“Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat” by Lloyd Alexander (2005)

I apologize for the lateness of this post. My human has had a project due which necessitated the use of my laptop.[1] And to be honest, after last Monday’s tragic tale I dreaded reading another of Lloyd Alexander’s cat-books. What new horrors would Mr. Alexander unleash upon the world? Another foolish kitten’s fatal ambition to be a human, or something far darker? My human assured me it would be nothing of the sort, but he has misled me[2] before so I put off opening this book and instead threw my efforts into trying to review a far less threatening (and less interesting) book. Yet in the back of my mind, I knew that Monday loomed and I needed to return to my schedule… I had agreed to dedicate this month’s Mondays to Lloyd Alexander’s work, and I had a commitment to keep.

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Well, I should have trusted my human. Lloyd Alexander’s 2005 picture-book Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat is a triumph of pro-feline children’s literature.

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Originally featured as a series of short-stories in the American children’s magazine Cricket,[3] this single volume stands on its own as a masterpiece: the pictures by D. Brent Burkett are lush, warm and beautiful, Alexander’s prose is light and wry, and the book as a whole is firmly focused on the positive contributions which felines make to human society. If The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man was about the folly of wishing to be other than what you are,[4] Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat is about the joy of embracing your true nature.[5]

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Now I feel that my last few reviews have been somewhat scattered and jumbled, sub-par because I have not focused sufficiently on my work. I have, in some ways, been guilty of the same crimes I accused Anita Lobel of committing. This will not do. So with this review I hope to redeem myself. Prepare for a well-ordered, straightforward review!

Here is the premise: The law in Imperial China decrees that none may gaze upon the Emperor directly; the death penalty is decreed for all who dare flout this law. But Dream-of-Jade,[6] a stray white cat, believes firmly in the right of cats to do exactly as they please and determines to do exactly that! She sneaks into the Forbidden City, into the Imperial palace, and seats herself upon the Imperial throne, there to await the arrival and gaze upon the face of the Earthly Embodiment of the Nine Heavenly Virtues. When the Emperor arrives, he and his ministers are incensed, and she soon finds herself slated for execution for her supposed temerity. Dream-of-Jade is undeterred however, and swiftly uses her cunning to outwit the Chief Minister; through her perspicacity and her keen eye, she also saves the Emperor’s life and becomes a vital member of the Imperial household. Thus begins a series of five tales, each dedicated to an example of how feline wisdom, gently applied, revolutionized and vastly improved the hidebound, brittle Chinese Empire.

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Dream-of-Jade’s life is a model for all who seek a cream-like rise to the top, a perfect representation of how feline superiority can allow humankind to bask in our glory. She first challenges the assumptions and transgresses the boundaries of a rigid, intransigent society; she immediately follows her challenge and transgression with a demonstration of her utility and of how her outsider perspective can be employed to preserve that which the society holds most dear. Once permitted entre into the society, she then dedicates herself to carefully and respectfully demonstrating the insufficiency of that society’s accepted solutions to problems, and follows it up by demonstrating the superiority of her own. Having demonstrated the superiority of her problem-solving techniques, she then helps the offense-driven, humorless society learn the value of mirth and lightheartedness through simple methods. And, having done that, she offers the society the chance to reflect on and appreciate all that she has given it, and is elevated to a position of true authority and power over that society.

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Hmm. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but it seems that the career trajectory of Dream-of-Jade mirrors the overall life-path of both a domestic feline and felinity in general. We enter human lives as small, furry creatures – unassuming and yet defiant in our feline individuality – and slowly help humans to restructure their lives around us. My own human has postponed and abandoned travel plans because I refused to travel with him and he couldn’t find someone to serve me during his absence. And I am given to understand that such loyalty from our human vassals is not uncommon.

But Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat is more than simply a tale of a traditional feline rise to power! It is also a meditation on the superior nature of cats, and one gets the feeling that Mr. Alexander truly does understand felinity. Indeed, the little blurb about the author on the inner-back cover states that “Lloyd’s wife, Janine,[7] introduced Lloyd to cats a long time ago, and he’s been a cat lover ever since,[8] knowing the mysterious lives and ways of cats better than most.” Quite so! Quite so! See, for example:

“’Tell me, Imperial Feline,’ he said, ‘what do cats do when they are bored?’
“’That dismal situation does not apply to us,’ Dream-of-Jade answered. ‘We cats are never bored. We can, for simplest amusement, always chase our tail. Alas, Your Majesty has no such appendage.
“’Or,’ she added, ‘we sit quietly and meditate on how fortunate it is to be cat.’”

Following this exchange, she suggests the joy of batting about a crumpled piece of paper and then instructs the August Emperor of the Middle Kingdom in many of our simple games. This is the way of Dream-of-Jade, the way of all cats. In the words of a Theosophical proverb, oft misattributed to the Buddha, “When the pupil is read, the Master will appear.” We are not fawning, slavish pets like your beloved dogs. We do not give you what you want; we teach you what you need to know if you will only harken to our teachings. The life of the Emperor and the lives of his subjects are MARVELOUSLY enhanced by the application of feline life-principles, but we will not force your species to do this. We present, we demonstrate, we direct, and we invite – but compulsion is not our way. A dog will obey blindly, but a dog will also pull at the lead and drag its owner through the mud; a cat would neither do the one nor the other.

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So obtain this book, friends! Marvel at the beauty of the illustrations, chuckle at the amusing characterizations, but above all learn from the wisdom of felinity which Alexander has masterfully distilled into the acts and counsel of Dream-of-Jade, the Emperor’s Cat!

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[1] He insists that it is his, but as he is my property I believe that extends to my laptop as well.

[2] Unwittingly, I assume…

[3] Which he helped found.

[4] Especially if you are a cat!

[5] Especially if you are a cat!

[6] So named because of her beautiful green eyes – just like mine!

[7] She died two weeks before her husband, and we who appreciate cat-lit evidently owe much to the late Janine Denni Alexander!

[8] This book was published 2 years before Alexander’s death at the age of 83 in 2007. One can only assume that his love of cats has deepened since he crossed the bar and journeyed to the realms in which we are reign openly (whereas here on Earth we only reign in secret).

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