Jonathan Kirk Lusty

These Boots Were Made for Walking

In the field of fairy tale studies, the academic tendency is to regard Charles Perrault, the noteworthy French writer, as a link in a folkloric chain. Unfortunately, one ramification of this tendency is that it underrates the originality of Perrault (and others like him—such as the Italian Giambattista Basile or the Brothers Grimm), relegating him from the status of “author” to “adaptor.” His Stories or Tales of Times Past then appear to be mere phases in the retelling of nigh universal and ageless folktales; when examined, they are almost always compared and contrasted with previous and subsequent interpretations of their respective stories. The benefits of this paradigm are the cross-cultural similarities it highlights, and thus the generalities it allows us to make (“wolves are like this . . .” or “women are seen this way . . .”), besides the chronological evolution of both the folktales themselves and the traditions of transmitting them that it demonstrates. Again, however, the consequence of this paradigm is that the original details of Perrault’s works are blurred as commentators conflate them with those of his counterparts, and Perrault’s individual voice is lost among theirs.[1]

We shall principally consider one of the most popular fairy tales in the genre: “Le Maitre Chat, ou le Chat Botté,” or Puss in Boots. Even if scholars accept the folkloric paradigm—that it is just a seventeenth-century French retelling of the classic “animal as helper” story—they also all acknowledge that Perrault is the first to include the now titular detail of boots.[2] This much seems certain: Perrault put Puss in boots. And yet there seems to be little to no scholarly interest in the meaning of the boots themselves: there is virtually no analysis of the boots—be it folkloric, historically based (footwear in seventeenth-century French culture)[3] or textually based (footwear as used by Perrault in his writings). Commentators have even outright dismissed the boots, as do Iona and Peter Opie in their The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford, 1974), where they refer to the appearance of the boots as “vestigial passages that now are superfluous to the plot, do not illuminate the narrative, and thus are passages a literary artist would have rejected in the process of creating a work of art” because “his insistence upon the footwear is explained nowhere in the tale, it is not developed, nor is it referred to after its first mention except in an aside.”[4] But how can the boots be superfluous if Perrault put them in the title, literally “booting” his cat?

Textually, the boots were not superfluous; nor, for that matter, were any other details in Perrault’s fairytales. While they may only be explicitly mentioned twice in the plot—first when Puss requests them of the miller’s son, and second when they cause Puss some difficulty walking on the roof of the Ogre’s castle (138, 142)—they are implicitly present throughout the tale. Indeed, they are implicitly crucial to the tale’s progression and to its meaning. When taken in historical and especially intertextual context, they—along with other disregarded details taken up here—reveal that “Puss in Boots” serves as a social commentary on seventeenth-century French society. Puss, in his boots, represents an ingenious bourgeois whom Perrault observes seeking to advance his social status at every turn. He intends to move among the nobility, while the Ogre he vanquishes represents the older and dwindling aristocracy—all that the then modern bourgeois threatened to replace.

Original LOL Cat…Ogre not laughing

Ogres Are Like Onions

The word “ogre” conjures images of a hideous giant who feeds on human flesh; it is almost always male, often grotesquely malformed or corpulent, and invariably dimwitted. If clothed at all, it tends to wear coarse and ragged pelts—perhaps no more elaborate than a loincloth. From a lair (usually) in a cave, (naturally) in the depths of a primeval forest, it brutally terrorizes (generally) humankind with (preferably) a crude club.

Even if the above description is somewhat overwrought, a search of Google Images will confirm the general outline; according to the popular conception, ogres are hulking, uncouth, and stupid monsters. The assertion, therefore, that the Ogre in “Puss in Boots” represents the old aristocracy seems completely at odds with the popular conception of ogres; that is because it is, for Perrault’s original use of ogres (and of all things ogrish in his works) is always accompanied by details which were (and still are) strongly associated with the aristocracy.

Firstly, the Ogre is obscenely rich (“the richest one had ever seen”), and was even planning on dining on “a magnificent banquet” in the “Great Hall” of his castle before Puss arrives. Yes, that says castle; the Ogre actually dwells in “a beautiful castle” over which the King himself fangirlishly gushes, saying that “nothing can be more beautiful than this courtyard and all the buildings which surround it.” And, just in case the aristocratic imagery of a castle is not strong enough, we read that all the lands through which Puss passed to reach the castle (the lands being reaped and harvested by “peasants”) are “dependent upon this castle” (141-143). In other words, said lands are the Ogre’s fiefdom, and nothing screams aristocracy like the feudal system.

