Here is a longer version of the author note from my picture book.—Aaron
This is a much expanded retelling of “The King o’ the Cats,” retold by the great English folklorist Joseph Jacobs in his More English Fairy Tales, 1894. Jacobs built his own version out of variants collected throughout England.
Other versions of the tale are heard in Ireland, where legends of the cat-king Irusan go back centuries. He is said to be big as an ox and to hold court in a cave. The medieval poem Visit to Guaire tells how Irusan carried off the poet Senchan from a king’s feast in anger at a poetic insult to cats.
Still other versions are found in continental Europe, sometimes with cats, but often with other creatures replacing them. In the Tyrol of southern Austria, for example, the stories tell of tree spirits. In Normandy in northwestern France, they tell of werewolves.
The oldest of all known versions features the Greek demigod Pan, as related by Plutarch in the first century A.D. It appears in his Moralia, in the dialogue “De Defectu Oraculorum” (“On the Decline of Oracles”). Somewhat condensed, it goes like this:
It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped and the ship drifted near Paxi. Suddenly from the island was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, “When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that great Pan is dead.” . . .
When they came opposite Palodes, Thamus from the stern, looking toward land, said the words as he had heard them. Even before he had finished, there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement.
As Plutarch was highly regarded by later Christians, this story passed into Christian legend. The incident then was said to have occurred on the day of the Crucifixion and to mark the waning of the pagan era.