by Rodney Dale
The story we know as Puss in Boots first appeared in Giovan Francesco Straparolas Piacevoli Notti (Pleasant Nights) in the mid-sixteenth century. In 1697 Charles Perrault published Histoires et contes du temps passé, avec des moralités (Histories and Tales of Long Ago with Morals) based on traditional folk tales in which the story appears as Le Mâitre Chat ou Le Chat Botté, which was translated into English by Robert Samber as Puss in Boots in about 1729, and has been retold countless times since.
The story makes a fine pantomime, as it has such an intricate plot, yet it may be some sign of the times that my analysis of British pantomimes in the last few years has shown that Puss in Boots has played but a handful of times, compared with Dick Whittington and his Cat, which is always in the top five, along with Aladdin and Cinderella. This is odd, for Puss in Boots (like Kathleen Hales Orlando) makes things happen, while Dick Whittingtons cat (like Graham Oakleys Sampson) is content to react to circumstances.
Some Victorian critics were concerned at what they saw as the immoral plot of Puss in Boots; the illustrator George Cruikshank, for example, found the tale quite unfit for the young, and rewrote it so that the poor boy was really a prince ousted by the ogre, and the cat a metamorphosed gamekeeper a piece of palaeopolitical correctness described by Charles Dickens as a fraud on the fairies. Be that as it may, here is my rendering of the old story, originally written for National Poetry Day 2001.
There was trouble uptMill; the old Miller was ill
In fact, he was nearing deaths door
So his three sons he summoned; he hoped that theyd come and
Appreciate what was in store.
To my eldest I will | give the whole of the mill
With sails and fantail and cap,
The stones and the gear to grind many a year;
For youre an ingenious chap
Who can keep the mill grinding, a task I am finding
Too hard as in years I advance,
But I know that you can as a practical man
Give the ageing machinery a chance.
To his nextborn he said, as he lay on his bed:
My plan is to give you my donkey
Along with the reins and the collar and hames
And the cart that is curiously wonky.
There remains but the Cat, and Id like to give that
To young Jack of my offspring, the third.
Hes a Cat you will find of unusual kind
So the legacys far from absurd.
And having thus done what hed hardly begun
The miller, contented, expired,
They arranged a fine wake with a buffet and cake
Laid out in a marquee they hired.
Thats all very well, but the story I tell
Is really of Jack and his Cat;
So Ill now leave the mill which is functioning still
And concentrate fully on that.
Now, being quite poor, Jack tried to secure
Some work to feed him and his friend;
He was wonderfully good when set to chop wood
But felt it was rather dead end.
Although he was weary, he kept himself cheery
By singing appropriate airs,
And Puss danced a jig, beating time with a twig
In a style akin to Astaires.
Then one day our Jack was at rest on his back
When Puss suddenly started to speak:
Master, Master, he said to the lad on the bed,
Ill be seeking our fortunes next week.
But first, boots. I need two, || a gamebag (old or new)
I need also a hat with a feather
Please dont ask me why, you will see by and by
When Ive melded my tactics together.
So Jack made a start: he set off for the mart
Where he purchased boots, gamebag and hat,
With a separate plume from a milliners room,
And he took the lot home for his Cat.
The boots fitted well, and the hat was just swell,
And the gamebag, adjusted, as good.
So out set the feline, his course being a beeline
To a glade in the ten-acre wood.
Pusss plan was to make a spring trap that would take
A selection of succulent game.
He succeeded no slouch and he filled up his pouch
And soon to the Palace he came.
His plan was to bring such a gift to the King
Who lived with his daughter alone;
(Apart from a few hundred courtiers who
To the royal band-wagon had flown).
The King was so needy because of a greedy
And covetous Ogre unsavoury.
He was biding his time, confident that the crime
Would be set right by some champions bravery
Though who that might be, he was waiting to see,
While the Ogre stole land, crops, and rent.
And the King was distraught at the shame he had brought
On the realm to whose helm he was bent.
Now, the Kings privy purse was exhausted, and worse
There was no way of gathering more
Thus HM was thinking, his spirits low sinking
When Puss came and knocked on the door.
When Puss in Boots spoke, the guards thought it a joke
And admitted him gladly to see
The King on his throne, who was speedily shown
The selection of game for his tea.
My master, the Marquis || of Carabas asks if
Youll kindly accept this rich gift.
And the jovial King was so pleased by the thing
That the courtiers, all uppity, sniffed.
Puss: The Carabas title || is one that the wightll
Enjoy when I tell him about it.
Its better than Jack in my plan of attack,
And therell be no progression without it.
The Princess was delighted; no troth yet shed plighted
And sensed that the Marquis might do.
For they needed a man the succession to plan
And for years had been wondering who.
So day after day, Puss would wander that way
With a partridge, or pheasant or rabbit.
And the King grew quite used to the way he enthused
On the Marquis of Carabas habit.
And every day || the Princess would say:
Here Puss, take this pie for your master.