The cross-textual repetition of this aristocratic imagery—of wealth and land, even a fiefdom—can only reinforce it. In Perrault’s “Tom Thumb” (Le Petit Poucet), the ogre lives in a well-provisioned house,[5] large enough for himself, his wife, and his seven daughters, each of whom wears a golden crown (192)—that just screams aristocracy—with separate bedrooms and beds (even a spare bed) for parents and children, an extravagant luxury compared to Tom’s living conditions. Furthermore, this house is in the middle of a forest that belongs to the ogre. In Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” (La Belle au Bois dormant), we’re told explicitly that the Prince’s father married the Queen Mother (despite her ogrish inclinations, as she is of a race of ogres—she’s even more commonly called “the Ogress”) only for her wealth (111). Really, she must have been quite rich to make a king gold-dig. Later, when the Prince goes off to war, he entrusts the regency to her. As far as fiefdoms go, an entire kingdom is not too shabby. Finally, while the titular character of “Bluebeard” (La Barbe bleue) may never have been explicitly called an ogre, his habit of killing his wives and then using their carcasses to decorate the walls of his mancave is certainly ogrish (128); it is also certain that Bluebeard’s environment is replete with the same aristocratic imagery, what with his manors in the city and the countryside (where he hosts balls, feasts, and hunts), his gold-plated carriages, his finely embroidered clothing, and his dishware made of solid gold and silver (repeated over 125-28).

I’ll grind your bones to make by bread if you disobey what I’ve said!

But, more than wealth or land, it is the devotion to a façade of sophistication that reveals the Ogre in Puss in Boots as symbolic of the aristocracy. The richness and beauty of his property—which, again, are so great that they astound the King himself (141-43)—first speak to this. Maintaining a whole fiefdom requires effort; modern-day yardwork and housework certainly do (even if you pay and/or threaten to eat someone else into doing it for you).[6] We then read that the Ogre received the polite Puss “as civilly as an ogre can and offered him repose” as they conversed (142). The keyword here is, of course, “civil”, which meant “courtly”. Such comportment implies deliberate refinement—or, in other words, sophistication—so as to inspire the proper respect for one’s station. Without respect, one has no glory; ergo, one has no glory without sophistication. Historically, this fits; the late seventeenth century was the heyday of Louis XIV, of aristocratic opulence and etiquette, when the façade of sophistication was so important that people literally bankrupted themselves to maintain it.[7] The Ogre, representing the aristocracy, likewise values his image—for why else would he have received Puss (the purported servant of a marquis) in audience and treated Puss with such “civility” (offering him repose)? Likewise, why would the Ogre prepare to receive his friends with that magnificent banquet (143)—not just a meal or a feast, but a banquet, which implies delicacy and refinement—if not to underline his own sophistication? Finally, when his glory is courteously challenged, the Ogre endeavors to defend it in an equally grand display: by becoming a lion (142).

Again, this insistence on sophistication is reflected in the ogres of Perrault’s other tales, even at their most inhuman.[8] Finally yielding to her ogrish inclinations, the Queen Mother in Sleeping Beauty decides to eat her granddaughter (!) but doesn’t want to be crass about it; no, she orders the Royal Chef to prepare the little girl in a “Sauce Robert” (112). This one detail is almost as rich as the “Sauce Robert” itself—a staple of haute cuisine that, in the seventeenth century, would have taken a master chef the better part of a day to properly prepare. This detail is echoed in Tom Thumb when the ogre first comments that the seven boys will be “gourmet morsels” with “a good sauce” (191) and second orders his wife to go “dress” them (194). Naturally, this is in the sense of the more antiquated word for “cook”, and denotes a more complicated culinary process.[9]  Indeed, Perrault’s ogres might as well be wearing crowns.[10]

Social Climbing Boots

When you have a crucial meeting with someone important (say, a king), do you take your shoes off first? In Western civilization, absolutely not; that would be unseemly—it would just not look right. Then to be sure, though Puss’s boots are only explicitly mentioned twice in the plot, they are implicitly present throughout Perrault’s tale; Puss is wearing his boots when he stands before the King, the peasants, and the Ogre.

As Corrine Harkcom notes, “Boots, worn both indoors and outdoors, with spurs, and their large tops folded down upon themselves . . . [were] a sign of distinction even before Louis XIV’s reign, with his father [Louis XIII] (who reigned during Charles Perrault’s younger years) donning the boots regularly” (9-10). Made of durable, crafted leather, boots were naturally more expensive—and, therefore, practically restricted to those of some means; in other words, boots were a status symbol of the wealthy. So no one questions the word of Puss when he appears before the King and presents him with a rabbit from “My lord the Marquis of Carabas” (Contes 139) because Puss looks the part in his boots. They do not question Puss’s story that thieves have robbed his master when he introduces “the Marquis” to the King (140). Nor does anyone question Puss when he orders the peasants (on pain of grinding death) to proclaim that the lands they work are the property of “the Marquis” (141). Standing before them in boots, an obvious designation of wealth and power, he no doubt looks capable of executing his threat. Finally, Puss begs the honor of bowing to the Ogre, who receives Puss “as civilly as an ogre can” (see above). With a courtly bow in his fashionable footwear, Puss must look worthy of the Ogre’s acquaintance—rich and powerful, and with discerning tastes.

