“As to where we’re going…you might call it going down. Or up, depending on your perspective.”

The Water and the Wild by K. E. Ormsbee is a pretty satisfyingly classic GU story – once again, I find myself wondering how aware these authors are of the archetype (not likely by name, per se, but even subconsciously).

Lottie, 12, is an orphan with an unpleasant guardian and only one friend in the world – Eliot, a sickly boy whose health is taking a severe turn for the worse. For years she has been receiving mysterious letters and gifts in a box hidden under the apple tree in her courtyard, and she sends her latest wish (for Eliot’s health) there as well. Shortly after, she is approached by a fae girl who alludes to a possible cure for all illness, and invites Lottie on a strange journey inside her apple tree (down through the roots and back up again) and into another world.

Lottie finds herself in a parallel fairy (or “sprite”) world, filled with conflict. She discovers she is a child of both worlds, and that there are tales of someone from her family line reclaiming the throne there. Because of this, the Southerly King is after her. She quickly acquires some sprite children as companions, and they all take a perilous journey to the court of the King to plead for the children’s captured father (a great healer, and Lottie’s only hope). They face many dangers, including a swamp of oblivion (forgetting herself). And – always a crushing blow – there is a betrayal, or appears to be.

Lottie finally comes face to face with the King, and his evil minion, and thwarts them both. Then she finds out she has an even greater power than she ever could have believed.

I don’t play video games, but fortunately an astute reader of this blog recently alerted me to the game Little Nightmares as a possible GU story, and from what I’ve read, it seems to fit. Set in a labyrinthine place below (if not actually underground), female adversary for younger girl, adversary’s minions, no parents, final showdown with adversary, and even the rare ending where the girl becomes an adversary-type creature herself. The only thing it seems to be missing are companions. The following plot description is abridged from Wikipedia, and contains spoilers:

A nine-year-old hungry girl named Six is trapped in The Maw – a surreal resort catering to the whims of sick and powerful creatures. After waking up in the lower depths of the Maw, Six decides to escape the harsh confines, having regular moments of insatiable hunger. Whilst ascending, she soon becomes stalked by the long-armed blind Janitor of the Maw….After evading the Janitor by cutting off his arms via a door, Six follows the conveyor belt upward, to a large kitchen operated by the grotesque Twin Chefs….After managing to evade them, she manages to find a way out, but finds that the entire Maw is covered by a large ocean.

Six observes a boat ferrying large and obese suited Guests, who lumber to the Japanese-style dining area of the Maw, overseen by the Lady, the supposed leader of the Maw….Six makes her way further upwards, entering the Lady’s quarters. The Lady lives very lavishly in an elegant home, with many broken mirrors throughout the rooms. Chased by the Lady, who displays magical powers, Six finds a mirror that she uses against the Lady in a battle. Defeating her, Six approaches the Lady and eats her; in which she gains the Lady’s powers.

Going downstairs to the dining area, Six walks along the tables with strange black particles swirling around her. As the Guests notice her presence, they attempt to eat her, but suddenly convulse and die as Six walks on. Six approaches a large door with an eye encrusted upon it, revealing a large staircase leading to the outside world. 

Dig Two Graves was unfortunately less creepy and supernatural than the trailer made it seem, but nonetheless it’s at least an Honorable Mention as a Girls Underground story.

Jake, a young teenage girl, loses her brother when they decide to jump off a high cliff into a quarry, and she hesitates at the last minute – he jumps without her, and disappears into the water forever. Her parents seem to quickly move on, distracted by a new baby on the way, so it is up to Jake to seek a way to get her brother back from the dead. One day she is approached by some strange, anachronistically-dressed men (led by one who might be called the adversary) at the entrance to a tunnel, who promise they can bring her brother back, provided someone is sacrificed in his place. She then must decide if she can bear to push a school friend off the cliff.

Like Forbidden Game, it turns out that a lot of what is going on had its start with something her grandfather was involved in many years before, coming back to haunt them all. Unfortunately as far as the GU archetype goes, it is largely the grandfather and not Jake who deals with, and ultimately defeats, the adversary.

The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon is another great children’s fantasy book from the late 60’s, like The Gruesome Green Witch and A Walk Out of the World, albeit only an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes.

Jonk (short for Jonquil, one of the more interesting GU names I’ve come across) wanders off from a school trip in the “backlands” one day and stumbles across a strange artifact and a Green Man figure embedded in the landscape. She is chased by a black dog and rescued by a mysterious woman named Elizabeth. Jonk and her two male companions learn more about the legend of the Green Man and are pursued by terrifying leather-skinned men when they seek out Elizabeth, who tells them the story of an ancient fight against an evil warlord who is trying to rise again. Jonk and her friends must hide the artifact from the adversary, but at least they get one big perk – magical devices from Elizabeth that allow them to fly! In the end, Jonk does end up facing off against the warlord one on one and thwarts his return.

Technically, I suppose this book fulfills many of the key plot points of a Girls Underground story, but ultimately something feels missing and it doesn’t quite fit the classic pattern. Perhaps it’s the lack of any meaningful interaction between Jonk and the adversary (he never even gets a chance to speak), the absence of a transition into another world, and her normal home life.

I just had a chance to watch the independent film American Fable, and while it’s not quite the classic GU story, it hits enough points (and the general tone) to warrant an Honorable Mention here. It is perhaps a less fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth, or a less grim Tideland, both of which have been covered here previously, and both of which feature an innocent and story-obsessed girl caught up in the harsh world of adults. The fantasy and dreamlike elements could have been turned up a notch in my opinion, though they were very well done.

11 year old Gitty lives with her family on their farm, her only friend a beloved chicken. While she is close with her father, her parents are both nonetheless distracted by the possibility of losing their farm, and some other intrigue she doesn’t understand. One day Gitty stumbles upon a man who appears to be being held prisoner in their old grain silo – although she intuits that her family has something to do with it, she eventually befriends the man, even going so far as to descend into the silo to spend time with him (not quite underground, but a journey down at least). In a way, everyone is a potential adversary for Gitty – the man himself, who turns out to be a threat to her family, her own parents who are hiding things from her, the strange woman they seem to be colluding with, and possibly most of all her older brother, who ends up in a final, violent confrontation with her when he discovers she’s been fraternizing with the enemy. The imprisoned man could also be seen as her companion, and/or the one she is trying to rescue in classic GU style.

Gitty sees the world through the lens of stories (The Power of Story), making sense of what she experiences by relating it to the tales she knows well. And so what is on the one hand a mundane situation – a farm being threatened by economic failure and the response of desperate people – becomes a fairy tale from a different angle, surreal and moving in its telling.

A GUIDE FOR YOUNG LADIES ENTERING THE SERVICE OF THE FAIRIES by Rosamund Hodge

(It’s all true.)

crookedmirrorsKingdom of Crooked Mirrors (listed on Amazon Video as World of Crooked Mirrors) is a wonderful Russian allegorical fantasy film drawing heavily on Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Olya is a little girl living with her grandmother (so, presumably an orphan). When her cat dashes right through the mirror to another world, Olya naturally jumps in right after it (like any good Girl Underground). She meets her reflection Yalo (everyone living there has backwards names) who becomes her companion. Together they chase after their cats, but end up befriending a young mirror maker. This boy is imprisoned by evil leaders for the crime of making mirrors that actually reflect reality, rather than the warped mirrors that the government prefers.

Olya and her reflection must rescue the boy and defeat the evil Reptile, Toad and Kite adversaries, and return the mirrors in the kingdom to their proper function. They are helped by a kind chef, and Olya encounters doubles of things in her normal life (such as the King being named the reverse of the word for “parrot”, a bird belonging to her grandmother). The whole production is delightfully Carrollian with obvious political overtones.

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“What she didn’t know was that adventures are never neat little affairs like a trip to the amusement park, from which you emerge tired but unaltered. They are messy. They are dangerous. They are hungry, and what they take from you can never be recovered.”

