"A Cat May Look At A King"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The English proverb, "A cat may look at a king," was already old when John Heywood (1497–1580) included it in his collection of English colloquial sayings, Proverbes. This was the first volume of its kind and was published in 1546. The meaning of the proverb is that there is safety in insignificance: an inferior may do certain things in the presence of a superior without fear, simply because he is beneath the latter's notice. The most delightfully memorable use of this saying is undoubtedly that which occurs in Lewis Carroll's dream-tale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. After a series of strange experiences, Alice finds herself lost in a forest and uncertain which way she should go. The Cheshire Cat appears in a tree and counsels her in such a way that she is more confused than ever. He has the pleasant ability to appear and disappear at will; normally the process is gradual, and his fixed grin is the first and last part of him which is visible. As he vanishes, he informs Alice that he will see her later at the Queen's croquet-match. In time Alice does find herself part of this festive event, in which the mallets are flamingoes, the hoops are soldiers bent double, and the balls are hedgehogs. This arrangement does not make the game easy to play, and the Queen's ferocious disposition is upsetting. "The players all played at once, without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting, 'Off with his head!' or 'Off with her head!' about once in a minute." Alice wonders that there is anyone left alive. At this point the cat reappears, though it halts the process while only its head is visible.

"How do you like the Queen?" said the Cat in a low voice.
"Not at all," said Alice: "she's so extremely–" Just then she noticed that the Queen was close behind her, listening: so she went on "–likely to win, that it's hardly worth while finishing the game."
The Queen smiled and passed on.
"Who are you talking to?" said the King, coming up to Alice, and looking at the Cat's head with great curiosity.
"It's a friend of mine–a Cheshire Cat," said Alice: "allow me to introduce it."
"I don't like the look of it at all," said the King: "however, it may kiss my hand, if it likes."
"I'd rather not," the Cat remarked.
"Don't be impertinent," said the King, "and don't look at me like that!" He got behind Alice as he spoke.
"A cat may look at a king," said Alice. "I've read that in some book, but I don't remember where."
"Well, it must be removed," said the King very decidedly; and he called to the Queen, who was passing at the moment, "My dear! I wish you would have this cat removed!"
The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. "Off with his head!" she said without even looking round.
"I'll fetch the executioner myself," said the King eagerly, and he hurried off.