Recently, I have been reading—obsessively, some might say—books from the Warriors series by Erin Hunter (https://warriorcats.com/). These books, which feature a group of cats living in the wild, are classified as juvenile fiction (target ages 8–12), but I find nothing juvenile about the writing, the characters, or the plots. The books were first recommended to me by members of the TinyKittens Unite group on Facebook—followers of the feral cat rescue group TinyKittens, based in Fort Langley B.C., Canada (https://www.tinykittens.com/). If you are the sort of person who would enjoy reading adventure/fantasy stories in which all of the characters are cats, I strongly recommend them to you.
I an not going to discuss the stories here, nor the characters, except as necessary to examine the society in which the stories are set, its culture and customs. Forget the clichés about “herding cats”; though these are, anatomically, our familiar domestic cats, they are highly organized and disciplined. They have language (of course), a complex society (similar to the way I imagine a paleolithic hunter-gatherer clan may have been organized), and a religion.
The society in the warrior cats’ world is highly structured. Every cat has a specific role to play. At the opening of the first story arc (“The Prophecies Begin”), there are four warrior clans: Thunder, Wind, River, and Shadow. Each clan typically has around 20–30 members. Although the cats are said to live in the forest, each clan lives and hunts in its own preferred topography: Thunder in deciduous forest, Wind on open moorland, River beside or in the river (their camp is on an island, they swim and catch fish), and Shadow in coniferous forest and adjoining marshland.
The Warrior Code
Clan life is governed by the Warrior Code, a set of rules handed down from the current cats’ ancestors. I’m not going to publish the whole code here—significant parts of it concern protocols and rituals, some of which I will discuss later. If you’re interested, you can read the complete code here: https://warriors.fandom.com/wiki/The_warrior_code
I will concentrate on the elements of the code that represent the moral core of clan life:
- Defend your Clan, even with your life. You may have friendships with cats from other Clans, but your loyalty must remain to your Clan, as one day you may meet them in battle.
- Do not hunt or trespass on another Clan’s territory.
- Elders, queens, sick or injured cats and kits must be fed before apprentices and warriors. Unless they have permission, apprentices may not eat until they have hunted to feed the elders.
- Prey is killed only to be eaten. Give thanks to StarClan for its life.
- An honorable warrior does not need to kill other cats to win their battles, unless they are outside the warrior code or if it is necessary for self-defense.
- Each Clan has the right to be proud and independent, but in times of trouble they must forget their boundaries and fight side by side to protect the four. Each Clan must help the others so that no Clan will fall.
Taken together, what do these rules tell us about clan life? Loyalty to the clan comes first; the clan and its survival is more important than any individual cat. Loyalty goes two ways: it is the duty of the clan to protect and support all of its members, from the youngest kit to the most decrepit elder, the stronger caring for the weaker. It is a kind of cradle-to-grave welfare state. (There is no dole for able-bodied adult cats. Any cat who refused to hunt, or who hunted only for themself and not for the clan, would probably be banished, but I have seen no instance of this aberrant behavior in any of the books I have read.) “Feed the clan before you feed yourself” is an oft-repeated maxim of clan life. Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would not be out of place in a Warrior Cat clan. Beyond the individual clan, respect: respect for the prey that sustains their lives, respect for the other clans, and respect for a worthy opponent in battle.
The first story arc focuses on ThunderClan, but all clans have the same internal structure, which is based mainly on age and experience. In order of increasing age, clan cats are either Kits, Apprentices, Warriors, or Elders. In addition to these four general classes, there are three cats with special powers and responsibilities: the Leader, the Deputy, and the Medicine Cat.
