Welcome to the Unknown. You’re more lost than you realize.
“We are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other” -Ford
Cartoon Network’s mini-series Over the Garden Wall by Patrick McHale is much more than a simple 10 episode children’s show that invokes ugly sobbing into a blanket. With the first viewing, the over complexity of the subject matter can seem a little overwhelming. In actuality, the details of seemingly separate stories all connect through themes that can be seen in literature. Now I know what you might be thinking, how can a children’s show and ‘high literature’ possibly have anything in common?
Well, have I got a shocker for you, they do.
As a parent, the thought might occur to you: is my child smart enough to understand this? Am I smart enough to understand this? Lucky for you, that’s my job. So just sit back and start reading. That’s a rock fact! For those of you who have yet to watch OTGW and want to do so, because it’s awesome, this is my one and only warning to you as this project deals with heavy spoilers for possibly each chapter of the series as well as the ending of the series. So heed my warning and do not continue to read ahead if you don’t want to know any specifics before watching. Also, when I say chapter, I mean episode. As the show calls each episode by a chapter, I will follow this style as well.
Otherwise, let’s begin our journey into the unknown.
Where the Brothers Fit into Literary Themes
With the beginning of the first episode, Greg lists off all the worst possible names that his frog could possibly have, Wirt stops him and asks “Greg, where are we?” in a confused manner. The younger brother responds simply, “In the woods.” As Wirt realizes they’re lost he goes on in a panic, “I mean, what are we doing out here?”. Again, Greg responds in an obvious tone, “We’re walking home.”
Alright, let me be clear with my interpretations of who is who in relation to literary themes right off the bat. Wirt is romanticism whereas Greg is modernism. And while I agree that they can and probably do fit into other themes, I see them paralleling these specifically. For those of you who are not caught up on your literary history, those two themes clash in every way. Both are difficult to define, but I will do my best for simplicity’s sake and will rely on extremely broad definitions. Romanticism has a strong focus with emotions, tending to feel over dramatic and has a significant tie to nature. Modernism, on the other hand, emphasizes the self-consciousness and the human experience.
So what’s at stake with the two themes and main characters being opposites?
For one, Wirt and Greg are half-brothers, so it makes sense that the two would either fall under the same theme or separate ones, which with the latter they do. For those of us who have seen OTGW, we know just how different these two brothers are. Secondly, if Greg is a representation of modernism and the Unknown is a modernist world, then it makes sense that the Beast, a creature of this world, would prey on the outsider Wirt over Greg. Again, don’t misunderstand. My argument is not that the characters can’t fall under other themes, I am just applying their characters more towards modernism and romanticism, as that is the purpose of this project.
Greg as British Modernism, specifically Impressionism
Ford’s On Impressionism deals, quite obviously, with the theory of impressionism and what it means. To start off the definition he states, “The Impressionist gives you his own views, expecting you to draw the deductions” rather than that of a non-impressionist who will give you all the facts they know over the subject. Ford goes on to explain,“The point is that any piece of Impressionism…is the record of the impression of the moment” aka living in the now with your thoughts and possibly actions.
While Greg may not be characterized the impressionist attitude, he does see through the eyes of the impressionist. As we know, Greg is in possession of an otherworldly item: Mrs Daniel’s Rock. With reading the bit above, you might disagree with me and argue that Greg doesn’t fit into impressionism because he is all about ‘them rock facts. But is he really telling facts?
Such as in Chapter One, after Wirt recites some of his poetry Greg responds with “ If you soak a raisin in grape juice, it turns into a grape.” Or in Chapter Eight while Wirt is in the midst of losing hope, Greg again responds with “Dinosaurs had big ears, but everyone forgot this because dinosaur ears don’t have bones.” These are not true facts, but what Greg wants them to be. Although, he does tell one true rock fact to Wirt which is that he stole the rock from Mrs Daniels yard at the end of the series. However, I don’t think that him telling one true fact means that he doesn’t apply to this literary theme. He tells Wirt this last fact while he is transforming into an Edelwood tree. The way I viewed it, these were his last words and final amends to Wirt. Greg was essentially showing and telling his brother that he does have a serious side and doesn’t joke all of the time.
With his child-like and naive nature, he is the one to charge into any type of situation whether good or bad. He does not consider the possible danger of the situation, nor does he listen to Wirt’s fears or act by them. Instead Greg is acting on his impression/curiosity to go see what is happening. Take the instance in the first chapter when the two boys are introduced and seen meandering through the forest and stumble upon the sound of an axe hitting wood. Wirt, cowardly responds to the sounds, claiming that it could be an axe-wielding murderer intent on making the boys their next targets. Greg, on the other hand ignores Wirt and tumbles after the sound unafraid to see what it is. His impression of it is not one of question but of wanting to find the truth.
