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Rats and Cats in Fantasy

Rat on Cat by danfantomTwo animals that have, throughout history, built up a lot of superstition concerning them are rats and cats. So it’s not surprising that these creatures also pop up a lot in fantasy. Both can be found accompanying witches as familiars, though rats are just as likely to find themselves as one of the ingredients in the witch’s potion! Rats lurk in the streets and sewers of urban fantasy, dark fantasy and horror; cats may be arcane helpers, cryptic riddlers, or guides through fairylands.

Magic and Superstition

Ron and ScabbersRats and cats might be natural enemies, but they also have a lot in common in the stories told about them. Both black rats and black cats are traditionally symbols of bad luck. Both are associated with magic and the occult. Both can be seen to have one foot in the real world and one in another, perhaps even to see into the future.

Old superstitions tell that rats will abandon a ship that is doomed to sink at sea, or evacuate a house that will soon fall down. Some say that rats and cats can see ghosts. Both rats and cats in the Harry Potter series turn out to be more than they seem. In the Discworld series, rats and cats are the only living things (besides witches) that can see Death, and there is even a separate Death of Rats.

Rat Villains and Rat Torture

In Western culture, rats have long been something feared and hated. They have been considered vicious animals that will attack humans, steal food and spread disease. Rats have even been used as a method of torture.

For example, in Elizabethan England, a cell in the Tower of London would begin to let water in when the tide came in. This would draw in rats from the Thames, terrifying prisoners and leaving them torn and bitten. Forms of rat torture appear in many stories, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, Terry Goodkind’s Temple of the Winds, and the Game of Thrones TV series.

The Rats In The Wall - Hp. Lovecraft by KxG-WitcheRRats in fiction and superstition have therefore tended to take on a villainous role or are used for scares or as symbols of madness, such as in Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls. In James Herbert’s The Rats, packs of vicious, dog-sized rats are attacking people. The game Dishonored uses similar aggressive packs of rats, and in both, the rats also spread disease, tapping into the idea of rats as carriers of The Black Death, which swept through Europe in the Middle Ages and killed millions.

Whereas mice in fantasy fiction are often portrayed as heroic and brave, from Reepicheep in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia to the mice of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, rats are less favoured. In fact, in stories about mice, it is common to cast a rat as the enemy: for example, Professor Ratigan, the archenemy of Basil in The Great Mouse Detective, or Botticelli and the evil rats in The Tale of Desperaux.

Rat Kings

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by BlavatskayaSometimes, rat villains will appear in the form of The Rat King, or groups of evil rats will be led by him. These are often inspired by the real phenomenon of rat kings. Supposedly, when a group of rats’ tails become knotted or stuck together with blood and dirt, the rats will grow while still joined at the tails, creating a huge mass of rats that looks like one creature with many bodies. Early superstition may have believed them to be just this, and they were certainly a very bad omen.

According to some folklore, a king rat would sit on the entwined tails of the rat kings, like a throne. In Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the Mouse King appears as one creature with many heads. Multiple headed or bodied Rat Kings appear in some stories, with others placing a single giant rat in this role. The mystery of the rat kings is touched on in Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, where it is suggested that rat kings are in fact not natural at all, but the creation of cruel and twisted individuals deliberately tying rats’ tails together.

Hidden Rats

Year of the Rat 2008 by RainChilD18In the Chinese Zodiac, the Rat is the first of the twelve animals and associated with qualities such as intelligence, generosity, creativity and ambition. Rats in reality do not tend to be vicious or unclean, and pet rats are intelligent, playful and gentle. Some fantasy reflects this; in Ratatouille, a rat is the main character, clever and likeable, and in Doctor Dolittle books the rats are portrayed positively. In other fantasy, rats are mysterious and magical, perhaps a little ambiguous, but not necessarily villains.

Rats, which live in sewers and scavenge from what humans throw away, can be useful symbols of the underclass, of the forgotten or hidden beings of the city, or of something strange and vaguely sinister that lives under our feet. It’s no surprise that rats have proven to be a fascinating subject for the fantasy author, particularly in urban fantasy. For example, China Mieville’s King Rat, or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which rats are an important aspect of these ‘hidden Londons’.

