The King Of The Cats
Also known as: The King o’ the Cats
The King of the Cats is a folk tale that comes from Britain. The earliest version of this story was found written in a letter by Thomas Lyttelton, the 2nd Baron Lyttelton. The story was first published in 1782 by Walter Scott who reported it as being a well known nursery tale from the Scottish Highlands. The story “The King of the Cats” continues to be seen and used in many places of modern references, from William Shakespeare to video games and even in comic books such as Batman where Catwoman’s brother is referred to as The King of the Cats.
The Basic Story
One winter night, a man comes bursting home through his door calling out to his wife and startling the family cat: “Who’s Tommy Tildrum!?!”
Startled, the man’s wife asks him what the matter is and who this Tommy Tildrum is.
The man proceeds to tell his wife how he was working in the cemetery digging a new grave when he had fallen asleep. He woke up hearing a cat’s meow and when he looked out over the edge of the grave hole, he saw a group of nine black cats all carrying a small coffin with a gold crown laid upon it. That at every third step the cats took, they’d all meow again in unison. Eventually the group of cats made their way towards the man. One of the cats stood before the man and said: “Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.”
With that, the family cat burst out with: “Old Tom’s dead! Then I’m the King of the Cats!” as he rushed up the chimney, never to be seen again.
Variations of the Story
A variation of this story from Ireland has a man selling a calf at the November fair in Macroom, County Cork. After he’s sold the calf, he leaves the fair late in the evening and on his way, passes by the Inchigeelagh graveyard where a cat puts its head through the railings and tells the man: “Tell Balgeary that Balgury is dead.” The rest of the story pretty much follows its English counter-part with the family cat running out on the door once the man returns home to tell his story.
Continuing the Irish Connection
A king or lord of cats is also found in a couple of early Irish stories. In some versions of the Imtheacht na Tromdhaimhe (The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution) in which there is a dispute between the bard Senchán Torpéist and the king Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin of Connacht. The dispute led to Senchán cursing all mice with a dozen of them being killed in shame. This in turn led to the death of several cats that were responsible for keeping the mice population in check. In retaliation, the king of the cats, Irusan son of Arusan tracked Senchán down with the intention of killing the bard. However, Irusan was killed by Saint Kieran instead.
This story was later rewritten and published in Lady Jane Wilde’s book Ancient Legends of Ireland as “Seanchan the Bard and the King of the Cats” in 1866. Fame poet and author W.B. Yeats republished it in 1892 in his book Irish Fairy Tales. The story is also retold again as “the King of the Cats Came to King Connal’s Dominion” in Padraic Colum’s The King of Ireland’s Son published in 1916.
In the original story, the family cat Tom and the cats seen in the grave yard are described as being black cats with a spot of white. In Celtic fairy lore, the Cat Sith is a fairy creature described as being a large black cat with a spot of white on its chest.