Footwear as a key plot device is not unique to Puss in Boots; Perrault also makes use of it in both “Tom Thumb” and “Cinderella” (Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre).[11] Coincidentally enough, the footwear in both (seven-league boots and glass slippers respectively) is also crucial for the protagonist to look the part.[12] In one of two possible endings to Tom Thumb, the protagonist steals the ogre’s seven-league boots (196)—which, we know from Sleeping Beauty, allow one to walk seven leagues [or 21 miles] in a single step (105)—and then uses them to trick the ogre’s wife into handing over their riches—specifically, he tells the her that the ogre is being held for ransom, and shows her the boots as corroborating proof (195-96). In Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother gives the titular heroine a coach, servants, and sumptuous clothes by magic, followed by a pair of glass slippers (158-59).[13] Together, this fantastic ensemble gives everyone the impression that she is a princess—she certainly looks the part—and she is recognized at the end of the tale thanks to the glass slippers. As far as footwear as a status symbol goes, they are the most explicit of all three examples. Who but the extraordinarily wealthy could possess such an extravagant piece of clothing? In modern-day terms, glass slippers would be comparable to diamond-encrusted stiletto heels.[14]

We would be remiss in our analysis of these tales, however, if we did not mention that the above characters do not merely look the part; they each also act the part with shrewdness and savoir-faire. After identifying the perfect pretext to meet the King (offering him tribute), Puss formulates a meticulous plan to insert himself and his master into the King’s entourage; he then creates a story and acquires all the tools he needs to sell it (the boots, and a bag to trap said tribute). Only then does he put his plan into action. Moreover, Puss is a rhetorical genius, coaxing and encouraging to his master, reverential and accommodating before the King, frightening and stern to the peasants, flattering but politely defiant before the Ogre (138-143). Cinderella, learning from her Fairy Godmother, recognizes that her coach will need a coachman, and suggests where one can be procured (152). Then, at the ball, when mistaken for a princess, Cinderella does nothing to correct that misconception; on the contrary, it is with the grace and graciousness of a princess that she behaves, and so convinces the court of her royal status (160-61).[15] After the second ball, she keeps her remaining glass slipper on her person at all times—even in her pocket (164)—so as to always be ready to prove her identity. And in Tom Thumb, the cunning exhibited in the first ending is self-evident. In the alternate (and infinitely more satisfying) ending, the protagonist immediately recognizes the entrepreneurial worth of the seven-league boots, and then establishes the fairytale equivalent of UPS (UPPS—PP for Petit Poucet), becoming a royal messenger to the army and a courier for any lady wishing to receive and send news to her lover—for a fee (197).

Puss, Cinderella, and Tom: all three manage to walk the walk and talk the talk in their respective footwear (to look and act the parts they choose). Indeed, knowing that the must look the part is the clearest demonstration of each character’s shrewdness, and achieving it is the ultimate demonstration of savoir-faire. For all thee, the result is the same: social advancement. Tom Thumb amasses much wealth, and his family lives ever after in ease; he even purchases commissions for his father and brothers (197-98).[16] Cinderella weds the prince (165). Puss’s master becomes a prince himself, and Puss becomes a lord (144).

This image of wealth and power which Puss uses the boots and his savoir-faire to cultivate for himself and his master is in direct contrast with their origins. At the beginning of the tale, his master is the youngest son of a miller, and Puss himself is seemingly the poorest lot of three inheritances (137). As a skilled worker, a miller’s rung on the social ladder of seventeenth-century France would fall into the non-agricultural class of tradesman. Yet again, Cinderella and Tom Thumb have even lower status: the former (born of a financially destitute aristocratic father who married a “person of quality”) being relegated to menial labor about the house, and the latter being the son of faggot-makers.

By the end of the tale, however, Puss and his master have replaced the Ogre and taken possession of his wealth and lands—similarly, the protagonists of the other two tales that feature ogres (“Sleeping Beauty” and “Tom Thumb”) have do the same. Puss and his master climb the social ladder to its apex—into the royal family itself. This was a gradual process, made possible by Puss’s boots and savoir-faire (by looking the part and acting the part). He enters into the King’s favor and society (he is given refreshments) by performing periodic services to him, thence into the King’s inner circle (joins the king in his royal carriage) and ultimately into his family as his son-in-law (139-144). Likewise, Cinderella is a princess, and Tom Thumb a wealthy and influential businessman in the kingdom: the monarch “pays him perfectly well . . . and ladies give him all he wants for news of their lovers” (197). They all climb high up the social ladder.

