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The new movie Gretel & Hansel is, of course, based on the fairytale, but as the re-ordering of the name shows, it places Gretel in a more prominent position and ends up being more of a GU example by far than the original tale.

Teenaged Gretel and her younger brother Hansel are cast out by their half-mad mother (their father already dead), and set off into the forest. Along the way they eat some mushrooms* and spend some time without cares. In the search for a means of survival, they end up at the house of a strange old woman (Holda, a name taken from another German fairytale) whose table is always mysteriously laid with abundant food. They decide to stay with her for a while, and Gretel becomes a sort of apprentice in herbcraft and other arts, while Holda begins to reveal that they are more alike than expected, and encourages Gretel to embrace her inner witch (therefore adding a “temptation by the Adversary” element). But when Hansel goes missing, Gretel rejects everything in favor of saving him (and ends up saving the souls of other lost children as well). She discovers Holda’s true nature, along with the truth about that food she’s been eating (it’s not good news). She defeats the witch, but in the end she may be becoming an adversary herself after all.

While I loved the visuals and a few of the ideas, ultimately I found this movie to be disappointing – a rather weird backstory that didn’t make much sense to me, an off-putting voiceover by Gretel now and then, and too much style over substance. But, I find it fascinating that when people elaborate on the older stories that formed the foundation of the GU archetype, they end up adding elements to make them more fully part of that archetype, possibly without even realizing it.

*The mushrooms, of course, are fly agaric, although they are strangely unrealistic in their appearance. Like so many other media representations, however, this one fails to accurately portray anything about such mushrooms, including how they must be prepared to become psychoactive and not just nauseating (pro tip – do not eat them raw!). For more about fly agaric, see my blog Raven’s Bread.

“No matter who I couldn’t save before, no matter if I’m stuck being a random mess of a girl, I’m still going to save something.”

Two great ones in a row! Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter is a creative and powerful reimagining of the Russian fairytale “Vasilissa the Beautiful” (which I am belatedly adding mention of to the Fairytales page). At first I thought the modernization might be overly clever and verging on silly – Baba Yaga running a chicken-footed convenience store in Brooklyn, beheading shoplifters – but was completely won over by the genuine understanding of the initiatory themes involved.

Vassa, 16 (the titular girl), essentially an orphan (her father ran out in a rather unique way), lives with her stepsisters and a magical talking doll, in a neighborhood where nighttime has gone strange, each night lasting longer than the last. After a fight with her stepsister, she impulsively risks shopping at the aforementioned store. She manages to avoid the axe, but gets stuck in a perilous arrangement with the old witch shopkeeper, where she must complete a series of impossible tasks over three long nights. Running away will transform her into a swan, but staying might get her killed. In the midst of this, she encounters several entities that need her help, all trapped or hurt in some way by the witch. There is a junk room, and a possible companion betrayal, and a brief interaction with “things from home” in the midst of the adventure. The adversary’s minions are severed, animated hands. There manage to be moments of genuinely disturbing imagery along with rather funny parts – if you like gallows humor – and some truly beautiful and tragic characters.

But what really makes an impact is the slowly unfolding transformation, on an emotional level, that Vassa undergoes throughout her trials. As we see flashbacks to parts of her past (even those parts unknown to her), and gain insights into her various magical companions, we gain a deeper understanding of her journey and the sacrifices she must make. While the Girl Underground does not really defeat her Adversary alone as is usually important, I thought this was effective and special enough to qualify nonetheless.

61QdcwjDd8L._SL160_When I read the blurb on the cover of Mercedes Lackey’s The Gates of Sleep, I recognized the general outline of a GU story, but didn’t realize that it would be a re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty tale – which is interesting because the original fairytale isn’t really a GU prototype like many others. This mostly comes down to an issue of volition and confrontation of the adversary – the fairytale protagonist is merely rescued by a prince, whereas Lackey’s character Marina must fight on her own.

Marina comes from a family of Elemental Mages, and she herself has an affinity for the powers and spirits of Water. At her christening, her wicked aunt curses her, and to protect her she is sent away by her parents, to live with their magician/artist friends. She learns magic, but nothing of her own history. As she nears her eighteenth birthday (the deadline of the curse), events occur to force her into the control of her aunt, and she is thrust into a new and unwanted life. Along the way, she makes allies amongst the servants and villagers, and uncovers a larger evil being perpetrated by her aunt and cousin. (As well as, of course, falling in love.) When her aunt finally makes her move, Marina’s friends can help, but she must face her aunt alone in a final, magical battle.

I mentioned in a previous post how a certain book (Fablehaven) would have been a better example of a Girls Underground story if the girl had been the main protagonist, instead of sharing that with her brother. In fact, there are several stories which would be GU if only the girl in them were the primary protagonist. Here are just a few, briefly:

Peter Pan. When looked at from Wendy’s perspective, it really fits. She is whisked away to another world because she chooses to follow a mysterious boy for the sake of adventure. She confronts an evil pirate king and his minions. Her companions are the lost boys. There is even an interesting side note that correlates with the “returns to home or encounters things from home” aspect – in the stage play, it is traditional for the same actor to play Wendy’s father as plays Captain Hook.

Hansel and Gretel. Like Fablehaven, the spotlight is shared by both a brother and sister. But it is Gretel who eventually faces off against the witch adversary and defeats her, alone. If she were the star, one could view Hansel as her companion.

The Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy is the first one to discover the portal to the otherworld in the first book, and she is just about the right age too. She befriends the faun immediately. Her siblings become her companions, as well as other creatures of Narnia. The White Witch is the adversary (although Lucy does not defeat her alone). Her goal, along with the others, is to save the whole land.

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.

The Oracle

THE GIRLS UNDERGROUND STORY ORACLE - tapping into the Power of Story for guidance and insight. Learn more here.

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.


  • 243,889 journeys underground

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