Puss in Boots and Books: The History of a Fairy Tale

March 16, 2023 | Myrna

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A clever cat helps a commoner become a noble and marry a princess in Puss in Boots. This classic fairy tale has been in circulation for over 450 years. Italian Giovanni Francesco Straparola first wrote down Puss in Boots, but today French fairy tale collector Charles Perrault's version is best known.

Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books has materials which reveal the history of Puss in Boots' adventures. 

Colour illustration of a cat wearing boots and holding two birds and a rabbit
From The Surprising Adventures of Puss in Boots, or, The Master-cat (1830), a chapbook edition of the popular fairy tale.

Charles Perrault’s famous fairy tale

Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots first appeared in the fairy tale collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé: avec des moralitez (Stories or Tales from Past Times with Morals). Published in 1697, the story's French title is Le Maître chat ou le Chat botté (The Master Cat, or Cat in Boots). Perrault’s collection includes beloved fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood.

Black and white illustration of cat wearing boots with the text "Le Maître chat ou le Chat botte" beneath
Illustration from a 1697 unauthorized edition of Histoires ou Contes du temps passé. Perrault's story collection was instantly popular and spread throughout Europe via authorized and unauthorized editions.

In Perrault’s story, a miller’s youngest son despairs when he inherits only a cat in his father’s will. But this is no ordinary cat. All the cat needs is a pair of boots to set in motion a clever plan to help his owner. The cat convinces a local King that the miller’s son is the wealthy “Marquis de Carabas.” Soon the cat manages to trick an ogre out of his castle and engineer a marriage between the miller’s son and a princess.

Perrault's Puss in Boots is a product of a specific time and place. The cat's scheme allows the miller's son to succeed in King Louis XIV's high society, the same circles Perrault lived in. Many adaptations of Puss in Boots reference the fashion, architecture and culture of late-17th century France. 

Colour illustration of a young man and woman bowing to each other while a king and cat look on
Many Puss in Boots illustrators draw inspiration from 17th century French courtly fashion. From Puss in Boots (1897) illustrated by Walter Crane.

Puss in Boots' Italian origins

Charles Perrault's telling of Puss in Boots is best known to modern readers, but an Italian writer first recorded the fairy tale. The earliest version of Puss in Boots appeared in Giovanni Francesco Straparola's 1551 collection of tales Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights). Straparola's story is titled Costantino Fortunato (Lucky Costantino).

Black and white illustration of cat and boy
A Lucky Constantino illustration from a 1604 edition of Straparola's tales

In Straparola’s story, the clever cat is a transformed fairy, who sets out to help a poor peasant. Lucky Costantino's adventures involve less trickery than Perrault's story. Instead of hoodwinking an ogre to obtain a castle, the castle’s owner conveniently dies and leaves the castle empty.

A later Italian version of Puss in Boots appeared in Giambattista Basile's Il Pentamerone (1634), a collection of fairy tales in Basile's Neapolitan dialect. However, by the 17th century, only Le piacevoli notti had been translated into French. Scholars think Perrault likely encountered Straparola's Costantino Fortunato as a written or oral story. 

George Cruikshank’s sanitized story

George Cruikshank was a celebrated 19th century illustrator.  He was also a passionate advocate for temperance and social reform. His version of Puss in Boots appeared in George Cruikshank’s Fairy Library (1853), a collection of rewritten fairy tales with newly assigned morals. Cruikshank criticized the Perrault telling of Puss in Boots, calling the story “a succession of successful falsehoods…a clever lesson in lying!” In his version of Puss in Boots, the cat gives a lengthy speech at the wedding feast, revealing that the miller’s son is the castle’s true heir and no lies were told. 

Black and white drawing of a cat giving a speeach to a large dinner party
"Tom Puss" explains that the miller's son is the castle's true heir in Cruikshank's Puss in Boots.

Charles Dickens was close friends with Cruikshank, but condemned the rewritten fairy tales in an article entitled “Frauds on the Fairies.” Dickens argued: 

"[Cruikshank] has no greater moral justification in altering the harmless little books than we should have in altering his best etchings. If such a precedent were followed we must soon become disgusted with the old stories into which modern personages so obtruded themselves, and the stories themselves must soon be lost."

Puss in Boots today 

In the 21st century, Puss in Boots continues to be a popular tale. Some modern adaptations closely follow Perrault's traditional tale, but others experiment with new settings and storylines. Books like Puss in Magical Motocross Boots (2022) and Puss in Cowboy Boots (2002) imagine new adventures for the clever cat. 

In the Shrek film franchise, Puss in Boots is a breakout character voiced by actor Antonio Banderas. For the character, filmmakers took inspiration from Banderas' performance in The Mask of Zorro (1998). Puss became a Spanish, swashbuckling vigilante rather than a French or Italian trickster. This version of Puss has inspired two popular spin-off films, Puss in Boots (2011) and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022).

Movies poster for Puss in Boots (2011) and Puss in Boots The Last Wish (2022)

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