Warning: this review contains spoilers.
A sense of belonging and a place to call home are two things that most of us yearn for at some stage in our lives. The long search for these things is the theme of the children’s book Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat written by Ursula Moray Williams. Originally published in 1942, the book has been reprinted many times and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2017.
Gobbolino is born a witch’s cat. He has a twin sister called Sootica who cannot wait “to learn magic, how to ride a broomstick and turn mice into frogs and frogs into guinea pigs”. Gobbolino, however, wants none of those things. Instead, he dreams of becoming a kitchen cat, “to sit by the fire with his paws tucked under his chest, mind the house and chase the mice and watch the baby”.
Gobbolino’s unwillingness to be “bad”, his desire to be different and refusal to simply accept the path that had been laid for him do not go well with his family and their mistress, the witch. They are also aghast to discover that Gobbolino is different on the outside as well. He has a white paw and blue eyes, when other witch’s cats are completely black and have green eyes. “A witch’s cat with a white paw? No-one will want him!” snaps an old hag. She is right for when Gobbolino’s mother and mistress try to get him apprenticed, no witch is willing to train him in the art of magic, whereas Sootica has no such problem being accepted. Gobbolino finds himself being treated as a misfit and a reject by his own family, and he is eventually abandoned to fend for himself.
Gobbolino finds being on his own scary at first but then realises that it is his opportunity to become what he wants: a kitchen cat. Quite soon, some farm children find him and take him home with them. It is exactly the home that Gobbolino dreams of but before long his past catches up with him: he cannot resist performing magic tricks for the children and a hobgoblin exposes him as a witch’s cat. The children’s father declares Gobbolino to be “no good to anyone” and threatens to drown him. Gobbolino is forced to flee.
Search for home
Thus begins our feline hero’s eventful and sometimes painful quest for acceptance and a home. His journey takes him far and wide: he becomes a companion for a group of orphans, wins a cat show, is employed to chase mice away on a ship, and is given as a present by a knight to a lady whose hand he is trying to win. Wherever he goes, Gobbolino tirelessly tries to do good and help people, but most of the characters he meets cannot see beyond his origins and treat him with prejudice and discrimination.
Gobbolino does not give up. He soldiers on, believing that somewhere out there is a place for him. He is right, of course. The book provides the happily ever after that readers expect and by the end Gobbolino finally finds a home where he can settle down to be a kitchen cat.
Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat is one of those children’s books with life lessons that stay with the reader for the rest of his life. Gobbolino fights for his dreams, never gives up hope and is not afraid to stray from what is expected of him. Despite repeatedly being rejected by those around him, he never tires of doing good. These are strong and positive messages and we cheer when Gobbolino is rewarded with a happy home by the last page.
However, the happy ending also disappoints on some levels. It gives the message that you have to change who you are for people to accept you. Gobbolino being a witch’s cat was part of who he was and the magic that he was born with was part of who he was. But he had to be cleansed of these aspects of himself by magic before he found acceptance. In other words, he needed to be a another cat, to be normal to fit in and find happiness. Gobbolino being born a witch’s cat did not make him evil because he was intrinsically good and kind. It was never his magic that was the problem (in fact, he used it to do good and help people) – it was people’s prejudice and unwillingness to accept someone who was different. Love is unconditional, it is accepting people for who they are warts and all. The book sadly does not reflect this.
Still, Ursula Moray Williams has woven an entertaining and timeless yarn that deserves to be on children’s shelves next to The Wind in the Willows and The Wizard of Oz. Its messages of tenacity and perseverance will serve children well.
Further reading and listening
A charming adaptation of Gobboline the Witch’s Cat was serialised in Marshall Cavendish’s Story Teller, published in 1983. It was beautifully illustrated by Francis Phillips and delightfully narrated by Sheila Hancock.
There have also been two unabridged audiobook versions of the novel. The first, now no longer available, was read by Nigel Lambert and released in 1995. A more recent version was read by Jilly Bond and is available both as a download and in CD format.