Often in stories with a very small character there is some metaphorical/thematic reason for it, but in this case Muriel’s regression to the body and mind of a 3 and a half year old is pure fun. In other words, this is a carnivalesque story.
The first thing we see about this storyworld is that it is very windy. The sky is an ominous shade of purple, the windmill spins quickly and Muriel’s washing is flapping on the line.
We see the metaphor of a cliff in this story, as Muriel and Courage (and Eustace) come close to death. For more on that see The Symbolism Of Altitude.
In his attempt to be helpful and kind Courage sometimes screws up. He has accidentally glued Muriel to her rocking chair thinking it was quick drying paint. And a storm is coming.
The story requires for Muriel to be stuck to the chair, but also for the chair to be stuck to the floor. She needs to be trapped. They get around this by showing Eustace in the basement fixing the basement ceiling — a long nail pokes right through and nails the chair to the living room floor.
The writers also get rid of Eustace by having him knock himself out cold.
He wants to save Muriel from the hurricane.
Although it’s perfectly possible to make a story with only a natural opponent (hurricanes, tsunamis), the most successful stories (what others have called ‘3D stories’) require human opponents.
The natural opponent is introduced early on and is of course the hurricane.
The human opponent will be revealed later — in this story it is Muriel as a bratty three and a half year old.
Courage ties a piece of string between a rock and a tree and ‘trips’ the hurricane up. The hurricane throws Muriel onto the top of a high, pointy rock.
After returning home with little Muriel the computer tells him that the only way to bring Muriel back is to drop her into the eye of a hurricane going in the opposite direction, which can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a reference to the Coriolis effect (not actually observable in sinks and toilets as many believe).
I don’t get the feeling the writers really know children. Muriel as a three and a half year old has one tooth. This is an age when children (temporarily) have a full set of teeth.
I also don’t buy that Muriel would have been such a bratty three and a half year old, but that is not the point. (Show me the child at three and I’ll show you the woman.) The point is to have fun. I can believe the hurricane results in some kind of personality change.
It’s interesting what I find believable and unbelievable, because this show is full of unbelievable things. We accept that Courage magically finds a tricycle and a kite as he’s chasing after Muriel. It’s funny that he can ‘trip’ up a hurricane. If the writers wanted to, they could have had the house magically rebuilt when Courage returns. We often see the house decimated at the end of an episode, only to see it just the same as it ever was at the beginning of the next. But no — that’s the thing about the rules of story — the writers must wait until the end of this episode before rebuilding the house.
The carnivalesque antics must therefore take place in a house with no roof.
And this is the main battle — pleasing Muriel who demands very specific food and then refuses to eat it and keeping her safe.
When Muriel makes a nuisance of herself on the plane to the Southern Hemisphere even the pilot jumps out with a parachute, unable to stand it anymore. He wishes Courage good luck and hands him a plane flying manual.
When Muriel walks out her own self we know Courage has saved the day.
The TV announcer lets us know that the hurricane warning is over. (Darkly humorous given the house is in total disrepair.) Now there will be a tsunami.
In this circular shaped story, we last see the Bagge family riding away on a massive wave.
I am adding another step to John Truby’s story structure, which I’ve been making much use of so far.
We extrapolate that Courage will save them somehow because he knows ‘how to ride the waves’.
The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling episode of Courage reminds me of a type of picture book in which a cute character (often an annoying younger brother or sister) gets away with doing mean things behind the parents’ back. This must be a common family dynamic because I remember my own younger brother hamming up the cuteness in a way the adults didn’t seem to notice!
I’m reminded in particular of a picture book from the 1980s which I cannot find — perhaps it’s out of print. It’s about a girl called Caroline who does all sorts of naughty things. But was it really Caroline? “No, not Caroline, adorable sweet Caroline!” It stands out vividly to me because there was a girl called Caroline in my Standard 1 class who giggled and giggled whenever the teacher read it to the class. I remember wishing there was a picture book starring me, but I have yet to find a single children’s book with a character named Lynley.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ThePrecious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling
Courage is kind, and this comes back to bite him in ThePrecious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling. He rescues an egg which has been abandoned. We watch the flock fly across the sky. Initially our empathy for this left-behind egg are aroused. We’re half expecting an Ugly Duckling tale a la Hans Christian Andersen.