Wirt as Romanticism, specifically American Romanticism
As the older half-brother, Wirt fits into this more ‘traditional’ literary movement, along with his defeatist and pushover attitude. He has a certain quirk to be able to distinguish between French-Rococo style and Georgian style. Both have origins in Europe but were also popular during the time romanticism took off on the American front. Side note, but I could also see Wirt having a link to victorianism as well.
Unlike British romanticism, that of American deals less with the idea of heritage and more with the frontier. As Wirt’s poetry shows, romanticism relies heavily on the nature of feral places not yet under the rule of humans. The idea of Manifest Destiny was popular with American romantics as well. This brings about the idea of freedom which Wirt seems to struggle with, especially the one of self identity in his own world and in the Unknown.
Wirts poetry uses nature imagery to explain his feelings:
Sometimes I feel like/I’m just like a boat/upon a winding river/ twisting towards an endless black sea/further and further drifting away from where I want to be/who I want to be
We are given one of his first pieces in Chapter One. Right away, we are made aware of Wirt struggling with internal feelings. This one specifically mentions how he feels as though life is taking him in a variety of directions. He doesn’t understand what he is supposed to be doing. Or even what he wants to do, really.
We are but wayward leaves/scattered to the air/by an indifferent wind
This is one of his final pieces, occurring in Chapter Nine. Again, he is feeling adrift in the wind, life taking him this way and that in no specific direction. Life doesn’t care where it takes you, and apparently neither does Wirt. Even after his ordeal at the Tavern, he has yet to find his place in the Unknown, and seems that he never will.
A constant issue Wirt deals with through the series is not knowing who he really is. Not only is he lost with his physical body but his mental being is dislocated with his identity. This furthers the idea that Wirt does not belong to this world. It is also evident that the creatures and humans of the Unknown don’t know what place he fits into. With the fourth chapter the brothers, accompanied now by Beatrice the talking bluebird, find a tavern to wait out in as it started to rain. Once inside they find humans of a variety of professions along with a dog, singing and having an all around good time.
While Greg is busy stuffing his face, Wirt asks around about Adelaide of the Pasture, who Beatrice mentioned could tell them how to get home. The people of the tavern ignore his questions and attempt to figure out who Wirt is, as in what profession he belongs to. He get’s confused, saying that he’s Wirt but they laugh at him implying that he has to be something more like the Tavern Keeper or the Toy Maker or the Highwayman.
A montage of songs later, Wirt goes from being simple to the young lover to the pilgrim. “You’re a traveler on a sacred journey. You’re the master of your own destiny. The hero of your own story — a pilgrim” as said by the tavern’s people. Accepting this new name, Wirt attempts to ask for direction for a second time, only to receive “You don’t need direction, pilgrim. You follow that compass inside your heart.” This brings back the idea of American romanticism with how some followed Manifest Destiny or some idea bigger than themselves. Particularly with the part of Wirt being “the master of his own destiny” and following his heart over his head deals significantly with the romantic themes.
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has the line, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” This is arguably what happens to Wirt at the end of the series. He is constantly put into different titles, not fitting into any of them even with the pilgrim in the end. This constant dislocation is what causes him to loose hope. However, the end of the final chapter after Greg’s sacrifice to save him, Wirt sees in himself who he has to be, a brother. Not only did he find out his true self, but he also accepted and was accepted by the Unknown.
The Unknown’s Relationship to Modernism, A Look at the World
Pottsfield: Patient is the Night
As most of us who have seen and discussed OTGW in all it’s seriousness have a theory that the Unknown is a variety of things. Most popular theories are a dream or some kind of limbo. No, not the traditional Trinidad dance, but the place between life and death. While this theory may not be accepted by all, it happens to be the one I agree with. To say the least, the Unknown is located in a separate world than Wirt and Greg’s “earth”. Again, although I do think that it is possible for the Unknown to reflect a different literary theme, I see most connections to British modernism.
Auden’s poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” tells of the fall of Icarus and basically how everyone ignores this great event to go about their normal day to day activities. This separates the idea of public events and private events. Icarus isn’t important to the guy plowing his fields is he? Nope, the farmer needs to get to work, he doesn’t have time to waste watching some other guy fall from the sky. Auden’s two lines “Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree” show that this small village or town is unaffected by this as well. Even the animals ignore it. They continue to live in their small town ways.
This is Pottsfield, no? Wirt and Greg are like Icarus. They fall into, well not literally, Pottsfield during the town’s annual harvest festival. The party continues to be celebrated even with the appearance of these two travelers and their companions. This chapter parallels the poem’s idea pretty exact in my opinion.
Another aspect Pottsfield reflects is Woolf’s Jacob Flanders. The two have a similar idea in that their names represent something rather depressing. Jacob’s surname ‘Flanders’ aka Flanders Fields is related to World War I and the various battles that took place in the Ypres fields. Likewise, Pottsfield comes from Potter’s Field which indicates unmarked graves, usually of those who suffered poverty. Both are also covered in foliage. Flanders Field hosts thousands of poppies while Pottsfield is surrounded by quite a large number of pumpkins. In Chapter 2, when the brothers arrive at the barn holding the festivities, Wirt asks around for help when a pumpkin person implies that Wirt might be a little to “early” to join them. As in he is not ripe enough. As in he is not dead yet. That’s an interesting concept: blooming into death. Neat. Another pumpkin states that “Folks don’t tend to pass through Pottsfield” as Wirt mentions that they are not planning to stay.
Enoch, the large pumpkin, later revealed to be a black cat, commits them to a couple hours of hard labor to repent for them intruding on the celebration. The two brothers along with Beatrice are sent to dig holes in the field, eventually finding skeletons not far under the surface. The skeletons get up and dress up with everyone else in pumpkin costumes, implying that the town is entirely populated by skeletons, Enoch, and the turkeys. This goes back to the idea that the Unknown is a form of limbo the brothers and their frog are traveling through.
The Black Turtles: Here to Burgle Your Turts!
Seemingly serving little to no purpose in the story, the small black turtles do seem to hide some kind of secret that has yet to be revealed or found. The appear in seven of the ten chapters with their appearances as sort of ‘can you spot the turtle?’ type. Although little is known about these turtles, it does deem to be that ingesting one might not be a good idea. With the first chapter, one of the first interactions the brothers have is with Wirt talking to Beatrice and Greg applying a fine blue piece of candy to a turtles shell. Later in the episode, they happen to meet a monstrous dog-beast that seems to want them down it’s gullet. After some running around the dog gets caught the water wheel, spitting up the black turtle adorned with the blue sweet.
Similarly, the seventh episode shows Auntie Whispers eating a turtle and not being ailed by it. She does look a bit pale though…
With this evidence it seems that the turtles do harness a power, but perhaps it only effects weak creatures? While they may cause creatures to act out, I don’t think that they do this for any feeling whatsoever. These turtles aren’t looking for revenge or to make someone’s day go bad to make themselves happier. They just are. If something comes along looking for a snack, so be it.
This can be connected to the sub-modernism theme of imagism. Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste offers a look at what poetry under this literary theme should follow. Essentially it’s as all about the image. It should not invoke personal feeling, but an image of feeling if need be. This is how the turtles are viewed, at least to me. I don’t feel anything when I see or think about the little guys. They merely exist in the Unknown. We are not given a reason or motive to if they do harm of their own volition, but it appears that they don’t.
But Where Have We Come and Where Shall We End?
If Dreams Can’t Come True Then Why Not Pretend?
With the first chapter, the Woodsman bequeaths them each a title/task. Wirt is the elder brother, thus he is responsible for Greg’s actions as well as his own. Greg on the other hand is given the task of naming his frog. Both of the brothers achieve their tasks at the end of the series. Wirt loses hope, resulting in Greg attempting to sacrifice himself to the Beast so that they can finally get home. But he comes to his senses, gains his hope back as well as his identity. This saves his brother from turning into an Edelwood tree for the beast to harvest. Greg decides to name his frog Jason Funderburker, after the human of the same name back in the brother’s actual reality. With the finality of this project, we have two half-brother representing two antagonizing themes journeying through a world that deals with a theme only one them relates too. And yet they both survive the Unknown. Which perhaps means that they survived death. Or maybe got a second chance? It’s more for the viewer to interpret their own conclusion.
Hopefully reading this has let you become more aware that kids shows aren’t just pretty pictures used to tell kids stories in fake universes that don’t matter. Or distract children so you can get a little peace. At least today’s shows aren’t like that, from what I’ve been exposed to. Over the Garden Wall and others, like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, offer children a look at something bigger, and perhaps more serious, while still keeping it fun for everyone. As I have argued, shows like these are not just for kids either. I mean, look at me. A college student is writing about this medium of art, enjoying it, and applying it to other mediums. So think twice about someone over the age of twelve sitting down and being emotionally invested in an animated series, or really anything characterized for a younger audience. We adults enjoy it too and that’s perfectly okay.