It’s a Robe, Not a Dress

It can hardly be surprising that Perrault’s heroes would be so tightly linked to la bourgeoisie, for he himself was bourgeois. The youngest child of seven, he studied law like his father and four brothers before him, and was even hand-picked by Louis XIV’s renowned Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (who was bourgeois as well) to serve in several high-ranking administrative positions. Controller of His Majesty’s Buildings was among these, and “Master Perrault” received them according to his merit—much like his patron, Colbert.[17] Perrault was the consummate bourgeois, much as Puss is. It is even worthy of note that roughly halfway through the tale (after the scene at the river, where Puss introduces “the Marquis” to the King), Puss becomes “Master Puss,” as if in recognition of all his service theretofore rendered to the King.[18]

The promotion of bourgeois to the nobility flourished under Louis XIV—who is, furthermore, notable for the appointment of meritorious bourgeois to important positions in his administration.[19]  Perrault himself never attained an aristocratic title; his social status advanced, but it never progressed beyond la bourgeoisie. The social advancement of Puss may therefore reflect Perrault’s own desires. What is certain, however, is that it reflects the desires of his contemporaries; the bourgeoisie sought social advancement to the nobility at every opportunity—not merely for recognition, but to gain the same privileges which were reserved to the aristocracy, such as exemption from taxes, the right to bear arms and hunt, and the right to attend court rituals.[20]

The road to nobility was a long and difficult one that required certain savoir-faire, such as how to serve to king and country, how to look and act the part of a noble, and how to manipulate the old aristocracy. And, like Puss, social climbers surely knew that a good pair of boots is always useful for walking long and difficult roads.

[1] As “originality” is controversial subject among fairytale scholars, “original details” should be understood as signifying any specific element of a tale plot that first appears  in Perrault’s 1697 Histoire ou Contes du temps passé.

[2] In the introduction to their The Authentic Mother Goose: Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes (1960), Jacques Barchilon and Henry Pettit note this important detail (14-16).

[3] I found only one: Corinne Harkcom’s Puss in Boots: An Analysis of Feline Footwear (2007), which can be found here. I am greatly indebted to her historical research.

[4] Classic Fairytales, 22.

[5] The Ogre can eat “a calf, two sheep, and half a pig” for his supper, besides drinking “a dozen cups more than usual” of wine (191). The implication here is, of course, that the Ogre can afford this—even in a time of great famine (184).

[6] And don’t I know it.

[7] Madame de Sévigné, famed epistolary courtier records an incident of suicide due to the stress of appearing opulent and perfect before the King. It concerns François Vatel, the head chef at the château de Chantilly, residence of the Condé branch of the Bourbon family. As her story goes, one night Louis XIV was passing through Chantilly and Condé planned a banquet for 2000 in his honor. Unfortunately, there was some glitch in the delivery plans and Vatel was told that much of the expected fish would not arrive in time. He stabbed himself to death just a short while before all the fish did, indeed, arrive. See the letter translated here.

[8] It is worth noting that no specific detail is ever given regarding the physical appearance of the ogres, save Bluebeard if we decide to count him among them. We must therefore infer that, though they do not act human (seeking to devour human flesh—which even Bluebeard does on a metaphorical level, by swallowing up the secrets of his murdered wives deep in the bowels of his mansion), they at least appear human. The same can be said of the aristocracy, who could be argued to have metaphorically devoured their fellow man through feudal servitude, taxes, and wars.

[9] Any process that starts with killing children tends to be pretty complicated.

[10] Oh, right . . . (192).

[11] “Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper.” Would anyone argue that this shoe is superfluous?

[12] Not actually a coincidence. Harkcom argues that there is “no logical connection” between the footwear of the tree tales—in essence because Puss’s boots are not magical (6-7). We shall see, however, that the question of its magic is largely irrelevant given the similarities in the textual and cultural connotations of all three.

[13] The slippers, unlike everything else, are not magical. While everything else vanishes at midnight, the slippers remain (163-164).

[15] A royal status she does not have, but which she nonetheless sells effectively.

[16] Commissions in the military or administrative positions (elevated bourgeois positions) would, of course, open the door to further social advancement for the family.

[17] Some of these details appear in Harkcom.

[18] Hence the original title Le Maitre Chat (The Master Cat). Harkcom points out this detail.

[19] They were known as “Nobility of the Robe” in contrast with the titled aristocracy of old lineage called “Nobility of the Sword.” The latter had fallen considerably in financial stature with the fall of the feudal system and especially under absolutism, whereas the bourgeois that advanced did so because they could pay. Their practice of mingling with the rich and recently ennobled nobility, or wedding directly into the wealthy bourgeoisie became known as “regilding one’s coat of arms” (“redorer son blazon”).

[20] Note that the bourgeoisie was part of “le tiers état” (the Third Estate), below nobles and the clergy. There was some big trouble over this in 1789.