Halloween has passed yet the autumn season lingers. As the season shifts to winter, there is no better show to curl up and watch than Over The Garden Wall. The Emmy award-winning mini-series aired five years ago on Cartoon Network and has since garnered a following far outside the network’s typical audience. Over The Garden Wall was adapted by Patrick McHale from his animated short film, “Tome of the Unknown,” and expanded into Cartoon Network’s first mini-series.
In this complete guide through the Unknown, we will be focusing on the main characters Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) and their transitional exploration of the Unknown. If you are not already familiar with the show I suggest you watch it before reading this guide and again afterward.
The Unknown refers to the mysterious woodland setting that stages the characters’ journey through a spiritual and emotional transition. This dark and cryptic forest represents a hallucinatory voyage through the afterlife. The season’s transition from autumn to winter parallels the character’s descent into the afterlife. For the purpose of this guide, each episode of Over the Garden Wall will be detailed corresponding to their indisputable correlation to Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, Inferno.
Over The Garden Wall Is A Divine Comedy
When asked about the theme of Over The Garden Wall, its creator Patrick McHale admitted, “It was supposed to be a comedy,” which absolutely holds true. In opposition to the show’s dark and alluring atmosphere, humorous dialogue and clever interactions emphasize the satirical qualities of the afterlife. This perspective was also essential in Dante’s Divine Comedy, (especially Inferno) making it the perfect source for McHale to draw inspiration. Not to confuse comedy with humor, but rather the literary definition that describes a work that triumphs over unpleasant circumstances by creating comic effects, resulting in a happy or successful conclusion.
We ceased not going on because he spoke, but all the while were passing through the wood, the wood I mean of crowded spirits.
Canto I, Inferno – Dante Alighieri
Dante’s satirical methods of punishing members of society force them to come to terms with their corrupted spirits in exaggerated ways. The deeper he descends into Hell the more nefarious the people he encounters become. Each episode of Over the Garden Wall emulates the escalating levels of punishment in each of Dante’s circles of Hell.
Babes In The Wood…
Our journey begins following two half-brothers wandering aimlessly through a dark wood. Wirt, the eldest, is an introvert who would rather keep to himself than have to make a decision. Though visibly anxious about their predicament, Wirt avoids any responsibility and immediately slips into reciting his poetry. Greg, on the other hand, is a naive and care-free young boy. His key motivations are staying positive and helping out as much as possible. Wirt may not see it as helping, but Greg’s enthusiasm for solving problems shines like a beacon of hope through the dense and mysterious wood.
The first episode, ‘The Old Grist Mill,’ acts as an introduction or a gate into the Unknown. The boys immediately come to a fork in the road. They must either follow an ax-wielding Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) or a talking bluebird. After much dispute, Wirt remains uncertain and the decision is robbed from them. This will be the first of many decisions to come as the boys travel deeper into the Unknown.
The Beast Of The Unknown
In the Unknown, around every dark corner and behind every obstacle lurks the Beast. He is responsible for all cruelty, “the death of hope,” and according to McHale, “just the devil himself.” He persuades lost souls away from their path and leads them to lives of perpetual torment. The beasts in Inferno, who linger in the wilderness of the soul, are similarly motivated. The leopard, the lion and the she-wolf, each symbolizing sins of incontinence, violence, and malice, block the path to righteousness.
… this beast, because of which thou criest out, lets not anyone pass along her way, but so hinders him that she kills him; and she has a nature so malign and evil that she never sates her greedy will and after food is always hungrier than before.
– Virgil |Canto I, Inferno by Dante Alighieri (p.4)
Wirt and Greg encounter many of these lost souls while wandering the Unknown. As outsiders, the boys act as the voice of reason in opposition to other characters’ delusions. Often, Greg and Wirt are confronted with their burdensome delusions. Specifically, Wirt’s inability to accept responsibility for his actions. The Woodsman leaves the boys with a final warning: “Fear the beast and leave these woods [. . .] it is your burden to bear.”
