“The Loveliest Lies of All”: Adapting Folk and Fairy Tale Functions in “Over the Garden Wall”
“If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?” asks the narrator of Patrick McHale’s animated series Over the Garden Wall, offering a partially hopeful, partially haunting message to guide the viewer through the whimsical, eerie, and complex process and history of adapting folk and fairy tales.
The inherent malleability of folk and fairy tales has led to a multifaceted history of adaptation, appropriation, and translation within multiple genres, emerging from the fluid, changeable nature of their oral folk heritage to take root in the transcriptions and publications of notable figures such as Charles Perrault and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, as well as into our own contemporary vocabulary. Passed from generation to generation, Jack Zipes notes that these tales “emanate from specific struggles to humanise bestial and barbaric forces, which have terrorised our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion” (2). Those “bestial and barbaric forces” range from the threat posed by predators, both animal and human, to children wandering alone in the woods to the dangers of supernatural, often pagan, forces beyond perceived mortal comprehension. Zipes takes care to emphasise how oral tales grew in significance for their ability to be translated and transmuted in order to fulfil specific pedagogical or entertainment functions of a given community, that “they were to be shared and exchanged, used and modified according to the needs of the tellers and the listeners” (2). Similarly, the development of fairy tales out of the oral folk tale served as a means by which particular socio-political or cultural matters could be discussed, contributing to an already-deeply rooted but vastly layered process centred on “adapting and embellishing them [folk tales] as contemporary literary style and social taste demanded” (18). Consequently, what emerges from this process is the understanding that folk and fairy tales offer “archetypal stories available for re-use and recycling by different ages and cultures” (Sanders 105).
Why adapt folk and fairy tales? Julie Sanders, in her seminal work on adaptation theory, observes that “one of the reasons fairy tales and folklore serve as cultural treasuries to which we endlessly return is that their stories and characters seem to transgress established social, cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries. They are eminently adaptable into new circumstances and contexts, making themselves available for ‘other versions’” (106). It is the liminal quality of folk and fairy tales that attract its adaptors, that in-between, almost intangible space in which anything is possible, anything is accessible, where we have the capacity to create and to conquer that which troubles us, or to drown ourselves in the dark waters we dredge up from those shifting, unknowable currents of our subconscious. In Over the Garden Wall, the Unknown embodies this process of navigation, weaving borrowed popularised and canonised folk and fairy tale conventions and forms into a narrative and a place that is not necessarily immediately recognisable, but is nonetheless very, very familiar.
Why adapt folk and fairy tales? Julie Sanders, in her seminal work on adaptation theory, observes that “one of the reasons fairy tales and folklore serve as cultural treasuries to which we endlessly return is that their stories and characters seem to transgress established social, cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries.
Over the Garden Wall follows the journey of half-brothers Wirt and Greg through the Unknown, a densely-forested setting occupied by unusual, often disconcerting, characters, ranging from talking animals to undead vegetable people, from nineteenth-century stylised ghosts to bizarre and unpredictable witch figures. They are preyed upon by a looming, beguiling presence known only as “the Beast” that stalks the darkness of the woods, seemingly enabled by a lone woodsman carrying a lit lantern in which the soul of his daughter is kept. Each episode is contained within the larger framework of an adaptation of folklorist Vladimir Propp’s paradigmatic functions, or those “fundamental and constant components of a tale that are the acts of a character and necessary for driving the action forward” (Zipes 3). These thirty-one functions that make up Propp’s morphology of folk tales (where “morphology” refers to the study of the structure and form of the folk tale) are condensed by Jack Zipes into eight fundamental and recognisable structural and narrative elements. Each of the eight elements “facilitate recall for tellers and listeners. They enable us to store, remember, and reproduce the utopian spirit of the tale and to change it to fit our experiences and desires due to the easily identifiable characters who are associated with particular assignments and settings” (4), where Zipes’ use of “utopian” refers to its original meaning of “no place.” By engaging with and appropriating these elements, Over the Garden Wall predicts and fulfils as well as challenges the viewer’s expectations of the series’ use of folk and fairy tale principles, seeking to explore and manipulate our reliability on and trust in the stability of the conventions of form and structure in an inherently malleable oral and literary form.