At first the opponent is Eustace, who thinks the egg is for his breakfast.
But when he cracks the egg into the pan and a chicken plops out, the chick immediately falls in love with Eustace. This is making use of the well-known phenomenon in which a duckling falls in love with whoever nurtures it. Taken to an extreme, this duckling falls madly in love at first sight, to the exclusion of all else. Muriel and Courage are immediate enemies.
This reminds me of writing advice from Elizabeth Lyons who in her book Manuscript Makeover says that readers are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. That very much works in this episode — Courage is the first character we see and we are definitely on his side.
The duckling takes great care of Eustace, putting on his slippers, fanning him while he sleeps, smashing Muriel’s cup of tea and replacing it with a more lavish tray.
Courage is soon given a broken leg by this cute little duckling but plans to talk to him about being naughty around the house. Courage gives the duckling a lecture about not throwing cups of tea onto the rug. (We don’t hear the words, just a mumbly sound.)
The duckling doubles down.
The battle sequence is a real Tom and Jerry escapade which takes place inside the house. This is a truly evil duckling who wants to murder Muriel and disable Courage. Courage must save Muriel, who has no idea that the duckling has another side to him.
It all culminates in the basement, where the duckling has built a rocket in order to send Muriel into space. He gets his own wing stuck in the door. Courage manages to save Muriel by gnawing away at the rope tying her to the outside.
Muriel’s revelation is that the duckling is bad after all.
The bad characters in this are duly punished, so the message to the reader is that badly behaved characters end badly.
(I would say that this is the most satisfying way to end episodes of a comedy like this, but is not reflective of real life.)
Instead of Muriel, Eustace and the Duckling end up on the moon together. The duckling is very happy about this. It’s what he’s wanted all along.
The Hunchback of Nowhere is from the first season of Courage The Cowardly Dog. As ever, this modern re-visioning takes inspiration from a wide history of storytelling, including from The Bible.
Any adult viewer will know immediately that this is inspired at least partly by The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though the writers can’t expect a young audience to know this. Instead, they have to come up with a story which is complete in its own right while also nodding to the earlier story. A lot of viewers may have seen the 1996 film, however, which was only a few years old when this episode of Courage came out in 1999. (The Hunchback was having another moment.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HUNCHBACK OF NOWHERE
Taking a break from the hero’s journey and Robinsonnade structures of previous episodes, this is a carnivalesque story as seen in many picture books. There is no battle sequence in a carnivalesque story. Instead we have a whole lot of fun, though it can look precarious in parts. There is no real opponent in this story either, apart from Eustace who we already know to be his own worst enemy.
This story opens with a shot of the rain pelting down.
We’ve had thunder storms a plenty in Nowhere but we haven’t seen much rain. Once again the story opens at night time, with a cute but ugly character going from door to door hoping for some shelter.
Rain is often used in comedy (and in genre fiction) as pathetic fallacy, in which rain equals sadness, sunshine equals happiness, and so on.
As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover, readers are like ducklings; we fall in love with the first character we ‘see’. The same is true for the screen. (It’s clear the writers of Courage know this really well — a later episode features a duckling falling madly in love with the otherwise unloveable Eustace.)
The writers of Courage have opened with an opponent before, for example with the fox who wants to make Cajun Granny Stew, and this makes the opponent less scary for a young audience. Here we need genuine affection for the Hunchback in order for the rest of the story to work. So we see him as an outsider. He is recast as a modern hobo.
Eustace wants Courage to fetch his raincoat from the barn.
Courage wants Eustace to let the Hunchback stay. He says to the camera (because Eustace can’t understand him speaking English), “Why can’t he stay in the attic at least?”
The Hunchback wants to avoid getting wet.
Eustace. Had Muriel opened the door to the Hunchback there would have been no story. Muriel is accommodating by nature.
The Hunchback takes refuge in the Bagges’ barn.
Courage has found a friend so he intends for the Hunchback to stay until it’s no longer raining, keeping him safe from the grumpy, uncharitable Eustace.
Eustace plans to annoy the Hunchback and insult him until he leaves.