Which made Jack realise, while enjoying the pies,
That his legacy was no disaster.
What time, up at the palace, with no hint of malice
The King and the Princess were wondering
How long it would be || ere the Marquis could be
Persuaded to ride up on thundering
White charger to pay || his respects for the day;
Ere they met the young man with the Cat
Who provided their game, on no two days the same,
But Puss had ideas about that.
When the King and Princess || set out on a progress,
Puss persuaded his master to strip
And dive into a pond in the back of beyond
On the route of His Majestys trip.
As the carriage passed by, Puss started to cry
Out: Help! Help! For my master cant swim
Some thieves took his clothes: jerkin, doublet and hose,
And into the water threw him.
Stop the coach! cried HM; Save the Marquis, and then
Fit him out with some clothes from our case.
They produced a fine thobe an Arabian robe
While the Princess averted her face.
As Jack emerged soon, she could scarcely not swoon
While Puss secretly smiled: Its a cinch!
And the King was impressed with the way Jack was dressed:
Hes a regular prince, every inch!
Im really so glad to meet you, my lad
We feel that we know you through Puss.
Meet my daughter Alice. Come, stay at our Palace
No ... really ... a pleasure ... no fuss.
Come, step in our carriage [now glimpses of marriage
Illumined the Princesss eyes]
Well continue our drive, for weve yet to arrive
And the suns sinking low in the skies.
So the Marquis of Cara || bas climbed in the char-a-
Banc, Puss running swiftly ahead;
With his bold feline presence alerting the peasants
At work in the fields. He said:
The Kings on his way, and I want you to say
When he asks who owns land all around:
"Why, Your Majesty, sure, all this here land and more
Is the Marquis of Carabas ground".
But the peasants werent sure, for they thought that before
The terrible Ogre was Lord,
But Puss had them say, ere the King passed that way
Twas the Marquiss tillage and sward.
So along came the King and Hey Presto! The thing
Blossomed out just as Pussy had sown.
That night, King tossed and turned || as his candle low burned
Lest the Marquis should leave them alone.
He was all of a twitch to meet someone so rich
Who could prove now to be their salvation,
While the Marquis, in turn, || let his candle burn
With the worry of keeping his station.
But Puss isnt shirking his duties hes working
To acquire a Palace tomorrow.
To the Ogre hes going; another plot sowing
To wrest infinite joy from deep sorrow.
Puss knocked on the door, and the Ogre did roar:
Whos that making a din at my gate?
Cant you guess Im at rest? Youre a horrible pest,
And its midnight, incredibly late!
But Puss persevered, for no one he revered
When he had a crusade in his eye,
And he wanted to clear the Ogre from there
Ere the King and Princess should pass by.
He continued his din, and at last was let in
By the Ogre, who thought that he oughtnt
(For thavoidance of doubt) to risk missing out
On something that might be important.
So now Puss is in let the flattery begin:
I have heard, said the Cat, you are clever
At changing your shape into panther or ape
Or, indeed, any creature whatever.
Tis true, Ogre said, as he stood on his head,
And Puss kept his best weather eye on
Him. Can you, asked Puss, with minimal fuss
Become a majestical lion?
In a trice, Ogre cried, and by Pusss side
Stood a lion with great bushy mane.
And Puss thus enlightened purports to be frightened ...
And there stands the Ogre again.
My. my, that was slick, Puss admired the trick,
But I bet that you cant do a mouse.
No trouble at all, said the Ogre in thrall
To hubris, not tpreferable nous.
So Puss in Boots sprang and the mouse took a prang
And found himself quickly devoured.
The Palace, released, was still set for the feast
That the Ogre himself had empowered.
From his self-imposed test Puss then took a rest,
Prepared to rise early and bright;
While the Princess and King gave Jack a gold ring
And thus spent a more comfortable night.
The next day they drove and the Palace soon hove
Into view, with its welcoming Cat
Who showed them with pride the appointments inside
After which to the banquet they sat.
Fine wines flowed like water, although the Kings daughter
With wisdom retained a clear head.
And the King turned a peach of an eloquent speech
Ere the company went up to bed.
He was highly impressed that the Marquis possessed
Such a palace, and such fertile land.
And the Marquis, with pride, took the praise in his stride,
Deprecatingly waving his hand.
The next morning was fine, and they supped some more wine
Before Jack cleared his throat to enquire
Whether Alice and he might ... perhaps ... betrothed be ... ?
... If the union hath your blessing, Sire.
The King was delighted, the Princess excited,
Permission was given to wed.
So happy eer after, midst music and laughter
Their marriage exchanges were said.
And thus ever since honest Jacks been a Prince
All thanks to his masterly Cat
One day, hell be King! What a wonderful thing!
What a legacy! How about that?
Now some may believe that for Puss to achieve
Such an end, lacked all shreds of morality.
But to them, I would say, as we go on our way
Tis a fairy-tale, exercise charity!