Nota bene: My posts won’t always match up with the hashtag themes because I’m going straight through the Grimm’s 1812 edition, one after the other.
[CW: discussion of abuse and sexual assault]
Yes, my friends, we have arrived at the Puss in Boots of it all and I am delighted to tell you that this is one of those rare Grimm tales that doesn’t need a content warning. The content warning is for the discussion following the story.
Now, I read Mother Goose and Brothers Grimm stories from an early age so I always knew the story of Puss in Boots. However, it seems that many people nowadays are only familiar with the Antonio-Banderas-in-Shrek version of Puss in Boots. I have nothing against that version, and I think he’s adorable, but he’s a lot older than Shrek, y’all. So, we’ll do a quick hop through the Grimm version of the story and then we’ll do a brief history of trickster cats in Western folklore and the reasons why Charles Perrault is a misogynistic hypocrite.
A miller had three sons, a mill, a donkey, and a cat. The sons had to grind grain, the donkey had to haul the grain and carry away the flour, and the cat had to catch the mice. When the miller died, the three sons divided the inheritance: the oldest received the mill, the second the donkey, and nothing was left for the third but the cat. This made the youngest sad, and he said to himself, ‘I certainly got the worst part of the bargain. My oldest brother can grind wheat, and my second brother can ride on his donkey. But what can I do with the cat? Once I make a pair of gloves out of his fur, it’s all over.’
The cat, of course, was not down with this plan, and instead told the youngest brother to procure a cat-sized pair of boots for him. The cat would then go out amongst the people and find a way to raise the younger brother’s fortunes.
The younger brother was surprised that the cat could talk but apparently got over that pretty fast and did what the cat asked. After the cat donned his fancy new boots, he gathered up a burlap sack of wheat and went walking away on his back feet. Using the wheat to trap some fat partridges, the cat then went off in search of a king.
When the cat appeared before the king, he bowed and said, ‘My lord, the Count’—and he uttered a long, distinguished name—’sends you his regards and would like to offer you these partridges, which he recently caught in his traps.’ The king was amazed by the beautiful, fat partridges. Indeed, he was so overcome with joy that he commanded the cat to take as much gold from his treasury as he could carry and put it into the sack. ‘Bring it to your lord and give him my very best thanks for his gift.’
So the cat takes the gold back to the younger son and promises that this is not the end of the matter. The cat continues to bring gifts to the king and soon becomes a treasured guest of the king’s court. In due time, the cat finds a way to set-up a meet-cute between the younger son and the king, who just so happened to be riding out with his daughter.
Yes, I know… in a twist that is in no way surprising, the king has a young, nubile, marriageable daughter.
So the king and his daughter just happen to stumble across the younger son while he is swimming naked in the lake. Getting out of the lake will be a dicey proposition because the cat stole his clothes, but this was all part of the plan.
When the king heard that, he ordered the coach to stop, and one of his servants had to race back to the castle and fetch some of the king’s garments. The count put on the splendid clothes, and since the king had already taken a liking to him because of the partridges that, he believed, had been sent by the count, he asked the young man to sit down next to him in the coach. The princess was not in the least angry about this, for the count was young and handsome and pleased her a great deal.
I mean, the princess’ response is different than the disinterest or outright dislike that we usually get from fairy tale chattel-brides but it also makes her seem relatively shallow. You know what I mean. All she cares about is that he’s young and handsome. And, to be fair, that is worlds better than what she could have been saddled with, but still.
So, while this charming scene was happening, the cat had run ahead and caused some havoc with a local sorcerer, leaving the sorcerer’s lands free and apparently under the ownership of the younger brother, who everyone believes to be a count. Of course, everyone was wildly impressed. And so…
The princess became the count’s bride, and when the king died, the count become king, and the puss in boots was his prime minster.
The oldest Western version of this story in writing is in The Facetious Nights of Straparola by Giovanni Francesco Straparola which dates to the the mid-16th century. About 100 years later, versions of the story were released by old friends of the blog, Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault. Now, while the story is included in the Grimm’s 1st edition (obviously) I couldn’t find any information on how/when/where the brother’s first came across this tale. Having said that, given that it was already available in multiple languages by the time the brother’s compiled their book, it’s likely that the story had become a part of the cultural zeitgeist at that point.
While the trickster cat was a well-known tale type, Perrault is the one who actually put him in his little boots. So, we can thank Perrault for that delightful imagery. Having said that, let’s talk about double-standards in fairy tales.
The cat is a con artist. I think we can all see that. And he uses his not-inconsiderable gift of gab to create a better life for the younger brother. And we have to give props to the cat here. He could have taken his little boots and started walking but instead he chose to stick around and help the younger brother. The younger brother takes the most passive role ever and just does what the cat tells him to do and accepts the reward.
Now, let’s compare this tale of another white man failing upward with some fairy tale heroines. If we look at The Maiden Without Hands, Little Red Cap, The Three Ravens, Cinderella, The Three Little Men in the Forest, Rapunzel, Little Brother and Little Sister, and The Twelve Brothers we can see stories where girls are expected to sit up straight, be pretty, work hard, keep quiet, don’t stray from the path, and do all of the things that society expects of a girl. And these are girls. They are not “young women.”
They are little girls who work for the betterment of their families, either willingly or unwillingly, and often they go through absolutely brutal hardships in the course of the story. They are chained, beaten, starved, mutilated, sexually assaulted, forced into domestic labor, and sold into unwanted marriages. Even in the best of the stories, where they are allowed some agency, like Clever Hans, the girl still has to go through some humiliating scenes before she is allowed to put the kibosh on marriage plans.
But the younger brother in Puss in Boots? He just has to sit there, in his hovel, do literally nothing, and wait for the riches to roll in.
And this brings us back to the misogyny of Charles Perrault. Perrault was a huge influence on many fairy tales as we know them today. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood? The narratives may have existed in other forms before him but Perrault was very specific in his drive to moralize to young girls about what was expected of them, as opposed to his heroes. His heroes were often not physically attractive but they were strong, brave, cunning, and adept social climbers. In the case of Puss in Boots, these qualities clearly apply to the cat. Utilizing his incredible rhetorical gift, the cat pushes the younger brother up the social ladder because he knows that it will eventually give himself a solid and important place at court.
But there is no lesson here. This story, that has a male protagonist–and the cat is most definitely written as male–has absolutely no moral, at all. There is no functional purpose except perhaps to exemplify the qualities that a well-rounded man of that time should display.
Essentially, what Puss in Boots tells us is that cunning, trickery, lying, and theft are perfectly fine if it secures social standing for the male character. And it also tells us that the female character–the princess–can be won over with nothing more than a handsome face and rich clothing. She wants nothing else, because she follows the Perrault Model of Underdeveloped Fairy Tale Princess. The princess is just one more essential item on the cat’s list.
But he sure does look cute in those little boots.
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 112). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.