Monomyth tropes well done (DeDisnification, Part 9A Addendum)
Autumnal tidings, readers. As I’ve noted before, I’m a good one for being late to the party, so I’ve only just learned about an excellent animated series, Over the Garden Wall (OtGW hereafter) from six years ago. The work is set on Halloween, which makes it a good one to discuss around now, and also plays with folkloric elements, which makes it fit well with this series.
I became aware of the cartoon through another source; a quite good series of video essays, What’s So Great About That?, in which Grace Lee thoughtfully discusses various aspects of film, animation, and culture. Her piece,“Over the Garden Wall: Why Is The Unknown So Familiar?”¹ sold me on the animated series—not a hard sell since, as I mentioned, it already fits with a field of interest of mine. In fact, I wondered why my hipper friends hadn’t already brought it to my attention.
The setting the series spends much of its time in is called The Unknown, which is described in the first episode thus:²
Somewhere lost in the clouded annals of history, lies a place that few have seen—a mysterious place, called The Unknown, where long-forgotten stories are revealed to those who travel through the wood.
The title of Lee’s essay plays on the fact that despite the place’s name, the material is familiar:³
There’s this uncanny feeling that we’ve been here before. Snow White. Babes in the Wood, Hansel and Gretel—the idea of children lost in the woods is one of the most familiar fairy tale conventions. And Over the Garden Wall even makes explicit reference to several of these stories.
And again, as she notes, The Unknown consists largely of a forest. And here is where my interest grew beyond Lee’s essay: she spent a lot of time discussing the elements that recall classic film and animation but the folklore was my interest—in fact, I’d say that OtGW’s creators used the references Lee talks about because they are the modern audience’s main connection to folkloric materials, and so made sense as a way to reach that audience and get this tale across to them.
As to the mythical role of the woods, let me point to the same quote I did in the article to which this is an addendum:⁴
Being deep in the forest at the house of the dwarfs, Snow White has symbolically returned to the mythic beginnings of time, the liminal period of chaos when the mysterious gods and ancestral creatures of creation were active.
Even without the house of the dwarves, which serves only to deepen the mythic themes, the woods remain a liminal and primal space. As Lee states, this is a common theme, particularly in folklore and myth, as Joseph Conrad relates one branch of:⁵
A very common [motif] that appears in Celtic myths, of someone who had followed the lure of a deer or animal that he has been following, and then carries him into a range of forest and landscape that he’s never been in before.
While OtGW’s protagonists end up in the woods as a result of running away from the police rather than chasing something, the trope remains nearly identical. And it doesn’t appear only in myths and folktales; Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy opens:⁶
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
In the middle of the journey of our life,
I discovered I was in a dark forest,
having wandered from the straightforward path.
OtgW’s girl transformed into a bird, who guides the other protagonists, Wirt and Greg, around The Unknown, is named Beatrice, a clear reference to Dante’s guide of the same name. The figurative wood also appears in the title and body of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The woods are just one common version of what OtGW refers to as The Unknown, which again has mythic resonances, many of which the show goes on to explore.
Putting a name to this mythic realm is difficult, which is why OtGW uses the term it does. Campbell quotes the Upanishads about what he sometimes terms the yonder shore:⁷
There the eye goes not,
speech goes not, nor the mind.
We know not, we understand not,
how one would teach it?
So what is it? Death or the nether- or underworld is one version, as suggested by both Dante and Frost. Death is also referenced in OtGW repeatedly: Wirt and Greg dig what they think are their own graves in Pottsfield⁸ and in the “real” world, we find out that the garden over whose wall the pair went was a cemetery.⁹ The cemetery’s name is Eternal Garden, but “garden of the dead” was a standard metaphor for a graveyard in times past. Additionally, the ferry they take to get to Adelaide’s house costs two cents,¹⁰ corresponding to the ὀβολοί (oboloí) needed to pay the ferryman Χάρων (Kharon) to get to the Graeco-Roman underworld.
This well-known fare first appears in Aristophanes’ comedy, The Frogs, in which Dionysos (Διόνῡσος) is bound for Haides (ᾍδης):¹¹
Herakles [Ἡρακλῆς]: Which will you try?
Dionysos: The way you went yourself.
Herakles: A parlous voyage that, for first you’ll come to an enormous lake of fathomless depth.
Dionysos: And how am I to cross?
Herakles: An ancient mariner will row you over in a wee boat, so big. The fare’s two obols.
