“The Cat who Became Head-Forester,” a Russian tale retold in Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome, 1916, has a couple elements common to many fairytales. First we have talking animals instead of people, animals who think and act like we do, for better or worse. Second is the theme of the weaker, smaller character using his intelligence to outwit a bigger, more powerful character.
The cat in the story is an old, one-eyed tomcat who was always fighting. His owner did not like him and stuffed him into a bag which he then dumped in the middle of the forest. The cat claws his way out of the bag, looks around at the woods and sees how much larger it is than the village he came from. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he thinks of it as a new opportunity. “‘I was the head-cat in the village,’ says he to himself.’ If all goes well, I shall be head here too.’ And he walked along as if he were the Tzar himself.”
He finds a deserted hut and makes himself at home, but it’s not long until he decides that having to hunt for his food is no fun at all. Happily, he meets a naive little fox and introduces himself as Cat Ivanovitch, telling her that he was sent from the far forests of Siberia to be Head-forester. She is duly impressed and invites that cat to her home for dinner. During the visit, the fox convinces the cat to marry her. They have a great feast and the next day the fox goes out to find food for herself and her important new husband.
During her rambles through the forest, the fox, who is rather sly herself, meets a wolf and convinces him to bring food to pay his respects to Cat Ivanovitch, but to stay out of sight or the cat would be angry. The wolf passes the message along to a bear and they do as she says and bring a sheep and an ox, hiding nearby while the couple comes for the food.
The cat hears the wolf rustling in the leaves and leaps on it, thinking it’s a mouse. It lands with all its claws on the wolf’s nose, scaring both of them. While the wolf runs off, the cat runs up a tree where the bear is hiding. The bear, desperate to not be seen, jumps out of the tree, hurting himself, and then stumbles off. The pretty fox encourages them to keep running, telling them the cat is right behind them.
“Ever since then all the wild beasts have been afraid of the cat, and the cat and the fox live merrily together, and eat fresh meat all the year round, which the other animals kill for them and leave a little way off.”
You gotta give it to the couple, they were smart. They are definitely living happily ever after.
My favorite part of this tale is when the cat first lands in the forest and doesn’t moan and whine about how life is unfair, or sit and mope and wonder how he’ll ever survive without someone taking care of him. Instead he looks at it all as a new adventure, and everyone needs something new once in a while. We could all take a lesson from him, although we probably shouldn’t lie and take advantage of others to get what we want. When life seems to take a turn for the worse, maybe we can look at it as a time of new possibilities, of opportunities to learn and grow, to try new things, to do the best we can given the circumstances. You have to admit, the cat’s life turned out quite well in the end, with a pretty young wife and a forest full of animals who treated him like royalty.
You can read the story at Sur la Lune.
Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.