In our arts we find our bliss

Cats and writing go together. Hemingway famously had polydactyl cats, their descendants still inhabiting his house at Key West. William S. Burroughs led an unconventional life, but he loved his cats. Macavity the Mystery Cat, a verse written by T.S. Eliot to amuse his godchildren, is one of the first poems I remember delighting in as a child.

My own cat, Pye, keeps me company most of the hours I write. She’s licking my forearm as I type now. Sometimes she’ll curl up beside the laptop; sometimes she installs herself in the good-on-one-side-paper basket that sits on top of my printer.  Mostly, she drapes herself across a shoulder.

This relationship – cats and writers – is as old as writing and domesticated cats, I think. Medieval manuscripts frequently include cats, as marginalia, as decoration, as accidental contributors to the text. In my own medieval historical fantasy series, one of the characters is a scholar and a writer. In the current book of the series, the one I’m writing now, there will be a scene involving a white kitten that has adopted him. The scholar’s friend comes in after a time away, sees that he is writing a poem, and asks what it is.

What it is, with all the artistic license writers can use, is an imagining of a scene from the 9th century, a little later than my setting, but no matter. In the Reichenau Primer, an early 9th century manuscript written almost entirely in Old Irish, is a poem about a writer and his cat and the parallels between their lives. It is this poem that my character Cillian is writing, to his white cat.

Here is the best-known translation, by Robin Flowers*, the one I learned as a child:

I and Pangur Bàn my cat, 
‘Tis a like task we are at: 
Hunting mice is his delight, 
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men 
‘Tis to sit with book and pen; 
Pangur bears me no ill-will, 
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see 
At our tasks how glad are we, 
When at home we sit and find 
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray 
In the hero Pangur’s way; 
Oftentimes my keen thought set 
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye 
Full and fierce and sharp and sly; 
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I 
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den, 
O how glad is Pangur then! 
O what gladness do I prove 
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply, 
Pangur Bàn, my cat, and I; 
In our arts we find our bliss, 
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made 
Pangur perfect in his trade; 
I get wisdom day and night 
Turning darkness into light.

This small scene is a conceit, a darling I won’t kill*. It adds to the world-building for some, to Cillian’s character for others, and will, I suppose, do nothing at all for some readers. But it’s a tribute to my Pye, and all the other cats who have kept me company over the years.

(Update: I did kill it. But it survives as a short story, here.)


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