“Tailchaser’s Song” by Tad Williams (1985)

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“…But most strange and beautiful of the countless children of Harar and Fela were the three Firstborn.

“The eldest of the Firstborn was Viror Whitewind; he was the color of sunlight on snow, and of swiftness…

“The middle child was Grizraz Hearteater, as grey as shadows and full of strangeness…

“Third-born was Tangaloor Firefoot. He was as black as Meerclar Allmother, but his paws were red like flame. He walked alone, and sang to himself.”

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Oh, Tad Williams. I knew I could count on you to soothe my troubled soul. And after last week’s…unpleasantness…my soul was more troubled than I could ever have imagined.

This book is the grandfather of all epic-feline-fantasy novels in existence today, a work of such monumental importance that generations[1] have grown up reading it and recommending it to their friends and kittens. It has been compared (favorably!) to both Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings, and sometimes described as a fusion of the two – only with cats, making it even better! All of this would be remarkable enough, but keep in mind – Tailchaser’s Song was Tad Williams FIRST NOVEL. There’s a part of me which resents him for not returning to this particular well, but when you create something so unutterably perfect, I can see why you’d be afraid to try for a sequel. Indeed, Tailchaser’s Song is so important that it is apparently being made into a movie set to debut in a year or two.

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…Though I’m not sure about that completely-out-of-character smirk.

It seemed, therefore, that I should discuss Tailchaser’s Song before exploring any of its lesser imitators or the impending adaptation. My human brought Williams’ novel to my attention because it was a book he dearly loved as a child, re-read with delight in late adolescence, and continues to enjoy in his dotage.[2] My human had the privilege of growing up in a home with many felines and it shows in the poise and grace with which he carries himself, to say nothing of the appropriate obeisance he pays me. This book was recommended to him by a kindly librarian, and the fact that it contains an all-feline cast immediately appealed to him; he knew it would be special, and he was right. This book has inspired many similar series, some diverging too far from the model this set and some failing to diverge far enough. I will be addressing all of those at a later date, never fear, but for now…

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Let us contemplate part of the nature of felinity.

Those creatures fortunate enough to be a part of felis silvestris catus are sometimes referred to as “housecats.” This is an attempt to distinguish us from the larger breeds of feline: the lions, the tigers, the lynxes, etc. Yet our species originated in the wild, and many of us remain or return there! For my part, I was raised “feral” but later became the owner of a human and all that that entails; only some of us reside in houses (or apartments or huts or other human dwellings), and that can change at the drop of a mouse. We are a willful species, and I make no bones about that. Some of us even keep one paw in each world, living the dichotomous lives of “indoor/outdoor cats” because we cannot be satisfied with only one of the two options.

As I said, I was born “feral” and I have presently chosen to be “domestic”; my human’s devotion to me is such that he fears to let me roam free, and as I am given to understand that we now live in a land many leagues from the place of my birth I suppose I can forgive him that. Should I outlive my human, unlikely though that turn of events may be, I may yet choose to return to the wilderness. The future is as unpredictable as am I!

But what about you? Are you feral, or have you been domesticated? Do you live a life of danger, wild and free; or have you sold your inheritance, as have I, for a mess of pottage?30cats-span-articleLargeIMG_0155

You see, if this book is to be believed, domesticity is a path to indolence, decadence and stupefaction. Domesticated cats live easy and comfortable existences, basking in the lap of luxury even as their primal natures wither on the vine. The life of a feral cat, by contrast, is a life fraught with struggle and sorrow, but also with pride, adventure, and battles against EVIL CAT GODS and their HIDEOUS MUTANT SLAVE-CATS. Honestly, I know Williams intends for us to root for the rugged life of a feral feline, but to quote another literary genius: “Adventures make one late for dinner!”

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Tailchaser’s Song opens with a simple premise. An inquisitive male ginger kitten called “Fritti Tailchaser” lives on the fringes of an unnamed human settlement, neither wholly feral nor wholly domestic. As he grows to tomhood, he makes the acquaintance of a lovely young female named “Hushpad” who becomes his fastest friend and inevitable romantic interest. Yet before love can bloom between the two, Hushpad vanishes and none of the other cats can explain where she has gone. What is more, Hushpad is not the only cat to disappear in recent days and it appears that something very great and very dark is stirring in the wilderness beyond the realms of human habitation. Terrified for his friend, Tailchaser ventures forth into the forest to rescue her and hopefully solve the mystery of the disappearing cats. He is tailed by an admiring kitten named “Pouncequick” and joined along the way by a mad feline shaman called “Eatbugs” and the cunning-yet-troubled female “Firsa Roofshadow.”

