Puss-in-Boots: An Allegorical Reading

By Daniel Bookman

It is no secret that many tales that we read and enjoyed as children were oftentimes allegorical in nature. Who doesn’t know of Aesops fables or the Brothers Grimm and their many tales of morality? Likewise, there is a strong literary tradition of tales serving as Biblical allegories. Perhaps the most famous of these is C.S. Lewis and his tales of Narnia. Perhaps other pre-modernist tales may also have Biblical undertones to them. One such tale is the iconic Puss- In-Boots story. While the tale is not generally associated with anything overtly Biblical, a careful reading can reveal certain remarkable Biblical allegories which run throughout.

The tale of Puss-In-Boots begins with a poor Miller who has nothing to his name but a Mill, an Ass, and a Cat. In time, the Miller dies, leaving each of his possessions to his three sons. To his oldest son, he left his Mill. To his second eldest, he bequeathed his Ass. And finally, the youngest son received the Cat. There is a strong parallel to be drawn between these three sons and another set of three sons; namely, Cain, Abel, and Seth.

In the Bible, Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, is understood to be a farmer. What better gift for a farmer than a Mill, to grind his harvest into flour? Likewise, the second son in the Puss-In-Boots tale is left the Ass, which would seem to recall Abel the shepherd, also a second son. Finally, for the third son, there is only the Cat. This is rather like Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain and Abel have divided up the world for themselves, leaving little for the third son (Interestingly, the words “Cat” and “Seth” bear more than a passing phonetic resemblance, strengthening this connection).

Returning to Puss-In-Boots, once the Miller’s three possessions are divided up amongst the sons, the third son laments only being left with the Cat. He thinks to himself that his brothers may make a living by using the Mill and the Ass, but that he is cursed, as he can only eat the Cat and make a muff of the Cat’s skin, only to surely die of hunger afterward.

In the Biblical Book of Genesis, once Adam and Eve have eaten the Forbidden Fruit, God likewise proclaims that the ground is cursed and will no longer provide sustenance for Man. And, shortly thereafter, God created skin coats for Adam and Eve to hide their nakedness in shame. Just as the third son feels he may take no sustenance from the Cat, but may make clothes from its hide, so too did God do the same to Adam and Eve.

The Cat hears the son’s laments, and surprises the son by speaking to him. The Cat tells the son that if the son will provide him a bag and a pair of boots, so that he may navigate through dirt and brambles, the Cat will be able to help the son. Returning to the Book of Genesis, when God lays a curse upon the land, he also decrees that the previously compliant and fertile land shall henceforth sprout “thorns and thistles”. Like the Cat in the Puss-In-Boots tale navigating the dirt and brambles, Man in the Bible now needs shoes to navigate the thorns and thistles of the ground.

After the son in the Puss-In-Boots tale overcomes his shock at hearing the Cat speak to him, the son is at first not very hopeful, but in time remembers that he has seen the Cat use cunning tricks to catch rats and mice, so begins to think that maybe there’s a chance the Cat can actually help him to overcome his circumstances. The son specifically remembers the Cat’s unique ability to hang by the heels to catch rats and mice. This is an oddly specific detail to include, and it perhaps harkens back to another famous Biblical figure: Jacob, whose name literally means “heel-grabber”. He earned this name due to the fact that at birth, he was said to have come into the world while holding onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau. Like the Cat of the Puss-In-Boots tale, Jacob was cunning and wily, tricking their father into giving him the blessing that was meant to go to his older brother Esau. When Jacob flees from Esau’s wrath, Jacob receives the protection of God during his time away. The Cat, with his cunning ways of hanging by his heels, could be said to be a stand-in for Jacob, also cunning and literally named “heel-grabber”. It is a reason for optimism for the son, just as Jacob was blessed and protected.

Continuing with the Jacobian elements in the Puss-In-Boots tale, the Cat proceeds to use his cunning tricks to first catch a rabbit, and later some partridges, which he then kills. The Cat takes the game he has caught to the local King, and announces the rabbit and partridges are gifts from his Master, the “Marquis of Carabas”.1 The king thanks the Cat (now called “Puss”) and the Puss’ Master for the gifts.

As previously alluded to in the Biblical narrative of Jacob, he received blessings from his blind father by pretending to be his brother Esau. Esau had been tasked to go hunt the fields and bring the game back to his father. Once Esau is away, Jacob quickly kills two goats, prepares the meat the way his father loves, and brings it to him, saying he is Esau returned from the hunt. Thus Jacob deceives his father by presenting him meat that he himself “hunted” and killed, just as puss deceives the king into believing the game he receives is a gift from the “Marquis Of Carabas”, thereby cementing Puss as a Jacobian figure in the story.