The “utopian spirit” of Over the Garden Wall begins with the non-specific, timeless, “no place” pastoral location in which the Unknown is set. McHale describes the Unknown as “the place between life and death, between dreams and reality. American folklore, classical fairy tales, Victorian ghost stories, and dream logic all combine to create a never-ending and ever-changing landscape full of strange inhabitants” (Edgar and McHale 29). The Unknown, then, much like the history of the adaptation of folk and fairy tales, is a palimpsest, a network comprising surfaces and traces of the adaptive process that intermittently interlock and separate, constantly overlapping one another so as to blur the notion of the “source” or origin of Over the Garden Wall from the very start (with the acknowledgement that our understanding of a knowable, recognisable “source” of folk and fairy tales is necessarily a problematic and troublesome one, since it is hinged upon the already fluid and unstable nature of the oral folk tale and the specific historic, socio-political, and cultural contexts that led to their transcription and popularisation by the likes of Chaucer and the Grimms).
The series begins with Zipes’ second condensation of Propp’s morphology, the element centralised on the “departure or banishment of the protagonist, who is either given a task or assumes a task related to the interdiction of prohibition” (Zipes 3), meaning a task related to their banishment. Following Wirt fleeing the “real” world to avoid his problems only to endanger his and Greg’s lives in the process, Wirt and Greg are banished to the Unknown with Wirt assuming the task of finding their way back home, a process that encodes Wirt’s actual and much more harrowing task of confronting and admitting to his own hubris and coming to terms with his ongoing identity crisis. The encoding of the brothers’ journey responds to the manner in which the folk or fairy tale encodes specific and targeted socio-political or cultural issues through the vocabulary of fantasy—“the fairy tale sets out to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors” (1). Art director Nick Cross states that the Unknown is based on Wirt’s subconscious and ongoing existential crisis, in which internally “the Unknown is Wirt’s particular vision of what the next world may be, informed by his own interests” (Edgar and McHale 112) while externally it performs as the setting for a fantastical journey. Just as the wolf in Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” is the coded danger of Red Riding Hood’s sexual or social transgression, the Unknown is the murky waters of Wirt’s mental state.
Along the way, Wirt and Greg have several encounters with magical creatures and inhabitants “who are helped by the protagonist[s] and promise to repay him or her” (Zipes 3), partially enacting the third element of Propp’s morphology. These include the animal helper Beatrice, a talking bluebird, whom Greg “saves” from a bush and who states that she is honour-bound by “bluebird rules” to help them find a means of getting home, acting as one of several donor figures—or those figures that offer assistance, often magical, to the protagonist to aid the fulfilment of their task—in the series. Endowed by the aid of Beatrice and several other characters, the brothers’ long journey through the Unknown see to them becoming repeatedly tested until both go on “to battle and conquer the villain or inimical forces” (3). Wirt, however, succumbing to the hopelessness of the situation, Beatrice’s eventual betrayal, and his own failings, is claimed by the Beast as his next victim, fulfilling the fifth element that “the peripety or sudden fall in the protagonist’s fortunes… is generally only a temporary setback. A wonder or miracle is needed to reverse the wheel of fortune” (Zipes 3).
