“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.