Here is an unusual character to write a post about. Unusual for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he has such a VERY small role in the novel. But he was the only aspect of Heartless I could think of that starts a “C” other than the cat . . . but Monster needs to wait until the “M” post, so Captain Catspaw it is!
Despite the fact that he actually serves an important and interesting role in Heartless, it won’t surprise many of you to learn that I almost wrote him out. He has one scene in which he is the POV character, one more scene in which he exchanges a brief dialogue with Prince Lionheart, and then he’s gone. No more to be heard from for the rest of the book. I really wrestled with the decision whether or not to keep him (poor man).
But the role Captain Catspaw serves is really not that of a character. He is purely a point-of-view.
The scene in which he features isn’t about Catspaw at all. It’s a scene about Aethelbald. It shows, through Catspaw’s eyes, that Aethelbald is more powerful and more mysterious than we realized. That he knows more about the workings of both the Near World and the Far than does any other man. And this knowledge terrifies Catspaw.
Catspaw’s first impression of this Prince had been . . . well, mild at best. He agreed to go with him on his mission, of course, but that was out of deference to his own prince’s wishes. He says to Aethelbald, “We will follow you. For the honor of Southlands.” To which Aethelbald replies, “It is not enough.”
And indeed, it is not. In a day’s worth of travel with this stranger, Catspaw sees more marvels than all the five years of his captivity under the Dragon. And he is scared. This man, walking while others ride yet still maintaining the lead, takes Catspaw and his men through strange Faerie paths that Catspaw never realized existed. Aethelbald proves his strength and proves his capability to these men.
But when he asks them to follow him into the Red Desert to rescue Princess Una, Catspaw balks. It is all too much for him! He cannot bear the thought of venturing into dragon country. He senses that Aethelbald is someone he could follow, someone he could trust. In the end, however, he cannot make that leap of faith. He is, like all those in Southlands, still living in fear of the Dragon. He cannot permit himself to trust.
This scene, on the surface, is all about Catspaw’s own inner turmoil. But do you see what else it does? It serves as an all new insight into the character of Prince Aethelbald. Insight that could not have been had any other way. Prince Lionheart refuses to follow Aethelbald but sends others in his place (typical!), so his point of view was unavailable. And how would I have accomplished that sense of mystery had I given the scene to Aethelbald himself?
Not once in the course of Heartless did I give the Prince of Farthestshore a point-of-view scene. I always portrayed him through the eyes of others. I let his character be established from other people’s perspectives of him all the while maintaining the mystery of his inner nature. Sometimes I used a more omniscient narrative approach to create this affect. In the case of Captain Catspaw, however, I wanted a more personal touch to really drive home the truth of who Aethelbald is: A man who can be trusted, but who some choose not to trust no matter what.
Catspaw, in his own way, is a reflection of Una and her refusal to trust Aethelbald with her heart. She misjudges him even when she knows she’s mistaken. She sees early on the kindness in his eyes. On many occasions, she sees his faithfulness and his true concern for her presented in sharp contrast to the thoughtlessness of other suitors. Yet she insists on her own way out of fear. Fear of losing the dream she has clung to, her foolish dream of “romance” that Aethelbald doesn’t quite fit.
In his small but important role, Catspaw brings that theme up again, but from a new angle, thus giving us that much bigger of a picture of Prince Aethelbald.
I seriously did toy with the notion of getting into Aethelbald’s mind for this scene so as to avoid the awkwardness of a POV character who comes and goes in the course of one scene. But I would have lost a great deal had I gone that direction. For one thing, it would have been insanely difficult not to write him as a “Romance Book Hero.” Not to delve into his “feelings” for Una. Not to start turning his love into something earthy and sensual, or, at the very least, something gushy.
The last thing I wanted was to turn Aethelbald into a hero like that. An allegory with the Christ-figure taking the role of the romantic lead is tricky enough business as it is! But how much more difficult that task would become as soon as I started prying into Aethelbald’s mind. We would have lost the Christ-figure in place of a “good man.” Which would have destroyed the story down to its core.
I’ve definitely had a handful of critiques from various readers, saying that they would have liked more romance and less allegory. I think this is a legitimate critique considering the genre of YA fantasy romance, which is what Heartless has been predominately marketed as. This question of romance vs. allegory was something I went around with my editors about many times over. But ultimately, I am so thankful that I stuck with the original plan for the story. That I focused on the savior role for Prince Aethelbald, not the romance.
The story of Aethelbald and Una is a love story . . . but not in the “romance book” fashion. No, it’s a higher and more powerful sort of love. Una’s “romance” happened with Prince Lionheart. But true “love” happened when she gave her heart at last into Aethelbald’s keeping. This was the harder story to write . . . but, I believe, more satisfying in the end.
So, yes. Catspaw is my letter “C,” and he does serve an important (if tiny) role in the novel. So good for him! Way to make himself necessary all in the course of one scene! How many characters can boast that?