51nVwl5yBWL._SL160_Raven Speak by Diane Lee Wilson is set in ancient Norway, during a winter with no end. Asa’s clan is dying of disease and starvation. Her father, the chieftain, has sailed off in search of food, and her mother is almost dead, so it is up to her to save her people. But she is opposed by the evil clan skald, Jorgen, who seeks power for himself.

When Jorgen attacks Asa and her beloved horse, they flee along the fjords until they meet an old wisewoman. Asa cannot tell if Wenda is ultimately her friend or another foe, for the one-eyed woman is strange and moody, and she speaks to two ravens as if they were people. But eventually, she decides to leave Wenda’s cave and return to her clan to face her adversary. They have a violent altercation, but Asa’s triumph is not the end of her troubles, for a much worse ordeal lays ahead, and a sacrifice she must make for the well-being of her clan.

Not perhaps a true GU story, as she doesn’t journey far, the adversary is almost a tangential plotline, and her non-talking horse is her only companion, but a gripping book with a strong heroine that is worth reading.

“Deliberately undertaken physical journeys into and back from an underground locale are apparent in a significant number of often highly celebrated works for young readers, and undergrounds as backdrops, other forms of subterranean journey, and more metaphorical forms of katabasis*, are present in many more.”

Came across an interesting book recently – Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature by Kiera Vaclavik. I read it hoping that it would cover some Girls Underground territory, but unfortunately there wasn’t much overlap, other than the inclusion of Alice in Wonderland. Vaclavik’s scope is somewhat too narrow for my interests – comparing a small selection of stories from the 19th century or earlier to the classic narratives of the Odyssey, Aeneid and Inferno. When, during a discussion of gender, she finally looks at the differences in the stories featuring specifically female protagonists (which fall under the fantasy/fairytale heading rather than adventure), the verdict is relatively grim. The girls still require courage and strength for their journeys, but they almost always set out on instruction from others, and exhibit passivity throughout (the notable exception being Alice herself). And, only young girls seem suitable for such stories, not older ones. But, at least they exist, considering the culture in which such stories were written.

“Always young and often dreaming, the female travellers are largely passive and their behaviour circumscribed. Nevertheless, to cast female figures in such a role at all is remarkable, and, given that adult literature would lag far behind in this respect, fantasy for young readers can be regarded as a privileged space in which to reconfigure or at least to rethink the gender roles and relations of traditional katabatic narratives.”

It would be interesting to see what Vaclavik would make of the many Girls Underground examples from more recent children’s and young adult literature. As my exhaustive coverage has shown, modern Girls Underground most definitely exhibit volition in their adventures – and indeed, can be any age. The one such example she does touch upon – the Philip Pullman series His Dark Materials – has been mentioned here already.

*A katabasis is a journey to the underworld or underground. 

51IUI0PlvyL._SL160_Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers is a cute little GU story set in the early days of the 20th century, that appears to be the first of a series of similar tales.

The eponymous heroine is Theodosia Throckmorton, 11, whose parents work for a museum and specialize in Egyptian antiquities – to the point where they almost entirely neglect her. What they don’t know is that Theo can sense – and remove – all the evil curses that linger on the artifacts. When her mother brings back a particularly powerful item, Theo must battle not only the dark magic, but the powerful men who are trying to use it for their own wicked ends. The fate of Britain, and perhaps the world, is at stake.

She is helped by her younger brother, home from boarding school for vacation, and a cunning pickpocket boy she meets at the train station. Together they steal back the stolen artifact from the adversary and his minions, and Theo stows away to Egypt to return it to its tomb. She is pursued by the adversary, and at the crucial moment manages to thwart him alone.

51KsX9IMTeL._SL160_Winterfrost by Michelle Houts is a lovely little GU story, although there isn’t a very formidable adversary. Still, it has the classic “search for baby sibling” feature, which is of course a big part of the original inspiration for Girls Underground – Labyrinth – and even one of its original inspirations, Outside Over There.

Bettina, 12, lives in Denmark with her parents and baby sister Pia. Unbeknownst to them, their barn is occupied by a nisse, a magical tiny creature who helps care for the family and animals. When the family gets bad news during Christmas, they neglect to leave the customary gift for their nisse, who gets upset at the slight. Bettina’s parents leave for a week, and she is left to care for Pia alone – but the nisse takes the baby to the forest. Bettina goes searching for her, only to find that Pia was stolen again, by another nisse who may be more dangerous (he qualifies as the adversary, but only just). Bettina meets the other nisse of the forest, and goes underground into their home (becoming temporarily tiny herself), enlisting several of them as companions to help her.

