Published way back in 1963, Time Cat was the first book ever written by Lloyd Alexander, and as such, exists as an interesting comparison to many of his later books, with echoes of plots and characters that will later be used in his more famous and sophisticated works. It is quite a simplistic book, with a straightforward story told in clear but sparse prose, but there are certainly traces of the excellence that is to come in Alexander’s later books, particularly the award-winning The Prydain Chronicles.
Jason has been sent to his bedroom in disgrace, only to find that his black, orange-eyed cat can talk! Gareth informs him that rather than the oft-believed saying that cats have nine lives, it is in fact the ability to visit nine lives that make cats so special — and Gareth offers to take Jason on the journey that he intends to take that very moment. What follows is not so much a single over-arching story as a series of short-stories detailing the adventures that take place in nine different locations across time that Jason and Gareth make. Starting in Egypt in 2700BC and working their way forward to America in 1775, Jason learns about history, personal wisdom, and himself, before finally returning to his own time. In each location there is some commentary on mankind’s progress and how it relates to their relationship with cats, moving from Egypt in which cats were venerated as gods, to Germany in the 1600s, in which they were destroyed as devils. As Jason puts it: “In Egypt they thought you were a god. Here they think you’re a demon. Won’t anyone ever understand you’re a cat?”
It is an odd format for the book to take, as each “time-zone” is only given two chapters each (except for the second-to-last one, which has three) making the adventures fly past rather swiftly, with little in the way of delving deeply into the context of the time and places they visit. Although there is a small amount of intrigue or danger to each location, the two time-travelers move on quickly from place to place. However, it is not the intention of the book to create a deep, drawn out story, and it would be unwise to approach this book expecting this. Instead, look for a breezy, fast-paced time-travel adventure with hidden undercurrents of awareness and intellectual growth. Alexander is the master of hiding bits of profound wisdom in his stories without ever becoming preachy (not even C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have fully mastered this art). There are too many to list here, though I can’t resist adding one of my favourites: “You can say some of the loveliest things in the world — without words.”
As well as witch-hunts in Germany, cat-worship in Egypt and the Revolution in America, the story also involves a love story on the Isle of Man, Leonardo da Vinci’s youth in Italy, and the beginning of Saint Patrick’s missionary work in Ireland — not to mention visits to Japan, Britain and Peru. In each story, Alexander incorporates his love of cats and has some rather beautiful things to say about their intelligence, beauty, liveliness and ability to bring comfort to human beings. Cat-lovers will adore this book, and Alexander follows up on his ‘ode to cats’ with Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat and The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man.
It’s not all perfect: the time-traveling itself is a little spotty (there’s no rhyme or reason to shifting from place to place), and often Alexander takes short-cuts in the storytelling — for example, Jason’s sea voyage from Rome to Britain is described in the space of a couple of lines, which is a little disconcerting — just how long is Jason away from home exactly? Likewise, Jason himself makes a rather bland protagonist, as although he’s polite and kind-hearted, he doesn’t have much in the way of a personality! More reactive than proactive throughout the entire book, he acts mainly as a vessel for the experiences and life lessons that Alexander has strewn within the story.
However, as long as you know what to expect from Time Cat, it’s a highly enjoyable read. It’s especially fun spotting several story components that will pop up again in a slightly-different form in other books, particularly the red-gold haired figure of Diahan, a direct precursor to Princess Elionwy, who at one stage: “refused to speak to [Jason], except to remind him, several times, that she wasn’t speaking to him.” Sound familiar?