Kits, from birth to six moons of age (the cats reckon time in moons and seasons) live in the nursery, where they are cared for by their mothers (“Queens”). When they reach the age of six moons, kits become apprentices. Each apprentice is assigned a mentor—an experienced warrior—who teaches the apprentice hunting and fighting skills and the Warrior Code. Apprentices also have duties in the camp, such as feeding the elders and replacing their bedding. There is no fixed duration to apprenticeship; it ends when the mentor judges that the apprentice has mastered the necessary skills and understands the Warrior Code, and the leader approves the decision. The cats spend most of their adult lives as Warriors: hunting for prey, guarding the camp and the clan’s borders, and, when necessary, fighting rival clans or intruders. Cats who have grown too old or infirm to hunt and fight become Elders. They are honored by the clan for their service and fed and cared for by their younger clanmates.
The function of the leader is obvious: he or she is the chief executive of the clan and is ultimately responsible for all decisions affecting the clan as a whole. This includes apprenticing kits and assigning their mentors, confirming new warriors, and momentous decisions involving war and peace. Cats may sometimes be dissatisfied with a leader’s decisions, but ultimately, they must obey. “The leader’s word is The Warrior Code.” A leader is granted nine temporal lives by StarClan (see below), which are to be used in service to the clan. On becoming leader, the new leader chooses a deputy, The deputy is responsible for much of the day-to-day operations of the clan, such as organizing hunting and boundary patrols. On the death of the leader, the deputy succeeds to the leadership.
The medicine cat treats illnesses and injuries, mainly using herbal remedies. In addition, the medicine cat receives dreams and visions from StarClan and can also interpret dreams received by other cats. Like the leader, the medicine cat must be confirmed by StarClan. Only the medicine cat can openly challenge the leader’s decisions, on the grounds that they are not in keeping with the will of StarClan. To some extent, the medicine cat’s position is outside clan rivalries. Medicine cats from different clans readily share knowledge, and the medicine cats from all four clans meet at every half moon to “share tongues” (the cats’ term for mutual grooming) with StarClan in a sacred space. Medicine cats are celibate, regarding all cats in the clan as their kits. This, as you can imagine, sometimes leads to problems.
The Warrior Cats look to StarClan (aka “The Warrior Ancestors”) for guidance. StarClan are not “gods” in that they did not create the world or the cats in it (except in the sense that we are all creations of our ancestors), and they do not control events on earth. They know and see many things that living cats cannot, but they are not omniscient. They are not the ancestors of all cats, just of the four warrior clans. Other cats look to other ancestors. StarClan communicates with the cats through dreams, visions, and omens. Dreams from StarClan come primarily to leaders and medicine cats, though StarClan may choose to send dreams and omens to any cat. Prophecies from StarClan, like most oracular messages, tend to be cryptic; for example, “Only fire can save the clan”; “Three, kin of your kin, will hold the power of the stars in their paws”; “A dying warrior will show the way.” Medicine cats have a special relationship with StarClan. Many clan rituals invoke the power or approval of StarClan. Cats often use prayer-like expressions, such as “May StarClan light your path,” or “StarClan, save us!” StarClan is visible to earthly cats in the form of the Silver Pelt (the Milky Way). Most deceased warrior cats join StarClan, but a few, who are guilty of serious crimes such as murder or treason, find themselves in the Dark Forest, aka the Place of No Stars.
Naming conventions follow the roles described above. Kits are named by their parents. Each kit has a first name element with the suffix “kit.” The cat retains the first name element throughout their life. When a kit becomes an apprentice, their name suffix changes to “paw.” And when an apprentice graduates to full warrior status, the suffix changes again, perhaps to something referring to the cat’s appearance or character, or a reference to some natural feature. (Warrior-name suffixes are given by the leader.) Thus, we have progressions such as BrackenKit → BrackenPaw → BrackenFur or SandKit → SandPaw → SandStorm. There may or may not be a name change when a warrior retires and becomes an elder. The only other name change is when a cat becomes a leader. All leaders and only leaders have the suffix “star.”
Each clan has a camp, located near the center of its territory, where the cats live communally. The structure of the camp also follows the social structure of the clan: there is a nursery, as mentioned previously, for mothers and young kits, an apprentice den, a warriors’ den, and an elders’ den. The leader and the medicine cat have private dens. The latter also serves as a clinic where cats with serious illnesses or injuries can be watched and treated around the clock. There is also usually a feature such as a rock, ledge, or tree, from which the leader can address the clan. Another important feature is the Fresh Kill Pile, where hunters deposit their prey for the clan to share.