Puss continues to bring hunted game to the king and becomes quite familiar with the monarch. One day, Puss learns that the king is planning to go for a carriage ride along a certain path which goes by a river. The king’s daughter, said to be the most beautiful princess in the land, will accompany him. Puss rushes back to his master, the third son, and tells him to quickly go to the river and bathe, and that if he does so, he will acquire great fortune. The son is confused but does as Puss commands. The son (now known as “Marquis of Carabas”), goes to the river to bathe. Puss follows him, and once the Marquis of Carabas is in the river, Puss hides his clothes under a great stone. Puss waited until he saw the King coming, then from the river bank began to cry out “Help! Help! My master, the Marquis of Carabas, is drowning!”

In a Biblical sense, the story has now shifted from the Jacobian undertones to the story of Moses. In the Bible, Moses parts the Red Sea and asks the Israelites to trust him and enter the water so that they may escape from enslavement in Egypt, after which Moses sends the waters crashing down on the Egyptians. The Israelites later acquired the vast wealth which the Egyptians had brought to the battlefront, just as Puss promised his master would receive great wealth if he trusted him and went into the water. Puss even cries out for help at the edge of the water, just as the Israelites cried out to God for help on the edge of the Red Sea.

Returning to the Puss-In-Boots tale, the king recognizes Puss crying out by the side of the rive and quickly sends some guards to retrieve the Marquis of Carabas from the water. While the Marquis of Carabas is being “rescued”, Puss goes to the king and tells him that thieves had stolen his master’s clothes while he was bathing. The king immediately orders that a suit of fine clothes from his personal wardrobe be given to the Marquis of Carabas.

Continuing the Moses allegory, the “great stone” that Puss hid his masters clothes under can have a double meaning in Moses’ story: namely, Mount Sinai, in whose shadow the Israelites camped after crossing the Red Sea, and the two great stone tablets the Ten Commandments were written on. In a sense, the Israelis were “naked”, that is, bereft of any spiritual merit, while enslaved in Egypt, but are rescued from the water by Moses (a servant of the king God), and under a great stone (Mount Sinai and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments), they are now clothed in God’s law, as now God would dwell amongst the Israelis. Indeed, in the Talmudic Rabbinic tradition, it is said that God literally uprooted Mount Sinai and hung it over the Israelis in the camp, insisting that if they did not accept His law, then He would bring the mountain down upon them and bury them.

The allegory continues further, as now that the Marquis of Carabas has been rescued and clothed, the king and princess ask him to ride with them in their carriage. Puss runs ahead and sees some workers mowing a meadow. Puss instructs them that they must tell the king who will be passing by shortly that the land belongs to the Marquis of Carabas, or else they will be brutally executed. Puss continues on, and any he met, he told them to tell the king that the land and harvest they were working on belonged to the Maruis of Carabas. This again has parallels in the Biblical tale of Moses was leading his people to the Promised Land, land that God had given to them. It was also said the fear of God would fall upon the Gentiles who inhabited that land when the Israelis arrived.

Finally, Puss arrives at a castle whose king is an Ogre. Puss knows this Ogre has a magical ability to transform, so Puss hatches a plan. Puss hails the castle and asks to be granted entrance, so he may pay respect to the great Ogre king. Once Puss has audience with the Ogre, he praises him, asking if it’s really true he can change his shape. The Ogre first transforms into a lion, which greatly frightens Puss. Puss runs and hides, until the Ogre returns to his original form. The ogre then transforms into an elephant. Puss, feigning awe, then asks the Ogre if he’s able to transform into smaller creatures, such as a mouse. The Ogre arrogantly proclaims that he can indeed do this, and transforms, after which Puss pounces on him and eats him. Shortly thereafter the carriage carrying the King, Princess, and Marquis of Carabas arrives. Puss rushes out to greet them, announcing that they have arrived at the castle of the Maruis of Carabas. The king is so dumbstruck by the apparent great wealth of his carriage guest that he begs him to marry his daughter, the princess. In the end, Puss and his master, Maruis of Carabas, live out their days in a splendid castle as the son-in-law of the king. Amazingly, this is strikingly similar to a lesser-known story of Moses and his battle with the Ogre king, Og, from the land of Bashan. Like Puss, Moses is at first terrified of the massive king, but God reassures him that he will defeat Og in battle. As God foretold, Moses indeed defeats Og as easily as Puss defeats the Ogre king in mouse form, and Moses, like Puss, goes on to conquer all the land of the Ogre king.

Notes

1. Interestingly, before changing into a mouse, the Ogre king of Puss-In-Boots transforms into a lion and an elephant. The Biblical ogre Og, per Rabbinic interpretation, was involved in the Great War mentioned in GENESIS 14:13. This led to the extermination of a race of giants/ogres called the Repha’im, but some escape this fate. Per tradition, the one who escaped was in fact the ogre Og. The Hebrew word for “escape” as used in the verses is “hapalit”, which is phonetically similar to and could be a precursor of the word “elephant”, Og’s location was the Terebinths of Mamre. The Hebrew word for terebinths is “elonei”, which is phonetically similar to “lion”. Thus, there may be an even deeper connection between the ogre king Og of the Bible and unnamed ogre king of Puss-In-Boots.

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