. Chuk
I really liked Time Cat as a kid -- I think my own might be too young and too old for it now. Looking forward to reading the Prydain posts!
2. RobinM
I've never read Time Cat I might add it to my tbr pile. I can't wait to start the Pyrdain Chronicles! I'll need to stock up on my munching and crunchings.
3. RobinC
Great Belin! Can't wait for the Chronicles of Prydain! I've shared these books with with every child in my family, from my 14 years younger brother to my 5 year old nephew (aforementioned brother's son). Taran Wanderer is still one of my all-time favorite books.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Chuk -- You know, I hadn't realized it until you mentioned it, but I think you're right -- Time Cat really does seem limited to a very specific age group, doesn't it?

@RobinM -- Hee :) We shall munch and crunch through the series together.

@RobinC -- I'm apparently in the distinct minority of thinking that Alexander got much better after Prydain -- I liked the Westmark series more. But we shall see if my feelings change as we go through this reread.
Matt Wright
5. matty42
Hooray for Prydain! He made up the bulk of my childhood reading, and I still have a crush on Vesper Holly...
lake sidey
6. lakesidey
Prydain! So looking forward to this, thank you :) I love Taran and Eilonwy and the gang ever since I managed to locate this series in an obscure second-hand bookstore in Bangalore.

Haven't read Time Cat, but shall add it to my list. And as for the langauge issue - maybe a cat, like other time-travelling people/devices, enhances one's ability to understand languages? (CaTARDIS, hmm...I want one!)

Jack Flynn
7. JackofMidworld
Count me as in for a visit to Prydain (was the first series I read where I actually connected with the characters enough to miss them when it ended!)...tho I do have to admit that I'm intrigued by this book about a Doctor - er, I mean, about a cat that travels through time with his human companion.
8. Reiko
Also looking forward to Prydain! I think the most memorable character was Fflewddur Fflam with his harp.
9. ElizabethB
I wrote a story in 4th grade that was basically a condensed, 4th grade girl's version of Time Cat because I was captivated with the concept. Now that I think of it, it's not so suprising that 10-ish years later I dove into the story of another capricious British time traveller...
Elizabeth Doolin
10. mochabean
Pyrdain!Pyrdain! My mother gave me the series when I was in fourth grade -- came home and the books were sitting on my bed. One of the best gifts I ever got. My 10 year old daughter is now reading time cat for school and the Pyrdain chronicles are waiting on her bed when she gets home...
Orayelle Johnson
11. Orayelle
Yes! I love anything Lloyd Alexander does!! (My personal favorite was not Prydain, however, but actually Westmark. The Gawgon and the Boy was also fantastic.) So glad to see his work appreciated, as his books made my childhood!
Mig Archey
12. Quilld
I loved the Prydain and Westmark books so I was pleased to find a copy of Time Cat in a thrift store. I purchased it, but it sat on the shelf for at least a year before I started reading it, and then just a chapter at a time over a period of weeks. They were in Ireland when I found your reread, Mari. I love the synchronicity in that. It's a slight work, it has problems, but it also has charm. Most importantly, it has a cat. Looking forward to Prydain. And I add another vote for Westmark to follow.
13. Beth C.
I recall reading Time Cat but it didn't make much of an impression on me. Dare I hope that Prince Jen will also be covered in an upcoming column? That was my Alexander favorite, other than the Prydain Chronicles.

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