Gender and Sexuality
The warrior clans have achieved nearly perfect gender equality. Young toms and she-cats receive exactly the same apprentice training and, when they graduate to full warrior status, have the same duties and responsibilities. Female warriors hunt for prey, patrol the boundaries, and fight in battles, just as males do. She cats can be deputies, leaders, or medicine cats. There is no glass ceiling. The only exception is that females who are pregnant or caring for kits (referred to as “queens”) are exempt from warrior duties until their kits reach the age of six moons and are apprenticed.
Unsurprisingly for a series of books targeted at tweens, there are no explicit mentions of cat sex in the series. Pairs of cats become mates, and kits are born, but the details remain off stage. Unlike the cats we know, the female clan cats somehow control their fertility. No she cat in the warrior clans bears her first litter at the age of six months and continues bearing three or four litters per year until she dies of exhaustion at the age of four or five years. There is no instance of males fighting over a female in heat. Fathers commonly take a paternal interest in their kits. Cat romances, as depicted in the books, are the one aspect of the stories that seem targeted to young readers. Cat romances often seem modeled on middle-school relationships.
Important events in the lives of clan cats are marked by ritual. Changes in status—from kit to apprentice or apprentice to warrior—require the performance of the correct ceremonies. Newly minted warriors swear an oath to protect the clan, at the cost of their own lives if necessary. Then they keep silent vigil through the night, like medieval knights, guarding the camp while others sleep. When a cat dies, their campmates share tongues with them for the last time, then keep vigil through the night. At dawn, the elders carry the body from the camp for burial. At the full moon, cats from all clans meet on neutral ground under truce to share news and discuss matters of mutual interest. The most powerful ritual of all, to my mind, and the most moving, is the one in which StarClan confirms a new clan leader and invests them with their nine lives. The selected cat goes to the moonstone to share tongues with StarClan. In the ensuing vision, the starry cats descend from the heavens, and nine cats who have special significance to the leader each endow them with a life, dedicated to a specific purpose.
The quality of life in a clan depends much on the quality of its leader. Many plot threads in the series focus on the difference between good and bad leadership. The central plot thread in the first story arc is the rise of the cat who eventually becomes known as Firestar, from kittypet (the clan cats’ term for a domestic cat—clan cats’ attitudes toward kittypets ranges from pity to contempt), to apprentice, to warrior, to deputy, and finally to leader of ThunderClan. Firestar, though not infallible, is the prime example of good leadership. He is conscientious; he makes decisions based on the needs and welfare of the whole clan, not out of any need for self aggrandizement. He is diplomatic. For him, going to war with other clans is a last resort. He prefers that the clans cooperate to solve their shared challenges, rather than battle over territory. He is compassionate. He will help any cat in need, whatever their allegiance. This doesn’t mean that he is soft or weak. If the safety of his clan is threatened, he will lead his warriors in battle. He has few equals in courage, fighting skill, or tactical skill. When an outside enemy threatens all the clans, it is Firestar who leads the united clans in battle and prevails. Firestar repeatedly says that what counts in a good clan warrior is loyalty, not blood. The distinction between clanborn and non-clanborn cats is not emphasized the way mudblood/half-blood/pure-blood distinction is in the Harry Potter books, but it does arise occasionally. The future Firestar was himself born a kittypet, and received a good deal of grief about it from fellow apprentices in his early days in ThunderClan, but proved himself the equal of any clanborn warrior.
