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The Enchanted Castle

by Edith Nesbit

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How is the "Ugly-Wuglies" episode in The Enchanted Castle both frightening and comic?

Quick answer:

The episode of the Ugly-Wuglies in E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle is comic because of the silly appearance, speech, and concerns of the Ugly-Wuglies, but it is also frightening because of the unnaturalness and unexpectedness of these creatures and because of their threatening behavior.

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Pretend for just a moment that you were putting on a play and you wanted a larger audience. What would you do? Would you be like Gerald, Jimmy, Cathy, and Mabel and make an audience for yourself out of whatever you found around the house? Would you use old clothes and umbrellas and hangers and hockey sticks to create “people”? Would you give them painted faces and hats and gloves?

But then how would you feel if, in an unthinking moment, you wished that these strange “people” were alive? And what if it actually happened? Would you laugh or would you shriek in terror and run away? Thankfully, readers of E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle do not have to face “living” Ugly-Wuglies in person, but we can think about whether these strange creatures are humorous, frightening, or a little of both.

Some people might chuckle when they think about how the Ugly-Wuglies look. The narrator describes them like this:

Their bodies were bolsters and rolled-up blankets, their spines were broom-handles, and their arm and leg bones were hockey sticks and umbrellas. Their shoulders were the wooden crosspieces that Mademoiselle used for keeping her jackets in shape; their hands were gloves stuffed out with handkerchiefs; and their faces were the paper masks painted in the afternoon by the untutored brush of Gerald, tied on to the round heads made of the ends of stuffed bolster- cases. The faces were really rather dreadful.

The Ugly-Wuglies have furious eyebrows, eyes like coins, and very red lips and cheeks. Picture them in your imagination. They're funny looking! Now remember how these Ugly-Wuglies talk when they come to life and what they are most concerned about. Because they lack real mouths and tongues (and because most of their mouths are drawn closed), they speak largely in vowels like oo and ah. Gerald can hardly understand such “talk” until he gets a bit more used to it, and then he realizes that the Ugly-Wuglies, who had just attended a delightful play, are most concerned about finding a good hotel. Of all things! “People” made of old clothes and odds and ends are ready to settle down for the night in a good lodging. Hilarious!

On the other hand, though, we can understand how the Ugly-Wuglies might be frightening as well as comical. After all, who would want seven empty figures with painted faces to come alive in an instant? While they may look silly as inanimate objects, they would seem a bit more than creepy when they get up and start walking around. Such an event is so unexpected, so bizarre, so extraordinary, so unnatural, that it is enough to catch anyone off-guard. These creatures look a little like humans, but they definitely are not! No wonder Eliza and Mademoiselle scream and dash away in fear. Readers, too, might feel a shiver up their backs just imagining what the Ugly-Wuglies might do or say. How could anyone know for sure? After all, there have never been such creatures before. They could do anything at all!

Indeed, when the Ugly-Wuglies begin to suspect that Gerald and Mabel are not really bringing them to some fine hotel but actually attempting to shut them up in the passage, the creatures turn nasty. They screech and struggle, trying to push open the door, and their strange speech becomes “threatening, full of the menace of unbearable horrors.” Without the help of the “bailiff,” Gerald and Mabel would never have been able to contain them, and the bailiff himself feels the wrath of the Ugly-Wuglies when he opens the door a bit too soon.

We can see, then, that while the episode of the Ugly-Wuglies is funny in part, it can also make readers shudder in horror as they follow the children's adventure with these strange creatures who have suddenly, magically come to life.

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