‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash is a poem written for children. In this poem, the poet presents the story of Belinda, a little girl, who lived with her four pets namely a black kitten, a grey mouse, a yellow dog, and a little dragon. Apart from that, she had a little red wagon to play with. She lived in a little white house. However, the poet tries to present a heroic sketch of the characters described in the poem. But, it was meant for creating a humorous effect. It parodies the excess of self-confidence that makes one appear as a mere fool in crisis. Whereas, the cowardly creature, the little dragon, comes out victorious at the end.
Summary of The Tale of Custard the Dragon
‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash narrates a humorous story of Belinda and her pets in the ballade form. She lives in a little white house with her pets namely Ink, a little black kitten; a grey mouse, Blink; a yellow dog, Mustard; and a cowardly dragon, Custard. She also has a red wagon to play with her pets. Each of the characters appears as courageous and brave except for the dragon who nags for only “a nice safe cage” throughout the poem. But, Belinda loves the dragon the most and it makes others jealous of him. One day an evil pirate stealthily enters Belinda’s house. Eventually, all of her pets run away for their safety apart from the cowardly dragon. He gobbles the pirate saving everyone. Thus, the story ends happily.
You can read the full poem The Tale of Custard the Dragon here.
Structure of The Tale of Custard the Dragon
‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash is a poem written in the ballad form. However, the humorous elements in the poem make it an ideal example of a parody. Nash through this poem tries to give a moral lesson. Hence, it is also an example of a fable. In a fable, inanimate objects or animals can speak and each character represents a humanly quality like one can find in an allegorical poem. There are a total of 15 stanzas in the poem each having four lines in it. Only the 13th stanza contains six lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB and it goes on like this. This rhyme scheme is also known as a regular rhyme scheme and Nash preferred this rhyming pattern while composing his “light poetry”.
Moreover, the poet uses the rhyme scheme for creating a humorous effect in the poem. The punning quality of the rhyming words also presents irony. Apart from that, the metrical scheme of the poem doesn’t follow the form of a ballad. It is composed of a mixed meter scheme. The lines of the poem are mostly composed of the iambic meter with a few variations of the trochaic meter. Moreover, the poet uses spondees in the poem.
Literary Devices in The Tale of Custard the Dragon
‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash presents zoomorphism in the first two stanzas. Here, the poet invests animals with the qualities of human beings. There is a repetition of “little” in the first stanza that is meant for creating an internal rhythm in the poem. However, the repetition of the “l” sound is also an example of alliteration. The poet also uses anaphora in the first and second stanzas. Moreover, the use of simile is present in phrases such as, “sharp as Mustard” and “Mouth like a fireplace”. Using the nouns like “Mustard”, “Custard”, “fireplace”, “chimney”, and “daggers”, the poet associates the qualities associated with those nouns to the features of the creatures mentioned in the poem. Such an association of ideas is called metonymy.
Apart from that, the poet uses irony, sarcasm, satire, and innuendo throughout the poem. As an example, “brave as a barrel full of bears” contains innuendo as well as irony. There is an allusion to Percival, one of the knights of King Arthur’s round table. Sounds such as “weeck”, “growled”, “clatter”, “clank”, “jangling”, etc. contain onomatopoeia. Apart from that, there is a tautology in, “At the realio, trulio, cowardly dragon”.
Themes in The Tale of Custard the Dragon
‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash presents themes such as appearance vs reality, hypocrisy, courage, love, and jealousy. The main theme of the poem is appearance vs reality. Here, the creatures like the cat, mouse, and dog appear as courageous but in crisis, they reveal their real cowardice. In contrast, the ugly and formidable dragon who is, in reality, dangerous of them all, appears as a coward creature. But, during the crisis he saves everyone. So, someone’s appearance doesn’t make the person powerful. It is on how one reacts when impediments block the way and scare him.
Moreover, the theme of hypocrisy is present in the ninth and thirteenth stanzas. Here, the showy creatures run away when the pirate creeps in. They even give baseless explanations about their fleeting. However, the dragon’s comment adds a cherry at the top of Nash’s irony. He remarks, “I quite agree/ That everybody is braver than me.”
Analysis of The Tale of Custard the Dragon
Belinda lived in a little white house,
With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse,
But the dragon was a coward, and she called him Custard.
‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash introduces the characters of the poem in the first two stanzas. The central character is Belinda who lives in a little white house. She lives with a little black kitten, a grey mouse, a yellow dog, a little pet dragon, and a red wagon. Thereafter the poet tells readers their names. The kitten’s name was Ink. Moreover, Belinda called the mouse Blink. The dog’s behavior was as sharp as mustard. That’s why she called him Mustard. Moreover, she called her pet dragon Custard as he was timid and sweet.
Custard the dragon had big sharp teeth,
And spikes on top of him and scales underneath,
But Custard cried for a nice safe cage.
‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash presents the description of the dragon in the third stanza. Custard, the dragon, though it was little, had big sharp teeth. He had spikes on top of him and scales underneath. His mouth was like a fireplace and the nose appeared as if it was a chimney. Such a description brings out comic effects in the poem. Moreover, it had claws like daggers on his toes. Here, the poet humorously distorts the pronunciation of the words, really and truly as “realio” and “trulio”.