Instead of a battle sequence there is a play sequence in the barn. The barn is the Nowhere equivalent of the Notre Dame Cathedral because it allows for great contrast between high and low places — the highest point of the barn is really quite high, and we are reminded of this fact numerous times via high angle and low angle contrasting shots.
We find lots of high-low juxtaposition in stories about social inequality, which is very much what we have in the Hunchback story.
In this carnivalesque story we have scenes right out of an actual carnival/circus, with Courage and his new friend swinging like circus performers and playing tunes with the set of bells the Hunchback has brought with him.
The play scene includes plenty of tension because of the risk of falling from the high swing and also because Eustace comes into the barn demanding to know why Courage still hasn’t retrieved his raincoat as he was asked.
There is a comical game of shadow puppetry using a torch, in which Courage and the Hunchback make all sorts of improbable shapes using only their hands (even funnier because Courage has three stubby fingers.)
The play scene isn’t quite enough to make a complete story, however, and the writers know this. There is a battle of wits at the breakfast table the next morning after Muriel invites the Hunchback for a pancake breakfast. “Any friend of Courage is a friend of mine.”
Eustace doesn’t want this and insults the Hunchback. Pleased to have a ‘voice’ at last, Courage writes notes to the Hunchback, who gets at Eustace’s most self-conscious feature — his baldness. Eustace stamps out in a huff.
The third part of the battle happens on the barn roof, in which the roof is a domestic stand-in for a cliff in the natural world. Courage and the Hunchback are up there playing a concert to the appreciative Muriel, who is perfectly happy to listen to them under the cover of her umbrella below.
Eustace has a self-revelation (which won’t last, naturally) when the Hunchback pranks him. Eustace has been pranking Courage all along with his scary tricks, especially throughout this episode. Noticing this, the Hunchback gives Eustace a taste of his own medicine. Anyone watching realises immediately that Eustace can give it but he can’t take it.
When the Hunchback says goodbye he pulls out a huge bell. Why does he do this, apart from the laugh? Throughout this story the Hunchback has been a more powerful version of Courage due to his being able to talk and also outwit Eustace by scaring him with his very own face. The Hunchback is saying he has won on behalf of Courage, with his identical but much smaller bell. (The bell = voice.)
The Hunchback says he hopes to find other kind people on his travels.
This episode of Courage seems to be a parody of an episode of a TV serial from the 1930s based on a novel by Arthur Reeve. It is called “The Clutching Hand” and is about a detective named Craig Kennedy. This serialised original includes the following elements:
A get rich quick scheme
Assuming a false identity
The original is slow and pretty boring for a modern audience, but the creators of Courage The Cowardly Dog have created a masterful mishmash of the above elements and made a brand new story for children using the basic formula they have already established for themselves combined with broad strokes from Arthur Reeve.
Children’s stories often feature oversized (or undersized) characters/elements. We have that here, too, with Eustace’s massive festering foot which literally swallows him up.
This is the most difficult to watch episode so far in terms of gross out humour. Despite the cartoon depiction, the foot — and especially Muriel’s home remedies for the foot — really make my skin crawl.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CLUTCHING FOOT”
Much use is made of The Rule of Three in Storytelling. “The Clutching Foot” is basically a spoof of a heist movie, so includes the classic scenes from those. There is a pyrrhic victoryfor Courage as he sacrifices his health and wellbeing to save the day.
It’s very clear by now that Courage’s needs and weaknesses never change. He is a dog who is charged with the task of saving his home and family.
This would get old after a while, except the humans Courage lives with have different weaknesses and needs depending on the episode. Here, Eustace is foiled by his refusal to see a doctor when his foot festers.
Eustace does not want to see a doctor — he wants to have a nap and wake up and find his foot all better. He lets Muriel try out her home remedies (three of them):
Unfortunately for him, his foot completely takes over while he’s sleeping, and swallows him right up. This is basically an intruder in the house — the massive foot might as well be a monster who has come in through the window or a ghoul. The function is the same, but is a bit more like a psychological suspense story in that the monster is Eustace himself — it’s a part of him. The nasty part of himself is the very thing that will consume him in the end.
And it does. Quite literally.
