BtC 8/22. The First Part Draws to a Close

Previously on Beware the Cat: After being kept up at night by the howling of cats, Mr Streamer has been discussing magical cats, witches and werewolves with the people in his lodging. He is begining to draw some spooky conclusions.

Layer 1: framing narrative spoken by Baldwin

Layer 2: main narrative spoken by Streamer

At last, Mr Streamer tells us that the name of the guy who had been in Ireland is Thomas. This is the point when English literature discovers that it is much easier to tell stories if the people in them have names. Top tip from the sixteenth century all you budding writers out there!

We also will learn what Thomas’s ultimate fate will be. Spoiler: it is an unfortunate one.

As I mentioned previously, Bladwin neatly satirises a style of reasoning that is all too familiar. Thomas is not a reliable witness (ignoring, for the moment, that Mr Streamer is also an unreliable narrator, cooked up by Baldwin who is also unreliable) but the basic truth of his stories are not doubted. They are accepted as relevant data that people then try to fit into their world view.

In fannish circles it is akin to the way we might discuss events in-universe and attempt to address plot holes. While also sorts of theories might be offered as to why the Death Star had such a ludicrous weakness in Star Wars: A New Hope, an in-universe explanation that maybe there was no Death Star and it was just a ludicrous story told by an ageing Luke Skywalker no different from his other less filmed story “the time I had to balance band of sand people on a Jawa that was standing on my head”, would be regarded as deeply unsatisfactory. An in-universe explanation assumes that events are basically true by virtue of being events – although the hidden mechanics of those events are mutable.

Within fiction such an approach is fun and exercises the imagination. In reality such an approach is the road to conspiracy theories and confusion. The question “did this event actually happen?”* goes unquestioned regardless of how ludicrous it is.

*[or something similar]

Mr Streamer Discusses Thomas’s Tales

After I had heard these tales, and that reasoning given by the teller ; “Thomas,” said I, (for that was his name – he died afterwards of a disease which he caught in Newgate, where he was gaoled for a time on suspicion of magic, because he had desired a prisoner to promise his soul after he was hanged) “I perceive now the old proverb is true, the still sow eats up all the draft. You go and behave yourself so simply that a man would think you were but a sot, but you have uttered such proof of a natural knowledge in this your brief tale as I think (except myself and few more the best learned alive) none could have done the like.

“You say your pleasure, Master Streamer,” said Thomas, “as for me I have said nothing but that I have seen, and where of any man might conjecture as I do.”

“You have spoke full well,” said he that gave occasion of this tale, “and your conjectures are quite reasonable. By ointments (as you suppose) the Irish witches do make the form of swine and wolves appear to all men’s sight, so think I that by the like power, English witches and Irish witches may and do turn themselves into cats. I have heard it told, while I was in the University, by a credible clerk of Oxford, that in the days when he was a child an old woman was brought before the official and accused of being a witch, who, in the likeness of a cat, would go into her neighbours house and steal things. This complaint was proved true by a the woman’s skin, which her accusers, with a fire-brand that they hurled at her had singed while she went a thieving in her cats likeness.

“To conclude as I began, I think that the cat which you call Grimalkin, whose name confirms my conjecture, for Malkin is a woman’s name. Witnesses the proverb, there be more maids then Malkin. I think that it was a witch in a cats likeness, and that for the wit and craft of her other natural cats, that were not so wise, have had her and her race in reverence among them, thinking her to be but a mere cat as they themselves were. Like as we silly fools for a long time reverenced the Pope for his sly and crafty juggling, thinking him to have been but a man (though much holier than we ourselves were), whereas, indeed, he was a very incarnated devil, like as this Grimalkin was an enchanted witch.”

“Why then, Sir,” said I, “do you think the natural cats have wit, and that they understand one another?”

“What else, Mr Streamer,” said he, “there is no kind of sensible creatures but have reason and understanding, whereby each understands other. Does there in some parts so excel that the considerations of this moved Pythagoras (as you know) to believe and affirm that after death men’s souls went into beasts, and beasts souls into men, every one according to his desert in his former body. Although his opinions be false, yet that which drew him to it is evident and true, and that is the wit and reason of many beasts; and again the dull, beastly, brutish ignorance of many men. But that beasts understand one another, and fowls likewise we see by daily experience in the story of the Bishop of Alexandra. He found the means either through diligence so to mark them, or else through magic natural, so to enhance his sensible power, (either by purging his brain by dry drinks and fumes, or else to augment the brains of his power perceptible by other natural medicines) that he understood all kinds of creature by their voices. For example, sitting at dinner in a house among his friends, he hear a sparrow that came fleeing and chirping to others that were about the house, and smiled to himself to hear her. When one of the company desired to know why he smiled, he said at the sparrows tale; ‘for she told them,’ said he, ‘that in the highway, not a quarter of a mile hence, a sack of wheat is even now fallen off a horse-back and broken, and all the wheat has run out, and therefore bids them come thither to dinner,’ and when the guests,, sent to check the story, they found it even as he had told them.”

When this tale was ended the clock struck nine, whereupon old Thomas, because he had to go to his lodging, took his leave and departed; the rest of the company went either to their business or to their beds.

And I went straight to my chamber, and took a book in my hand to study, but my thoughts of these tales so troubled me that I could think of nothing else, and so examined more narrowly what every man had said.