The Loveliest Lies of All: Over the Garden Wall, by Ethan K. Poole
Almost everyone, at some point, has heard one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. At the very least, you’ve probably seen the Disney adaptations of Snow White, Cinderella, or Rapunzel. If you’ve ever gone back and read the original tellings of any of the Grimm’s fairy tales, though, you probably noticed how much darker they were than you remembered. The darker versions captivate readers. They offer "happily-ever-afters" but with a tone and ambience that implies real danger, or sometimes even horror. If you want something that not only captures that feeling, but modernizes it, then look no further than Patrick McHale’s 2014 miniseries Over the Garden Wall.
The first English edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published over 200 years ago, but many of the stories contained within it are still told and loved the world over. Why is that? The simplicity of the stories could be part of it, as could their value of teaching morals to children. In the end, though, they take you to a world filled to the brim with magic, both fantastical and horrifying. Escapism is what makes fairy tales feel as enchanted as they do; they let you see, visit, and understand a world that isn’t quite like ours. So many fairy tales specifically have become classics because they've been able to capture our imagination in a way unique to their style, so much so that many creative teams still remake them as opposed to coming up with wholly new stories, and truly new fairy tales can be hard to come by.
What does any of that have to do with Over the Garden Wall? It begins with the simple introductions of two brothers, Wirt and Greg, wandering alone through the woods, trying to find their way home. The woods they wander are essential to make the story as engaging as it is. They are called “The Unknown,” and they serve as a perfect setting for this new-age Grimm fairy tale. It allows for a family of cursed talking birds, a ferry ridden by highly sophisticated frogs, and an enigmatic beast known for making tragic bargains, without any of it feeling out of place. The show hides a world you want to get lost in, but it never quite lets you forget that there’s danger around every corner.
Witches who seek to fill your head with wool and make you their eternal servant stalk these woods, as do cannibalistic spirits, and giant wolves waiting to sink their teeth into your flesh. All of that pales in comparison to The Beast: an intelligent monster we can only see in the shadows, but who haunts every episode with his presence. Impressively, he manages to be felt even in the episodes he doesn’t appear in. Everyone in The Unknown is absolutely terrified of The Beast. They warn travelers to beware his presence and to do everything they can to ward him away. He makes for a fitting antagonist for this fairy tale because he’s steeped in mystery and possesses an air of subtle terror. This terror isn’t expressed in jumpscares, but in the quiet, depressing moments.
It's not all ghosts and ghouls, though. Wirt and Greg make many friends on their journey home, as well. Most notably would be Beatrice: a talking bluebird, who tries to find a way to undo a curse to turn herself and her family back into humans. She accompanies the boys through much of their travels. She takes a while to warm up to them, and more than a little tragedy befalls all of them, but in the end they manage to help each other find who they are meant to be in a way they never could have on their own. She’s not their only friend though; there is quite a colorful cast to discover in The Unknown. This show definitely earns its place as a Halloween classic, but it is not all darkness from start to finish. You need a little bit of light to cast any shadows, after all.
Fairy tales, generally speaking, contain incredibly simple characters. Over the Garden Wall breaks from this tradition, giving its leads depth and arcs that drive the story, rather than the other way around. Greg, the younger of the two brothers, is endlessly optimistic and will face every challenge head on with a smile on his face. He can get a little annoying at times, as children are wont to do, but as with real children, those little quirks only serve to endear him to you more in the end. Wirt, on the other hand, starts off the show as a nervous wreck incapable of taking responsibility for himself, who constantly blames his little brother for every bad thing that happens to them. As the show goes on, though, not only do we learn more about him and empathize with him more, but he also grows and changes into a better person and a better brother.
Over the Garden Wall is pure Brothers Grimm brought to the modern era, combining The Unknown’s pleasant and horrifying parts into a world worth exploring. Getting lost in The Unknown is scary of course, but it is only by facing our fears and finding our way through it that we can grow into better people. That lesson is Over the Garden Wall’s fairy tale moral. If you haven’t already, you should take a trip through The Unknown this Halloween. You never know what, or who, you might find along the way.