She travels to confront the nisse who stole her sister, growing and shrinking several times along the way, just like Alice. At first the adversary gives her a task to complete, but eventually she wins her sister back, and even helps the unhappy nisse reconcile with his family (one of the few times I’ve seen the girl help the adversary rather than defeat him).

41QC-u7HTUL._SL160_I just watched Mr. Frost for the first time – somehow I missed this 1990 gem with Jeff Goldblum, who I love, and had to track it down on Youtube. Partway through it occurred to me that it was probably a GU story (which it is, although I’m only considering it an Honorable Mention since it’s missing a lot of the finer details).

Mr. Frost is clearly the adversary, a man who may or may not be the devil himself. He volunteers a confession to some brutal murders but then immediately falls silent, and is eventually put in a mental asylum, where he meets Dr. Sarah Day. Frost will only speak to Day, and tells her that he plans to goad her into killing him. She treats him like a mental patient, obviously, even though the detective who arrested him (her companion in this sense) keeps warning her that Frost is truly evil.

After several displays of his power, Day is gradually convinced that Frost is indeed the devil and that she must murder him to save others. But when she does, it appears to open the door in turn for her to become possessed by the devil. While she “wins” in the sense of defeating the adversary, she ultimately loses – like some other thriller/horror GU stories, such as The DarkIn Dreams and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

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“Know your own self and do what you know you must do, and stop no one from doing what they must do, understand?”

Over time I’ve gotten a feel for GU books – even when the description doesn’t seem quite spot-on, I know when to give it a chance. And I’m so glad I did with this one! Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea didn’t appear to have an adversary at first, which is a crucial element of the GU archetype, but in fact it was just a slow reveal. But even if it hadn’t ended up qualifying, I would have been happy I picked it up, because this book cut deep. Like many such stories, it is set in our world but with an overlay of magical elements – but this is the real world, gritty and painful, and even the magical parts are harsh.

Sophie, 13, lives in Chelsea, a poor and dirty city on the outskirts of Boston. Her father is gone and her mother is overworked and distant. With nothing better to do, she starts playing “the passing out game” with her best friend, taking turns forcing themselves into unconsciousness. But far from merely a quick thrill, Sophie’s game seems to awaken something in her, and starts producing visions of a mermaid (the dark, folklore kind, not the Disney kind) living in the creek. Then she begins noticing that she can go into other people’s minds and hearts, feeling what they feel (which, given the despair hanging over everyone there, is not much fun). As it turns out, Sophie is the fulfillment of a legend that has permeated the Polish immigrant families of Chelsea for decades – that a girl would come to save them all, a girl who could take away the pollution of their city and their hearts, and she would be recognized by her ability to eat vast quantities of salt. There is nothing Sophie loves more than salt.

Sophie accumulates a few companions who know what’s going on, including a flock of pigeons that she can talk to. She is guided by a wise old woman. She begins to learn of her gift. But at the same time, she must evade the adversary, who it turns out has been in her life all along (I won’t put a spoiler here). This adversary has hurt Sophie’s family, stolen something close to her, and still tries to sway Sophie to their side. But Sophie turns away and decides to pursue her destiny by following the mermaid back to the old country, where she can learn to harness her power.

Although there is no final confrontation (since the story continues in a planned trilogy), this is still a solid GU plot. I love the inclusion of Polish mythology – the Poludnitsa, Rusalka, etc. And I appreciate the setting, too, showing that magic is not always pretty, and that it can be found everywhere, even in the most unpleasant places.

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“Believing in yourself and your magic is half the battle.”

I picked up The Courage of Cat Campbell by Natasha Lowe figuring it might be a GU book because of the genre (intermediate fantasy) combined with the girl’s name in the title, and I was right. This is pretty light fare, with an adversary that is rather easily defeated – it’s mostly about learning to believe in yourself, which while somewhat cliché, is definitely a common GU theme.

Cat, who I think is 11 or 12, lives in a world where some people are natural witches, and the lucky ones go to train at a special witch school. Cat has always wanted this destiny, but did not appear to have inherited the gift from her witchy mother (who due to past events hates all magic). One day she discovers that she is a Late Bloomer and has powers after all, but she cannot control them well. Rejected by the school, and told by her mother to forget about becoming a witch, Cat sets out to prove herself in a dangerous way. A notoriously evil witch has escaped prison and Cat decides to capture her, with a little help from her companion Peter (who briefly gets turned into a guinea pig for his troubles).

