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“Bootmaker, I’m looking for a boot as light as air and fast as the wind. A boot that makes no sound, leaves no tracks.” “You’re in luck, I’ve got one pair left!”
– A feline acquires his defining bit of footwear
Fairytales are full of trickster mentors that aid the hero in their quest. The amount of stories where the mentor takes the form of a wily animal are beyond counting. Cats are a particularly popular choice for the role on account of folklorists making their natural stealthiness and hunting prowess shorthand for cunning and guile. And there’s no fairy tale feline more renowned for their craftiness than Puss in Boots.
Walking into this review I assumed Puss in Boots was going to be a Charles Perrault original, which is how I was introduced to it, but the story actually has Italian roots. The oldest known version is 1550’s Constantino Fortunato, or “Fortunate Constantine” by author and fairytale collector Giovanni Francesco Straparola. One of several tales included in the two-volume collection The Facetious Nights, the story is about a poor boy who marries a princess thanks to a clever cat. It’s interesting to note that this cat isn’t just a magical talking cat but a fairy in disguise; a detail that fell by the wayside in future retellings. Writer Girolamo Morlini wrote his version of Puss in Boots shortly afterwards (fair turnabout since Straparola often borrowed from Morlini), followed by Giambatta Basile in 1634. Then Charles Perrault popularized the tale in France as part of his fairy tale collection (the same that also launched the character of Mother Goose), and the feline’s fame hasn’t dwindled since. He’s even well-known in Japan, where a popular film by Toei Animation has made him the studio’s mascot.
Puss in Boots is one of those fairytales that falls into a gray area where the moral is concerned…in that there isn’t really one at all. If you go by a purely textual reading of the story, the takeaway is that lying, cheating and stealing will get you what you want without any consequences; not much of a lesson (but one that’s far too relevant if you look at the current state of the Republican Party). On the flip side, Puss uses his wits to make the most of his and his master’s lousy circumstances. He’s simply doing what he can with what little he has to improve their situation. The story takes place in a society that favors the first-born son, so it’s easy to root for the youngest son stuck with naught but a wisecracking mouse-catcher while his selfish brothers have the means to support themselves. The men and monsters Puss deceives are largely deserving of his trickery.
Tying into that is the unusual choice of clothing this cat in footwear. It’s not just for aesthetics, I assure you. Shoes were a luxury afforded only to young people of the upper-class in the Middle Ages because they were outgrown or worn through so quickly. As such, boots were a sign of wealth and status. In both the original fairytale and today’s episode, the king refuses to grant Puss an audience until he learns he wears boots. Appearances and presentation played as all-encompassing a role in society then as they do now, but the story of Puss in Boots shows that anyone with brains and the ability to pass off as refined can game the system. Make what you will of that.Continue reading