One of the most unique features of this setting is the complex feline language and theology. And this is a theology done right![3] Rich, enchanting and remarkably convincing, this is a feline theology I would embrace if I didn’t know that Williams had invented it and if I weren’t already a devoted Bast-worshipper. And the language is something I could reasonably envision felines speaking, were we as sound-focused as humans; he even follows the example of many indigenous humans and has the feline word for felines mean “People” – rendered throughout the novel as “The Folk.” And he even pays tribute to fellow cat-friend T.S. Eliot with the cats possessing multiple names, some earned, some given and some known only to the cat. What is more, the other creatures of the world possess their own comparative theologies, mythologies and languages, and these are as interesting (if not as convincing) as those of the book’s felines. Each species believes itself to be the original and central species in all of creation, and their religions reflect this as do their names.

But you see, as in real life, the cats of this novel are right.

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The darkness which stirs unnoticed in the wilds is an ancient and implacable feline god, a creature of pure malice and rage which embodies the very darkest of feline natures and the cruelest of our ambitions.

I cannot say much more without spoiling the novel as a whole – indeed, I may already have spoiled too much! But this book means that much to me. Tad Williams understands cats and has done for felines what Richard Addams did for rabbits; if he has a tendency to favor and romanticize the life of the feral, well, what else should we expect from a human? Judging by what I have seen on the television and read in my human’s books, you humans are forever blathering on about how bad your civilizations are and how everything would be better if you went back to nature and how the wilderness is where it’s at and on and on and on. You’ve been doing this since we first conceived your first civilization, and despite the obvious benefits and advantages of the civilizations we have pushed you towards constructing, you still persist in longing for the mud and the blood out of which we raised you. The same humans who whinge about the evils of firearms long for a return to the blood-soaked brutality that is “Nature”; and the same humans who decry the laws we cats have guided you towards passing forget that a comparatively lawless society would only presage a return to the bad old days you were so happy to leave behind when we offered you the keys to science, technology and the arts.

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And yet… and yet…

I would be lying if my soul did not stir when I read Williams’ descriptions of the savage, primal life of wild felinity. That is a part of ourselves we can never leave behind. While dogs have been molded and shaped and enslaved by humanity – to their betterment, if you ask me – we felines ultimately walk by ourselves.

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My life, I suppose, could be seen as a microcosm of the course of feline existence: we emerged wild and untamable, insinuated ourselves into your societies, and leave them when we please. When we have tired of your species and let you fall into darkness again, we will walk on into wildness, unscathed. While a dog without a human master is utterly lost and invariably falls to scavenging and bad company, a cat needs only a few days to reorient himself and then he is a wild thing again. Really, the saddest part is that you have voluntarily bred out of yourselves the very instincts necessary to survive as we cats may if we so choose – wild, free, proud and independent.

Ah, but I’m rambling. The fact of the matter is that trying to write a review of this book has simply filled me with a desire to read it again! And again! And again! I wholeheartedly recommend this to all cats, all humans, and all creatures great and small. It is of inestimable value, both to me and to my human, as it should be to you and yours.

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This is the edition with which my human grew up.

 

 

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[1] Granted, most of those were feline generations, but even so!

[2] Well, I assume it to be his dotage. I mean, I have read that humans live to be well over 50 years old, but I have also read that elves live for millennia and dwarves for centuries, so I’m not sure what to believe in that regard. My human assures me that he is still a young-ish man and has tried to explain what elderly humans really look like, but… Well, I’m sorry. You all look alike to me: largely bald with misshapen whiskers, uniform and unattractive colouring, and surprisingly ineffective teeth and claws. You haven’t even got tails to help you balance properly! I’d pity you if not for our presences in your lives, which (I assume) ameliorate all the other burdens under which you labor. It is good for a being to know its place and its purpose, after all, and we cats assuredly communicate that information to humanity.

[3] Take that, Clemenza! And the name of the feline Mother-Goddess is itself a nod to the work of sometime-luminary Michael Moorcock – she is named after the cat-goddess in his “Elric” novels.

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2 thoughts on ““Tailchaser’s Song” by Tad Williams (1985)

  1. Pingback: “Cat Raise the Dead” (Joe Grey #3) by Shirley Rousseau Murphy (1997) | "So Let It Be Kitten"

  2. Pingback: “Wish You Were Here” (Mrs. Brown #1) by Rita Mae Brown (1990) | "So Let It Be Kitten"

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