Greg, answering this call for a wonder or miracle, secures a wish from another donor figure, the Queen of the Clouds (a figure who embodies the archetypal features of the loving, warm-hearted fairy godmother that aids the innocent and hard done by through granting them wishes), and which Greg uses in order to take Wirt’s place as the Beast’s victim. While Wirt does eventually rescue Greg, it is ultimately Greg who saves Wirt from the Beast first and, more importantly, saves Wirt from himself. Interestingly, Greg subscribes to Zipes’ observation that “those who are naïve and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can recognise the wondrous signs” (5), where “wondrous signs” refers to those miraculous processes and conditions of nature that Zipes argues folk and fairy tales awaken in readers and the experience of which Greg embodies. Greg wholly accepts and does not question the magical and the wonderful in the Unknown and is consequently capable of saving Wirt from the Beast. Writer Amalia Levari argues that “the degree to which the Beast is sinister doesn’t register with Greg, because his worldview doesn’t make room for that calibre of ill intent” (Edgar and McHale 161). In fact, it is by utilising his unshakable belief that “anything is possible if you set your mind to it” (“Babes in the Wood”; “Into the Unknown”) and due to his capacity for creative solutions that Greg is able to prevent Wirt from being claimed by the Beast and which can secure the Queen of the Cloud’s wish.
While Wirt does eventually rescue Greg, it is ultimately Greg who saves Wirt from the Beast first and, more importantly, saves Wirt from himself.
The Beast sets “three impossible tasks” for Greg to fulfil in order to achieve his goal of finding a way home and saving Wirt, fulfilling Propp’s sixth element that dictates that “the protagonist makes use of endowed gifts (and this includes the magical agents and cunning) to achieve his or her goal… [The result is] three impossible tasks that are nevertheless made possible… [or] the breaking of a magic spell” (Zipes 4). Greg accomplishes these three tasks by utilising his “endowed gifts” of childlike imagination and ingenuity that characterise so many folk and fairy tale protagonists, offering the Beast honeycomb when he asks for a golden comb (with Greg laughingly stating: “[a] golden comb of honey!” [“The Unknown”]), a spiderweb wrapped around a branch instead of a spool of silver thread, and by positioning a cup so that the sun appears to set into it when the Beast asks for him to “lower the sun out of the sky and into this china cup” (“The Unknown”). By completing the three tasks, however, no way home is forthcoming from the Beast, and Greg is trapped. The inclusion of the three impossible tasks, then, conform to Propp’s morphology only to then destabilise both Greg and the viewer’s expectations of the conventions of the narrative form that would normally follow the fulfilment of these impossible tasks, being that of the defeat of the villain and the return of normality. We are instead left in the very hopeless situation we began with, where not even Greg’s position as the “wondrous protagonist” (Zipes 6) is capable of stopping the Beast’s enthrallment. For a moment, the series sows doubt into the hitherto semi-predictable folk and fairy tale structural framework it has utilised.
Wirt, by contrast, is sceptical and continuously rejects or attempts to rationalise the wonder Greg is attuned to, instead occupying a particularly contemporary, non-conforming role that does not necessarily fit the typical construction of the folk and fairy tale protagonist, as Greg does. At times, Wirt even has the capacity to reflect Zipes’ conceptualisation of the villain who, by means of enchantment, causes the “petrification” of the narrative world (Zipes 6), entrapping victims with words used “intentionally to exploit, control, fixate, incarcerate, and destroy for their benefit” (6) in order to prevent “the process of natural change flowing” (6) for their own benefit. Wirt, constantly caught in his own self-doubt, past mistakes, and encroaching sense of existential inferiority, is much like the Beast in that he transfixes his own reality in accordance with his self-preservation and self-denial tendencies, whereby his hopelessness, failing attempts to maintain control over the situation, and internalised despair at his powerless position is reflected in the language he uses against himself and others and in the very space he occupies within the Unknown, constantly deflecting the blame onto Greg in order to assuage himself of the guilt of banishing them to the Unknown in the first place. It is only by breaking the spell that the Beast’s, and Wirt’s, petrification turns to emancipation (6), whereby the protagonist offers “possibilities for overcoming the obstacles that prevent other characters or creatures from living in a peaceful or pleasurable way” (6). In order for this to be achieved, Wirt, like Greg, uses his “endowed gift” of rationality and logic to reveal the game for what it is. He denies the Beast’s ultimatum to “take on the task of lantern-bearer, or watch your brother perish” (“The Unknown”) by surmising that it is the Beast’s soul in the lantern, not the soul of the woodsman’s daughter. The spell thus broken, the seventh element is satisfied, whereby “the villain is punished or the inimical forces are vanquished” (Zipes 4) when the woodsman, armed with Wirt’s knowledge, blows out the light of the lantern and extinguishes the Beast’s soul.
