Meoi, Miog, Miaug & Miaulin!
At Troy University’s “Conference on Domestic Cats in Literature” (11-12 June 2021), I presented some of my ideas on cats in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
These were worked out a bit further in an article for Lembas, the periodical of the Dutch Tolkien Society. This blog post is a translation of the latter.
It was during one of those sleepless – because far too hot – summer nights that I wandered rather aimlessly over the internet, to end up at the website Archive of Our Own. For those who don’t know this website yet, Archive of Our Own (AO3) is a non-profit open-source archive for fanfiction. And it’s a goldmine for anyone curious about Tolkien in the remix.
The fanfiction I’m most interested in is about King Alfred of Wessex. For my project #KingAlfred, I’m looking at 21st century representations of this king, such as in the series Vikings and The Last Kingdom (both available on Netflix) and how they evolve online. As an aca-fan, an academic who identifies as a fan, I am researching King Alfred. Or to be more precise, within the frameworks of perception history, I am investigating how the historical evocation, reification, re-creation and performativity of this medieval King of Wessex can mirror the current zeitgeist. And via the “time pit” of Archive of Our Own, I then ended up with Tolkien’s cats. How? Because King Alfred, in a crossover fanfic of The Last Kingdom and The Lord of the Rings, utters this sentence:
“He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Beruthiel.”– King Alfred
Because of my “ailurophilia”, or fondness for cats, this quote caught my attention. A quick Google search confirmed what I’m sure Lembas readers already knew: this quote is from Aragorn and comes from The Fellowship of the Ring. But who is this mysterious Queen Beruthiel, who is apparently surrounded by cats? “I have not yet discovered anything about Queen Beruthiel’s cats,” Tolkien wrote in a June 1955 letter to a book reviewer. A decade later he already knew something more, for in an interview with one of his students Tolkien said that she was the wife of one of the ship kings of Pelargir, who, and here I quote: “had her put alone with her cats on a ship and set adrift in the sea before a north wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a crescent moon with a cat in the mast and another as a statue on the bow.”
So these cats were very important, because without them the queen would not be able to travel safely on her ship. I think this is illustrative of cats in Tolkien’s work: despite not being the most prominent or heroic characters, they are vital to many of his stories. Tolkien often portrays cats in a particularly negative light – cats in Tolkien’s stories are often villains. The author also confirms this image in an oft-quoted letter which states, “I fear that Siamese cats belong to the fauna of Mordor for me, but you don’t have to tell the cat breeder that.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, letter of 14 October 1959)
As Lembas readers are well aware, in Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle-earth, Mordor is the realm and base of the evil Sauron. I don’t know if only Siamese cats belong to this hell, or if this applies to cats in general, but this statement by Tolkien might reveal something about his attitude to cats. And this letter has an enormous ‘Nachleben’, which is not limited to scientific debates. The quote has led to its own fan lore, such as on the website “Tolkien Truth”:
A student asked, “Why did Tolkien hate cats?” The truth is that during WWI Tolkien was attacked in his trench by a trained mutant cat. These had been experimentally released into the English trenches by an evil German scientist, Friedbert Haarball von Katzenstreu. Only after a titanic struggle did Tolkien succeed in defeating the evil cat. The event left Tolkien somewhat traumatised. That is why he disliked cats afterwards, and made an evil cat – Tevildo – his enemy in his early stories.www.tolkientruth.info
The Fat Cat on the Mat
Tolkien’s attitude to cats is rather ambivalent; on the one hand, cats in his stories are vicious dark creatures, but on the other hand, there is Tolkien’s poem “The Fat Cat on the Mat”, which may or may not be hostile to cats – depending on how you interpret it – but in any case clearly respects them. For Lord of the Rings fans and connoisseurs, in the “Preface” to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, “The Fat Cat on the Mat,” or “Cat” for short, is the twelfth poem. It was written by Sam Gamgee – presumably building on an earlier work – which was recorded in the Red Book of Westmarch. As Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond explain in their introduction to this book, Tolkien originally wrote this poem in 1956 for his granddaughter. This is the whole poem:
The fat cat on the mat may seem to dream of nice mice that suffice for him, or cream; but he free, maybe, walks in thought unbowed, proud, where loud roared and fought his kin, lean and slim, or deep in den in the East feasted on beasts and tender men. The giant lion with iron claw in paw, and huge ruthless tooth in gory jaw; the pard, dark-starred, fleet upon feet, that oft soft from aloft leaps on his meat where woods loom in gloom– far now they be, fierce and free, and tamed is he; but fat cat on the mat kept as a pet, he does not forget.J.R.R. Tolkien
The poem is about the origin of the house cat. Origin, heritage, family and related themes often play a role in Tolkien’s work, think for example of the aforementioned Aragorn. This “Witcher” of Middle-earth is not only known by his heroic nicknames of Strider, Thorongil (“Eagle of the Star”) and Estel (“Hope”), but his lineage is also made explicit by referring to him by his full names and titles: Aragorn II Elessar Telcontar, Son of Arathorn, Chief of the Dúnedain, Heir of Isildur, King of Gondor. Aragorn will not forget, let alone deny, his origins, and in this poem the same applies to the fat cat on the mat.
The fat cat on the mat is a descendant of the giant lion and the pard. Fantastic animals – and where do you find them? In this case, in Middle English bestiaria. On this illustrated manuscript page, for example, you can see some specimens of the King of Beasts: the giant lion. Below the decorated initial ‘B'(estiarum), you can see a miniature. The lions depicted there are breathing life into their cubs. This page is at the beginning of the entry ‘De natura leonis’, from a bestiary of theological texts, central or northern England, c. 1200-10, Royal 12 C. xix, f. 6. There are many more examples of giant lions in Middle English manuscripts, another famous specimen being in the Rochester bestiary, found in both the British Library and the Bodleian Library.
The second imaginary creature that appears in this pedigree of the fat cat on the mat is the “pard”. According to Isidore of Seville (7th century CE): The pard, a beast of many colours, is very fast, loves blood, and kills with a leap. The adulterous mating of the pard with a lion (leo) produces degenerate offspring, the leopard. (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:10-11). Like the giant lion, the pard appears in Middle English bestionaries, for example in this copy from the British Library, Harley MS 3244, Folio 37r and many similar images in both the British Library and the Bodleian Library. It goes without saying that Tolkien was familiar with these manuscripts.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a frequent visitor to the Bodleian, where he kept several manuscripts that he used in his study of medieval texts: his edition of and commentary on The Old English Exodus (MS Junius 11) and the studies he carried out with Simonne d’Ardenne on the scholarly papers of the collection of Middle English works known as the Katherine Group (MS Bodley 34). This idea of a cat-like animal, with a mottled coat, that is extremely fast and kills with one leap, apparently inspired Tolkien. In the world and poetry of the Hobbits, these pards lived somewhere in the wooded lands of the East (for Lord of the Rings fans, I think this refers to the lands beyond Rhûn, called “the far east”). The beasts – “swift on their feet” – mounted their prey from above. In his poetry, Tolkien thus made use of a device found in medieval bestiaria: the mating of lions and pards.
The cat, or “four-legged one,” was also mentioned in an ancient riddle about which Bilbo questioned Gollum. In his early married life, Tolkien made a series of drawings. They depicted two cats who “used to dance when his wife played the piano,” according to the report. Apparently, he did have a thing for cats, but at the same time, there are only two places in The Lord of the Rings where cats are not despised: Frodo’s first poetry in Bree (IIRC) is about a cat, and then there is the quotation from Aragorn with which we began this treatise (comparing Gandalf’s scouting skills to those of Queen Beruthiel’s cats). Despite the fact that Queen Beruthiel is clearly not loved, the quotation is nevertheless a compliment to the cats. Moreover, the idea of nine black cats and one white cat leaves much room for speculation in terms of colour symbolism. The cats helped the queen by spying on her enemies (the persons she distrusted), but apparently the black cats must also be distrusted, because the queen had them spied on by the white cat. I don’t know why, because according to legend Beruthiel could read the memories of her cats, so would she know everything already and not need spying? Besides, the idea of exchanging thoughts between the woman and her cat(s) is, of course, in line with the folklore of witches talking to their black cats, which puts Beruthiel in an extra bad light.