In the first story arc, a number of bad leaders are contrasted with Firestar’s example of good leadership. I will single out one: Brokenstar of ShadowClan. Brokenstar has only one desire: to increase the strength of his clan so that he can capture other clans’ territory. He justifies this as working in the best interests of his clanmates, but he is driven by pure lust for power. He drives WindClan from their territory, but gains little advantage from this act. WindClan lives on open moorland—its warriors are lean, fast rabbit hunters. ShadowClan cats, from the dark pine forest, are unable to hunt successfully on WindClan’s territory. He reserves food for his elite warriors, starving his elders (a clear violation of the code). He apprentices kits at three moons, rather the canonical six, hoping to increase his force of warriors. When some kits die as a result, he shirks responsibility, saying they were weak and probably would have died anyway. He also steals kits from another clan for the same purpose. Ultimately, he is overthrown by a combination of his own clanmates and a ThunderClan patrol. He and his circle of elite warriors are driven from the clan and become rogues.
Sources of Conflict
One can’t have interesting stories without conflict. Conflicts between clans are generally over territory, and that means territory for hunting prey to feed the clan. One of the rules of the Warrior Code, as mentioned above, is “do not hunt or trespass on another clan’s territory.” The borders of the clans’ territories were set in the distant past, beyond the memories of any living cat. (Clan cats in the first story arc know nothing about their early history, though there is a separate series of books called “Dawn of the Clans” which details their origins.) Clan patrols check the borders and reset border scent markers daily. (How this is done is never described, but one assumes the cats are spraying urine on trees, rocks, and so on.) Each clan has a distinct scent. When prey is plentiful, there is no need to trespass, but in the season of bareleaf (winter) or in other situations when starvation threatens the clan, even the best cat may be tempted to cross borders in search of prey. Any cat caught hunting on another clan’s territory would be lucky to get away with a serious beating. Repeated or organized trespasses are likely to result in clan warfare.
The other main cause of inter-clan conflict is aggressive leadership, as in the case of Brokenstar, described above. As is the case with humans, there are cats who lust for power. There are cats who believe that the greatest glory of a warrior is victory in battle and domination of enemies, cats who believe that it is better to solve problems through combat than through talk. When such a cat rises to power in a clan, trouble for other clans is bound to follow.
In addition to conflicts between the clans, there are conflicts with cats outside the clan system, especially those termed “rogues.” A rogue is any cat that is neither a clan member nor a kittypet. They may be strays or ferals from the “twoleg place” (human habitation) or they may be exiles who were banished from the clans for their crimes. Lone rogues don’t pose much a problem, but their presence on clan territory is not tolerated. Rogues sometimes form bands that may attack clan cats or steal prey, like bandit gangs. These gangs don’t have the status of clans—“they have no code.” Other animals that threaten the safety of cats include foxes, badgers, and dogs. Dogs are especially difficult to deal with because they hunt in packs. In the books, dogs are consistently portrayed as brutal and stupid. Sometimes the greatest threat of all, and one beyond the means of clan cats to combat, is posed by us, the twolegs.
Of course, there are also conflicts between individual cats within the clan. As with humans, cats have different personalities (“felinealities”?), which sometimes clash. Some cats get along, others don’t. But these clashes seldom result in open violence (it would be a huge spoiler to tell you about instances when they do). Clanmates are forbidden from fighting—the clan wants all of its warrior fit and healthy. Allowing them to injure one another in fights would not serve the interests of the clan.
What can we, or the young readers to whom the series is targeted, learn from the warrior cats’ society? For all its virtues, the warrior cat society is probably not one that most of us would want to live in, though, as I said before, it may be quite similar to the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived. Most of us would probably not enjoy living under the dictatorship of a divinely ordained leader, however benevolent. And there are too few choices of life paths to appeal to modern humans. For all their differences from our familiar “kittypets,” the warrior cats are still cats. Their main occupations must still be catching prey, bearing and raising kits, and staying safe from larger predators. They are not going to learn to make fire, or invent the wheel or agriculture. (In the “Dawn of the Clans” series, some cats invent the lever, but that invention seems never to have caught on, and they didn’t go on to invent any others of the simple machines.) Nevertheless, the warrior cat clans have many values that we can admire, including loyalty, caring for all members of the community, and respect for the natural world. These are all things that our current world could do with more of.