The series ends with the final element, or “the success of the protagonists that leads to… survival and wisdom” (4), where Wirt realises the importance of Greg in his life, the two return home to the “real” world, and the inhabitants of the Unknown are returned to (relative) normality. It is a deceptively clean moment of closure, desired by both the characters and by the viewer in accordance with the conventions of the contemporary fairy tale that the series has thus far mostly complied with and which the viewer has grown to expect of it. The narrator goes so far as to acknowledge and confirm the use of the predictable happily-ever-after, stating: “and so the story is complete, and everybody is satisfied with the ending and so on and so forth” (“The Unknown”). Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of Over the Garden Wall are these moments of direct engagement with the very structure and tradition the series seeks to represent and adapt, insinuating an omniscient awareness of and active play with the principles and expectations of the folk and fairy tale structure by deliberately bringing to attention the moments in which this omniscience is at work, such as the narrator’s closing comments and even Wirt’s earlier disparaging disbelief in “magic talking birds leading us to fairy godmothers” (“Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”). In fact, this level of play that seeks to reveal as well as conceal the presence of the heavy adaptive hand is alluded to within the opening lyrics of the very first episode and at the top of this article, articulating the series’ participation in the long tradition of encoded metaphor-making when the narrator asks: “If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?”
Consequently, it is this open awareness and manipulation of this morphology and adaptive tradition that brings into question the validity of the perception of closure that we are given at the end of the series. How do we trust the narrator’s assurance that Wirt and Greg escaped the Unknown, that the story is truly “complete,” in a work that emphasises the constantly reworked and recontextualised qualities of the folk and fairy tale form in its own appropriation of that form? To what extent does our reliability, and a given work’s awareness of that reliability, on being able to identify, recognise, and predict the structures and forms of the folk and fairy tale complicate our relationship to adaptive works such as Over the Garden Wall? The circulatory, permeable nature of the folk and fairy tale does not constitute total closure, does not constitute stability or constancy when their function is primarily performative and metamorphic, designed as they are to respond to whatever particular fears haunt the annals of history or contemporary society at a particular time. To navigate the complex palimpsest of the folk and fairy tale tradition is to navigate the human condition for metaphor, for the articulation of wonder in order to combat the terror of the Unknown—where the journey ends with two brothers returning home, triumphant, with the Beast that stalks our collective consciousness extinguished for one more day. Folk and fairy tales are, after all, “the loveliest lies of all” (“The Unknown”).
Aiden is an English Honours (Literature) and art history minor student at UBC. A disgruntled horror writer and local cryptid, they are frequently found arguing about paranormal podcasts in darkened cafés and frightening baristas with their high tolerance for caffeine and regret. Can and will get into a fist fight with Shakespeare in the presumed afterlife.
Edgar, Sean, and Patrick McHale. Art of Over the Garden Wall. Dark Horse, 2017.
Patrick McHale, creator. Over the Garden Wall. Cartoon Network Studios, 2014.
Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.
Zipes, Jack. When Dreams Come True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition. Routledge, 2007.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Candle and a Book. 04 Feb. 2019. Author’s personal collection.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Page in Over the Garden Wall. 04 Feb. 2019. Author’s personal collection.
Tait, Aiden. Photograph of a Page in Over the Garden Wall. 04 Feb. 2019. Author’s personal collection.
Beautiful writing. Loved reading it. Gave me a lot of words to explain the things I think are possible in the series. Lovely stuff.