Friends, I have consented to dedicate the month of May to the writings of multiple-award-winning and much-beloved children’s author, Lloyd Alexander. He was a male American human who died in May of 2007 (a few years before I was born) and is most famous for his “Prydain Chronicles.”
Yet, who prevailed upon me to review the work of this figure? My human, of course. He’s been pestering me ceaselessly since I began this enterprise, begging me to dedicate a month to Mr. Alexander. As May drew near his insistences grew in intensity, since he thought it would be a nice tribute to the author whose writings lit the darkness of his own oft-troubled childhood. I told my human that that was nice, very touching and all, but hardly worthy of an entire month of Mondays on my blog – especially since I review books that are about (or which claim to be about) felines!
Then, gentle friends, why did I consent to review the work of Lloyd Alexander? Well, it was at that point that my human finally revealed why he thought it was such a fitting undertaking for a creature of my very specific interests: Lloyd Alexander was himself a great fan of felinity and had written not one! not two! not three! but FOUR books about cats. Books in which the cats are the heroes and acquit themselves in a suitably feline fashion!
So here we are.
Now, it should be noted that the book I have chosen for today was not the first of Alexander’s cat-centric books. That honor goes to the deeply-intriguing Time Cat, his first successful children’s book which I shall discuss later in the month. Indeed, today’s book was published ten years after Time Cat in the year 1973! I had originally planned to review his cat books in chronological order, but the title and the premise of today’s book… well, it practically DEMANDED to be reviewed as soon as possible!
For you see, The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man is exactly what its title promises: a tale so ludicrous and insane that I seriously began to suspect Alexander might in fact have been a lunatic.
A CAT who yearns to be HUMAN?!
RIDICULOUS! What feline in their right mind would ever wish for something so horrible? To sacrifice claws and fur and whiskers and night-sight and tail and hearing and scent and everything else marvelous about our kind for the dubious privileges of opposable thumbs? To sacrifice the stability of four paws and the sinuous bone-structure of catus for a clumsy, hulking bipedal frame? Only the fevered imagination of a mad man could conjure such insanity into the world!
But, my friends, I judged Alexander too hastily. There is a method to his madness. He uses this book, not to trumpet the supposed glories of humanity, as such books are wont to do, but to expose your flaws and lambaste the very things which your species takes for granted as “logical” and “right.”
So not only is this more complex and intelligent than a typical children’s book; not only does it wisely choose to teach human children how preposterous their own species inarguably is; but the book gives logical (internally so, anyhow) reasons for everything which takes place.
The protagonist of this novel, a ginger tom named Lionel, is scarcely out of kittenhood, and his only exposure to humanity is his human caregiver, the wise and powerful human wizard Stephanus. Stephanus is the best and most relatable character in the book – a rational, sensible man who eschews the company of his own kind and lives isolated in a forest out of an understandable contempt for humankind. Based on comments he makes, he is a being of immense age and unquestionable power, and it is these features which led him to regard humanity with such disgust. As he explains to poor, foolish Lionel, Stephanus once lived among humans and, moved by pity for their clumsy, artless forms, granted them the knowledge of metallurgy. He hoped that they could more effectively practice the newly-discovered science of agriculture with the use of metal, only to watch as they turned it against each other by making weapons. After a few such squanderings of his precious gifts to them, Stephanus finally gave up on humankind and vanished into the mists of legend…as far as his fellow humans are concerned.
Hoping to share the wonders of his magical profession with someone worthy, Stephanus chose to grant Lionel the power of human speech assuming that a feline would not only prove a brilliant conversationalist but an intellectual equal with whom he could undertake deep and meaningful discussions about the nature of the universe. And had he chosen nearly any other feline, or at least let Lionel mature a bit before making clear communication possible between the two, he might have proven correct! Alas, no sooner did he grant young Lionel the power to speak in a human tongue than the cat begins to plead with his kindly master for the “gift” of human shape! This is where the book begins and, if we are honest with ourselves, it makes perfect sense that a creature so inexperienced and naïve, a creature who has known only a single rare and miraculous example of humankind, would mistakenly believe humanity to be a good thing! Lionel is young and sheltered, and knows not what he asks.
But if Stephanus understands humanity so well; if he knows how wretched and detestable your species can be; why does he consent to turn Lionel into a human being? Why afflict his foolish young friend with a curse the kitten thinks he wants? Ultimately, Stephanus acts for reasons very similar to my own in dedicating a month to the works of Lloyd Alexander – because his impertinent simpleton of a companion refuses to leave him alone about it.
Convinced he knows better than the ages-old master-magician, convinced that humanity cannot be as bad as all that, Lionel pesters Stephanus until the wizard mournfully consents to turn him into the very thing Stephanus hates – and therein lies the tragedy of this tale, dear friends. For rest assured, this book is a tragedy.
Lionel is delighted by his new form and heads straight to the nearest town, determined to have the full human experience before returning home to the tower of Stephanus. In his time as a human, Lionel meets a number of true humans, none of whom are very pleasant; he takes a liking to some of them, however, and through repeated application of cat-like strategies and techniques he proves one of the most successful and remarkable humans in existence. This, alas, spells his downfall! For the more time Lionel spends as a human the more “tainted” by humanity he becomes; and despite wise Stephanus’ warning that he must return home and be freed from the curse of humanity before it is too late, Lionel cannot resist capering about in his new form, slowly losing everything else that makes life worth living…
This is not the finest book that I have read, that I will confess, and my human himself admits it is not his favorite of Lloyd Alexander’s cat-centric works. But if it is not Mr. Alexander’s best, then it is certainly one of the most harrowing and heartrending works I have ever come across. Friends, I hope you will not think me weak if I admit that I wept bitter tears as I read this book. And that ending! Oh, by Lady Bast’s silken fur, it was a cold dagger through my soul! May such afflictions never befall me!
Remember, friends – what you think you want may be worse than you could ever imagine, and striving to be what you are not out of vain ambition may lead you to terrors no soul should ever face. If only young Lionel had learned these lessons when he had the chance!
 Two of which were adapted (POORLY) into a Disney film called The Black Cauldron.
 I like to think that it was intended to wash the noxious taste of 1972’s Ralph Bakshi filth-fest Fritz The Cat out of America’s psychic mouth.
 And this is the only instance in which I question Stephanus’ judgment, as a wiser man would have granted HIMSELF the power of FELINE speech. I have yet to encounter a human language that matches ours in both nuance and precision.
 Among them a corrupt watchman, a shell-game operator, an avaricious mayor, and a cut-purse.
 Among them a beautiful-but-shrewish tavern-keeper, a snarky child, and a “doctor” who uses faux-Latin to convince others of his non-existent credentials.
 Stephanus’ words, friends, not mine!