I’m declaring December my month to recommend lesser-known Fantasy Classics written for children. In honour of a new feline in our household (blue-silver Norwegian Forest kitten, Lilith) I’m starting with Ursula Moray Williams’ stories about a cat called Gobbolino. As a Christmas bonus, I’m recommending two books – `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ (1942) and `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’ (1984). The first of these was illustrated by Moray Williams herself and the second by the incomparable Pauline Baynes. Both are still in print as paperbacks or as luxury edition hardbacks.

Gobbolino and his sister, Sootica, are the kittens of a witch’s cat. Pure black, green-eyed Sootica is looking forward to learning magic and becoming a proper witch’s cat like her mother but Gobbolino has been born different – he has blue eyes and one white paw. Even worse, Gobbolino longs to be an ordinary kitchen cat and says that, “I want to be good and have people love me.” Gobbolino soon finds himself rejected by his own mother and all the witches of the Hurricane Mountains.

Alone in the world, Gobbolino searches for a family to take him in. He thinks that he has found a loving home in a farmhouse but is soon expelled for being a witch’s cat. Gobbolino wanders the world, staying for a while with many different people including a group of orphans, the crew of a sailing ship, an invalid princess, a damsel in a tower and a travelling puppet-show. Every time he thinks that he has found a home, Gobbolino is forced to move on simply for being what he is. In the end his journey takes him back to the mountains where he was born. Can Gobbolino ever find a place where he belongs?

`Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ is a book which manages to be both timeless and distinctively of its time. Modern children (and adults) often find older books too verbose and slow-moving. There is no danger of that here. Moray Williams’ simple prose and snappy dialogue are still easy to read. The story fairly zips along with something new and dramatic happening in every chapter. Though some episodes, such as Gobbolino’s stay with an old man whose passion is winning prizes at cat shows, seem more modern than others, the book is essentially set in a Fairy Tale world which doesn’t date. Nor does the central theme of Gobbolino’s struggle to find acceptance in a society that is prejudiced against him. `Once a witch’s cat always a witch’s cat’ he is told.

Gobbolino’s misadventures are often amusing but there is an under-layer of sadness as the affectionate little cat faces rejection after rejection. Moray Williams wrote this book during some of the darkest days of World War Two when the ordinary joys of home and family life were not something that could be taken for granted. In the late 1930s thousands of refugees had arrived in Britain, where many of them still faced prejudice because of their race or nationality. I’m guessing that `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ was inspired by the plight of refugee children who needed new homes. If so, I think that Moray Williams intended her story to be both an appeal to people’s generosity and a message of hope. Gobbolino does, in the end, find a new family. Given the current refugee crisis in Europe, his desperate quest for a home seems topical again.

During her long life (1911-2006) Ursula Moray Williams wrote over 60 books but her most famous is `Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’ (1938). This was one of my `comfort books’ when I was a small child. It tells of a hand-carved toy horse who meets with both cruelty and kindness as he tries to win a fortune for his maker, Uncle Peder, who has been put out of business by mass-produced toys. In 1984 Moray Williams put her two favourite characters into a new novel – `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’. At the start of this story Gobbolino receives a message from his wicked sister, Sootica, begging him to come and help her. Sootica has always been loyal to him, so Gobbolino sets out for the Hurricane Mountains. Deep in a forest, Gobbolino encounters the Little Wooden Horse who helps him to endure the long journey. The pair face dangers, such as a haunted church and pack of fierce hounds, but when they finally reach the mountains the situation is not what Gobbolino expected…

The leading characters make a well-contrasted pair because Gobbolino is nervy and highly emotional while the Little Wooden Horse is quietly brave and steadfast. Their `Further Adventures’ may lack the poignancy of the earlier books but I think the story will still charm and surprise many readers. Just when Sootica’s witch seems set to be the villainess of the piece, Moray Williams makes us feel sorry for this lonely old lady. The delightful drawings by Pauline Baynes, who was the original illustrator of books by C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien (see my post on `Smith of Wootton Major’, August 2012), are a great bonus. Not many artists could rise to the challenge of illustrating the line, `The younger bats sat down and cried’  but Baynes does. So, if you are looking for heart-warming stories to read to your children over the Christmas holidays, the Gobbolino books could fit the bill. Until next time ….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

P.S. In case you are wondering, I’m sure that my naughty Lilith would rather be a witch’s cat than a kitchen cat.

 

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