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The novel is set in the world as cats see it, with Man being a mysterious and distrusted creature in the eyes of feral cats. The cats see themselves as the first and most important species. Their myths view humans, or "M'an" as a race of deformed descendants of cats. The novel takes the approach that all creatures consider their kind to be the dominant species of the planet. It must be noted that the book makes reference to mythologies of frogs, foxes and ravens as well as cats, that are hinted to be just as strong as those of the cats. With this premise, Williams tells his tale of fantasy adventure and heroic bravery.
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Fritti Tailchaser, a young ginger tom cat, sets out to stray from his home and clan, the Meeting Wall Clan, in search of his catfriend Hushpad after strange disappearances of the Folk have been reported. The kitten, Pouncequick follows him, and eventually catches up. Together, they set out on a long journey to visit the feline royal Court of Harar, with the intention of finding out the mystery of the disappearances. They meet a rather crazy cat named Eatbugs, who travels with them for parts of the journey to the court. Soon they run into some Firstwalkers, cats who live in the wild, who are of a direct bloodline from Goldeneye and Skydancer. Their Thane (leader), Quiverclaw, fights with Tailchaser, but it is more a ceremonial fight and there are no disagreements. Soon, they must part ways. They make their way to Firsthome and the Court, but are treated there with relative indifference. They pick up a new friend, Roofshadow, and go northwest. They are captured by a group of evil cats called the Clawguard, and taken to Vastnir, an enormous mound far to the north, where the evil Grizraz Hearteater enslaves cats to take over the world. Tailchaser needs to alert Prince Fencewalker and Thane Quiverclaw about his evil doings. Soon, Roofshadow creates a hole from above ground, and Tailchaser manages to escape, and races to Ratwood, where he asks the Rikchikchik (squirrels) to alert them for him. He feels guilty with Pouncequick, Eatbugs, and Roofshadow trapped in Vastnir because of him. He returns to the dreadful mound, where, thankfully, the Thane and Fencewalker come to the rescue. Lord Hearteater (they call him the Fat One) unleashes the Fikos, a dog-like monster of terrible power. Tailchaser takes advantage of the chaos to rescue Pouncequick, Eatbugs, and Roofshadow. They go through the havoc of Vastnir, and lose Eatbugs, the mad cat, on the way. Roofshadow and Pouncequick escape while Tailchaser goes back to find Eatbugs. He goes into a crevice and sees Eatbugs an a near-death-like state, and feels dazed and confused. Upon uttering a prayer to Lord Tangaloor Firefoot, one of the firstborn cats, Eatbugs awakens, revealing himself to actually be Firefoot incognito. Tailchaser runs out of Vastnir at Firefoot's urging, and meets his friends, while Firefoot goes to deal with Hearteater. After healing, Pouncequick decides to return to Firsthome, and stay there. Roofshadow wants to accompany him, and thus, Tailchaser is left on his quest. He goes east to Bigwater (Qu'cef) and sneaks into a large nut husk (boat) A man approaches and rows across, taking him to Villa-on-Mar. There he meets Huff-so-Gruff, a Growler (dog), and sneaks in an open window. There, in the room, he finds none other than Hushpad, herself. Hushpad wishes to stay, though, so Tailchaser, too, stays for a time. Gradually, Tailchaser realizes that he is still a feral cat, unable to live with man. He begins to see that being domestic has made Hushpad fat and lazy. Realizing that he does not belong, Tailchaser sets out to return home, to see his Meeting Wall friends, to hunt, to see Pouncequick and Roofshadow once more. The ending may be seen only as the beginning of a longer saga, but, to-date, Tad Williams has yet to revisit his feline homage to Tolkien with additional writings.
Folk and Folklore
The cats of Tailchaser's Song have a well established system of songs, poems, and godly figures, such as Meerclar the Allmother and her Two, Harar Goldeneye and Fela Skydancer, and the three Firstborn cats. The cats, as one brethren, call themselves 'the Folk'. The novel contains a developed system of cat speech and style as well, to go with their customs; very similar to what the reader finds in written editions of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
(Quote from the novel):
- "In the Hour before time began, Meerclar Allmother came out of the darkness to the cold earth. She was black, and as furry as all the world come together to be fur. Meerclar banished the eternal night, and brought forth the Two.
- Harar Goldeneye had eyes as hot and bright as the sun at the Hour of Smaller Shadows; he was the color of daytime, and courage, and dancing.
- Fela Skydancer, his mate, was beautiful, like freedom, and clouds, and the song of travelers returned.
- Goldeneye and Skydancer bore many children and raised them in the forest that covered the world at the beginnings of the Elder Days. Climbfast, Wolf-friend, Treesinger, and Brightnail, their young, were strong of tooth, sharp of eye, light of foot and straight and brave to their tail-ends.
- But most strange and beautiful of the countless children of Harar and Fela were the three Firstborn.
- The eldest of the Firstborn was Viror Whitewind; he was the color of sunlight on snow, and of swiftness....
- The middle child was Grizraz Hearteater, as grey as shadows and full of strangeness....
- Third-born was Tangaloor Firefoot. He was as black as Meerclar Allmother, but his paws were red like flame. He walked alone, and sang to himself."
Viror Whitewind was strong and fast, whereas Tangaloor Firefoot was very clever. Grizraz Hearteater, having no special talent became jealous and raised up a demon-hound, Ptomalkum, the last spawn of Venris. It destroyed many Folk before Whitewind slew it. Whitewind received mortal wounds and soon died. Hearteater fled underground, and Firefoot refused to accept the Mantle of the King of Cats.
It has been noted that Tad Williams may have been influenced by poetry and literature written about cats, such as Rudyard Kipling's The Cat That Walked By Himself and T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. For example, cats have three names, much as described in "The Naming of Cats" from Eliot's book. It is also worth noting the development of language for the animals is reminiscent of Richard Adams' Watership Down.
The Rikchikchik are the squirrels of Tailchaser's Song. They speak in the Common Singing of most animals and usually act just like squirrels. However, they are key to the story because squirrel-lord Pop has to discharge Lord Snap's debt to Tailchaser for saving a squirrel maiden. Consequently, Tailchaser's distress call is sent via squirrel to Firsthome.
Language and Pronunciation
Tad Williams has come up with a very large variety of terms, called the Higher Singing, used by the cats to express themselves and explain things. Included in the book is a complete glossary, as well as a character 'directory' and a map of Tailchaser's world. Also included are Williams' notes on pronunciation, which apply not only to spoken words but to first names as well (such as Fritti, Harar, or Meerclar):
|“||'C' is always pronounced 'S': thus, Meerclar is pronounced 'Mere-slar.' In the instances where an 'S' has been used, it is only to clarify the pronunciation. For example, I felt that 'Vicl,' although the true spelling, was a little boggling; hence, 'Visl'. 'F' has a soft 'fth' sound. Vowels tend to conform to Latinate 'ah-eh-ih-oh-ooh.'||„|
- In Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy by Wayne Barlowe, a Toothguard, one of the creatures which guards the dark passages of Vastnir in Tailchaser's Song, is one of the featured illustrations.
- The name of the cat deity Meerclar is a nod to the work of Michael Moorcock, one of Williams' favourite authors: Meerclar of the Cats, a Beast-Lord, is a deity called upon by Moorcock's protagonist Elric in the short story "The Flamebringers" (aka "The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams").
- Tad Williams discusses Tailchaser's Song
- Wayne Barlowe's depiction of the Toothguard from his Guide to Fantasy