‘Over the Garden Wall’ Explores and Positively Subverts Fairy-Tale Worlds


Back in 2014, a little miniseries called Over the Garden Wall premiered on Cartoon Network.

I don’t remember exactly when I finally watched the series. Several of my friends kept raving about it and quoting it, so finally I did. 1

At first, I thought, “This is weird. I’m not sure how I feel about it.” But by the end of the tenth and final episode, I was convinced this was a new favorite. And it has been. I’ve watched it at least once every fall since then. This year (2020), we’re working on a fourth fun through since September started. (I watched it twice on my own, and my four-year-old has requested it twice.)

So, what is Over the Garden Wall?

It’s a story about two brothers, Wirt (voiced by Elijah Wood) and Greg (voiced by Collin Dean). They find themselves lost in a mysterious place called the Unknown. There they meet many characters who seem to have stepped straight out of folklore and history, from the grumpy bluebird Beatrice (voiced by Melanie Lynskey) to the strange Woodsman (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) to the fearsome Beast. As the boys try to get home, they discover many of the Unknown’s odd little communities. They learn the truth behind some of the stories they fall into.

The series takes much of its inspiration from older art and musical styles. It includes bluegrass and jazz, early animation, and vintage art.

Over the Garden Wall focuses on main themes of brotherhood, responsibility, and growth. In the first episode, the Woodsman chastises Wirt as the older brother to take responsibility for Greg’s safety. Later in the final arc, both Wirt and Greg place themselves in danger to save the other. All along, this story is focused on choosing to be responsible for those in your care and to take responsibility for your actions.

Before I go any further, I must give you a spoiler alert. I can’t talk about the themes and clever storytelling in this show without spoiling several episodes and some major characters arcs. You have been warned.

This theme also carries out in the arcs of Beatrice and the Woodsman. Beatrice spends most of the series serving as a cantankerous foil to Wirt. But midway through the series, she reveals herself to be a human cursed to take the form of a bluebird—along with her entire family. It is the restoration of her family, and the guilt of being responsible for the curse, that drives Beatrice. The Woodsman similarly is driven by his sense of guilt and penance in his work of grinding up Edelwood trees to keep lit the dark lantern, which contains his daughter’s soul.

Over the Garden Wall subverts old tropes

The series doesn’t rely on familiar beats and archetypes—or rather, it does, but only to turn them on their heads. Apart from an episode or two which are clearly modeled after old serial melodramas (like “Schoolhouse Follies”), the stories in this show tend to take familiar tropes and spin them in new directions.

Two episodes really bring this trope-spinning style of storytelling to the fore.

Episode 2, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”

In this story, a strange town of talking pumpkins seems to condemn Wirt and Greg for trespassing, only to have the sentence be community service. This work leads to them digging up a skeleton, which causes Wirt to believe they are digging their own graves, only to bring about the final twist: the town is populated by skeletons who dress themselves in pumpkins and scarecrow-like apparel.

Episode 7, “The Ringing of the Bell”

This story uses some religious and folk imagery to subvert viewers’ expectations.

In this episode, Wirt and Greg come to a cottage in the woods, where they discover a young woman named Lorna, who lives there under the care of the spooky Auntie Whispers. Using a magical bell, Auntie Whispers compels Lorna to work almost endlessly in order to prevent her from “becoming wicked.” From her bulking size to her otherworldly voice and appearance (she is voiced by Tim Curry) to her mention of people being devoured alive, Auntie Whispers is built up as an evil forest witch out of fairytale. Couple all of this with the fact that both Lorna and Auntie Whispers dress in an old-fashioned style reminiscent of Puritans, and we as an audience are apt to take Wirt’s initial view: that Auntie Whispers is evil, and her treatment of Lorna, supposedly for her own good, is wrong-minded and backward.

When Wirt and Greg are discovered by Auntie Whispers, they hide with Lorna in the pantry, locking Auntie Whispers out. Auntie Whispers warns them to open the door, or they will be doomed, for they have made Lorna wicked again.

You see, Lorna—sweet, innocent, sickly Lorna—was the monster all along. Tormented by an evil spirit, she has devoured all those who come near her after dark, save for Auntie Whispers, who knows how to use the bell to keep the spirit at bay.

