There is something inherently mystical about cats. Their aloof and esoteric natures make them seem like they possess knowledge of certain mysteries of the universe and contain powers that we can only imagine.
I sometimes find this hard to remember, because the only mystery surrounding my cat is why he looks so much like a loaf of pumpkin bread and how it is possible for one cat to have that much belly. To jog my memory, though, I need look no further than the history we share with our feline friends—from accusing them of being witches in disguise or devilish messengers, to revering them as the denizens of a goddess and controllers of storms. It’s also said that they have nine lives, making them the only creatures capable of regularly cheating death itself.
It is no wonder, then, that cats in fantasy and science fiction are rarely just adorable lumps of fluff. They inevitably encompass secrets and revelations beyond the scope of their furry knickers.
I recently began a reread of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. I first read it in the ninth grade, and going into my reread, I only remembered two things about it. The first was that I skipped a class to keep reading on the day that I first found it in the library. The second was Mogget. Mogget is a Free Magic construct who is bound to the form of a white cat. A magic collar keeps him in his feline form as he accompanies Sabriel on her quest, and his sarcastic and mouthy approach to sidekicking makes him the standard for talking cats. He possesses a vast knowledge of history and crucial secrets, but is unable to share much useful information with Sabriel because of the magic that binds him. When a crisis forces Sabriel to free him of his binding, she unleashes a power that she can neither control nor placate.
When I read my way through Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, Lying Cat immediately became my favorite character. Lying Cat is the size of a panther and looks like one of those faintly alien furless cats, only green. She is the companion of a bounty hunter, and though her mystery and power is not boundless, it is deeply impressive: Lying Cat can tell when someone in lying, and says so. She can detect when a person states a falsehood, but can also see the ethical truth of any matter… which makes her choice of companions interesting, to say the least.
No list of supernatural cats would be complete without Bast in some form, and the incarnation that always stands out in my mind is the small, brown cat from American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Shadow finds himself laying low at a funeral parlor in Cairo, Illinois, and soon discovers that its proprietors are Egyptian gods. He thinks that the little cat that sleeps in his room is their pet, but then she appears to him in a dream as the goddess Bast… and it’s a very good dream. Her favors prove to be healing for Shadow, soothing wounds both physical and emotional, and later on their connection proves pretty handy for him when he finds himself in an unexpected realm.
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is one of my very favorite books. Its Princess Arjumand is a very normal cat, who possesses no supernatural abilities whatsoever. And yet, this one cat is the pin at the center of a complex story that spans hundreds of years and deals in the very nature of time itself. At once anomalous and banal, Princess Arjumand changes the face of time travel and causes no end of trouble for Ned and Verity, the wayward historians who somehow end up responsible for her.
Sir Terry Pratchett is surely on all of our minds of late, and even were he not, this list would not be complete without Greebo. Greebo is a cranky tom cat who belongs to a witch named Nanny Ogg. She thinks he is an adorable kitten, despite the fact that he has killed multiple vampires, terrorized elves, and proved to be a shameless lothario. An episode where he is turned into a human destabilizes his cat form, making him a shapeshifter. Later it is claimed that he is in fact a demon who had been wrangled into a cat shape by the sheer force of Nanny Ogg’s willpower.
The one thing that all of these cats have in common is that they are all far more than they seem to be at first glance. There seems to be a universal agreement that to underestimate our feline companions is to invite disaster… and not all of us have extra lives to throw around! I think I may give my cat a few extra treats tonight, just in case.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and storyteller. She has pursued studies in writing, folklore, and performance in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and France. Past jobs include being an artistic director of storytelling performances, a fiber arts consultant, a legal document and poetry transcriber, and a shepherdess. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, can sometimes be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast and performing with the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. Her hair defies gravity, and she once tricked a group of tourists into thinking she was a Scottish ghost.