“The Cat of Bubastes: A Tale of Ancient Egypt” by G.A. Henty (1889)

Betrayed once more! And this time by a far more promising book.

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Perhaps some of you are familiar with the “Women in Fridges” trope? Well, I propose that a new trope be recognized: “Eponymous-Yet-Inconsequential Felines.” I will grant that A Midwinter’s Tail and The Nine Lives of Clemenza did not explicitly promise any felinity in their titles, but THIS book?

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Why, human authors? Why do you mock me thus?

The word “cat” is right there! It’s the first word after the definite article! I don’t think I’m asking too much, am I? Is it really so demanding of me to expect that a book’s title will accurately reflect its contents?

The title character, the so-called cat of Bubastes, is not even mentioned till midway through the book only to die almost immediately thereafter. The cat’s appearance is barely described, and I can scarce recall if the cat was male or female, so utterly and ultimately irrelevant was he/she to the actual narrative. I want to say that the cat was female, but, after all, does it even matter? Alas, no. It doesn’t matter in the slightest. This is another anthropocentric entry in the annals of “cat-lit,” though nowhere near as offensively limited in its scope as the two novels I previously mentioned.

At this point I am irritated enough by this trend in literature that I am reluctant to discuss the actual narrative and characters. Do we cats mean so little to you humans? Are we mere objects to you? We cats may rightfully regard you as possessions and servitors, but have we not done right by you? We calm you with our purring, we permit you to pet us,[1] and we keep your domiciles free from the myriad vermin which accompany any and all human settlement. I rather think we deserve to be regarded as more than mere mascots and plot devices.

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In ancient Egypt we were gods! Our likenesses graced great monuments, our mummified remains kept company with kings, we were given our own goddess, and the act of killing one of us – even accidentally – was a crime punishable by death! Oh, THOSE were the days…

To his credit, Henty does acknowledge this reality, and the latter half of the book is driven by that last fact – albeit indirectly. The protagonist is a young Rebu prince whose father is slain and people conquered by the mighty Egyptians under the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III. The young prince Amuba, his loyal general Jethro, and all the other important Rebu men are enslaved, and Amuba and Jethro find themselves owned by Ameres, the High-Priest of Osiris, who makes them integral members of his household staff. Jethro becomes the guardian of Ameres’ young daughter, while Amuba becomes the boon companion of Ameres’ second son, Chebron. This comprises the entire first half of the novel. The only mention of cats made up till this point is the observation that Egyptian fisher-folk and bird-hunters apparently used trained semi-aquatic cats to help them catch their quarry – an observation made early in the first half and then never brought up again.

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Amuba and Chebron have several adventures, then a plot emerges to murder Ameres; Ameres’ daughter’s favorite pet cat is selected to replace the sacred cat of Bubastes (which had died) but Amuba and Chebron accidentally murder it, and then all Neter-khertet breaks loose. Henty apparently felt his novel needed to be of the “kitchen-sink” variety after that point, as we literally get: a tale of mob violence, a tale of political assassination, a tale of fugitives on the run from the law, a tale of a kidnapped girl being rescued, a tale in which one of our heroes meets the HEBREW PROPHET MOSES, a tale in which our heroes face bandits, a tale in which our heroes travel across the ancient Near East, a tale in which our heroes mount a political insurrection, and a tale in which open war breaks out. And after all of that, the author then has the gall – the sheer, unmitigated GALL! – to have one of the heroes blithely comment that all of that would never have happened had they not accidentally murdered that poor innocent cat.

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I appreciate the effort to depict ancient Egyptian reverence for feline life, and the acknowledged centrality of that one cat’s life to the plot; there is a part of me that would otherwise be inclined to applaud the careful symmetry with which the author constructs this narrative. After all, the first half is a tale of war, going into Egypt, and living in prosperity and security there; then the cat appears; then the cat disappears; and the second half is a tale of enduring danger and hardships there, going out of Egypt, and another war. If I were not concerned with spoiling the details, I would describe the other careful and minute parallels the author uses – it really is a technical achievement

The theology of the book is also intriguing, perhaps influenced by the Rosicrucian movement in that it proposes a great secret which only the highest levels of the Egyptian priesthood possessed. According to Henty’s Ameres, there was, in truth, but a single god and the myriad Egyptian gods and goddesses were mere manifestations of that singular deity incomprehensible to common humans. He asserts an evidence-from-nature history of religion, arguing that this god’s existence is self-evident through observation of the natural world, but that only the truly enlightened and intellectually mature can bear the knowledge that all things were the work of a single deity. Polytheism (or rather, henotheism) is a dumbed-down, degenerate iteration of the true monotheistic religion which the highest levels of the Egyptian religious hierarchy followed. Henty avers that the Hebrews erred only in ascribing to this deity a particular interest in their people, implying that their “foolish” belief that the singular universal god was their own personal god led to — or was a product of — their eventual apostasy and enslavement. (You’ll permit me an ironic smirk at that bit of implicit victim-blaming, I hope.) In any event, as I said, it is an intriguing proposition and a cut above the theology proposed in the previous week’s opening salvo; and it masterfully weaves the contemporary passion for Rosicrucianism into a tale of ancient Egypt. Another technical achievement.

But, you see, those technicalities do not spare it from being an otherwise cat-free narrative. The eponymous cat isn’t a character, and there is nothing about him/her that really contributes to the narrative or the events that drive the plot. ANY cat could have occupied that role. He/she existed solely to die and set in motion the second half of the narrative, and after a certain point the cat’s death isn’t even mentioned again until the last line of the blasted novel!

I can’t say I hated this as I hated that wretched “Magical Cats Mystery,” but I also can’t give it the unadulterated praise I gave to Captain Kitty. There’s much of worth here, particularly the author’s attempt to set his novel in the period between the family of Israel’s settlement in Egypt and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt (again with the symmetry), but I went into this work expecting one thing and got quite another instead. I’m almost tempted to suspect that you humans might simply be using us to capture the attention of other humans whose due fondness for feline-kind makes them seem a soft touch.

Will “Bait” and “Switch” prove the watchwords for all further cat-lit? Friends, I pray that it will not be so!

Cat-Praying

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[1] Which, I feel I must note, scientists have long since proven results in a release of serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin in humans. That’s right: petting us grants you a depression-fighting hormone, a “love hormone” associated with the female orgasm, and a hormone associated with the development of breasts in women (and only in women). You’re welcome, humans.

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