I’ll note that the correspondence between an obolos and a cent is inexact, as this silver coin is worth eight copper khalkoi (χαλκοί), but again, it’s a pretty standard rendering in modern works. And as for Aristophanes, although the cloud city Greg visits makes obvious reference to The Wizard of Oz (1939) with Munchkinland-style welcoming committees—just as Adelaide’s death by exposure to night air recalls the Wicked Witch of the West’s undoing by water—the kingdom of the titular animals, Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Nephelokokkugía, Cloud Cuckoo Land) in The Birds is a pretty clear reference as well.¹²
Greg visits cloud city in a dream within this dream, as he turns further to his unconscious to help him and his brother out of their troubles:¹³
Greg: I better take a nap too. I need to dream up a good way of leading us home.
And speaking of birds, the way Adelaide plans to change Beatrice and her family back into humans is by cutting off their feathers with a pair of scissors, recalling the crude methods of Hans Christian Andersen’s sea witch.
Water is another liminal space referred to repeatedly in OtGW. I’ve already mentioned the ferry trip, but Wirt and Greg also sail across a lake. And it turns out that in their normal world, they fell into a body of water after nearly being run down by a train, and so the show can be seen as taking place as they hover between life and death by drowning.
Greg has a frog, whom he spends much of the series trying to find a name for. But this is a common mythic harbinger as well; a liminal creature, at home as much in the human world as in the underwater realm. We see them repeatedly in folktales as frog princes, calling heroes to adventure. In The Frogs, the amphibians’ only appearance is during Dionysos’ trip across the Ἀχέρων (Akheron), so literally at the border between worlds. Birds too, for similar reasons, but pertaining to realms above rather than below, make repeated mythic appearances.
The point of the journey into The Unknown in OtGW is, as in many folktales, initiation. Wirt is a teenager, poised on the brink of adulthood, and needs to figure out how he needs to change in order to take on this new role. All the creatures in this realm are, again quoting the same Girardot passage as I did earlier:¹⁴
[D]ivine ancestors, teachers, refiners, guardians, or helpers necessary for a successful initiation.
And it’s certainly not the case that the peril of these encounters is not real. In fact, Wirt’s normal world problems are so daunting to him that he’d rather die than face them, and in fact, in the reading I mentioned earlier, he nearly does. The progression through the episodes toward winter—a common metaphor for death, as well as, more literally, the cold of the lake they are immersed in—reflects this. His problems—being responsible for a younger sibling, liking a girl, risking being hurt, losing her to a rival suitor—seem trivial, but they’re also entirely relatable to just about anyone who’s been a teen.
And indeed, Wirt returns triumphant from this night sea journey having learned these lessons: Sara, who he didn’t dare to approach before his journey, he now talks to easily and invites on a date. He saves his brother (and himself) from drowning. Just as in The Wizard of Oz, the passage through The Unknown can be seen as having been “just a dream”, with elements such as the light of the onrushing train having been transformed in the logic of the unconscious into the eyes of the Beast who dogs the brothers’ steps in the otherworld. But the magic bell previously owned by Adelaide’s sister, Auntie Whispers, which returns with them to their normal world, glowing in the belly of Greg’s frog tells a different tale.
While I’ve been critical of how folktales are realized on screen, I’m happy to have been proved wrong. OtGW’s creators have done well here: as I noted earlier, they used nostalgic film and animation references to relate to modern audiences, but didn’t shy away from classical ones either. They didn’t attempt to usurp the place of folktale traditions with a retelling. And they didn’t dumb down the messages or supplant them with corporate myths.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Part 9B: The Sum of Its Versions
Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio
Read Previous Articles in This Series
Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”
Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak
Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes
Part 5: Putting Pocahontas to Rest
Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle
Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”
Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation
Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt
Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan
Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War
Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”
Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred
- Grace Lee, “Over the Garden Wall: Why Is The Unknown So Familiar?”, What’s So Great About That, October, 2017.
- Episode 1, “The Old Grist Mill”, OtGW, 2014.
- Lee, 2017.
- N. J. Girardot, “Initiation and Meaning in the Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, The Journal of American Folklore, 1977.
- Episode 1, “The Hero’s Adventure”, The Power of Myth, 1988.
- Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) I,1, 1320, my translation.
- A. S. Woodburne, “The Idea of God in Hinduism”, The Journal of Religion, 1925.
- Episode 2, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”, OtGW, 2014.
- Episode 9, “Into the Unknown”, OtGW, 2014.
- Episode 5, “Mad Love”, OtGW, 2014.
- Aristophanes (Ἀριστοφανης), Βάτραχοι (Bátrachoi—The Frogs), 405 BCE, O’Neill translation, 1938.
- Aristophanes, Ὄρνιθες (Ornithes—The Birds), 414 BCE.
- Episode 8, “Babes in the Wood”, OtGW, 2014.
- Girardot, 1977.