The Key & the Flame by Claire M. Caterer unfortunately just didn’t ever really engage me in all of its 470 pages. It was a relatively by-the-book Girls Underground story, though. Holly, 11, has a boring life and yearns for adventure. Her family moves to England for a few months in the summer, and their house’s caretaker gives Holly a mysterious key which opens a door in a tree into another world. Holly is accompanied by her little brother Ben and their neighbor Everett, both of whom get captured immediately, and Holly must find a way to rescue them and return them all home.

She is helped along the way by several magical creatures from that realm, who are hoping she can help them in return, to fight against the anti-magic royalty. Theoretically the prince is the adversary, although a greater, evil adversary is hinted at – but Holly only interacts with him at the very end, and even then it’s more of an escape than a true confrontation or defeat. She does have a partial betrayal by a companion, and distracted parents, and the risk of losing herself, and guidance from an old wise woman. But even Holly seems to know at the end that, even with all her adventures, she didn’t really accomplish anything in that otherworld – she may have even caused more harm than good to the magical creatures there. So it wasn’t a particularly satisfying end for a Girl Underground.

61tdcxatixl-_sl160_I Hate Fairyland by Skottie Young is a fantastic, sarcastic send-up of some of the fluffier tropes related to the Girls Underground story, especially the idea that fairyland is a fun, light-hearted place just waiting to welcome a young girl on an adventure.

Gertrude was 10 years old and wished to go to fairyland, and her wish was granted – she plummeted into the depths of a magic portal (going underground, it seems) and arrived beaten and bruised. She immediately set off on a quest to find the key to return home, accompanied by a guide given to her by the Queen of Fairyland. But 27 years later, she still hasn’t found it. And while her body has stayed young, her mind has aged normally, and she is not impressed with the frippery of this magical country and is really ready to get out of there.

SPOILERS While Gertrude battles every creature she encounters in a bloody path toward her key, the Queen is getting sick of this miscreant and trying to find a loophole to the rule that she cannot kill a guest of Fairyland – making her the adversary, but a somewhat understandable one. Eventually, Gertrude allies with a dark lord to acquire enough power to get the key, but at the last minute, just before opening the door, she decides it would be fun to kill the Queen on her way out. She easily defeats this adversary, but with a very unpleasant side effect – by law, she now cannot go home and must become the new Queen instead. And so, like a much, much grumpier version of Alice in Looking-glass Land, she puts on the crown.

(This is the first graphic novel in a series, and I do not yet know if the rest of them will continue the GU theme.)

51t3lj1pz-l-_sl160_I was excited for The Door by Andy Marino because the title so nicely alludes to “portal” part of Portal-Quest Fantasy (of which Girls Underground is an example), however it turned out to only be an Honorable Mention and – while interesting and ambitious – was ultimately disappointing.

Hannah, 12, lives with her widowed mother next to a remote lighthouse. Her inner world is complex and somewhat dysfunctional, in that she talks to people in her head and is crippled by certain OCD tendencies (which was an interesting and unique aspect for a protagonist, though it’s not fully explored). One day strangers visit, and events compel her mother to reveal that their family has a sacred duty – they guard the door to the city of the dead, a vast otherworld where all souls go after death. When her mother is murdered, Hannah goes through the forbidden door to rescue her.

In the city of the dead, Hannah’s “imaginary” inner people materialize before her, and become her companions, along with a couple dead souls who help her. She must avoid the ominous Watchers who patrol the city, and she has conflict with those who have betrayed her – but there is never really a firm Adversary working against her. She does start to forget herself, and the details of her life (a consequence of being in the land of the dead) but that is remedied. The city and its inhabitants are creatively imagined and described, but that’s not quite enough to sustain the book.

While Hannah manages to find her mother, and even her long lost father, and there are some tantalizing hints that she’s been to this otherworld before somehow, nothing is explained in the end, her final test is rather anticlimactic, and the resolution is vague and unsatisfying.

“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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