The gangster persona is a masterful touch for a foot opponent because the big toe can be the Don and the little toes can back up everything he says. The size of the toes equal the hierarchy in a typical gang.
With Eustace stuck inside it unable to speak, the foot itself comes up with a plan. This is a gangster foot, and speaks in a parody of gangsters from American film in the early part of the 20th century. The foot is going to use Muriel as bait, “Do what I say or the fat lady gets it,” and will force Courage to carry out heists for it.
Courage, of course, will do what he needs to in order to save Muriel (and Eustace by default.)
The battle sequence involves Courage
Driving the getaway car
Breaking into a bank and robbing the place. (He fails because although money showers down it’s all torn and singed from an explosion.)
Holding up a train.
Courage is trying to appease the bad foot while also saving his family and not breaking the law. He manages to save the train from being robbed by eating a banana and throwing the skin onto the ground. At first I wondered if this was going to derail the train, but in fact it made the foot slip, sending the train far into the distance.
Once again we have a modification of the woman tied to railway tracks (we’ve seen it in an earlier episode with a toy train inside the house). Muriel screams as the foot holds her down. Courage risks his own life by standing in front of an oncoming train.
Stories in which likeable characters are forced to hold up a bank are popular in fiction. We have Thelma in Thelma and Louise, for instance. More recently we have an episode of Season Three of Black Mirror, “Shut Up And Dance”, in which a teenage boy and another reluctant man are forced to rob a bank or risk having their online activities emailed to everyone they know.
I wonder if these stories are popular because we’ve all wondered if we could pull off a bank heist. It’s a task that looks easy if only you can manage your emotions.
When the computer tells him that dog slobber can save the day, Courage is basically learning that the only one capable of saving everyone is himself. He must make the ultimate sacrifice. This is a pyrrhic victory. He must lick the foot.
We see Courage in the bathroom brushing, gargling and flossing to get the disgusting taste of festering foot out of his mouth.
We end with a circular story when Courage discovers the fungus has transferred to his own tongue. The first we know of this is that the gangster voice echoes out from deep inside him. Next we see his mouth open:
In the “King Ramses’ Curse” episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog we have three plagues — since storytelling loves The Rule Of Three — and the plagues comprise a mixture of ancient and comically modern curses.
This horror comedy for children takes inspiration from ancient holy texts such as found in the Bible and in the Quran.
In the Bible we have The Ten Biblical Plagues, also known as The Plagues of Egypt.
In the Quran there is also mention of a plague and it’s pretty similar except it happens all at once.
STORY STRUCTURE OF KING RAMSES’ CURSE
Muriel and Eustace are obliviously going on with their lives inside their house in the middle of Nowhere.
“Shirley The Medium” is an original recomposition of elements from diverse sources:
Pandora’s Box fairytale
A Christmas Carol, Dickens
Modern TV psychics
STORY STRUCTURE OF SHIRLEY THE MEDIUM
Courage is unable to tell Eustace not to open the box.
Also, in this episode, one weakness is that he needs to please his owners, even though one of them is outright horrible. When he digs up a locked box he hands it over to Eustace when he overhears Eustace complaining about his dead brother’s box of money. This leads to no end of trouble.
Courage wants to prevent Eustace from opening a box.
“The Duck Brothers” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog features opponents who are revealed to be not really bad, which makes for a comical battle scene. The battle scene is noteworthy for including a wide variety of small battles.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DUCK BROTHERS”
Courage is unable to convince Eustace when Muriel is in danger because of his lowly status as an anxious dog.
He wants to save Muriel.
The opponents in this story come in the form of an alien spaceship, later revealed to be alien duck brothers who — though this part is never explained in the story — have abducted Muriel (and then Eustace) by mistake. They seem to speak in some approximation of an Irish accent. There would be several reasons for this:
Irish accents have comedic value
There’s a history of gangster/crime films featuring Irish brothers. E.g. The Boondock Saints (1999), which would have been in theatres when this episode of Courage first aired.
During the mid 20th century Irish families tended to have very large families.
The duck brothers are constantly arguing like children. The gag is that one or both of them keeps laying eggs, which is unmanly and emasculating. (Side note: If sexism weren’t a real thing this wouldn’t be a joke that people even understand — the brothers are lowering their status as manly ducks by doing something usually only performed by their mothers and sisters.)
