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March/April 2010
 
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Beware The Cat, by William Baldwin (1533)

THIS STORY of intelligent cats is still fun to read today. It is almost science fiction—if you will admit alchemy as a science. What if alchemy allowed someone to understand the language of cats?

The cats have their own society, history, and motives, which resemble what many an unsentimental cat person has imagined as the secret life of their own cat. The alchemy is treated seriously. Instructions for understanding the language of cats are given in detail. "I tarried till ten o'clock before dinner, what time Mercury began his lucky reign. And then I took a piece of the cat's liver and a piece of the kidney, a piece of the milt and the whole heart, the fox's heart and the lights, the hare's brain, the kite's maw, and the urchin's kidneys. All these I beat in a mortar together until it were small, and then made a cake of it."

The body of the story consists of several reports of conversations of cats overheard. Some of the stories have a strong anti-Papist theme.

A 1995 edition edited by William A. Ringler, Jr. and Michael Flachmann has an introduction giving reasons for considering Beware the Cat to be the first novel in English, and an appendix lists all of the candidates for "first English novel." At slightly more than fifty pages, we would today consider Beware the Cat a very short novel at best, but it is longer than most of the other candidates, and more original.

—Rick Norwood

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