When I came up with the idea of doing weekly fairy tale reviews/commentaries/mumblings (I think I might just start using “Scandareview” as an extremely bad pun and umbrella term), I really liked the idea of not planning out which stories I was going to read and just sort of letting them find me. This week’s story did exactly that. I was talking to my father about Scandaroona last week when he suddenly ran down to the extremely cluttered basement (the sort you are likely to have an adventure in simply by visiting it) and returned with The Blue Fairy Book.
Apparently he owned it — and loved it, by the look of it — when he was about five or six, and had prized it so much he’d kept it as an adult. Who says boys can’t read fairy tales?! Clearly they can. He’d also circled some favorite stories in the Table of Contents, so I decided to use that as a guide. After all, what recommendation could be better than one given by your six-year-old father?
(Continued after the jump.)
Although “Felicia and the Pot of Pinks” sounded intriguing, I eventually settled on “The White Cat”. If you haven’t read it, you can find it online here. A second translation (I used the first) is available here.
Us English-speaking types are forced to read translations from the French, as “The White Cat” is one of a handful of works written by the wonderful francophone Madame D’Aulnoy. (We’re to call her only Madame. Her real name was Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, so you can see why that might have been a bit of a mouthful. She’s also responsible for coining the term “fairy tale”, although she preferred to call them contes de fées.)
Anyway, Wikipedia says “The White Cat” is a variant of two German stories called “Puddocky” and “Cherry”, although I feel like I’ve read more than two stories like it before — and I’m pretty sure Gail Carson Levine did her own version of it, too. The main difference between “The White Cat” and these stories, from what I can see, is the fact that the heroine manages to escape turning into a toad in favor of turning into a cat. And I also think on a certain level, Madame D’Aulnoy’s fairy tales are more literary than some of the Brothers Grimm’s — we get all kinds of interesting extraneous detail, like the fact that the White Cat sometimes rides a monkey and goes hunting for eaglets on it, and the fact that Youngest Son calls her “Blanchette” when he’s in an affectionate mood.
“The White Cat” follows this youngest son (because it’s always the youngest, says Libby the oldest sister, rolling her eyes) on his quest for his father’s kingdom. After a few days of adventuring, he comes across “the most splendid castle he could have imagined”, inhabited entirely by anthropomorphic cats. The White Cat is their ruler and quickly befriends Youngest Son.
At first she isn’t wholly sympathetic — she ends up drugging him in the early pages of the story, so that he forgets his mission and hangs out with the feline kingdom for nearly a year — but then again, she’s had a difficult life. And she stops drugging him once she realizes he thinks she’s pretty cool and wants to hang out with her no matter how many mice she likes to eat.
– The logistics of trying to find a very small dog, as Youngest Son must do to fulfill his quest. “As soon as he had bought a pretty one, he was sure to see a still prettier, and then he had to get rid of all the others and buy that one, as, being alone, he found it impossible to take thirty or forty thousand dogs about with him.” I can just imagine him strolling down the road — “Hey! You! Want a puppy? Or a hundred puppies? Or thirty thousand puppies?”
– The descriptions of the castle. “The White Cat” isn’t like many fairy tales, where only bare-bones description is given in favor of plot points. We get to read about doors of coral and halls of mother-of-pearl, comfortable-looking armchairs and golden spoons. I love the element of fantasy — everyone likes to imagine living in a place like that.
– White Cat’s extremely strange childhood. Her mother was obsessed with world travel and went out adventuring just a few weeks after White Cat was born? And then gave her up for the sake of some magical fairy fruit? And White Cat’s childhood friends were a talking parrot and dog? And her first boyfriend was swallowed up by a dragon owned by her fairy foster parents? Almost makes me want a fairy tale featuring White Cat alone.
– The awkwardness of White Cat’s relationship with Youngest Son, discovered only at the story’s end. It turns out that White Cat’s curse isn’t really a conventional one — not just any prince can turn her back into her human form; it has to be a man who looks exactly like her former lover. I was half-expecting there to be a reason for Youngest Son looking so much like him, but there wasn’t. It was just one of those random happenstances that crop up in fairy tales — and I can’t help but think Youngest Son got the raw end of the deal, in a way. White Cat’s probably expecting him to behave like Dead Lover as well as looking like him.
All in all, I really enjoyed this story. I liked that, although White Cat was wealthy, Youngest Son seemed to enjoy her company more than the ornateness of the castle, which was a distinction even Pride and Prejudice had trouble showing (remember how Elizabeth changed her mind about Mr. Darcy when she saw his house?) I also loved the badassery of White Cat when her past was revealed — she tried to escape from her tower? She fell in love with someone she wasn’t supposed to? She’s awesome!
There didn’t seem to be an overarching moral or anything like that, but then, there doesn’t need to be. Sometimes there’s just the story.