Limbo: The Little Town Of Pottsfield
There is no doubt after the second episode, ‘Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee’, that the brothers are far from the realm of the living. Greg and Wirt stumble upon the small village of Pottsfield celebrating a peculiar festivity. According to Virgil in Inferno, the spirits found in Limbo have not sinned, they are just victims of circumstance. The circumstances being that they lived during a time that did not acknowledge God. As a result, these souls are lost “and only so far harmed that without hope [they] live in desire” (Canto IV). This refers to their desire to have known God, so they could have gone to Heaven. These villagers live simple lives as a passive punishment, idolizing a secular deity called Enoch. Their only burden is the monotonous ‘Harvest.’
Confronted by the inhabitants, Wirt is told he is “too early” but that he will join them someday. The open invitation alludes to Wirt’s own passive nature. Indecisive and uninspired, Wirt risks an afterlife of manual labor in perpetually bleak mid-autumn. The incontinence of his character incurs less blame but, as he soon discovers, such passivity can lead to hopelessness.
Lust: ‘Schooltown Follies’
Their voyage to Adelaide has begun! Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), the talking bluebird, proves stubborn and manipulates the boys into accepting her help. Though her curt tone and unknown motivation initially dissuade Wirt. Nevertheless, incapable of maintaining a position on the matter he finds himself being led by her. This is just one of many examples of Wirt’s indecisiveness leading him to involuntary action. Episode three shows Wirt’s actions constantly relying on others’ commands; at one point physically pushing him into action. Similarly, in the second circle of Hell, souls who lived under the control of their carnal desires are blown about by strong gusts of wind. Dante speaks with a couple that will never find rest from the relentless tornadoes.
Miss Langtree, a forlorn young woman tasked with teaching animals how to read, suffers from a similar fate. Deviating from her lesson plan, she spends her class time lamenting over her lost lover, Jimmy Brown. As a result, her father is discontented with the school and threatens to shut it down. Miss Langtree expresses her desire to continue teaching yet cannot stop lusting over Jimmy, creating her own personal cycle of torment.
Amidst Miss Langtree’s lament, Beatrice lectures the boys on willpower. Greg is chastised for his disobedience while Wirt is mocked for being a pushover. Rather than prove Beatrice wrong and assert himself, Wirt plays dumb, exaggerating his submissiveness. This leads to the unlikely result of Wirt acting decisively in opposition to Beatrice’s orders and inadvertently rescuing Jimmy. Similarly, Greg’s unintentional disobedience saves the school. Together, the brothers have seemingly restored order and learned the benefits of taking action and “never giving up,” as Greg puts it.
Gluttony: ‘Songs Of The Dark Lantern’
The Beast is the predominant motif of episode four. We learn more about his intentions, as well as see his true form for the first time. However, the perspective of the Tavern folks contradicts what the boys know about the Woodsman, leading them further down the path of uncertainty.
…better be wise and don’t believe his lies. For, once your will begins to spoil, he’ll turn you to a tree of oil and use you in his lantern for to burn.
-Tavern Keeper | Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network (2014)
Be that as it may, Wirt discovers something new about himself in this episode. After being mislabeled by the Tavern folk as a simpleton and then a lover, he sings about his plight. This forced communication allows Wirt a small window to assert his desires, leading to his proper identity as “Pilgrim.” This final label grants him comfort, prompting him to take action when he hears Beatrice cry out. The allusion to gluttony in this episode is simple, direct and sparse.
Greg does very little but mentions his hunger, as if his sole role in the episode is to allude to gluttony. Interestingly enough, the counter is covered in extravagant platters but none of the Tavern folk are seen eating. Greg takes advantage of the excessive offerings as if he is the only character allowed to enjoy the food.
Greed: Endicott’s Labyrinthine Mansion
When Dante arrives at the fourth circle of Hell he observes hoarders and lavish spenders pushing giant boulders into one another. Virgil alludes to this, representing their desire for success, pushing along their fortune in life. These troubled souls spend eternity using boulders as weapons to defeat their imaginary rivals. Greed similarly poisons the minds of Quincy Endicott and Margaret Grey.
When Greg and Wirt meet Endicott he is plagued by the uncertainty of whether he is being haunted by a ghost or by his own mental instability. Determined to help, Greg leads Endicott through the deep recesses of his mind and the dark hallways of his mansion to discover the truth. Only to find the root of Endicott’s despair is another greedy soul whose mansion is colliding with his. The millionaire’s mansions thereby functioning as the weapon of their unconscious psychological warfare.
Inspired by his new identity, Wirt objects to Beatrice’s order to steal from Endicott, finally asserting himself. Yet, once again, his fragile willpower causes him to falter, allowing Beatrice to persuade him. In spite of this, they are unable to find any money in the mansion. Instead, Greg is awarded the coins they require to board the fairy to Adelaide. There could be many reasons why Greg throws away the money or none at all. But, for the purpose of this guide, let us assume he finds a reward for his good deeds unnecessary.
Anger: ‘Lullaby In Frogland’
Dante must then cross the River Styx in order to reach the next section. A river full of sullen spirits crying beneath the mud while the angry ones fight each other at the water’s surface. The boys must also voyage across a river in episode six, though it is much more tranquil. This episode marks a transitionary stage for the boys.
Wirt carries blossoming confidence in him, full of hope for their return home. After admitting to his flaws to Beatrice in the previous episode, Wirt’s character traits are validated. That moment was transformative for Beatrice as well, and Wirt later notes the difference in her as being “uncharacteristically wistful.” Once the fairy docks and the frog passengers disembark, they immediately burrow into the mud, sullen and, as the song puts it, “content to be slightly forlorn.”
As frogs before hostile snake all scatter through the water, till each huddles on the ground, I saw more than a thousand destroyed souls flying thus before one who at the ford was passing over the Styx with dry feet.
– Canto IX, Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Once again, Wirt has his will power tested. Sitting by the fire in the mud, we hear Wirt dismiss any responsibility for his lack of communication with his love interest, Sara. He even throws Greg under the bus. Beatrice responded unusually positively, emphasizing Wirt’s newfound identity as a Hero and highlighting the flaws in his tale. Rather than bolster his confidence, Wirt’s weakness crumbles his hopes and leaves him questioning his resolve to return home.
Sins Of Intent
As Dante arrives on the shores of the city of Dis, entering the sixth circle of Hell, he descends into “Nether Hell”. Here, Dante meets the Furies: Megaera (the punisher of oath-breakers), Tisiphone (the punisher of murders) and Alecto (the punisher of moral crimes).
The souls they torture are examples of those condemned to the lower circles. When Greg and Wirt land on similar shores they must face a darker wood home to darker spirits. The characters in these final episodes are well aware of the influence the Beast has over them and their actions.
By the end of ‘Lullaby in Frogland,’ we discover Beatrice’s true motivation. Manipulated into doing Adelaide’s bidding, she has been leading the boys to a life of eternal servitude in order to free herself. However, Adelaide admits her motives were orchestrated by the Beast. Therefore, it may be said that Beatrice was leading them deeper into the Unknown all along.
The beast knows your presence, ready to claim you as part of his dark forest. But only if you give up, keep hardy in both body and spirit, and you shall be safe from him. Fall ill or lose hope and your life shall pass into his crooked hands.
– Woodsman | Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network (2014)
The heretics are found in the sixth circle of Hell, sealed in tombs that rage with fire. Inside are false leaders, who preach messages “contrary to the right reason” alongside their followers. They suffocate for eternity, in the same way that Adelaide suffers when fresh air enters her secluded hovel.
Episode seven, “The Ringing of the Bell,” picks up after the boys escape from Adelaide. Wirt leads Greg into another dangerous situation, fueled by rage and filled with false-confidence and distrust. Wirt is, once again, fooled by a dark spirit disguised as a sweet girl (Lorna). Though Wirt succeeds in freeing these characters from their punitive lifestyle, he is left hopeless, weak-spirited, and directly in the Beast’s crosshairs.
