Journey into the Unknown

Last month I finally watched Over the Garden Wall. I fell in love with it instantly – its tone, its theme, its aesthetic – to the point where it was a strong inspiration for NaNoWriMo this year.

In contrast, I’ve been aware of Campbell’s monomyth for years now, so when I came across the above image (it’s from Wikipedia) I couldn’t help noticing the transition from the Known to the Unknown – the very name used to identify where a large part of Over the Garden Wall takes place.

With that in mind, I’m going to see if there’s any structural correlation between the Hero’s Journey and the plot of Over the Garden Wall.

Because this will cover all ten chapters of the miniseries, expect heavy spoilers for those who haven’t watched it. You have been forewarned. For those who have, enjoy your journey into the Unknown.

Chapter One • “The Old Grist Mill”

The story begins after the Threshold has been crossed; Wirt and Greg  (and Greg’s frog) are already lost in the Unknown with no idea of how they got there or where to go to get home.

Here, the Call to Adventure, Supernatural Aid, and Crossing the Threshold are mysteries. We don’t known why or how the brothers ended up lost in the woods. So already we’ve encountered a difference: Over the Garden Wall presents the Hero’s Journey in a nonlinear plot.

But as expected, now that Wirt and Greg are in the Unknown, they begin to experience Challenges and Temptations.  These include: the trustworthiness and/or honesty of the Woodsman, Greg’s search for his lost frog, and most prominently a giant, candy-munching beast.

In particular, we are introduced to what will become the prime Challenge and Temptation for the end of the story – the existence of the Beast.

Chapter Two • “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”

I would safely classify this chapter until chapter eight as Challenges and Temptations. Here the Challenge is getting out of Pottsfield.

What’s interesting about this challenge is that it turns out to be more benign than expected. So while the pumpkin-headed citizens seem ominous at the start, they’re really just skeletons enjoying a harvest festival.

Even when Beatrice (I’ll get to her in a minute) convinces Wirt that they’re digging their own graves, a sentiment aided by Greg’s discovery of a buried skeleton, there’s no actual danger. The Pottsfield citizens seem content to let Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice leave and in practice do nothing worse than sentence them to a few hours of manual labor.

Beatrice is a bluebird, and while she first officially appears in chapter one, it’s here that she is introduced. In particular, because Greg frees her, she owes them a favor. So deducing that they’re lost, she says she’ll lead them to Adelaide of the Pasture, the Good Woman of the Woods.

In this capacity, Beatrice is the Helper; she is going to guide them through the Unknown.

Chapter Three • “Schooltown Follies”

Continuing with the Challenges and Temptations, here they are rather…fun?

A schoolhouse designed to teach animals how to count and spell (for some undisclosed reason) is in danger of closing. This isn’t really Greg or Wirt’s problem until Greg decides to make it be because he wants to make the world a better place. And what better place to start than a dreary, cheerless schoolhouse?

The challenge is confronting the negativity and the misfortune of life, which Greg does spectacularly well. (This is relevant in chapter eight.) More specifically, there is a triad of problems – low monetary funds, the no-good beau Jim Brown, and a wild gorilla on the loose.

All are resolved once Greg steals back the instruments dour Mr. Langtree took from the school to sell and has a benefit concert to raise money for the school instead. The Challenge is resolved, broadly speaking, through music and positivity.

Chapter Four • “Songs of the Dark Lantern”

The Challenges continue, this time coming in two parts. 

First is Wirt’s personal challenges. Namely, facing some of his insecurities — acting on his own, making his own decisions, speaking up, and acting assertively (essentially being the title the tavern inhabitants define him as).
Second is when a major Challenge is codified and explained: the Beast carries a lantern (supposedly) and anyone who loses their way/will will be burned in his lantern. This is also the Beast first officially appearance.

One aspect of this chapter that seems fitting for the Hero’s monomyth, is the tavern, where they go to ask for directions, and its proprietor and customers peculiar insistence to define everyone by titles. I call it storytelling typecasting where one’s role or descriptor informs someone of what their purpose is or what they do, be it a tavern keeper, highwayman, or pilgrim (the title they decide on for Wirt).

Chapter Five • “Mad Love”

I’m not entirely sure where to place this chapter in the Hero’s Journey. Beatrice continues to guide them, Greg helps Endicott face his fears, Wirt solves the mystery of Endicott’s ghost.

There are some tiny Temptations, although not directed at Wirt or Greg or even Beatrice. First, Fred the horse (who they met in chapter four) is tempted by wealth which he disavows by the end of the chapter. Second, Quincy Endicott, the rich tea tycoon, is part tempted and part challenged by whether he really wants to see the ghost he’s in love with; if he doesn’t see her, it proves he’s lost his sanity.

And there is one overarching Challenge — getting two cents to take the ferry to Adelaide’s. The search for the money leads to the exposure of the characters’ personalities: Wirt has a crush on a girl, plays clarinet, and recites poetry (and also apparently knows a bit about architecture), while Beatrice is actually a human who was cursed to be a bluebird. 

Chapter Six • “Lullaby in Frogland”

By this point, Wirt and Greg have reached the (apparent) final stage before Death and Rebirth. But the second Helper at the end of the Challenges (Adelaide) turns out to be dangerous woman who wants to fill their heads with wool and make them into her personal slaves.

But before that happens there’s the usual Challenge on a riverboat with late Victorian dressed frogs: the frog police tries to arrest them for sneaking onto the ferry without the two cent payment. This is resolved by music (a lot of Challenges with animals correlating to Greg are resolved this way).