Greg and Wirt flee the cottage, with Evil!Lorna in pursuit. When all seems lost, Greg shakes his frog to stop Lorna, revealing that the frog swallowed the magic bell while he and Greg were sneaking into Auntie Whispers’ room earlier. Before Greg can do more than begin his command, Wirt snatches the frog and commands the spirit to “Stop making Lorna do bad things! And also go away and never come back.”2 The spirit is undone, seemingly destroyed by Wirt’s final admonition. Lorna is freed, and she and Auntie Whispers return to caring for one another out of love rather than duty.

As I said, the writers take our expectations and flip them. There is room for love that is unconventional in its forgiveness and for appearances to be deceiving.

Despite this victory, Wirt seems to take no joy from his defeat of the evil spirit, and we move from here into series’ last stories.

Over the Garden Wall‘s last three episodes

Over these three stories, Wirt and Greg face the Beast and their own past, risking their futures both in and out of the Unknown.

With Wirt becoming more despondent, Greg dreams of a city in the clouds (animated in an early twentieth century style) that is besieged by the North Wind. After defeating the North Wind, Greg receives an offer from the Queen of Cloud City: he can go home, but he has to leave Wirt behind, because Wirt has given up hope. Greg refuses, saying he’ll find another way. He wanders off into the woods, unknowingly having agreed to go with the Beast in order to save Wirt from becoming an Edelwood tree. When Wirt realizes Greg is missing, he rushes off in search of his younger brother. He falls into a frozen pond and we are treated to a flashback that establishes how Wirt and Greg came to be lost in the Unknown, as well as explaining a lot of Wirt’s offhand comments for most of the series.

When we return to the Unknown, Wirt and Beatrice reunite and find Greg. Greg hasn’t given up hope, despite many tasks set by the Beast designed to crush his hope. But because he has been out in the cold so long, Greg isn’t doing so well, and the Edelwood is beginning to take root in him. The Woodsman confronts the Beast, who has revealed that the Edelwood trees were all once lost souls who gave up hope in his woods. When the Beast overpowers the Woodsman, he offers Wirt a choice: take up the lantern and wander like the Woodsman, or watch Greg be lost forever. Wirt almost agrees, until he questions the Beast’s obsession with keeping the lantern lit. He deduces that it is not the Woodsman’s daughter whose soul resides in the lantern, but the Beast’s. His suspicion is confirmed when he prepares to douse the lantern’s light and the Beast responds in terror. Satisfied, Wirt leaves the lantern to the Woodsman and carries Greg out of the woods. The Woodsman, angry at the Beast’s deception, blows out the lantern’s light, and the Beast vanishes.

Content and other parental concerns

The series never directly touches on religion, despite its use of religious dress with Auntie Whispers and its frequent use of death, burial, and resurrection imagery. However, the series deals with themes which resonate with the Christian worldview: the battle of light and darkness, self-sacrificial love, the defeat of evil no matter its shape, and hope that does not die.

Some of the scenes dealing with the Beast and other denizens of the Unknown (Auntie Whispers and Evil!Lorna, the Highwayman, Enoch and the denizens of Pottsfield, and “the Beast” from the first episode) may be too frightening for younger viewers. Parents will want to give this a viewing beforehand to be sure their children are ready for it.

The first time my son asked to watch it, I sat next to him, prepared to switch it off if he showed signs of distress. Despite the fact that I love this show, I know he’s still learning about how the world works, and I want to guide him as he forms his ideas of how light and dark (and by extension, God and Satan) operate in this world.

There are also scenes in Over the Garden Wall (episode 2 in particular) that imply a sort of afterlife that’s neither heaven nor hell. Some have interpreted the Unknown as a sort of Limbo, between life and death, with Pottsfield as one of several final destinations travelers may take. Turning into the Beast’s Edelwood trees is another such fate. 3 I take the view that the Unknown is like Faerie. It’s an Otherworld that sometimes intersects with ours. That means Pottsfield may be a sort of allegory for death and resurrection. But I don’t think we can hand-wave away the story’s entirety in such a fashion. Again, this is something to discuss, not just with your kids, but with anyone you enjoy dissecting the themes of popular culture with.

In the end, Over the Garden Wall is an autumnal treat that warrants a return to the Unknown, complete with discussion about its strange and spooky denizens.

If you’ve seen Over the Garden Wall, what do you think of it? Is it a favorite in your house? What do you think about the idea the whole story takes place in Limbo? And is life really as sweet as potatoes and molasses?