Cats: Luck, Magic and Riddles

Egyptian Statue of a Seated CatCat domestication goes back a long way. In 2004, a Neolithic grave about 9,500 years old was discovered with the body of a human and a cat close together. Cats have long been seen as something special or magical. In ancient Egypt, cats were considered to be sacred animals, and in many ancient religions cats were believed to be guides and guardians. In Japan and Russia, cats are symbols of good luck. In many cultures, a cat’s ability to land on its feet led to the belief in cats having multiple lives, with the number varying from six to nine.

The Sphinx, a mythological creature with a lion’s body, is famous for asking riddles. Perhaps because of this feline association, cats in fiction are often mysterious, never revealing why they behave as they do, and never giving straight answers. My favourite example is the cat in Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

Due to a cat’s air of intelligence and enigmatic superiority, it is easy to see why they have become associated with magic. In Japanese folklore, when a cat lives to a certain age, it can become a bakeneko, growing two tails and walking upright, and gaining supernatural abilities.

The Cat Sith, from Celtic mythology, was a fairy creature that appeared as a black cat with a white spot on its breast. Such creatures are not necessarily good or evil. They can menace a house, or watch over it if appeased. From the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, to Grimalkin in The Iron Fey series, cats have often appeared as guides or fey creatures in fantasy, usually helping the hero for their own inscrutable reasons.

Cats Are a Witch’s Best Friend

Witch by akreonHowever, not all societies have associated cats with good luck or good magic. Black cats are often held to be unlucky, and particularly so if one crosses your path. In the Middle Ages, cats were thought to be working for the Devil, and they share with rats the distinction of being blamed for the Black Death. As a result, there were mass killings of cats during the 14th century.

Cats are the most commonly depicted witch’s familiar. A familiar is a supernatural creature or spirit that takes the form of an animal and assists with magic. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the cat Graymalkin takes this role. At first, in western culture such familiars were portrayed as dangerous and evil. Later fiction has increasingly depicted witches sympathetically, and witches’ cats have become intelligent, sometimes mischievous, but generally good beings. In most fantasy, the witch’s cat is simply a very intelligent cat rather than a spirit or supernatural being.

Witches’ cats appear extensively in fantasy, with Nanny Ogg’s cat Greebo (in the Discworld series), and Sabrina’s cat Salem (in the Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV series) being my personal favourites. The latter twists the idea that witches can turn into or possess their own familiars; Salem is actually a warlock who has been turned into a cat by the Witches’ Council as punishment for trying to take over the world.

So what are your favourite rats and cats in fantasy?

Title image by danfantom.



  1. Avatar Shanothaine says:

    Very nice article; thanks! As with most any archetypical figures in fiction, I believe our associations with cats and rats are rooted in history, as you cleverly pointed out. I think it’s inevitable that we would incorporate these fascinating creatures into our writing.

    My favourite cat is definitely the Egyptian Goddess Bastet. You should have a look at her – she’s a really cool deity! And yes, there are still people worshipping her today 🙂

  2. A good article. I’d like to give a mention to Mary Gentle’s Rats & Gargoyles, where the city is ruled by human-sized rats – they aren’t especially good or evil, just an aristocracy with its own agenda. Also, the underground rat society in Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar, where the rats can change into humans and back.

  3. Avatar Pat J says:

    Along with Pratchett’s Maurice and Greebo, mentioned in the article, I quite liked Mani, the witch’s talking cat from Gene Wolfe’s “Wizard Knight” duology.

  4. Avatar Jennette says:

    It’s interesting to see how certain things come to be in our culture, stories, movies, etc. Thanks for the article. Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIHM was one of my favorite reads as a child. Eragon has has a werecat, and in Patrick Carman’s The Dark Hills Divide, there are two cats who are important to the story, but I don’t want to give away spoilers. 🙂

  5. Avatar Mick Green says:

    Mention should also be made of Warhammer’s Skaven, a villainous race of humanoid rats who rule a vast underground empire (and have giant magic-powered hamster wheels of death).

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