When people list the most important fantasy characters of all time, they often leave out a few classics that just happen to be off the beaten track. Like Asterix. But also, Archy and Mehitabel, the cockroach and alley cat who captured the imaginations of a whole generation.
Newspaper columnist Don Marquis came up with Archy and Mehitabel while he was writing a column for the New York Sun nearly 100 years ago, in 1916. He concocted a weird yarn about a cockroach who keeps sneaking into the newspaper offices and typing on the typewriter by jumping around on the keys — and it turns out Archy, the cockroach, is the reincarnation (or trapped soul, or something) of a free-verse poet. Not only that, but Archy's old nemesis, a "punk poet" who used to belittle Archy's free verse, has come back as a mean rat. (And yes, apparently they said "punk poet" in 1916.)
Mehitabel is an alley cat who claims that she used to be Cleopatra — at first Archy and Mehitabel are nemeses, but soon they become the best of friends, and Archy catalogues her adventures as well as his own. Archy's disdain for punctuation comes from his poetic background, but also his inability to hold down the shift key or reach most of the punctuation keys. Although at one point, he manages to get to the caps-lock, and becomes VERY EXCITED.
So admittedly, Archy and Mehitabel don't spend a lot of time musing about the exact mechanism by which their souls were transmigrated into cockroach and cat bodies. Nor is there a fantasy plot, in the traditional sense.
What there is, though, is an epic (and epically weird) friendship — and also, a lot of really excellent musing about the nature of existence, from a couple of beings who have seen a lot of life from both human and non-human perspectives. "the human race little knows/all the sadness it/causes in the insect world," writes Archy in between bemoaning the existence of exterminators and begging the newspaper staff to leave more sandwich crumbs around.
Archy is always coming out with bon mots, too, like "procrastination is the/art of keeping/up with yesterday." Meanwhile, Mehitabel does nothing but bemoan her fall from greatness, and how she remains "toujours gai" and still a free-spirited alley cat, beholden to no-one, despite the hard times she is faced with.
Not only that, but the original editions are illustrated by George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat — another animal who deserves more mention among the all-time most original fantasy characters.