The chef looks like he would be an opponent. He is hairy and wears a singlet and wields a giant knife. But he is revealed later to be just a regular guy with a reasonable temperament.
As ever, Courage’s first move is to tell an adult, whichever of the adults happens to be unafflicted by the bad thing. This is a necessary step in children’s stories. When a child is in great danger and still does not tell any adults in their life, there has to be a reason for this already established. Perhaps the adults are terrible people, for instance. (And even then… We know Eustace is not going to believe Courage’s story that Muriel’s been abducted by aliens.) At the very least the author needs some lampshading — usually in the form of a conversation: “Mom and Dad will never believe this!”
One point about horror stories for adults in which a child character tells the responsible adult something and the adult doesn’t believe them: Don’t try to write it straight. The following is from someone who reads a lot of story submissions in the horror genre:
MOMMY, THERE’S A MONSTER IN MY CLOSET
Children are a bunch of goddamn idiots. This is a fact. So it makes sense that, in fiction, whenever a kid complains to their parents about a monster in the closet, the parent laughs at how dumb they are and sends them back to bed. (Sidenote: if any of my hypothetical kids ever came to me with a monster problem, I would be so excited, like, you have no idea, it’d be a dream come true.) But in these stories, of course there’s really a monster in the closet, and of course it wants to eat the kid. Or, sometimes, it actually wants to eat the kid’s parents, and it convinces the kid to lure them into the closet. An alternative to this story would be instead of a monster in the closet, one of the kid’s toys is eeeevil. There are enough stories about children scared in their bedroom. Please write literally anything else, you unoriginal scumbag.
Eustace rolls over and falls back to sleep, of course, so in true Courage fashion, who keeps a close eye on the action and jumps in whenever he sees an opportunity. First up, jumping onto the back of the ute.
Muriel, controlled by a device on her head, drives to a compound reminiscent of something out of a SF movie. We see a gated compound in Interstellar, for instance, or in the Netflix series Stranger Things. In SF, these factory-like establishments behind guarded gates are most often found near smallish communities where the residents live on the poverty line.
True to form, the writers choose a typical childhood game for the battle sequence. This time it’s piggy in the middle, after Courage locates the duck brothers inside a compound and tries to wrestle their controller off them.
This is the device that is controlling Muriel’s movements.
There is also a food fight, this time with the duck brothers using their eggs to throw at Courage. “Aren’t you glad for these now?” one brother asks accusingly.
Another battle comes about between Courage and himself. Once wrestling the remote controller off the duck brothers he is unable to work it.
Another concurrent part of the battle scene centres on Muriel and Eustace (who has been captured and controlled off-screen) dancing awkwardly as the ducks seem to be playing with them like kids play with remote controlled toys.
The duck brothers are not evil. They are just like Courage — only trying to get a loved one back.
Courage comes to the rescue, walking into the chef’s kitchen and taking back the duck.
“What am I supposed to cook now?” asks the burly chef.
“Strudel,” replies Courage in an uncharacteristically deep voice. (The whole episode is a parody of extreme masculinity.)
The chef thinks this is a great idea.
The three duck brothers have been reunited. The audience is used to a complete set of three from a tradition of fairytales and The Rule Of Threes. When we find there are three brothers instead of two that makes perfect sense to us and feels complete.
Back at home, Courage and Muriel are putting the alien duck brothers’ device to excellent use. They are using it on Eustace — who turned up earlier at the compound wearing it — to get them breakfast in bed.
In a Refrigerator Moment, we realise there is a gated compound in Nowhere, housing a chef who — for some strange reason — has alien specimens lining the walls and who likes to cook duck but who will settle for strudel. (Hitchcock coined both ‘McGuffin’ and ‘Refrigerator Logic’. He was a man who really understood story.)
The folklore of the werewolf is great fodder for a horror comedy and it was bound to be used sooner or later. Others have made new creatures out of the werewolf story — Wallace and Grommit have The Curse Of The Wererabbit, for instance, in which they take a cute, fluffy animal that can’t (directly) harm humans. Here we have a mole, equally harmless to humans, and also a little underrepresented in children’s literature, though we do more recently have Mo Willems and his naked mole rats. For comic appeal, that subcategory is even more appealing.
