In the letter sent to Allen & Unwin in reply to a cat-breeder, who wished to use names from The Lord of the Rings to name her cats, Tolkien famously said: “I fear that to me Siamese cats belong to the fauna of Mordor….” (Letter 219). It is hard to tell whether the Professor’s comment referred only to the cats of this particular breed, or expressed his general attitude towards felines, but cats in Tolkien’s literary works are presented mostly in a negative light.
Of course, those very few cats that found their way into Tolkien’s stories are not necessarily the embodiment of the Professor’s possible dislike of these animals: in some of his poems cats appear in a good or, at least, neutral light. The attitude to cats in general has always been rather ambivalent. While in some mythologies and traditions cats were sacred animals, they boasted sinister reputation in others. During the Middle Ages, for example, felines were associated with witchcraft and devilry and were generally shunned or even killed, though there were some people who kept them as pets. Being independent, possessing a rather mysterious nature and not showing much aptitude for training, cats were prone to become targets for various superstitions and beliefs all over the world. Tolkien’s cats match the evil reputation owned by their real-world peers.
One of the oldest cat-characters in Tolkien’s works has clear connections with the highest evil in Middle-earth. In the early version of The Tale of Tinúviel Melko’s demonic servant and the predecessor of Sauron was the charismatic Tevildo Prince of Cats. This character did not survive the author’s revisions as he honed his stories, but remains only in The Book of Lost Tales II. Mighty and “possessed of an evil sprite” (Book of Lost Tales II, p. 16) Tevildo was the master of all cats in Melko’s household, and they had the task of getting food for the Dark Lord’s feasts. He was, indeed, a special character:
…he was a mighty cat and coal-black and evil to look upon. His eyes were long and very narrow and slanted, and gleamed both red and green, but his great grey whiskers were as stout and as sharp as needles. His purr was like the roll of drums and his growl like thunder, but when he yelled in wrath it turned the blood cold…
(Book of Lost Tales II, p. 16)
As Beren the Elf of the early mythology learnt, being Tevildo’s thrall was notoriously hard and ungrateful. As a master for his subjects and slaves, Tevildo was a match for Melko. Prince of Cats was cruel to those in his service and could keep them without food or rest for days on end. Should it happen so that someone did not match his high standards or made a mistake, dealing with a defaulter in question was easy, as Tevildo did not hesitate to kill his doorkeeper Umuiyan for being too clumsy and unsure of foot. A liar through and through, Tevildo could not tell lies from truth and believed only those things that were to his liking, no matter how absurd they sounded. Harsh, important, sardonic and patronal, just as it fitted his position in Melko’s household, Tevildo made a grand feline baron of Angamandi*.
However, even though Tevildo terrorised those in his service, he was mortally afraid of Huan Captain of Dogs. In The Tale of Tinúviel Tolkien brought about the classical opposition of cats and dogs which ended up in Huan’s defeating Tevildo and making him give in his golden collar together with the words of the spell that held his house together. Lúthien used this spell to cast down Tevildo’s castle, diminish the cats in his service and save Beren.
Though Tevildo did not survive Tolkien’s revisions, he was the predecessor of Sauron as Morgoth’s right hand. Such scenes as Huan’s fight with Tevildo or Lúthien’s using the spell forced from the Prince of Cats to demolish his castle and free his thralls remained in a similar episode in The Silmarillion taking place in Sauron’s fortress Tol-in-Gaurhoth. Tevildo’s golden collar with magic powers resembles Sauron’s One Ring and, as John Garth noticed in his review of Beren and Lúthien, the memory of Tevildo also survives in the yellow, lidless Eye of Sauron.
Another unpleasant representation of cats can be found in relation to Queen Berúthiel. She was the wife of Tarannon, the twelfth King of Gondor, and hated everything connected with the sea or any kind of adornment. Berúthiel was a loveless person, wore only black and kept ten cats as her slaves. Nine cats were black and one – white, whose job was also to watch her black peers and torment them. The Queen set her servants to spy on everyone and tell her the things “that men wish most to keep hidden” (Unfinished Tales, p. 520). She conversed with the cats and read their memories, which smells of black magic that people of the Middle Ages believed the felines to be connected with. Unsurprisingly, everyone in Gondor feared and hated the Queen’s cats. Eventually, Berúthiel was banished from the realm, set on a ship together with her cats and never seen again.
The memory of the Queen and her cats survived long in Gondor, though, and even in Moria, when referring to Gandalf’s skills to find his way in the dark corridors Aragorn says:
He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 408)
In reference to Gandalf this comparison can indeed be taken as a compliment.
*Angamandi was the early name of Melkor’s fortress Angband.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Book of Lost Tales. Part II; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.