As an adult, one of my favourite fairy tales is Puss in Boots.

I have immense respect for this talking cat. He has nothing going for him - not even a decent pair of shoes. And to make matters worse he finds himself lumbered with a pretty mediocre human owner.

Folklore academics have a way of classifying the tales they study. It’s called the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU). And in this index, Puss in Boots is Type 545: the cat as helper.

That’s completely wrong.

Read it for yourself. This story is not about the frankly lacklustre youngest son of the mill. No, it’s about the cat, a cat who has almost no help, who has to do practically everything himself, and who never gives up until finally he gets what he needs.

Puss in Boots by Gustave Doré

The great writer Angela Carter would have agreed with this. She observed the cat was “the servant so much the master already“1. But this is hardly controversial. Perrault’s version of the story actually has the title “The Master Cat“.

So as you probably remember, the tale begins when the cat experiences an unexpected disaster. The old miller dies, leaving the mill to his eldest son.

But the mill’s cat he leaves to the youngest son.

Not only is the cat suddenly homeless, but to make things even worse his fate is now shackled to a penniless human without prospects.

So what’s a homeless cat to do?

He has no choice. If he’s going to survive, he’s going to have to create something from nothing.

It’s one of the most famous stories of all time. All the great fairy tale compilers included it in their collections: Straparola, Basile, Perrault. When you started reading, did you think, “Puss in Boots? Who’s that? No. Almost everyone knows this story.

Puss in Boots made it into the Shrek movies and then headlined two spin-off films himself. He’s a star. He started with nothing, a homeless outcast, and ended up making a fortune for everyone who’s willing to respect him.

But he never actually sought fortune or fame.

Remember I said he never gives up till he gets what he wants?

And what does a cat want, really? 

That’s what this whole story was always leading up to (skipping all the bits in the middle, that is). In the ogre’s castle the cat tricks the ogre into turning himself into a mouse. Well, with the cat turfed out of the mill, where else is he going to get a feed?

The ogre, enjoying the flattery cried, “I will show you just how powerful I am!”  Instantly he transformed into a tiny mouse scampering around the floor.
In a flash the crafty cat jumped upon the mouse and ate it up.

Here’s why I like Puss in Boots so much: the story enacts what it tells. Like its feline hero, the story itself started from nothing and became a huge success, making multiple fortunes along the way 2.

What do I mean by saying the story itself started from nothing? I mean there’s hardly any story there. Think about it. The cat simply takes the longest route imaginable to his next meal. Just think about the very first draft:

“One day a cat caught a mouse”.

Almost nothing. Just enough from which to create one of the most popular stories ever.

So tell your story, even if it doesn’t yet seem like much of a story.

Like the cat, make yourself up.

Create something from (almost) nothing.

The world waits with baited breath to hear all about it.

This is part of the June 2024 IndieWeb Carnival: DIY - Something from (almost) nothing, hosted by Andrei. There’s a great roundup of all the submissions. (Edited on 3/7/24).

Image by Gustave Doré - Les Contes de Perrault, Public Domain, Link

Now read:

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You can get a lot done by writing slowly

Choose your own race and finish it

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Thoreau on writing

  1. Angela Carter (22 July 1976). “The Better to Eat You With”. New Society↩︎

  2. The two Puss in Boots movies in the Shrek series have made more than a billion dollars at the box office. ↩︎