There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez nos, or the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always by night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the frefusers into the stream and drown them.
— A Narrative of Three Years’ Residence in France, Principally in the Southern Departments, from the Year 1802 to 1805: Including Some Authentic Particulars Respecting the Early Life of the French Emperor, and a General Inquiry Into His Character, Volume 3, Anne Plumptre , 1 January 1810
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A washerwoman night or washerwoman’s death is a legendary character dating back to the 8th Century.
She is some sort of creature or ghost originating in Gaelic culture. In Scottish Gaelic she is called a nighe bean.
Always met at night, cleaning cloth in a stream or a public wash-house.
The washerwoman is always linked to the death realm.
Like the Grim Reaper, if you met her it was a sign of death.
This washerwoman is often connected to/confused with banshees, white ladies and night spinners. (Night spinners appear in earlier versions of Rumpelstiltskin and various other fairytales.)
Also known in French as Lavandière de nuit, ‘washerwomen of night’.
The function of these legends was to reinforce certain social or religious prohibitions: mainly to punish women who kept washing clothes after sunset, while night was traditionally devoted to rest and the day to work. The risk of encountering the night washer would also be an incentive for the villagers not to go out at night and stay in their house; a principle that was recommended by the Church and sometimes reinforced by Britain in the 19th century by the evening bells ringing a kind of curfew.
Sometimes night washerwomen were thought to be mothers who were cursed for killing their children.
Another story told people that night washerwomen were laundresses responsible for washing the laundry of the poor. By avarice, they replaced the soap by pebbles and rubbed the linen with the pebbles. The linen was terribly damaged and of course remained dirty. In a Sisyphean twist, to punish the washerwomen for this crime they were condemned to wash dirty clothes forever.
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.
These days, modern children are probably most likely to have encountered Puss In Boots in the second Shrek movie. The most resonant scene for us all is probably the bit where Puss is revealed to be a manipulative little bastard, making his eyes big and cute in order to get what he wants. I admit, it’s a real triumph of animation.
In this version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition (unlike a tale such as Little Red Cap, for instance). It was written by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name it almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
That said, Anne Carter explains in the afterword that this tale is quite similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called The Golden Ass. This dates from the second century A.D. Both stories feature:
the return home
The main differences:
In the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
Psyche’s is a journey towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.
The main differences between the original tale by Mme LePrince de Beaumont and many modern retellings is that the original author
Wrote the tale for adults, not children
Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.
Anne Carter’s retelling is not in any way subversive, but the afterword is definitely worth a read because it puts the story in historical context.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”
With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.
It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.
Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.
Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.
Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.
The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally.
When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.
It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.
The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of The Little Match Girl, who dies from hypothermia and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.
The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?
It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.
As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.
Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.
Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […]