The Storybook Tradition
For hundreds of years, stories (and narrative in general) have been used as a means of conveying cultural values and morals.
It’s also important to note that many early fairy tales (think Hans Christian Andersen stories) were actually very dark. Cinderella’s stepsisters, for example, cut off parts of their feet to try and fit the famous glass slipper.
Stories with dark imagery and serious consequences were seen as being all the more effective for preventing undesirable behavior in children.
Even today, this messaging component remains an underlying effect of basically all storytelling, even if contemporary storytellers aren’t necessarily trying to communicate messages of morality to their audience.
In 1942, Little Golden Books hit the market, and they’re still being published today, albeit in a format closer to that of novelty items or gift books for special occasions.
These books were sold cheaply and they all had a shiny gold spine, helping them stand out in bookstores, libraries, and classrooms.
If you grew up in the U.S., then you’ve probably seen these storybooks before, and maybe you’ve even owned a few.
Many Little Golden Books featured familiar stories and fairy tales, rather than original stories. They rehashed traditional stories, often making them more accessible.
Little Golden Books, especially the early volumes, are synonymous with teaching children “important lessons” through simple stories with clear messages.
So why are we talking about Little Golden Books and fairytales? Well, the famous Cartoon Network limited series Over the Garden Wall has strong ties to both.
An Update to the Formula
When I first saw Over the Garden Wall, I immediately thought of storybooks from my childhood and, in particular, the Little Golden Books.
The series very clearly borrows from the visual style of early- to mid-20th-century children’s entertainment, both storybooks and animation.
(This is perhaps most obvious in episode 8, Babes in the Woods, in which Greg visits Cloud City, which contains many direct references to classic American animation and filmmaking.)
The show’s backgrounds tend to be static and highly detailed, while the characters themselves have simple designs and flat coloring.
The masterful music of the series mimics styles popular in the early part of the 1900s.
Just like the Little Golden Books, on the surface, Over the Garden Wall is a bright, happy kids’ show where the stakes are not very high. But under the surface, there is a prevailing darkness and even a sense of dread and terror.
Over the Garden Wall is a deconstruction and examination of children’s stories and, arguably, the challenges of childhood as a whole. There are still good guys and bad guys, but they might not look the way we expect. Here, just like in a Miyazaki movie, appearances can be deceiving.
Every childhood, after all, has an ending that is both happy and sad at the same time: every child grows up and matures, only to have to live in the real world, a place that I think we can all agree certainly has an underlying sinister quality in the form of constant threats to a person’s happiness, success, and overall wellbeing.
When we take a close look at Over the Garden Wall, specifically its characters and situations, we find different life philosophies, i.e. different ways to live in the real world and survive the scary parts.
So let’s take a look at what each of the major characters represents, and what they say about being a grownup.
But first, let’s talk about an abstract character who affects absolutely everyone in the series in one way or another.
The Beast is Real
The first episode of Over the Garden Wall leaves a lot to the imagination, which seems appropriate for a series set in a place only ever referred to as the Unknown, both by the narrator and the residents of the wood.
The Woodsman mentions the Beast early on, warning Wirt and Gregory to avoid him at all costs. But he doesn’t tell them how to actually do that. The boys are on their own.
By the end of the episode, the boys have redeemed a demon dog, and for a few moments, we think that maybe the lesson here is simply that the human imagination can create horrible monsters that, in the end, aren’t all that bad, making a mountain out of a molehill.
But no, the Beast is real, and as the series progresses, he appears and speaks, interacting with other characters.
The Beast does very little to actively torment our heroes. We hear about him through other characters who are absolutely terrified of the Beast. And sometime we hear the Beast’s eerie singing off in the distance.
The Beast is wonderfully abstract, leaving him open to symbolic interpretation from the very start. Maybe he’s just supposed to represent everything bad in the world. Maybe he’s pure evil.
To my mind, the Beast feels more like an abstraction of depression, anxiety, or just plain hopelessness.
When the Woodsman finally tells Wirt and Greg how to avoid the Beast, it has nothing to do with direction or location. The Beast can appear wherever and whenever he wants. Instead, he tells the boys that if they lose hope, the Beast will be upon them and never let them leave.
It’s hard to think of a better incarnation of internal negativity.
So if the Beast represents anxiety and depression, and the show is about avoiding the Beast and escaping the Unknown, then everything the characters do shows their attempts to avoid negative thoughts, their attempts to hold onto hope.
To the benefit of our viewing pleasure, Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice all have very different approaches for avoiding and escaping the Beast.
The Wirt Approach: Worry Always, Worry Often
Wirt has a tough time being alive. He’s uncomfortable basically at all times, even when his situation is A-OK. And for most viewers, especially adult viewers, he’s probably the most relatable character. He’s also the clear protagonist of the series. We follow his perspective most often, and he’s the character who experiences conflict most often and most tangibly.
For the bulk of the series, Wirt tries to avoid responsibility. He’s aware of the stakes and he knows what his goals should be, but he doesn’t know how to achieve them, and even worse, when something goes wrong, he’s quick to blame someone else or look for an easy way out. Wirt despairs at the drop of a hat.
He’s the ultimate Woe-is-Me character. He worries so much about what has gone wrong and what might go wrong that he often does nothing at all. He’s frozen in indecision. When he does nothing for too long, specifically in episode 8, the dreaded Edelwood starts to wrap itself around him, trapping him in place.
When he does manage to do something, it’s only because other characters have told him to do it again and again.
