The bestselling author of Big Fish, Daniel Wallace, examines the role of myth through his new book, The Cat’s Pajamas.
When I was a freshman in college an old friend of mine named Bruce and I exchanged letters all about the work of Dr. Seuss. That’s how we’d write about it: “the work of Dr. Seuss” or “the work of the Doctor.”
On Green Eggs and Ham: “In the most widely accepted interpretation, the parable confronts man’s inability to change; the radically different is thought to be evil.”
On Horton Hears a Who!: “The situation in the jungle is much like the one existing between atheists and Christians. The atheists are vocal in denying God’s existence. But by staunchly voicing disbelief, one may counter-intuitively be confirming His existence in a negative fashion. Put another way: Christian = Godx +Atheists = God-x.”
Bruce even drew a “lost ending” for Green Eggs and Ham: things turn ugly.
This was in 1980. Bruce lived in Birmingham; I was in Chapel Hill. Bruce is now a rocket scientist, and I am not making that up.
The joke was that we were taking kids’ books and examining them through the eyes of would-be intellectuals, as academics, mocking the sort of people who thought about things too much, too hard, too deeply, finding things that don’t exist in a work or that never existed before they mentioned it.
But now that I’ve written my first children’s book, The Cat’s Pajamas, I do feel that there are elements within the text that will be lost on, say, a four-year-old. The whole kit-and-kaboodle of a liberal arts education is in this book, which, let’s face it, the lion’s share of my readers will have yet to experience. So I will give my own book now the treatment I gave Dr. Seuss 35 years ago.
There are many ways to look at The Cat’s Pajamas in addition to the most important one, the one that kids will read, which is that it’s a book about a cat, Louis Fellini, who wears pajamas to school one day and changes the world forever.
The Cat’s Pajamas relies on the power of myth to explain ourselves to ourselves. This is why we began telling stories at all, and why we continue to, and why storytelling and writers are so important, so crucial, to our conceptions of culture, history and the future. As Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth:
We all want to know where we came from, but because our earliest beginnings are lost in the mists of prehistory, we have created myths about our forefathers that are not historical but help explain current attitudes about our environment, neighbours and customs.
The myth of The Cat’s Pajamas was inspired by the phrase that became the title of the book. Where does that phrase from? What does it mean? How did it come to be? Internet research turns up very little:
“An adjective used in the 1920s to describe someone who is the best at what they do.”
“Someone who is genial and fun to be with.”
“An excellent person or thing.”
The term may have had no actual antecedents and came to be as part of a popular series of phrases in the 1920s about animals and body parts (including the bee's knees, the snake's hips, the clam's garter, the eel's ankle, the elephant's instep, the tiger's spots, the leopard's stripes, the sardine's whiskers and the pig's wings). For mythmakers this is the best possible scenario, for where there is no explanation, a myth runs in to fill the void. Louis’s choice to don pajamas is essentially haphazard, a non-choice, but the result is far-reaching, illuminating how randomness itself is often more effective than conscious thought.
And yet what, in the end, does the book really explain? There is a moral to the story — that you can make a difference by being different — but that’s just something for the kids, really, and it’s innocuous enough to be palatable to everyone. But it seems to be a long walk for the creation story behind a phrase. It could be viewed as unnecessarily complicated and recondite if all I’m getting at is “This is why cats are cats.”
But many myths are unnecessarily complicated and recondite. When Perseus was looking for a way to slay the Gorgons, the oracle of Delphi told him to “seek the land where men eat not Demeter’s golden grain, but only acorns.” How crazy is that? So Perseus went to Dodona, “where the talking oaks were,” and indeed they did talk, but they didn’t tell him anything — nothing about the Gorgons, anyway. Turns out they just like to chatter. So while elements of the quest appear insubstantial, the story supplies what is the primary goal of any story: entertainment. It’s just plain fun.
The Cat’s Pajamas is circuitous in that it explains cats before they became the cats we know today, as if at some point in the distant past they did stand up, live in houses, etc. Myth can do this — explain why cats are cats — but why include them almost being human in their culture, their homes, in the way they dress? This early cat culture was no different than our own, thus it’s not impossible to believe that had the culture never disintegrated we would not have had the opportunity to create our own. Human society as we know it may never have existed.
Despite what The Cat’s Pajamas posits, cats obviously never wore clothing of any kind, nor did they live in houses similar to our own or talk or go to school, et cetera. And no one, not even the youngest reader, would ever believe that they did. But as Armstrong writes:
Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel ... myth is make-believe ... and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’ — a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology.