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CLASSIC HORROR BLOG

 

Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Greg’s Gospel: Community, Self-Expression, & Radical Love – Over the Garden Wall’s Moral Philosophy

Our previous post – the first in this series – took an expansive look at Over the Garden Wall’s visual, musical, and literary influences, and with this second installation, we will be looking beneath the surface at the individual characters and the overarching, philosophical themes of the plot. Each character has a specific set of skills, a problem, a solution, and a journey from that problem to that solution. The combined journeys of the respective characters – and the ultimate resolution of their many stories as shown in the closing montage – blend together into a complex but cohesive moral theory which we’ll discuss more thoroughly in the third and final post.


But first, let’s take a closer look at our characters…



 

"All That Was Lost is Revealed":

A 3-Part Series Analyzing Over the Garden Wall's

Macabre Beauty, Joyful Whimsy,

and Profound Philosophy

 

PART TWO

 

CHARACTER ANALYSES


THE UNKNOWN

(...Chesterton’s Truthful Fairyland

and Plato’s Transcendental Realm of Forms)



Although the Unknown is not a person, it has an unquestionable personality, and it is the first and most important character to understand before we meet its sojourners. A bizarre but delightful fantasy world of indeterminate origins, it pitches back and forth between wholesome and horrifying, inviting and off-putting.


Its surreal perils and pleasures interweave the Gothic horror of Poe and Hawthorne’s Dark Romanticism, early weird fiction, and Victorian ghost stories with beloved fantasy archetypes from the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and The Chronicles of Narnia.


When I first watched OtGW, I was struck by its use of fairy tale tropes and imagery – an awareness that became all the starker and all the more interesting when the Brothers’ modern origins are revealed in “Into the Unknown.”


Why, I wondered, did the creators take so much care to cultivate a fairy world when they could have made the universe of the Unknown take after any other literary tradition: science fiction, adventure fiction, survivalist fiction, weird fiction, horror fiction, thrillers, romance, noir, magical realism, or more. So why the very intentional fairy tale atmosphere borrowed from the Grimm Brothers, L. Frank Baum, and Lewis Carroll?



My thoughts rapidly went to a passage from the Edwardian philosopher G. K. Chesterton about the enduring power and truth to be found in fairy tales:


“…oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.”

Later, in the same work, he writes about the strange sanity of children’s fairy tales:


“My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic... Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.”

OtGW’s Unknown could very well be considered one and the same with Chesterton’s “Fairyland.”


It is widely understood that the Unknown represents some kind of limbo – a liminal space “between life and death, between dreams and reality” (Art of Over the Garden Wall) where fantasy proves more real than the world they left, informing the Brothers’ metaphysical understanding of what is important in life and what is superficial. Like so many surreal dimensions overlapping reality in children’s literature (Oz, Wonderland, Narnia, etc.), it uses the tropes of fairy tales to flush out the falsehoods, deceits, and delusions of our waking life by forcing the Brothers to recontextualize their value systems through a series of seemingly irrational adventures.



Like the Beast, its suggestive nature comes with a vast list of theories attached to it, ranging from Purgatory to the Bardo to an “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”/Jacob’s Ladder/”Bullet in the Brain”-style synaptic fantasy taking place over milliseconds in Wirt’s own anoxic brain as he drowns in the creek. Any of these may be true, but I argue that the truest interpretation looks less at the mechanics behind it (what it literally is) and more into the metaphysical philosophy which it appears to embody.


As best illustrated by its significantly unchanging half-moon, it represents a halfway point between the spiritual and the physical, the moral and the mortal, where fairy tale logic and tropes dominate. In this sense, it represents a Platonic ideal: the transcendental reality that projects its vague, imperfect shadow into our world of waking consciousness.




To clarify, Plato famously argued that everything in our conscious reality is an imitation of some sublime, spiritual ideal or Form, and that humans instinctively understand this because – when we are born – we come from the purely spiritual Realm of Forms, which leaves a vestigial memory or impression on our hearts, and we subconsciously understand that – at the moment of our deaths – we will return and be restored to the Realm of Forms.



WIRT



Over the Garden Wall’s protagonist is sullen, 14 year-old Wirt – Greg’s older half-brother, an aspiring poet, clarinetist, and a socially-uncomfortable highschooler. Wirt’s personality is diametrically opposed to the Unkown’s manic whimsy, lack of clear order, and general silliness: he is religiously realistic, pessimistic, neurotic, and literal – a series of traits which are calcified by his anxious, teenaged narcissism.


While it may seem unkind to level this charge at poor, gloomy Wirt, it is difficult to deny that his self-serious, self-conscious, self-doubt prevents him from shifting his focus to others (except when that focus is consumed with how others perceive him).


Throughout his journey across the Unknown, Wirt struggles to break out of his own worries (his name may well allude the idiom “worry-wart”) and to trust others, the broader universe, and his own self. Wirt’s principal worries – as fully revealed in “Into the Unknown” – stem from his social anxiety at high school, exemplified by his unrequited love for Sarah (whom he wrongly believes to be in love with Human Jason Funderberker, and his self-consciousness of his own eccentricities (his taste in music, clarinet-playing, poetry, and general awkwardness).



As defined in “Songs of the Dark Lantern,” Wirt – who bitterly dismisses “labels” – is a Pilgrim (“a traveler on a sacred quest,” as defined by the Butcher) modelled after many of the great heroes of classic literature. There are obvious parallels in his odyssey to the protagonists of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, (not to mention a wide array of children’s books like The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and The Chronicles of Narnia) – all of which follow a spiritual exile on a harrowing interior journey towards transcendence.


In many ways, the Unknown – a realm defined by eccentricity – represents a reluctant journey to self-acceptance. His encounters with the Unkown’s unconventional cast of characters are often underscored by his surprise at their perceived foolishness, but always end with a slightly better understanding of Greg’s Gospel (more on that next) of joyful self-expression, communal trust, and sacrificial love.


Unfortunately, the lessons are imperfect, and by the crisis episode “Babes in the Wood,” Wirt has almost entirely given himself over to his pessimism and doubts, losing all hope (like the weary Woodsman, whose waning hope has enslaved him to the Beast), and is only restored to faith in people, transcendental love, and himself by Greg’s substitutionary atonement.


GREG

(...and the Gospel of Potatoes and Molasses)



Wirt’s five year-old half-brother, Greg, embodies the gleeful whimsy of childhood: indulgent, uncensored, generous, optimistic, and fearless. He sows delight wherever he goes (literally sowing Hallowe’en candy like confetti in the first episode) and sees the potential for good in all things – even in the Beast, whose evil he subverts through the jiujitsu of sacrificial love. Although Greg is Wirt’s foil, he also reflects Wirt’s hidden, joyful self, whom we see in occasional glimpses (e.g. the “Adelaide Parade” song, the steamboat sequence, and his flirtations with Lorna).


While Wirt may be the show’s protagonist, Greg’s is its burning heart and soul: tender where Wirt is closed-off, generous where he is stingy, trusting where he is suspicious, joyful when he is melancholy, excited when he is bored, inspired when he is cynical, eager when he is weary, and optimistic where he is … well, Wirt. Greg finds delight in the ordinary, hope in the hopeless, and opportunity in the daunting. He has no traces of his elder brother’s anxiety, self-consciousness, and – above all – fear.


Indeed, one of the first moments when we get a stark sense of this difference is when Greg comes face to face with Beatrice’s possessed dog (whom he believes to be the Beast). Confronted with the black, toothy hell-hound, his natural response is to recognize and compliment the weird sublimity of the animals bulging, blazing eyes (a comment which became the name of the scene’s eerie track: “You Have Beautiful Eyes”). Even when faced with presumed death, his reaction is one of spiritual wonder.



Greg is the keystone which holds OtGW in place, providing it with its moral philosophy – an ethos I’ll be calling “Greg’s Gospel.” Like the backslid, socialist preacher Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (which lends the series some of its folksy philosophy) Greg is an unmistakable Christ-figure, whose life and works point to a higher, transcendent reality. While Greg doesn’t share Jim’s obvious “J.C.” initials, his character shares many silly, sly, and sometimes overt parallels with Jesus of Nazareth.


In the first episode he exorcises a demon (from Beatrice’s dog, cf. the Gerasene demoniac), in the second he "raises" the dead (resurrecting two skeletons from their graves, cf. Lazarus), and in the third he institutes a whimsical form of communion, using the elements of “Potatoes and Molasses” (cf. bread – another filling carb – and wine – another sweet, dark fluid) to direct his followers toward the means of pursuing a fuller, richer life.


In the next two episodes, which focus on developing the characters of Wirt and Beatrice, respectively, Greg still provides his characteristic oddball wisdom and urges Wirt towards self-expression and community (“Songs of the Dark Lantern”) and away from materialism and isolation (“Mad Love”).


In later episodes – after they cross the Styx-like river on the Charon-like ferry – these parallels start to grow darker and less cheeky. In “The Ringing of the Bell” he exorcises another demon – this time from the hapless ghoul/cannibal, Lorna, whose burden is much more disturbing than Beatrice’s dog’s.




In “Babes in the Wood” he experiences a beatific vision of heaven (cf. the Transfiguration), and is tempted to avoid suffering during a nighttime conversation with a higher power (the Marian “Queen of the Clouds”) while his companion sleeps, ignorant of the high stakes, (cf. the Garden of Gethsemane).


Ultimately, Greg offers to exchange his freedom for his “too lost” brother rather than enjoy a blissful existence without him, and subverts the Beast’s power by willingly and counterintuitively turning himself over into his power. When Wirt realizes what he has done, he is horrified to find Greg’s body stretched out on a cross-like Edelwood stump.


In the background -- barely discernable -- the ludicrous "Potatoes and Molasses" song is touchingly reprised as a Latin hymn ("Potatus et Molassus") with different lyrics concluding with the poignant line "grow tiny seed, you are called to the trees..." He then suddenly either wakes up from his frozen stupor or -- miraculously -- revives back to life from death. Although Greg has cleared a path to redemption for Wirt, it is still up to him to chose to be free, however (we’ll dig into this below).


BEATRICE




Cynical, savvy, conniving, and unsentimental, Beatrice – a sort of survivalist, Artful Dodger archetype – represents the logical conclusion of Wirt’s hopeless worldview: her lack of joy and trust have hardened her heart towards others and left her without a sense of humor, sense of wonder, compassion, generosity, or courage.


While Greg’s Gospel urges its adherents to be radically giving and expressive, she only seeks her own benefit and takes no pleasure in life. Her name comes from Dante’s unrequited, deceased love in his Divine Comedy – the woman for whom he travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but she represents the very opposite of Dante’s gracious, saintly woman. Instead, she is closed-off and spiritually dry (whereas Greg is impulsively willing to sacrifice his life for Wirt, Beatrice is impulsively willing to sacrifice both brothers for her freedom).


Although she may seem like a tough, cosmopolitan, feminist girl-boss, it is important to note that she brought the bluebird curse on herself and her entire family by throwing rocks at a bird, and that her bitter selfishness is not a result of her and her family’s condition, but the direct cause of it, predating her transformation.


On the more positive side, she is intelligent, creative, determined, realistic, objective, and unimpressionable, and she does repent of her treachery before it is too late to save the brothers, but this is only after Greg’s influence is able to break through her closed-off heart and inspire her to accept his Gospel of radical, sacrificial love.


THE WOODSMAN



If Beatrice embodies Wirt’s cynical view of humanity (that it is uncharitable, ungenerous, and unforgiving), then the Woodsman represents the fate that awaits him if he fully buys into her philosophy. Well-intended and good-hearted, the Woodsman is nonetheless a slave to the Beast and an unintentional accomplice in his misanthropic mission. He has allowed hope to die in his heart, and it has been replaced by a deep and powerful fear – the morbid impulse that directs his entire life.


The Beast feeds on hope, and while the Woodsman has not surrendered all hope that he will be reunited with his lost daughter (an act which would cause him to become one of the very Edelwood trees which he has been contracted into harvesting for the Beast’s consumption), he has allowed his hope to become so frail and cold that it has been mastered and repurposed by the Beast – turned over to his evil intentions and perverted from its life-giving purpose.


The lesson here is a critical part of OtGW’s philosophy: if hope is weakened enough, then it can become disordered and cancerous: while a strong, robust hope can motivate us to follow Greg’s Gospel of joyful self-expression, supportive community, and sacrificial love, an anemic, lukewarm hope (neither sturdy enough to engender a Greg, nor dim enough to produce a Beatrice) can be just potent enough to allow someone to languish in dangerous delusions which can lead to a half-hearted life – what Thoreau means when he says that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”


It is not until the Woodsman is motivated – through an impulse of selfless love for the Brothers during a surge of hope – to sacrifice his false hope (that by serving the Beast he can earn his wish to be restored to his daughter) that he is able to break the Beast’s curse and save the Brothers, himself, and his daughter from the Beast’s power. Through this self-giving act of faith (faith that by letting go of his false hope that he can serve the Greater Purpose of love by rescuing the Brothers and helping them get home) he is able to karmically achieve his greatest desire: restoring his daughter to her home.


THE BEAST



There are many theories as to what the Beast represents, some specific (Death, Satan, Moloch) and some abstract (anxiety, self-doubt, capitalism), but it is unquestionable that he is a malevolent, deceptive, and parasitic force. Shadowy and manipulative, his goal seems to be weakening and harnessing human hope as an energy force. By depriving children of hope, he transforms them into Edelwood trees which he has commissioned the Woodsman to harvest for their oil – a fuel which he uses to light the lamp of his crippled hope.


The Beast grows stronger with doubt and selfishness and weaker with hope and love, and he personifies Wirt and Beatrice’s cynical worldview in that his entire purpose appears to be meaningless self-preservation. While Greg and many of the inhabitants of the Unknown thrive in the generous giving of themselves away – providing social and spiritual meaning to their sacrifices – the Beast’s only purpose is perpetuating his existence: he helps no one, takes from everyone, and provides no joy, hope, or support to those who encounter him.


His Wendigo-like appearance is also a likely clue to his nature: Wendigos are said to be created when someone cannibalizes his friends or family. Even when starving, indigenous people would often refuse to eat the corpses of their companions – selflessly choosing death over cannibalism – rather than risk giving their souls over the Wendigo spirit. Like a Wendigo, the Beast is driven by circular self-preservation and meaningless consumption/consumerism, using others for its own means, and never giving back or thinking of their welfare.



As such, he is a parasite, leeching hope out of his hosts until he has transformed them from autonomous, spiritual beings into soulless sources of fuel: they no longer have any innate worth outside of what they are able to provide the Beast – cogs in the Machine. He is a catalyst for selfishness and manipulation (Adelaide, for instance, claims to be motivated to ruin souls by listening to “the dark voices of the Beast”), and specializes in tricking people into accepting his perverted moral logic, specifically by misleading them into believing that by serving him they can be restored to their lost hopes.


We see how he did this to the Woodsman when he offers Wirt the chance of keeping Greg’s soul alive in the lantern flame in exchange for his service in harvesting yet more children’s souls. By rejecting this flawed philosophy (and resisting rather than collaborating with this occupying enemy), Wirt and the Woodsman both succeed in inverting his disordered worldview in favor of Greg’s Gospel of social and spiritual generosity.



JASON FUNDERBURKER



Greg’s Frog – a.k.a. Kitty/Wirt Jr./George Washington/Doctor Cucumber/Skipper/Greg Jr./etc., etc. – is the first character to appear, while playing the piano and singing the intro, appears in every episode, and is the only other mortal character, aside from the Brothers, to appear in the Unknown. As such, he is a critical but often overlooked character.


It is telling that – while he was transported to the Unknown like the Brothers – he demonstrates supernatural qualities like the denizens of the Unknown: although he is a frog, he can speak and sing, reflecting Beatrice and Fred’s preternatural animal intelligence, and fitting in immediately with the citizens of Frogland. However, he continues to track with the Brothers on their journey, and returns to the mortal world with them.


In “The Ringing of the Bell,” the Frog swallows the eponymous charm – an easily forgotten fact which is only remembered in the closing moments of the final episode, where his stomach is shown to still be glowing from the bell which has been transported to the waking world. Since the bell is a tool used to dispel evil and exorcise demons, and since the Frog navigates both worlds with equal competence, this is a critical symbol that suggests a connection between the two worlds overlapping over the Frog and what he represents: the sublime transcendentalism of Nature.



This implies that Nature has a lesson to teach humans, and that it is a partial key to spiritual peace. The Frog, like Greg, accepts mortality – its pleasures and difficulties alike – with serene flexibility without falling into angst or self-pity. Disencumbered by human distractions or illusions, he is a sovereign citizen of Plato’s Realm of Forms – instinctively aware of his transcendental nature, his transcendental origins, and his transcendental destiny. As such, he lives a life of simple consciousness – seamlessly residing in the past, present, and future – untainted by worry, self-pity, or angst.


Since he proves to be magic in the Unknown and returns with a magic artifact of that dimension inside of him, his very existence validates the lessons taught by that world about the reality of evil, the possibility of transcendence, and the means of achieving it and embodies another G. K. Chesterton quote about fairy tales [as paraphrased by Neil Gaiman]: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”


GREG’S GOSPEL


Ultimately, the real “meaning” behind this series – one which has engendered so much online debate and speculation – truly seems to circle around the life, deeds, and willing sacrifice 0f one character: young Gregory. As argued above, Greg seems to embody a Christ-figure archetype (see the “Literary Influences” section of our first post for more details on literary Christ-figures like Superman, Jim Casy, and Cool Hand Luke).


From performing silly versions of miracles (the exorcisms of Lorna and Beatrice’s dog, the resurrection of Larry the Skeleton, and the communion-like benediction of “Potatoes and Molasses” among others) to his substitutionary self-sacrifice, Greg is clearly intended to be read as a herald to a holy gospel: a new way of looking at life that is intended to liberate human beings from hopelessness and lonely self-interest.


While casually preaching his philosophy (primarily to the unconvinced Wirt and the treacherous Beatrice), he is assisted and reinforced time and time again by the citizens of the Unknown, whose choices to follow his radical vision regularly bring them into deeper relationships with one another, founded on hope, trust, and personal authenticity expressing themselves in love.


Dozens of commandments could be wrung out of Greg’s Gospel, but I think they largely hang on three pegs, which form the philosophical Trinity of Over the Garden Wall, and in this final section to this post, we’ll dig into first Greg’s Three Virtues and then the Beast’s corresponding Three Vices.


SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY


(People Can Usually Be Trusted,

and We Are Safer When We're Together)




One of the most striking qualities of the Unknown – a trait which makes it so successful as an escapist fantasyland – is its warm sense of community. Bereft of our society’s divisive and isolating staples (cell phones, social media, or tribal politics), it is a world where people invariable spend their time together – often supporting one another. As such, they prove to Wirt that Greg’s apparent social gullibility is actually wisdom: people can be trusted and community is a critical component for individual thriving.


This is most clear in “Songs of the Dark Lantern” where the entire, eccentric community – from the sobbing tailor and the loud-mouthed butcher to the folksy toymaker and the sinister highwayman – gather together to break bread in one another’s company and celebrate their relative identities. Wirt, who rejects “labels” is quickly encouraged to take on a mantle: first as a “lover” and then – perfectly – as the Pilgrim. This label proves to be a well-suited insight, rather than a repressive social construct, as it helps motivate him to lean into his heroic nature: riding off into the woods on Fred to save Beatrice.


This is also the case in “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee,” where the forgotten occupants of a potter’s field (a mass, unmarked grave for foreigners, strangers, and the poor -- hence the town name "Pottsfield") band together in community celebration where they sanctify their shared hardships (their lonely deaths) and joyfully delight in the recovery of each forgotten corpse (see: Larry – “the life of the party”). Their Sacred Harp-style shape-note hymn specifically celebrates their redeemed struggles, which they illustrate by donning vegetable suits as if to realize their transition as sleeping seeds (their buried corpses) who have sprouted from death to new life.



Other episodes like “Schooltown Follies” and “Frogland Lullaby” show communities bonding together in support of individuals: raising money for Mr. Langtree’s primary school and encouraging Wirt’s self-expression, respectively. In “The Old Grist Mill,” Wirt’s suspicions of the Woodsman are proven unfounded (he is actually trustworthy, protective, and safe), in “The Ringing of the Bell,” the similarly-threatening-seeming Auntie Whispers is also shown to be a good person in spite of her sinister appearance (and even the cannibalistic Lorna is ultimately a kind soul who is only dangerous because she is burdened with a curse), and in “Mad Love” the insidious ghost is revealed to be a shy love interest who has only been made imposing by the two parties’ mutual isolation. Even Beatrice’s family – cursed by her selfish act of animal abuse – are a kind and forgiving, offering shelter and protection to Wirt when he is at his lowest, and accepting Beatrice back with jokes and warmth instead of judgment and lectures.


These lessons even play out in the waking world: Wirt’s friends are fairly wholesome and accepting, and even the police officer – an understandable figure of suspicion and distrust for many people – shows himself to be lovably kind and supportive. By the time Wirt has returned to the waking world, he has accepted Greg’s Gospel and instead of fearing people and spurning community, he embraces the collective support that it provides (including his acceptance of Greg, himself, as a friend).


Although, throughout the series, Wirt's suspicions are proven unfounded, the Unknown is still hounded by a variety of villains, proving that it isn't a mere wish fulfillment or delusion where real threats and problems are ignored: evil exists in the Unknown as surely as it does in the waking world. However, those villains are nearly all spiritual enemies (perhaps analagous to mental illness, bad patterns of thinking, or abusive impulses), while humans and animals prove themselves to be essentially good (though morally complicated) and worth either trusting or reforming. The Beast, Adelaide, and the demonic black turtles are incranate evil, but people -- the subject of Wirt's greatest fears -- are almost universally helpful, even when they are ethically imperfect (e.g. the selfish Beatrice, the materialistic Endicott, or the criminal Highwayman).


Ultimately, the life lesson here is that our troubles become so much smaller, less permanent, and less overwhelming when we share them with others and allow them into the otherwise lonely, vertigo-inducing chasm of our interior lives.



Vs.

SELF-ABSORBED ALIENATION



The Beast, however, encourages “lost souls” to fall deeper into lonely wells of self-focused, self-afflicted alienation. Alienation cuts us off from available support, accentuates the perceived size of our worries and woes, and sharpens the pain of our loneliness. Instead of opening ourselves up to other perspectives and resources, by accepting the Beast’s call to self-focus, we open ourselves to an escalation of unnecessary hopelessness and fear – exactly what helps the Beast to convert healthy souls into compliant fuel for his misanthropic mission.


We see this temptation in every episode: Wirt distrusts and avoids companionship with the Woodsman, Pumpkin People, Dark Lantern patrons, Frog Folk, and his own friend group in their respective episodes. The Woodsman and Beatrice chronically struggle to accept Greg’s Gospel, though to varying degrees: the former refuses to accept help, shouldering his burden by himself, and the latter refuses to expect help, leaning into her identity as an unforgivable reprobate. Both are freed from their respective bondage by learning to enter into community by trusting others with their troubles.


To a lesser extent, a variety of minor characters experience similar realizations as well: Mr. Langtree solves his financial problem by accepting his community’s charitable support; Mr. Endicott resolves his mental health problem by seeking out his ghost instead of fearing her, which leads to a fruitful union of their lonely homes and lives; and Lorna and Auntie Whispers solve their supernatural problem by accepting the Brothers’ help, perspectives, and support.


JOYFUL SELF-EXPRESSION


(Your Passions are Valuable Assets,

and Your Creative Contributions are Important)




The next major theme of the Unknown – one which has a tendency to enchant OtGW’s viewers – is the unbridled eccentricity of its inhabitants – a trait which Greg shares and encourages. Each episode introduces strange characters who indulge in silly behavior, outlandish hobbies, and unrepressed delight in their pet passions. The bony residents of Pottsfield joyfully indulge in their town culture (its odd fashions, exultant music, and quaint traditions), just like the patrons of the Dark Lantern lean into their love of singing, storytelling, and encouragement, and the Frog Folk exult in dancing and music. Even the slightly repressed characters (e.g., the forlorn Langtrees with their primary school passion project) ultimately learn to celebrate and acknowledge their whimsy.


Wirt is invariably offput by these joyful people: balking at the Pumpkin Peoples’ eccentric culture, the Dark Lantern patrons’ enthusiasm, and the Frog Folk’s whimsy, among others. He distrusts their motives, misunderstands their passion, and quietly despises their comfort in their own skin. In “Into the Unknown,” when we finally learn of Wirt’s modern origins, we also see that he is just as eccentric as the citizens of the Unknown: taking a keen interest in maudlin poetry, listening to music (he has a poster of a band called The Black Turtles and a cassette player), model trains, antique maps, esoteric books, and playing woodwind instruments (principally clarinet, though he can also play bassoon).


We then learn – as suggested in “Mad Love” – that Wirt’s primary angst stems from his unrequited love for Sara, his socially anxious self-consciousness, and his crippling self-doubt, which appears to be deeply connected to insecurity about his perceived weirdness. His flight from the waking world into the path of the train and thence into the life-threatening dangers of the lake is instigated by his fear of social rejection, his distrust of his peers, and his concern that his pet passions will prove to be humiliating liabilities.



This attitude is diametrically opposed by Greg, who revels in his eccentricities, casually tossing out rock facts and Hallowe’en candy without a single worry of whether he’ll be liked or rejected, and gleefully indulging in his whims and caprices. When he likes something, he says so with enthusiasm, and when he has an uncomfortable thought, he says it out loud (often to comic effect) without a concern for how it will impact his social standing. Unfiltered, unrepressed, and unpretentious, Greg lives out his Gospel message of radical self-expression, frequently to Wirt’s embarrassment and dismay.


In the Unknown, however, Wirt gradually realizes that self-expression brings joy and peace, seeing how it enhances the eccentric citizens’ quality of life, infusing them with purpose and passion. Specifically, he sees how personal passions are precious gifts to the wider public, providing the individual with a useful mission and supplying the community with the benefits of their unique perspective and gifts. The Pumpkin People are thrilled to be united with Larry (“the life of the party”) even though they are clearly already having a blast (his personality was still missing and his return was profoundly appreciated), the Langtrees’ eccentric primary school for animals provides their “students” with learning and their community with music (after Greg’s encouragement), and the Dark Lantern patrons each rely on one another for the individual contributions their roles provide to the whole, like critical pieces of a larger puzzle.


Likewise, Endicott’s mental health, business, and happiness are exponentially improved by combining lives and fortunes with Mlle. Grey, and Jason Funderburker (the frog) doesn’t fully come to his own as a character until he sings for the passengers of the steamboat – an experience which leads to honor and acceptance rather than embarrassment.


This final example leads to one of Wirt’s first experiments with public self-expression, as he accompanies Jason Funderburker on the bassoon in spite of his anxieties and misgivings. Wirt agrees to express himself following a moment of bonding with Greg where he becomes uncharacteristically relaxed, laughing and playing, and leading to a temporary healing of their stiff relationship. Fortified by their loosening of his ironclad self-awareness, Wirt opens himself up to performing – an experience which he survives without embarrassment or rejection.


The life lesson here is that passions are not liabilities to be hidden, but critically important assets which enhance the wider community and validate the individuals who offer them up to the public. To use yet another biblical allusion, Greg’s Gospel encourages you not to “hide your light under a bushel.”


Vs.

SELF-CONSCIOUS CONFORMITY



The Beast, however, feeds off of embarrassed self-consciousness – specifically the fear of trusting others with your passions – and the characters who buy into this lie struggle to life a flourishing life. Mr. Langtree and Endicott – both of whom keep to themselves and suffer from anxiety, depression, and paranoia as a result. However, Wirt is the primary offender here, while most people and animals in the Unknown have no interest in repressing their gifts, feelings, or personalities.


The Beast seeks out and enslaves “lost souls” whom he turns into Edelwood trees, and while the phrase “lost soul” can have a variety of cultural connotations, I believe it is specifically related to this vice of self-conscious conformity – namely in the sense that a lost soul has become lost from itself – disconnected from its authentic nature, its joys, its passions, and its unique vision.


Uncoupled from its natural, unfiltered, childlike self, the soul is left aimless and adrift, making it easy prey for the Beast’s lies and manipulation. It is telling that -- as the Beast's deception begins to take root -- his victims all take the form of an Edelwood tree, conforming to a common appearance, devoide of individuality, and anchored into the woods where they are surrounded by other Edelwood trees: homogenous, unvarrying, and ungrowing.




Indeed, in spite of being trees, the Edelwoods all seem to be dead snags which never grow or bloom. The Beast's lie is the self-expression is dangerous, that people can't be trusted with your passions, and that life is most safe when it is lived alone in guarded self-censorship and muted creativity. It's result, however, is dehumanizing death and decay.


Greg’s sacrifice to the Beast (more on that next) doesn’t work precisely because he offers himself voluntarily while full-well knowing who he is and what his mission is. Since Greg refuses to censor or dilute his personality, his open-handed surrender works against the Beast’s intentions, disarming his ability to effectively lie to Greg.




SELF-SACRIFICIAL LOVE


(Radical Love is the Antidote to Fear,

and the Good Life is about Serving not Surviving)




The third and final tenet of Greg’s Gospel is the heaviest and the most difficult to embrace, but it is the moral bedrock on which the others are built, providing the ultimate test of its broader message of hope, joy, and trust. It provides the answer to all of Wirt’s rational objections: You say I should trust people, but what if they betray me? You say I should express myself, but what if they laugh at me? You say I should relax and enjoy life, but what if by relaxing I leave myself vulnerable to disaster? Virtually all of Wirt’s anxieties are sensible, and most of them are backed up by life experience, but Greg’s response dismisses these worries with a radical philosophy: death in all of its forms – embarrassment, rejection, pain, loss, and fear – cannot be mollified by fighting back against it: it is only in accepting mortality and leaning into its principal feature – surrender – that humans are capable of freeing themselves from its mortifying influence.


In short, the answer is radical love and radical giving, surrendering control with the understanding that death undoes all things, and that by resisting its ubiquitous gravity, we play into its game, fueling it with our fear. This is the core principal of nearly every long-established, philosophically-robust religion: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Stoicism, Wicca, Shamanism, and Confucianism, among others. Willingly releasing our death-grip on life is the only way – they assert – to actually be alive, not just living. The best, surest way to express this philosophy is to love others unconditionally, to be radically generous with your heart, time, and possessions, and to move with the stream of life, not against it.


Greg constantly embodies this intellectual jiujitsu. From the very first episode, he is freely giving away his Hallowe’en candy, treats the Woodsman with respect instead of suspicion, and looks (what he may expect to be) death strait in the eyes with an attitude of awe rather than fear. Throughout the Brothers’ journey, Wirt assumes that Greg is naïve and that his innate trust is a liability rather than a strength – the result of weakness rather than wisdom. It isn’t until “Babes in the Wood” – where Greg undergoes his own Garden of Gethsemane temptation – that he is able to prove the sincerity of his worldview by choosing death over security, all for Wirt’s sake.




