In film and television, the fairy-tale is a dying genre. The same stories are not only told over and over again, but also told in increasingly non-fairy-tale ways. For one, high budget adaptations of old folktales seem to consistently disregard the very essence of folklore: specificity to a certain time, place, and people group. Cinderella has been adapted so many times that the story no longer belongs to the Greeks or Italians or French; its universal qualities have been played up, while the quirks and local flavors that came from small French villages or ancient Egyptian mythology have been watered down. This is a commercial move, as producers are compelled to market these films not only to the melting pot that is the United States, but also to international audiences from all across the globe. In addition, by repeating the same stories over and over again with little attention to detail, these films make the uniquely weird and disturbing aspects of folklore into stereotypes and clichés. The story of the glass slipper is no longer magical and strange; it’s overplayed and dry.
Thankfully, there are still occasional attempts to revitalize the genre. Among the few original and fresh fairy-tales of recent decades, like The Princess Bride, Spirited Away, and Pan’s Labyrinth, one notable creation has largely slipped by the public’s attention: Over the Garden Wall (2014).
I stumbled across Over the Garden Wall through a group of college friends and was instantly drawn in. The artwork is stunningly moody and atmospheric, evoking the look of old, hand-painted designs from the early years of Disney, with rich colors and dramatic lighting. It captures a fantastical version of pre-twentieth century New England, with an autumn harvest festival put on by people seemingly made of pumpkins, a one-room colonial schoolhouse for well-behaved animals, and a river steamboat captained by frogs. The score is yearningly nostalgic, made in the old style of the same period with instruments like violins, bassoons, and a piano in the mix, featuring both instrumental pieces and short musical numbers by the characters.
The series was created by Patrick McHale, a staff writer on Adventure Time, and follows the wanderings of two lost brothers in a magical, dangerous forest called the Unknown, as they confront their own flaws and look for a way home. The older brother, Wirt (Elijah Wood), is a cowardly, indecisive, poetic teenager, who travels with his younger sibling, Greg (Collin Dean), a cheerful, oblivious, and childish companion. Their relationship is surprisingly symbiotic, as Greg’s illogical ideas, guided by Wirt’s rationality, somehow perfectly answer the absurdist fantasy problems they encounter. As Wirt struggles with hopelessness, insecurity, and aimlessness, his little brother encourages him with an unshakable optimism that wavers between admirable determination and naïveté. Their backstory is left ambiguous for most of the series, but it’s clear that Wirt is suffering from a case of unrequited love back home, related to his insecurity.
In one of the series’ many references to Dante’s Inferno, the brothers are guided through the Unknown by a non-nonsense talking bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), who vows to bring them to Lady Adelaide, the “good woman of the woods” who will help them get home. Along the way, they are also stalked by a gruff woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) with mysterious motives and a shadowy, demonic phantom known as “the Beast” (Samuel Ramey), who preys on the souls of children who have lost hope and turned into Edelwood trees.
As the brothers progress on their journey to find home, Wirt gradually grows in self confidence, utilizing his unique gifts of architectural expertise and clarinet playing to solve a haunted mansion mystery and placate a group of angry bluecoat frogs on a steamboat. By the time they reach Lady Adelaide, Wirt seems to self actualized in his self confidence and openness in relationships, only to have his hopes and trust dashed when he discovers that Adelaide is really a witch, to whom Beatrice betrayed them. With their only chance at getting home now proven a lie, Wirt and Greg trudge on, despair and cynicism setting in as the Beast circles them in the night…
If Over the Garden Wall sounds dark, that’s because it is. While most of the series is filled with fast paced jokes surrounding Greg’s antics and Wirt’s nervousness and an overall light tone, it does touch on genuinely frightening evils. The woodsman must cut down Edelwood trees to feed the lantern which carries his daughter’s soul. A girl is possessed by an evil spirit that makes her devour visitors. Ideas that were cut from the final series are even more gruesome, including an old man who made dice from the bones of children and a witch who took off her skin to fly around at night and dance on sleeping people. While the series never approaches content that would be questionable for children, it does hold strongly to a belief that there is darkness in the world and children should know about it.
Additionally, while many episodes include conflicts of interpersonal misunderstandings, every true evil can be traced back to the Beast, a Satan-like figure who corrupts and tempts inhabitants of the Unknown in an effort to drive them to despair. He is always shown in shadow or silhouette, sinister and maleficent until the end, when he is briefly seen in a frightening split second, revealing the stuff of nightmares.
Pitted against this evil is simple virtue. Greg, the beating heart of the story, insists on never giving up, encouraging the downcast, and taking care of his brother and his pet frog. When Wirt abandons hope, it’s Greg who prays to the stars and finds a way to save his brother by giving himself up to the Beast. Although done out of ignorance and through the manipulation of the Beast, there’s a certain sense that Greg would have plunged into darkness even if he had known it might cost him his life, just because he’s that committed to doing the right thing.
In the midst of his peril, Greg reveals his one intentional sin: he stole a painted rock from an old lady’s garden. Wirt brushes off the significance of this, but Greg, coming to terms with temptation and hopelessness for the first time, insists that “It does matter. You have to return it for me, OK?” It’s a stunning recognition of the moral dimension to the most mundane actions, showing that there’s meaning in something as simple as stealing a rock, or a piece of fruit, from a garden. Biblical allusions were common in western fairy-tales, and appear here quite organically and subtly. The story deals with hope and eternal consequences to losing faith; souls and lives hang in the balance and evil must be defeated before wandering sojourners can find their way home.
One element of the series that may seem to clash with a Biblical worldview is the way it ambiguously portrays the Unknown as potentially a dream, a hallucination, or even purgatory. In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien insists that the magical elements in a fairy-tale must be considered real within the story; if the writer insists on assuring us that his imagined world is fiction by the end and his ordinary, “realistic” world is the true one, then he has not written a fairy-tale. This is closely linked with the Christian belief that the Bible is not merely an instructional set of parables useful for moral teaching and wisdom, but an account of historically true and miraculous events that reveal an unseen God to humanity. If the Unknown in Over the Garden Wall is a falsehood, only useful for character growth, then hope itself is a lie, for there is no unseen world beyond death. The creator, Patrick McHale, is tight lipped on the objective meaning of his series, holding to the “Death of the Author” approach to stories and describing the Unknown with an almost agnostic curiosity, as a glimpse of something he himself doesn’t understand. That being said, McHale lays in enough hints throughout the series to essentially prove that the Unknown somehow exists. People and things from that world appear after Wirt has woken up, Greg references something he decided while in the Unknown, and a song whose lyrics describe lies and pretending is ironically sung by a frog. Over the Garden Wall isn’t a dream or a fiction, nor an allegory or a sermon, but a brush with a fantastical world. As Tolkien describes such places,
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but it’s very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”
If there be truth to the dangers of over-analyzing the wondrous, then allow me to leave some of the Unknown’s mysteries unsolved. In Over the Garden Wall, Patrick McHale presents a world of enchantment, danger, and virtue. “And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” This, I trust, will be the series’ legacy.