SPOILERS Amazingly, it works, and Cat discovers that the evil witch was just sad all along, forced to be a witch when she wanted to be a singer, which created so much rage she hurt people. The “adversary” is willingly taken back to jail, but happy now, Cat’s mother comes around to her daughter’s new destiny, and Cat gets into the school and makes a life for herself as a witch, happily ever after.

“Don’t let fear stand in your way.”

5110YtNnG7L._SL160_Well, I am pretty sure that Jupiter Ascending is a GU film, although it was a bit hard to figure out what was going on in this mess of a movie.

Jupiter, a young woman whose father is dead and mother is somewhat distant, suddenly goes from drudgery to royalty when she discovers that she is the incarnation of some sort of galactic queen. Unfortunately, her new position also comes with a host of aliens trying to kill her, because she will inherit the planet Earth and ruin plans to harvest humans in order to make a youth serum to keep the ruling classes immortal. The adversary is Balem, intent on taking control of Earth for profit. Her companion is Caine, sent by Balem’s brother Titus to rescue her – sort of, although Titus ends up being a secondary adversary and Caine must defy him to keep helping Jupiter. Like many Girls Underground, Jupiter just wants to go home… which is kind of ridiculous in this case, since the entire fate of the Earth rests in her hands. She also wants to rescue her family, who Balem has kidnapped.

There is a betrayal by one of her companions. There is a temporary return home. There is a final face off with the adversary. Jupiter gets to go home and have a normal life (which she prefers for some reason), with her family rescued, and she gets the guy.

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“I take your tears. Forget them. They are mine.”

Darkbeast (and its sequel, Darkbeast Rebellion) by Morgan Keyes is really only an honorable mention at best as far as the Girls Underground archetype is concerned, but I enjoyed the books enough to want to include them here.

Keara lives in a medieval-type society, where children are assigned a darkbeast at birth – a black-colored animal (usually something supposedly unpleasant like a rat or spider or snake) that is magically bound to them. Their darkbeast can communicate with them telepathically, but its main function is as a sort of sin-eater. When the child is too full of anger, or jealousy, or impatience, or any other negative emotion, the darkbeast can lift it from their hearts, at least temporarily. This actually feels wonderful, and yet the children usually hate their darkbeasts, and when they turn 12 (the age of adulthood in their culture) they are required to kill them in a ritual dedicated to the god of beasts.

Keara defies tradition and refuses to kill her darkbeast, a raven named Caw. Forced to flee  her village in fear of the repercussions of her act, she joins a travelling band of actors and gains a few companions. But there is a betrayal, and she is given up…. only to discover that she is not the only person who has spared their darkbeast.

There isn’t a real adversary in this story – she hides from the dreaded Inquisitors, but no single one emerges for her to confront and defeat. And there is no dramatic change at the end, she simply finds a place where she belongs. But nonetheless, it’s worth reading, and I loved the relationship she developed with Caw especially, who is wise and thoughtful but also still a raven at heart, always hoping for another treat.

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“How about telling me what’s going on?” / “In a minute, Mom, I have to save the world first.”

Island of Lost Souls is a solid Danish fantasy film that turns out to also be a classic GU plot.

Lulu, 14, has moved to a new town with her mother and brother, and is bored and dissatisfied. Interested in spiritual things, she uses a ouija board to summon any nearby spirits, and accidentally raises a ghost who occupies her brother’s body. With the help of a neighbor boy and an adult expert on psychic phenomena, Lulu begins to uncover a much bigger story behind her misfortune. In the 19th century, an evil necromancer was subdued by a lodge of good magicians, but he has returned and is collecting dead souls in bottles for use in his magic. One of those souls was diverted by Lulu’s ouija ritual, and was one of the original good guys who must now figure out how to defeat the necromancer for good (while in the body of a child).

Lulu travels to the necromancer’s lair on Monk Island and frees the souls, but causes more trouble as they randomly possess all the people in her town. She and her companions are pursued by an animated scarecrow who is the minion of the adversary. She barely escapes the necromancer and returns home briefly – but he steals her mother and brother and she must go back to the island to rescue them.

Lulu’s final confrontation with her adversary not only defeats him, but draws on a hidden magical power she didn’t know about, revealing her to be greater than she knew.

“The traffic flow from folklore to fiction and film has always been heavy.” - Maria Tatar, Secrets Beyond the Door

An exploration of story…

In which I describe examples of the Girls Underground archetype that I have discovered in literature and film. For more information regarding the concept, including its earlier incarnations in fairytales and mythology, visit the pages linked above. Here is a list of all the examples I have covered thus far.

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Alice Days

Celebrate one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground - Alice in Wonderland - with a holiday down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass! Check out the Alice Days page for party ideas, movie recommendations, and more.

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