During Greg’s beatific vision in Cloud City, the Marian Queen of the Clouds offers him the possibility of heading home – an answer to his prayer (“Help me know just what to do, to get Wirt home, and also me, too”). He is excited to accept it, but she informs him that Wirt won’t be able to come with him: “Wirt cannot go with you. He is too lost… See how the Edelwood grows around him? The Beast has claimed him already… Wirt’s fate lies solely in the Beast’s hands now.” Convicted that his lack of seriousness is responsible for Wirt’s damnation (“I should have been leading better. I was goofing off again, like always, and now you’re stuck here”), Greg sells himself to the Beast in exchange for his soul.


Note how Greg doesn’t view himself as stuck, doesn’t worry about becoming the Beast’s victim, and views himself – the younger brother – as responsible for leading Wirt. This seemingly upside down worldview aligns with a number of Christ’s famous teachings about the counterintuitive power of willing self-sacrifice: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first; there is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”


But there is one teaching that McHale seems to have very specifically had in mind:


“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who [passionately clings to] their life will lose it, while anyone who [cares nothing for] their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

It is a hard but transcendental teaching that graces the hearts of all ancient religions (certainly not just Christianity), from the the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism to the Jewish notion of Middah Kabbalat HaYisurin. These counterintuitive moral philosophies all urge us to release ourselves from the miserly lives which come so naturally to us - lives spent hoarding resources, isolated in suspicion, and limited by our lack of faith in the Good Life - by entrusting our suffering to a nobler principle than self-pity, rage, or greed.


Instead, we are asked to sanctify our hardship and our mortality by surrendering our need for certainty, and by investing our energy not in surviving - a game we are destined to lose - but in serving others out of gracious compassion and love: something which can never die.


After Greg trustingly takes the Beast’s hand – knowing full well the fate that he is choosing – and is found symbolically crucified on the stump of an Edelwood tree, his earlier theme song, “Potatoes and Molasses,” is heard being solemnly chanted in Latin like an Agnus Dei or Pie Jesu from a Requiem Mass. The lyrics to “Potatus et Molassus” are not particularly significant (they translate to “Potatoes and molasses / if you want some, just ask us / soft and warm like a puppy” / etc., etc.), but it ends with a very significant couplet in English: “Run tiny seed, you are called to the trees.”



Like the proverb about the wheat seed, it suggests that in true life is found in allowing our ego to die: embracing our mortality and refusing to compete with other humans for life. To follow Plato's allegory, death is a moment of transition or transcendence, not of loss, and to live this way is to be freed up to live generously -- freed to serve not just survive. Wirt, on the other hand, views life as a brutal struggle for attention, approval, and acceptance, distrusting others to treat him fairly and envying others (viz., Jason Funderberker the human) for their perceived monopoly on the resources (viz., Sara’s attention) which he desires.


Greg, on the other hand, delights in the present moment and the resources at hand: he is grateful and thankful for the things he has but doesn’t waste time imagining what he could have or worrying about what he doesn’t have (or losing the things he has). As a result, it is easy for him to surrender himself over to the Beast and to death: death is yet another adventure (as J. M. Barrie famously said) where he has faith and hope that he will be restored to Plato’s Realm of Forms: the transcendental super-reality where the Truth of all things is exposed and their authentic natures are no longer obscured by the waking world’s lack of imagination. Through willingly and trustingly giving himself over to death, Greg will be achieving what Wirt so badly wants – he will be going home. And he does so as an expression of radical love for Wirt.




This is a pedagogical moment for Greg, demonstrating to Wirt that the Beast (who represents self-focused anxiety and existential fear) can be defeated with this attitude. Wirt struggles to accept it even after seeing it for himself – he is still vulnerable to the Beast’s lies – but after nearly accepting the Beast’s offer to serve him (a treacherous agreement that would make him a willing servant of the Beast, and an accomplice in his mission to enslave and harvest souls), he tries Greg’s way and finally experiences the freedom offered by hope, joy, and love. He refuses to play along with the Beast’s plan for him, allowing both brothers to be fully liberated from the in-between world of the Unknown.


Throughout the series, Greg inspires many other characters to open their hearts up to radical love – a choice that allows their clenched hands to open up to their essential desires of their hearts. In “Schooltown Follies,” Mr. Langtree surrenders his pride and fear of failure, allowing his community to support his passion project, and Ms. Langtree releases her maudlin self-pity, allowing her to reunite with Jimmy Brown, and to realize that the story she has been telling herself (and the soothing identity of “jilted lover” which she has clung to) is false.




In “Mad Love” Mr. Endicott and Mlle. Grey let go of their death-grip on self-control and independence, allowing them to see the love waiting for them on the other side of their shared wall, and even Fred trades the excitement and freedom of a life of con-artistry for the purpose and security of a legit gig as a “tea horse.” In “The Ringing of the Bell,” Lorna and Auntie Whispers finally accept the outside perspective and help of other people – at the expense of their privacy and their comfort zone – allowing them to break out of their deadly cycle of learned helplessness and rebuild their lives together.