Another popular cat in Tolkien’s oeuvre is Tevildo, who appears early on in Tolkien’s legendarium. Mentioned early on in the Book of Lost Tales, Tevildo was the ‘Prince of Cats’ and the demonic servant of Melko. According to Tolkien, “Tevildo was a harsh, sardonic and condescending master to those in his service, until he was defeated by Huan, the captain of the dogs.” Huan fought the evil cat and defeated him before forcing him to reveal the spell that bound the servants of his castle and also took away his golden collar. John Garth would later note in his review of Beren and Luthien that the cat’s golden collar resembled Sauron’s One Ring. Although Tevildo did not survive Tolkien’s revisions, he is popularly remembered as Sauron’s predecessor as the right hand of Morgoth. As Christopher Tolkien noted, “It would hardly be true, I think, to say even that Sauron ‘sprang’ from a cat: in the next phase of legends, the Necromancer (Thû) has no feline attributes” (p. 54, The Book of Lost Tales, Part II).
The charismatic Tevildo Prince of Cats was Melko’s demonic servant and the precursor of Sauron in an early version of The Tale of Tinúviel. But this character did not make it through the author’s edits when he perfected his stories, and appears only in The Book of Lost Tales II. Tevildo was the ruler of all the cats in Melko’s household, and they were responsible for arranging food for the Dark Lord’s feasts. He was powerful and “possessed of an evil spirit” (Book of Lost Tales II, p. 16). He was, without doubt, a unique individual. Cats also play an important role in Beruthiel’s story. After Huan’s victory, Lúthien is able to destroy Tevildo’s lair: “And behold, the air was filled with the voices of cats, and the house of Tevildo shook; and there came a host of intruders, and they shrank to puny size and feared Tinúviel.” (p. 29, The Book of Lost Stories, Volume II).
Although cats are not the most famous or heroic characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, they do play an important role in his works. Beruthiel, the Queen of Gondor, had ten cats, one white and nine black, which she used to spy on her opponents and suspects. She even used the one white cat to keep an eye on the other nine black cats. Beruthiel could communicate with these creatures and read their thoughts and memories. Although the Queen of Gondor is portrayed as evil, this does not mean that her cats are. However, cats are villains in most of Tolkien’s works, and they are portrayed in a particularly bad light. In his poem, however, he seems at least to have respect for the cat. Tolkien’s attitude towards cats can therefore be described as ambiguous. I am aware that it is often claimed that Tolkien must have explicitly disliked cats, because cats in his writings are often evil, dark animals, but I wonder if this might have more to do with the literary archetype of The Cat, because this idea also fits into the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the “pard” as an aggressive and dangerous animal.
Finally, the fact that most of Tolkien’s descriptions of cats do not sound very loving may simply be due to the spirit of the times. At the time when LOTR was written, people in England owned many domestic cats. Not to pamper, but as a necessity, to protect their food from mice and other vermin. Cats were therefore seen as “work” animals, not as pettable animals. To make the obvious comparison, dogs were generally held in higher regard because they played a key role in the Second World War (and also in the First World War, which of course was still very much in the collective memory). In the UK, culture prior to the 1970s was strongly influenced by war. The Roaring Sixties, for example, were also directly influenced by that war. No doubt there were exceptions, there were certainly people who loved their cat very much as a real pet as we know it in our present context. The first cat show in England was as early as 1871, so there will have been many nuances in the treatment of (domestic) cats, but the main function of cats in the time and place in which Tolkien lived was as a defence against vermin. In short: I don’t think we can conclude that Tolkien must have hated cats, but I do think he probably had a very different view of them than we do.