The popular story that we know today as Puss in Boots, originated as a fable written by Giovanni Straparola (1480-1557), in his Facetious Nights. The fable recounts the plight of three poor boys whose mother, Soriana, has only three possessions of value: a kneading trough, a pastry board and a cat. Knowing that she is soon to die, Soriana gives away her possessions to her sons. The kneading trough she gives to the oldest son, Dusolino; the pastry board to the middle son, Tesifone; and the cat to the youngest son, Costantino Fortunato. From his name we can probably guess that his life will end happily. But the tale continues with the cat, a disguised fairy, feeling sorry for Costantino and promising to help him, “Costantino, do not be cast down, for I will provide for your well being and sustenance, and for my own as well.” The wiley cat manages to kill a leveret† and takes it to the King of Bohemia as a gift from Costantino Fortunato. The king is pleased and asks the cat to stay to dine, and the loyal cat takes food home to Costantino where his brothers become jealous of his good fortune. The cat continues this ritual of offering the king game until one day he comes up with a plan. He asks Costantino to go to a nearby river, strip off his clothes and get in. Costantino does as the cat asks. When he is in the river, the cat starts yelling that his master is drowning. The sly cat knew that the king would be passing close by and would hear the cries for help. The king came to the rescue and invited Costantino back to his palace. Thinking that Costantino was rich, he decided that his daughter, Elisetta, should marry him. After they were married, Costantino worried that he had no house. The fairy cat managed to take care of that detail as well. Soon after the King died; Costantino was declared the new king of Bohemia, and lived happily ever after with his wife and children. At the end of this original version, the fairy cat is not mentioned at all.
In Giambasttista Basile’s Tale of Tales(Pentamerone), yet another version of the same story, some simple changes occur. The mother becomes a father; the main character’s name changes to that of Cagliuso;† and the cat is referred to as “Her Royal Catness”. The story follows essentially the same plot as Straparola’s version, but varies in small details. More importantly, the characters are rougher, ruder and, perhaps, meaner. An example is when Cagliuso attends the banquet given by the King, he constantly worries about the rags that he had to take off after being in the river water. He says to the cat, “My little kitty, keep an eye on those rags of mine, for I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them. And the cat answers, ‘Be quiet, shut your trap, don’t talk about such trifles!’ Obviously Cagliuso was not as smart as the cat and would ruin the plan. Cagliuso thanked the cat many times for his good fortune and promised that when she died, he would have her stuffed and put into a golden cage in his bedroom. The cat, not completely trusting of Cagliuso’s promise, three days later pretended to be dead. When Cagliuso found the cat dead, he proclaimed, “Better her than us! And may every evil accompany her.” When his wife asked what she should do with her body, Cagliuso answered, ‘Take her by her foot and throw her out the window!’ The cat, hearing this, revives and runs away only after chastising Cagliuso. The moral that summarizes the story is, “May God save you from the rich who become poor and from the beggar who has worked his way up.” (Canepa, 2007, pp.167-68)
Puss in Boots by Charles Perrault (1628–1703), the story that we are familiar with today, is generally the same as the other versions, but does not offer the same moral. It instead offers a lesson that seems to hinge on the benefits of lying and being wealthy.
† a young hare