The last and greatest transformation, however, belongs to the Woodsman, who is inspired to sacrifice his false hope out of radical love for the Brothers. Convinced that his daughter’s soul resides in the lamp light, he has been duped into abetting the Beast in his misanthropic mission: literally harvesting the souls of other “lost children” like his daughter, distilling their fear and hopelessness as fuel for the Beast. With the realization that he has unknowingly been perpetuating the cycle of pain and loss, the Woodsman decides to let go of his false hope – destroying the lamp and snuffing the flame. Counterintuitively, it is by letting go of his hope that he is able to be restored to it, and in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the series, he is unexpectedly and tearfully reunited with his lost daughter during the closing montage.


This same series of clips also shows the impact that Greg’s Gospel has had on the other characters: Lorna and Auntie Whispers are enjoying a moment of cozy leisure together (instead of the seemingly endless labor and separation that they endured in “The Ringing of the Bell”); Mlle. Grey is shown to warmly admiring a portrait of Fred, who appears to be enjoying his legitimate employment, and a beaming Mr. Endicott; the reunited Jimmy Brown and Ms. Langtree are depicted happy together at a circus with their students; Enoch (the giant, benevolent pumpkin who leads Pottsfield) is revealed to be controlled by a black cat, who has apparently made caring for the abandoned skeletons in the potter’s field his life’s work; Beatrice, her family, and her dog are all shown to be restored to their natural forms and to their home in the old grist mill, where they are laughing together, having apparently forgiven each other.


These scenes, along with the preceeding shot of Jason Funderburker’s belly glowing with the bell he swallowed in episode seven, suggest that the Unknown was a real place and that the Brother’s actions there had real, lasting results. It also underscores the main message of radical love – that it changes things and has the transcendental power to realize hope, to spread joy, and to set wrongs aright.


Vs.

SELF PRESERVATION AT ALL COSTS



On the other hand, the lie which the Beast wishes to propagate is that serving comes at the expense of survival: that resources are limited, other peoples’ needs are burdensome, and that love is a luxury. Just as Radical Love is the core of Greg’s Gospel, undergirding self-expression and community with its foundation, desperate Self-Preservation is the core of the Beast’s false gospel, the gangrene which spreads the infections of distrust and self-consciousness throughout the soul. Both of these lesser vices stem from a core belief that love comes at the cost of the individual, poses a threat to personal autonomy, and stymies the chances for survival.


It is a way of living that has horrifying consequences, turning good people into monsters: by believing the Beast's gospel, Beatrice a trecherous accomplice to an evil witch, the Woodsman a compliant collaborator with his daughter's abductor, Wirt a self-censored, self-doubting neurotic drowning in a sea of loneliness which he has the power to escape but is too ruled by fear to attempt it. Many other characters are kept from actualizing their potential as a result of the Beast’s venomous message of distrust and fear: Mr. Langtree is a failing businessman, Ms. Langtree a jilted woman, Mr. Endicott a spiraling madman, and Lorna a ghoulish cannibal – and each one is this way unnecessarily, held prisoner to their respective conditions by their fear and isolation. Each is eventually freed by having the bravery to open themselves up to others and by accepting their support. This is one of the series’ central messages: that by buying into the Beast’s lies, we are not just victims – we are collaborators: we allow ourselves to be transformed into something beastly.



This worldview motivates Beatrice to act with cold self-interest, prevents the Woodsman from letting go of his burdens (out of distrust that his love for his daughter is not tied to his performance), and keeps Wirt frozen in his self-isolation. As a result, all three are positioned to suffer indefinitely from their respective curses until they are brave enough to believe in Radical Love: Beatrice reconciles to her family (freely opening herself up to potential rejection and accountability), the Woodsman extinguishes his false hope (trusting that his daughter will live on in his heart, and freely sacrificing his fabricated connection to her), and Wirt dares to believe opening up to others and releasing his grip on fear and doubt will free him to live a fuller life.


He keeps the Woodsman enslaved, Beatrice transformed, and Wirt unsettled by convincing them of these falsehoods, allowing him to thrive on the energy that their fear and hopelessness render him. When the Brothers fight back against him, the Beast tries to manipulate the Woodsman into killing them outright, revealing the logical conclusion of his perverted worldview: the destruction of life and love for the perpetuation of fear and distrust. When the Woodsman – whose good heart has not been calcified with fear as the Beast hoped – realizes this he turns away from the Beast’s employment forever, sacrificing his hope in the form of the lantern flame, and freeing himself from the monster whose life he had been inadvertently sustaining.



In his dying moments, in true Platonic fashion, the Beast's Ideal Form is revealed by turning the light around on him. He is shown to be composed of his victims' anonymized faces -- dehumanized and contorted in fear and hopelessness -- and his death immediately liberates the Brothers, who wake up in time to survive drowning.


Instead of being rejected or scolded by their community, they are rescued, protected, and nurtured, waking up in a safe, warm hospital, surrounded by their friends a la The Wizard of Oz. In the closing montage, as we have already seen, Greg’s Gospel is validated by the joy, hope, and love it has left behind it in the Unknown, and the show closes with a knowing glance from Jason Funderburker (the frog) and a brief shot of Greg returning his rock to their neighbor’s yard – a small but poignant illustration of his philosophy: letting go does not mean that you will lose something, and the good life is about serving not merely surviving.



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