Wirt faces a two personal Challenges: trying something new (which in this case is playing the bassoon) and later the betrayal of friend when Beatrice seems to lead them into Adelaide’s trap.

This is a Reversal of Fortune of sorts when the Helper/Guide turns out to have been leading them astray from the beginning. That said, Beatrice is also Challenged by the conflict between her personal feelings for the brothers and wanting to help her family (since Adelaide has sisscors that can turn her and her family human again.)

Additionally, Greg’s Challenge is letting his frog go after it gets a singing contract (remember, late Victorian dressed frogs). Of the three, only Greg’s ends on a happy note; his frog returns and resumes the journey into the unknown with them.

Chapter Seven • “The Ringing of the Bell”

Without Beatrice, Wirt sets out to fulfill that role of Guide and Helper himself. This leads to trouble and misread dangers. The Woodsman appears as well to try to be a Helper by telling the brothers how to avoid the Beast; the Beast does not like this.

Wirt also tries to do a good deed and help Lorna out of Auntie Whispers’ clutches. Guttural voice, muddy robes, and Lorna’s assertion that she cannot know they’re there give the impression that Auntie Whispers is the dangerous one. But this initial impression is wrong — the real Challenge is deciphering that Lorna eats people, not Auntie Whispers.

In this capacity, Lorna serves as a Temptation — she seems to be stuck with Auntie Whispers who keeps her working constantly so she will not be driven to wickedness. She tempts Wirt’s desire to do good or do something right (without Beatrice’s guidance), only to discover he was incorrect. This leads Wirt, despite his actual good deed, deeper toward the Abyss.

Using the bell (that Greg’s frog ate), Wirt is able to banish the evil spirit that has possessed Lorna, but afterwards he confesses that he has no plan and worse, he has no idea how to get home. He is beginning to lose hope/give up. This pleases the Beast. 

Chapter Eight • “Babes in the Woods”

There is a hint of how they were lost in the Unknown  – Wirt claims Greg was goofing off which lead to their current predicament. 

Because Wirt has given up on trying to get home, Greg feels it’s his responsibility to get them both home.

In his dreams (and in reverse of the Abyss), Greg meets the second Helper (the Queen of the Clouds) after performing a service for cloud city by stopping the North Wind. Because of this, she offers to grant him a wish, and once she learns that they are trying to get home, says she can send Greg home but not Wirt because the Beast has claimed him.

Learning this, Greg makes his wish — to free Wirt from the Beast in exchange for going with the Beast himself (allegedly after he does, the Beast will show them the way back home). The fate (or monomyth Death) that awaited Wirt by becoming an edelwood tree is reversed by Greg, serving as a Rebirth.

Following this, Wirt wakes and is frantic to find Greg. He falls under a frozen lake, and it’s here I would say that the story reaches the Abyss. Beatrice (with the help of a fish) rescues him from the water.

Everything has turned to winter instead of autumn and now the story has entered the Transformation stage of the Hero’s Journey.

Chapter Nine • “Into the Unknown”

In keeping with the non-linear order, this chapter explains the stages of the Journey prior to the Unknown.

The Call to Adventure is Wirt trying to get back the tape he recorded for Sara, the girl he likes. (It has poetry and clarinet on it). Faced with many (in Wirt’s opinion) disasters -– Greg, another boy planning to ask her out — he gives up without trying, feeling that it’s hopeless. 

There is no Supernatural Aid, as far as I can tell.

Crossing the Threshold is first when they drop over the wall of the cemetery and second when they avoid being hit by a train but falling into the lake instead. Intriguingly, Greg’s frog is the Threshold Guardian, as he’s the first creature they find after going over the wall before going into the Unknown and serves as the story’s narrator.

At the end, Wirt wakes up surrounded by bluebirds – Beatrice’s family. As soon as he’s awake, he leaves to go search for Greg. He has descended literally and figuratively into the Abyss and been changed / resurrected. This serves as the Revelation for Wirt.

Chapter Ten • “The Unknown”

Here we come to the Transformation, Atonement, and Return.

In a tragic way, Greg begins to transform into an edelwood, but that’s not what it means in the Hero’s Journey. It’s the point when the previous experience of Death and Rebirth redefines or remakes them. This is is clear in Wirt’s change; rather than yelling at Greg or telling his brother everything’s his mistake, Wirt says he himself is to blame. This is also something of Atonement, as Wirt admits it was more his fault they ended up in the Unknown.

Greg also has his own dose of Atonement for what he feels is his bad deed — stealing his rock-facts rock from Mrs. Daniels garden.

Within this dual place of Transformation from one state of awareness to another and Atonment for mistakes, they face the Beast. In particular, Wirt overcomes the Beast by not listening to him; he doesn’t let his guilt or sense that he should bear a burden that isn’t his trap him in the Unknown.

They  both Return home closer than before, with their lives, memories, and Jason Funderburker (Greg’s frog) as gifts of their journey.

 Do I think it’s a perfect fit? Not precisely. But I do think it follows the basic outline — someone is drawn into a new, unknown world and faces challenges and temptations, which accumulates in an-almost death (ignoring for the fact that the entire story is about a near-death moment) that leads to a transformation and change in the characters. So yes, it has some of it.

But I would be curious to pick apart the more particular aspects of Over the Garden Wall’s own story now.


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