  1. I thrive on movie quotes and references; they’re like another language for me, so I had to check this show out just to be able to communicate properly with my friends.
  2. “The Ringing of the Bell.”
  3. See Jack Patrick Healy, “Symbolism of Death in ‘Over the Garden Wall’,” Aug. 2, 2016, The Odyssey Online.
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Elijah David lives and works in the Chattanooga area. He spends far too many nights reading when he should be sleeping and frequently finds his bookshelves have shrunk overnight. He is the author of Albion Academy, the first book in the Albion Quartet, and Paper and Thorns, the first novella in the Princes Never Prosper series. Though his only magical talent is putting pen to paper, Elijah believes magic lurks around every corner, if you only know how to look for it. He finds great stories as a Lorehaven Review Team reader. Meanwhile, he and his wife stay busy raising two small Hobbits and a calico cat.
  1. notleia says:

    Sweet, except I can’t remember where Cartoon Network streams its stuff (I don’t pay for cable/sat). Hulu? Maybe I need to unbend and get/pay for Hulu. I can also catch up on my beloved HGTV trash and yell at house hunters and their questionable priorities.

  2. LoriAnn says:

    I adore this show with a deep and abiding passion. I first watched just after earning my English degree, and getting to view it while still in a mindset of literary examination and interpretation just made it so much more rich and delicious.

  3. This show is SO SO good. It has so many layers to it that I could watch it a hundred times and not pick up on them all. It’s also heartwarming, surprising, and extremely funny, as well as gorgeous to look at. And the characters are all flawed but enormously loveable, too — the irrepressibly sweet and trusting (but also exasperating) Greg with his Frog of Many Names, Wirt with his depression and anxiety (and terrible but heartfelt poetry), and Beatrice’s sarcasm and self-doubt.

    Plus, the music! “Potatoes and Molasses” is an all-time classic in our household, with a reprise (“Potatus et Molassu”) that will shatter your heart. A great article about a great series!

  4. Murphy Givens says:

    What a great rundown of the show! Not only does it snapshot the whole show succinctly, it also highlights some of the more interesting tidbits about characters and episode themes. As an avid fan of the show, I can definitively say that this was a well-thought review showing the series in a realistic light with both pros and cons. (Balance) The perspective you bring is appreciated, especially since some theories about the Unknown being a “limbo” of sorts does not ruin your fun. You came at this entire review from a wholesome Christian perspective but left a lot of room for individual caution. (Attitude Awareness) I found out recently that the show is based loosely on Dante’s Inferno. I was curious if you had heard this theory and what you would think? A lot of the characters do seem to match up. Thank you for highlighting the better (and worse) parts of the characters. I particularly love the emphasis on the common theme of character taking responsibility for others entrusted to their care. The synopsis of the series and episodes was also masterfully done. Picking apart the themes and revealing their truth-filled nature was awesome.

    It seems to me the show has a lot of emphasis on caring. Would you agree? We see Wirt the apathetic brother become the loving protector, The Woodsman who only wants to keep the lantern lit become the vanquisher of the beast thus protecting everyone, Beatrice who only wants to free her family becomes a friend and advocate for Wirt and Greg, and Greg become… well Greg. You uncovered the theme of the characters clearly bettering themselves. (Dignity of the Human Person) This progress towards the good is Inspiring especially when contrasted against the presence of a character like the Beast. The struggle between good and evil was on full display and amazingly portrayed. I like the way that the inhabitants of the Unknown seem to be in this subdued state as if the presence of the Beast is sapping the energy and joy of the characters. It is such a clear parallel to the real-world struggle for holiness and how holiness is birthed in the struggle against evil.

    Overall both the show and this review were quite Skillfully Developed. I think you managed to pull back the curtain and express what makes this show special. From its quirky animated style to its “trope-spinning” and to the fun brain-catching music this show is a master class in creating a timeless classic to be enjoyed by all. Truly art and your review does it such justice. Not forcing your views on the audience but rather being mindful of them and encouraging caution with some of the material for younger children. It was also not insanely confusing. This show is surprisingly complex and people tend to “lose the forest through the trees” and convolute the analysis. You did a great job being relatable in content, restricted in analysis, and realistic in recommendation. (Motivated By & Relevant To Experience)

    Thank you so much for such a great review of a show I hold dear.

What do you think?