As usual in the Courage stories, the moon has a cycle of its own.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “NIGHT OF THE WEREMOLE”
The fact that “Night of the Weremole” is a nod to B-grade horror flicks is underscored by the scenes in which Muriel (and initially Courage) are watching one on their television inside the storyworld.
In a horror comedy the fun is in making use of tropes which are so worn out that editors will rant about how they never want to see certain storylines ever again.
Max Booth at LitReactor writes about one such storyline here:
OH MY! WHAT IS THIS STRANGE AND MYSTERIOUS BITE?
Maybe someone is exploring a forest, then a strange bug happens to take a small bite out of them. Or maybe they receive a mysterious package in the mail, and its contents leave a mark on their flesh. It doesn’t matter how it happened, but now your character has a mark that won’t go away, and every day it spreads. The character goes to the doctor, but the doctor just shrugs, because doctors are stupid and know nothing. The mark continues to mutate until the character has completed its transformation into a monster. The reader has known how this story was going to end from the very beginning. Why? Because everybody writes this story. And it’s never surprising. It’s never interesting. Writers like this idea because it gives them a chance to exercise their gross-out techniques. They can get their hands dirty and have fun detailing graphic mutations. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I love gore just as much as the next guy. But what’s important to remember is this: you need more besides disgusting mutations. You need a real, genuine story. What you have right now is an idea. A very boring, overused idea.
Courage is cowardly. Rather, he is very brave but anxious all the while. A truly cowardly hero would be no good for a series hero.
Courage wants to protect his family from the weremole.
The weremole who turns up as Muriel is outside doing a spot of night gardening. Because a rabbit turns up first, she is fooled into thinking the creatures are cute and even offers a carrot.
Eustace is also an opponent here. Because of his blindness and stupidity he doesn’t realise that he’s trying to kill his own wife with his mallet. The fact that Eustace can’t find his mallet at first lends suspense. We know, eventually, that he will find it.
As usual, Courage’s initial plans to remedy the situation don’t work and he has to keep thinking of ways to outsmart the situation and his opponents.
When Muriel’s hand swells to an enormous size Courage and Eustace (begrudgingly) take her to the doctor.
But the doctor, with his bushy eyebrows and no eyes, is just as oblivious as Muriel and Eustace themselves. He repeats that everything will be fine, “just keep soaking it”.
When Courage faints from fright he finds hmself in the doctor’s office. This works really well because the viewer at first expects to see Muriel in the doctor’s office.
Courage deals with this by picking the doctor up and running with him back home to fix the real problem, which is Muriel.
Unfortunately the doctor gets eaten. (This is temporary.)
Courage once more turns to his Internet friend, who tells him that in order to save Muriel he will need hair of the mole. The computer has another purpose though: young viewers aren’t necessarily au fait with the ins and outs of werewolf mythology, so we are told via an animated diagram that once bitten by a were-creature you yourself turn into a were-creature. This is probably already obvious from the story so far, but here it is underscored.
At home, Muriel is soaking her hands in the kitchen sink when she is overcome by the power of the moon, which shines in through the kitchen window.
Courage dresses himself up as bait, trembling. He wants to get a hair out of that weremole.
The weremole’s undoing is his own craziness. He is so busy thrashing Courage around that he doesn’t realise he’s only thrashing around the suit.
The audience doesn’t realise this either, until Courage appears back on the scene holding a huge pair of tweezers.
There are parallel battle scenes going on:
Eustace locates his mallet and plays whack-a-mole with the Were-Muriel in the bedroom as she pokes her head through holes in the floor. He thinks it’s a rodent of some kind because, handily, he is oblivious to the world around him.
In the yard, Courage gets attacked by the weremole, who thinks he is a tasty rabbit.
Courage realises at some point that he can win this battle. We see the look on his face after he manages to pluck a hair out of the rabid mole.
At first it seems everything is back to normal
Note that we see Courage seeing something before we see it ourselves.
This is a repeating story. The doctor turns into a weredoctor. (Though etymologically, this word doesn’t quite work…The etymology of werewolf is ‘man’ + ‘wolf’. Technically we have a ‘manmole’ in this story.)