Violence: Surrender To The Forest
Dante classifies the violent deeds represented in the seventh circle of Hell into three descending categories. In the first ring, those who were violent towards others drown for eternity in the boiling blood of their victims. The second ring is home to those who were violent towards themselves, flung at will into the forest and left to grow into a woeful tree ravaged by harpies. Finally, those who blaspheme either walk or lay in burning sand depending on the severity of their blasphemy.
In contrast to Wirt’s despair, Greg begins the eighth episode, ‘Babes in the Wood’, casually reinforcing Wirt’s obligation to find their way home. Wirt’s character regresses into the aloof poet from the first episode, listlessly reciting poetry while accepting of his fate with the Beast. Wirt’s mood weighs heavily on Greg, weakening their remaining beacon of hope. When given the choice, Greg sacrifices himself rather than leave his older brother behind. Wirt wakes up with a new lease on life, determined to save his younger brother.
Fraud: All That Was Lost Is Revealed
Flashback back episode! During the episode, ‘Into the Unknown’ we finally found out how the boys ended up there. All our unanswered questions are resolved: Why are the boys dressed like that? Who made the “Rock Facts” rock? Who is Jason Funderberker? Why does Wirt blame Greg? Just as you might have predicted, Wirt was deflecting his own blame.
The eighth circle of Hell is filled to the brim with fraudulent souls (pimps and seducers, flatterers, barterers, hypocrites, thieves, and falsifiers, to name a few), each with their individual pits of despair. Incidentally, high schoolers cover a lot of these descriptions. On the eve of Halloween, Wirt is manically navigating through the high school experience, and some might even say over exaggerating. Rather than face being mocked by Sara, Wirt sends himself over the edge and over the garden wall, taking Greg with him.
With a train speeding towards them, Wirt and Greg plunge off the top of the hill, barreling down into the dark Unknown. A hill not unlike the mountainous one Dante finds himself ascending at the beginning of Inferno. Hindered by the beast of sin threatening to kill him, Dante is unable to climb the hill of enlightenment to righteousness and turns back to the dark wood. That is when Virgil appears and offers to guide Dante through the Underworld in order to avoid the beasts.
Treachery: True Darkness
At the pit of Hell are the most treacherous souls, being consumed by Satan himself with his three mouths. But episode ten, ‘The Unknown,’ is less about treachery having been committed and more so about illuminating the truth. Rather than leaving his brother behind, Wirt risks his own life to save Greg. He is not fooled by the beast the same way that the Woodsman was. Due to his character development, Wirt is able to see through the obscure words the Beast. When Wirt is then asked to make the important decision, he decisively resolves to return home with Greg by his side.
The final episode plays as more than just a conclusion, but as a culmination of trials and errors. The result is a “coming of age” for many of the characters. Just as the folks Wirt and Greg met in previous episodes, the boys must also come to terms with their flaws. Surprisingly, Wirt excels at this opportunity showing his full growth. Greg unexpectedly admits to his own transgression of stealing Old Lady Daniel’s rock from her yard. Just as well, the Woodsman no longer lives in denial, finally refuting the Beast’s lies and freeing his daughters’ soul from his cold grasp. Lastly, Beatrice redeems herself by admitting her actions turned her and her family into bluebirds. After this, Wirt hands her Adelaide’s scissors to free herself and her family. A happy ending, indeed.
The Unknown: The Loveliest Lies Of All…
A voyage towards redemption, a pilgrimage of wisdom; Over the Garden Wall exceeds all the expectations of a children’s animated series. Each episode has a lot more to unpack, and many more theories to unravel. When asked about fan theories, McHale responded by saying,
“Almost everything that fans have picked up on was something that we considered while making the show […] We often purposefully kept things vague because I wanted people to be able to interpret things in more than one way.”