In the fourth stanza, the poet talks about the bravery of the characters. Belinda was as brave as a barrel full of bears. It means that she was fearless about anything that might happen. Whereas, her pet cat and mouse chased lions away from their house. Mustard was as ferocious as an angry tiger. But, Custard, being timid of all, nagged for the safety of a cage. He felt that a cage might protect him from any threats.
Belinda tickled him, she tickled him unmerciful,
Ink, Blink and Mustard, they rudely called him Percival,
When Custard cried for a nice safe cage.
In this section of ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’, Ogden Nash presents how Belinda cared for her pet dragon and how it made others jealous of him. They tickled each other but the dragon having sharp claws sometimes hurt Belinda. That’s why the poet uses the adjective “unmerciful” in the first line of this stanza. However, Ink, Blink, and Mustard habitually jealous about him called him Percival, one of the knights of King Arthur’s round table. Percival was the innocent of all the knights and became King Arthur’s favorite for his natural prowess and courage. Custard was innocent and close to Belinda that’s why they called him Percival. Moreover, the poet says sitting in the red wagon they laughed at him playfully.
While playing, they giggled together. Here, Nash uses hyperbole while describing Belinda’s giggling. The mouse, Blink said “Weeck!” It is according to the poet a mouse’s giggling. However, Custard only cried for a nice cage while everyone played. They even mocked him asking his age as he cried like a baby.
Suddenly, suddenly they heard a nasty sound,
And Mustard growled, and they all looked around.
It was clear that the pirate meant no good.
This section of ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ begins with a repetition of “suddenly” for creating tension in the poem. It’s an example of palilogy. Whatsoever, they heard a nasty sound near the window. It made everyone anxious. Mustard growled and fearfully looked around him. Ink cried, “Meowch”! and “ooh!”, cried Belinda as if they were somehow hurt just by a sound! In “meowch” there is a pun. It’s an amalgamation of two sounds, mew and ouch. However, a pirate was climbing up in the window and it was his sound.
He had a pistol in his two hands and held a “cutlass”, a short sword used by sailors, in his teeth. His beard was black and one of his legs was made of wood. His appearance made it clear that “the pirate meant no good.”
Belinda paled, and she cried, Help! Help!
But Mustard fled with a terrified yelp,
He went at the pirate like a robin at a worm.
Belinda, brave as a barrel full of bears, paled and cried for help after seeing the pirate. Mustard, brave as a tiger in a rage, fled from the scene with a terrified yelp. Whereas, Ink and Blink who chased lions down the stairs ran to hide. The cat trickled down to the bottom of the house and the mouse ran into his hole.
But, Custard, the real hero of the poem, jumped up to face the pirate. He snorted like an engine was starting up inside him. Clashing his tails like irons in a dungeon he approached the pirate. Here, the poet uses a simile and compares his tail to the iron chains of a prison cell. In irons, the poet refers to the material for the thing made with it. It’s a use of synecdoche. Moreover, he made clattering and clanking sound. Thereafter, moving his body making a jangling sound, went at the pirate like a robin at a worm. It’s a reference to the bird, Robin, and how it preys on worms.
The pirate gaped at Belinda’s dragon,
And gulped some grog from his pocket flagon,
Around the dragon that ate the pyrate.
In this section of ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’, the poet says the pirate became astonished to see Belinda’s dragon. He gulped some grog or alcoholic beverage from his pocket flagon to come to his senses. Here, the repetition of the “g” sound is an example of consonance. Whatsoever, he fired two bullets at Custard but missed him. And, Custard gobbled him up.
Belinda was happy and embraced him. The tiger-like Mustard now licked the baby-like Custard. Here, the poet ironically says that nobody mourned the pirate’s killing. They were rather elated and enjoyed the feat of their hero. Ink and Blink gyrated around the dragon who saved their lives.
But presently up spoke little dog Mustard,
And Custard said, I quite agree
That everybody is braver than me.
In this stanza of ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’, the poet presents what Mustard told others after the threat was gone. He said that he was too flustered to stay there. Otherwise, he was twice as brave as others. Thereafter, Ink and Blink said they were three times as brave. The addition of “we think” at the end of their speech is important. It means that they were brave in their dreams not in their deeds. In the end, Custard ironically agreed with what others said about their courage. He admitted that everybody was braver than him. In reality, he was the opposite.
Belinda still lives in her little white house,
With her little black kitten and her little gray mouse,
But Custard keeps crying for a nice safe cage.
The last two stanzas of ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ act as a refrain. These stanzas are the repetition of the first stanza and the fourth stanza just like other ballad poems. There are only two differences. One is in the first line of the first stanza. Here, the poet adds “still” to refer that they lived in that white house. Another difference is in the last line. Here, the poet uses “But” at the beginning of “Custard keeps crying for a nice safe cage.” It’s an ironic reference to the dragon’s behavior. He showed bravery in the previous section. Still, he kept nagging for his safety. So, the dragon wasn’t a hero in reality. He just acted with the heat of the moment and ate the pirate.
Historical Context of The Tale of Custard the Dragon
‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash is a children’s poem. It was first published in 1936. Later, in 1995, it was published with illustrations by Lynn M. Munsinger. James Roland described this poem as “probably his most famous poem for kids”. The poem inspired Leonard Lipton and he wrote ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ based on the story of Custard, the cowardly dragon. The poem is one of Nash’s light verses. He wrote more than 500 such poems. For his unconventional rhyme schemes and use of pun, he was declared the country’s best-known writer of humorous poetry.
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