[Here's the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander's non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the "Lloyd Alexander" tag.]
“Let me tell you about men,” complains the wizard Stephanus to Lionel, his restless and talkative cat. “Wolves are gentler. Geese are wiser. Jackasses have better sense.” Despite these warnings, Lionel persists: he wants to be a person. In The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man, Lloyd Alexander follows Lionel’s adventures as he get his wish and trades the secluded wizard’s cottage for the clamor and conflict of the town—and all the contradictions and complexities of being human.
Published in 1973, five years after the end of the Prydain series, this slim comic novel invites comparisons to Alexander’s longer, richer works. Several characters are less interesting versions of old favorites: Stephanus, the cranky wizard, could be Dallben in a particularly bad mood, and the dubious Dr. Tudbelly, a traveling purveyor of “exilirs, tinctures, and unguents” who sprinkles his speech with misused Latin, could have been understudy to Fflewdur Fflam. Although The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man never fails to entertain, its love story is simple, its innkeeper-heroine is underdeveloped, and its overall comic sensibility diminishes the dramatic tension by ensuring that our heroes are rarely in any real danger.
Fortunately, that comic sensibility distinguishes this little novel by giving Alexander opportunities for social commentary and allowing him to develop, in 107 pages, his own philosophy of human nature. Take Mayor Pursewig, the crime boss who rules the town of Brightford by intimidating the locals with legalese:
“These two, knowingly, willingly, and with malice aforethought, removed their corporeal presence from an interriparian structure for the purpose of absconding without disbursement of a legally constituted financial obligation.”
“What he says,” Dr. Tudbelly muttered to the puzzled Lionel, “is that we crossed Brightford Bridge without paying any toll.”
“But we didn’t cross the bridge,” Lionel protested. “We jumped off. And the reason we jumped off is that were were being shot at with those things called crossbows.”
Pursewig owns the bridge, operates its tollgates, and holds the mortgages to half of Brightford’s houses, but he maintains his power by operating outside the law. He floods his competitors’ basements with rats, detains out-of-towners, presides over kangaroo courts, and sentences the “guilty” to thumbscrews. Amusingly, although the township’s lawful government eventually sorts out this mess, Alexander sees the council members as the arbiters of last resort. Well-meaning but clueless, they are so cloistered, and so distracted by Pursewig’s proposal for a new tax on window-panes, that they have no idea how badly their people have suffered.
Despite social critiques that could shade into cynicism, Alexander resists taking a dim view of human nature, opting instead for a pleasantly comic perspective. He once wrote that his books deal with “how we learn to be genuine human beings,” and The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man explores that notion at its most literal. Lionel seems at first to be a tabula rasa: he learns to walk, he struggles to put on clothing, and he misunderstands figurative expressions such as “You’ll eat a big slice of humble pie.” But the former cat is not without human instincts: he is bemused by the corrupt mayor’s manipulations of the legal system, angered by human discourtesy, and shocked when his enemies attempt to murder him. At times, he is tempted to steal and kill—but in the end, he chooses to save a life.
As far as Lloyd Alexander is concerned, even a brand-new human can recognize the difference between good behavior and bad. Decency and cruelty are both innately human traits, but so is the ability to distinguish between them. Lionel’s mastery of his new, competing human instincts should hearten young readers who will soon face moral choices of their own. The hope Alexander offers them belies the misanthropic dictum of Lionel’s former owner: “Be glad you are a cat.”