Just take a look at episode 4, Songs of the Dark Lantern. All Wirt needs to do is get directions. It could have taken a few seconds, but instead he fumbles his way through useless conversations, his hesitance and timidity hilariously trapping him in full-scale musical numbers.
Later, when Beatrice is in danger, a crowd of people has to yell at him that he’s a hero before Wirt actually takes action.
This is also the episode when we learn that Wirt is suffering from an identity crisis. He doesn’t know how to describe himself or his purpose in life. He doesn’t seem to fit into any of the fairy tale character archetypes presented to him.
He’s sort of the Young Lover, but only a little bit. He’s kind of a Pilgrim, but only by accident. And he’s kind of the Hero, but it’s a role he only truly accepts in the final episode.
He wants things, and sometimes he even knows what he wants. But even then, he’s unable to ask for them. Many episodes feature incredibly simple problems that only become complex through avoidance and side skirting.
In episode 5, Mad Love, all they really need to do is ask Endicott for 2 pennies. The episode could have been 10 seconds long, had any of them just gotten around to business. Instead, they look for ways around the problem, getting mixed up in a ghost story in the process.
Or how about episode 3, Schooltown Follies. All Wirt needs to do to move the story forward is to excuse himself from a school where he isn’t really a student. Instead, he stays out of spite.
I think we’ve all been Wirt at some point in our lives. Personally, I’m Wirt a lot of the time, so afraid of how I might mess things up that I end up doing nothing at all, as responsibilities and problems start to compound, becoming even more intimidating and seemingly insurmountable.
The way out of this cycle of inaction is fairly obvious, at least here in the series. All you need to do is act. You have to confront your problems and speak up for yourself. If you don’t, you might be swallowed up by the world itself, left alone and shivering in some dark corner.
And sometimes, the torture you perform on yourself is far worse than anything out there in the Unknown.
The Beatrice Approach: Go Out and Get Yours
Beatrice is, by far, the most practical lead character in the series. She has a very specific goal, and she constantly works toward achieving that goal.
So what’s the problem with this approach? Well, the methods she uses to try to accomplish that one big goal (saving her family by turning them back into humans) are ultimately selfish and cause problems for innocent people, namely Wirt and Greg.
She can get what she wants, but it will come at the cost of trapping her friends here forever.
Beatrice is consistently rude and manipulative. The only thing that matters is saving herself and her family.
In most situations, she’s the one who knows exactly what to do. She serves as a guide and eventually as a confidante.
Beatrice avoids the Beast by just not thinking about him all that much. She has her eyes on the prize and that’s enough to distract her from the dark consequences of failure.
It’s pretty easy to find parallels for this approach out in the real world. Beatrice types are the ones who are first and foremost concerned with themselves. They’re confident, and with good reason, too. But they’re also more than willing to sacrifice other people in the pursuit of success.
For the Beatrices of the world, the ends will always justify the means, no matter what.
At least that’s where Beatrice represents for most of the series. She ends up having a lovely arc. Just as Wirt learns how to take action and accept responsibility, Beatrice learns that it’s important to take care of the people around you, even if it means putting yourself in danger to help someone else.
The Greg Approach: Have Fun, Change the World, and Make it a Better Place
Greg is easily the most likable character in Over the Garden Wall, and, depending on who you ask, that might mean he’s also the most unrealistic.
More than just representing a common personality type, I see Greg as representing an ideal, a pure and shining example of how we could be living our lives if we never succumbed to our most negative impulses.
Greg is a puppy, always eager for what comes next, even if it’s a bit scary.
Greg is also a literal child, meaning that these environments and scenarios, these children’s stories, are, in a way, his natural environment.
There are threats, but he knows he’ll be able to overcome each of them.
Most of the time, Greg just ignores the more frightening aspects of the Unknown. But even when he comes face-to-face with a horrifying monster, he still manages to smile and stay calm. From a certain perspective, we could say that Greg has achieved Enlightenment.
The more dangerous side of this approach is its mish-mash of priorities. He cares about his brother, Beatrice, and just about any other person or creature he comes in contact with.
But he also isn’t able to discern who might be bad news and shouldn’t be trusted. In the final episode, he sets to work completing the Beast’s requests, absolutely sure that if he does these things, the Beast will let him and Wirt return home.
This trust almost gets him killed, and it takes true heroism on the part of Wirt and Beatrice to save the day.
In the real world, the Greg type does their best not to think about the horrors and troubles of the world or their own life.
That’s why Greg’s eventual capture by the Beast is so interesting. It’s the moment when we learn that even this pure and positive outlook might not be the best.
Through the lens of mental health, the Greg type simply ignores potential warning signs and problems, which can just as easily lead to a kind of mental paralysis and a lapse in health.
If you’re looking for one big message in Over the Garden Wall, it’s that none of these approaches is the solution to living a healthy, fulfilling life.
Being anxious might help you see problems coming from a mile away, but it won’t help you solve them.
Being cynical and selfish may help you achieve some form of success, but in the process, you might become a monster yourself.
And being perpetually optimistic might make for a sunnier day-to-day experience of the world, but you might not tend to your own needs.
The series as a whole is saying, “It’s complicated.”
Storybooks leave a lot out. And if you’re looking for a solution to your problems, you’ll have to find it yourself, ideally with the help of loved ones.
Life itself is a team effort, and when we start to listen to and care for the people around us, whoever they happen to be, we’re that much closer to finding a way out of the darkness.