Talk about needing to suspend disbelief: The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man

Writer Lloyd Alexander had an affliction that many of us can sympathize with: he loved cats. So much so that he had frequently brought them into his books, sometimes talking, sometimes not, but always demanding attention, so much so that his generally carefully plotted and tight prose would suddenly digress to chat about cats.

It’s not surprising, therefore, to find out that his imagination wondered what would happen if a cat wanted to be a human, leading to The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man.

Lionel, the cat, can be almost forgiven this shocking wish—shocking, that is, if you happen to be a member of that most superior species to begin with—since he is a very young cat, and the only human he has ever encountered before this is a rather grouchy old wizard called Stephanus. The wizard does not think much of humans, noting that they pretty much, in general, suck, and Lionel will be better off hanging out with wolves, geese and jackasses. As Stephanus soon learns, however, cats do not respond particularly well to logic, and Lionel is a pure felid in this if nothing else. An exasperated Stephanus eventually gives up on logic, and agrees to turn the little cat into a human. Just to try it out.

A happy Lionel strides off to the nearest town to meet some humans. This does not go overly well, partly because the humans understandably think he’s human, but mostly because various Evil Doers have taken over the town’s government, led by Mayor Pursewig, who, true to his name, owns the toll bridge into the town and a lot of other things, and is now trying to own everything else, and his lackey Captain Swaggart, who, well, swaggers a lot. (The names in this book are not exactly what anyone could call subtle.) Thanks to some unexpected luck and a few remaining catlike qualities, however, Lionel does manage to procure some money (he’s not entirely sure what it is, but he is convinced that it tastes awful) and several friends: Master Tolliver, a useful sort of friend who can provide wagon transportation; Dr. Tudbelly, a travelling doctor with the habit of breaking out into Latin phrases; and Mistress Gillian, who owns The Crowned Swan, a friendly inn that the Mayor is trying to obtain through underhanded means.

Fortunately, Dr. Tudbelly has a plan to get customers and food back into The Crowned Swan. If this plan is perhaps suspiciously close to the methodology used in Stone Soup, we shall be kind and pretend that Dr. Tudbelly came up with it all by himself and that Alexander needed to move the plot forward, not just fill up a word count. Alas, this and some stunts with some rats—Lionel is still a cat, after all—draws the unwelcome attention of the Evil Authorities, and Lionel finds himself on the run, in jail, and in numerous other unpleasant places. And he still has a lot to learn about humans. And kissing. And his new abilities, as he finds himself slowly becoming more and more human and less and less cat.

Lionel’s problem—one of Lionel’s many problems—is that he insists on telling everyone that he is not a person, but a cat, even though he is currently sporting a human body. His various near-catlike stunts do very little to convince skeptics, and his persistence in approaching pretty much everything from a cat perspective continues to land him into trouble. He also lacks the human ability to lie, and even the feline ability to exaggerate, and those he encounters cannot be completely blamed for finding this quality exasperating. As his decision to start purring in the lap of his newly found true love. (Sweet, mind you, but exasperating.) I also can’t help but think that at least some of his audience finds him rather too energetic for a cat—curiosity is one thing; a lack of naps another.

Delightful though the book is for most readers, I must be fully honest and open with you, my readers, and confess that it is not safe for cats. Indeed, the two cats who have honored me with their friendship, devotion, and insistence that I continue to provide only the finest in cat food and dried fish kitty treats (to keep me accustomed to insisting on the highest standards for cats and people) did question the basic premise of the novel. In their opinion, given the obvious superiority of all felines, it is far more likely that people would want to transform into cats, and not the other way around. When pressed, one reluctantly agreed that perhaps this bizarre lack of wisdom could be excused in a younger cat conducting research, and the other noted that many things can be excused if laps and tuna fish are involved.

Alas, a careful study of the book did not reveal a single incident of tuna (shocking, I know). A few nods to chicken, yes, but although chicken is definitely preferable to the sort of cat food that comes in a bag it is not really tuna fish, so the second cat remains quite dubious about the entire story, and very sorry that the book has—from the cat perspective—such a terribly tragic ending. Tragic enough that I was told I had to administer tuna all around, IMMEDIATELY, before both cats died of kitty grief. They both suggest that this would have been a more realistic and happier book had it instead chosen to tell the story of a dog instead of a cat, since everyone—and especially cats—can completely believe that dogs would want to be human.

If these two cats—literary critics in their own right, capable of immediately putting their noses into and their heads and paws on the most engrossing and well written novels, regardless of whether said books are in paper or pixel format—cannot completely overcome their skepticism of the novel’s basic premise, and if I cannot, therefore, recommend this book for the discriminating cat reader, I can highly recommend the book to those of you who currently live with small children and dogs. If, like me, you share your house with superior cats, do be prepared to deal with some clawed condemnation, and be careful with your laughter.


Portions of the payment for this blog post have gone to service the tuna er medical needs of the two cats currently living with Mari Ness in central Florida.

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