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Lilliput by Sam Gayton utilizes the foundation of Gulliver’s Travels to tell a Girls Underground story (or perhaps, a reverse GU story, in that the protagonist is taken from her magical world into our more mundane world).
Lily is a tiny Lilliputian, kidnapped by Gulliver and brought back to London to use as proof that his wild tales really happened. She is the equivalent of about 12 years old when she tries to escape. There is sort of a double-adversary situation here – Gulliver is unmoved by Lily’s plight, thinking only of his own, but he rents the attic where he lives from a much worse man, an evil clockmaker who has enslaved his own apprentice, Finn. It is Finn who finds Lily and becomes her companion, each rescuing the other multiple times. Finn and Lily enlist the help of a friendly chocolatier and make a plan to steal Gulliver’s map, free a bird from the clockmaker’s grasp, and fly her home. But a seeming betrayal by one of her companions might ruin everything. Eventually, one of the adversaries becomes an ally. Lily escapes, but she never really definitively defeats the remaining adversary, and she doesn’t do it on her own either, so it lacks that typical satisfying GU finale.
While I’ve mentioned Princess Nevermore by Dian Curtis Regan before on this blog, I realized I never actually profiled it independently, so I’m correcting that now. This book is probably the best example of a “reverse” Girls Underground plot – one where the girl starts off in the magical otherworld and enters the real world – and in this case, the otherworld is specifically underground, so that’s perfect! (Check out the reverse tag for more examples.)
Quinn is Princess of the underground kingdom of Mandria, where all magical creatures live since fleeing our world long ago. Her parents exist but are never seen in the story and seem rather distant. Nearing her 16th birthday, Quinn must soon choose a husband and begin her royal duties – but she would much rather journey to the world above and have adventures. A magical mistake sends her to that world, but traps her there too.
Quinn surfaces near an amusement park called WonderLand (as I’ve noted before, Alice in Wonderland references are very common in GU books), and immediately meets an old man who mysteriously knows about Mandria, and his two grandchildren Sarah and Adam. The teens show her the ways of their world and become her companions to some degree. The adversary in this one is a bit anemic, a jock named Zack who lusts after Quinn and then covets her power once he sees her do some subtle magic.
Eventually Quinn must choose between the wonders of the world above – and her blossoming love for Adam – and the familiar joys of her home underground. She has a final showdown with Zack as he tries to steal her magic, before finally discovering the way back home.
I’ve mentioned the Miyazaki film Kiki’s Delivery Service a couple of times already on this blog, as an example of what I call “reverse Girls Underground” – that is, when the protagonist starts out in an otherworld type setting and travels to the “real world” – but haven’t actually given it its own entry yet. This is because it’s really more of an Honorable Mention, especially since it lacks an adversary; however, it’s still worth talking about.
Kiki is a 13-year-old witch, and it is the custom for young witches to strike out on their own for a year in the rest of the world (where magic is known, but not common). She takes her talking cat Jiji with her, and makes friends with a baker who gives her a room, as well as a young boy Tombo obsessed with flying. She sets herself up as a delivery girl on her flying broom. However, her insecurities about her abilities hit her hard after a bad night, and she loses her magic powers.
When Tombo is in imminent danger due to a dirigible accident, Kiki must quickly overcome her problems and believe in herself in order to save him.
Unlike the original Hans Christian Anderson story, Disney’s 1989 animated movie The Little Mermaid appears to be a Girls Underground story, of the sort I call “reverse” (where the girl starts off in an “otherworld” and comes to our world).
Ariel, 16, is a mermaid dissatisfied with her life in the ocean, who wants to live in the human world. On an excursion to the surface, Ariel saves a prince from drowning and falls in love with him. Desperate to join him, she makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula to become human for three days, in exchange for her voice. She must find true love with the prince in that time, or she will stay a mermaid forever and be at the mercy of her adversary.
While Ariel tries to get the magic kiss from her prince, Ursula disguises herself as a woman and, using Ariel’s voice and some magic, captures the prince’s heart and they are to be married immediately. Ariel’s companions disrupt the wedding and expose Ursula’s fraud. Too late, however, and Ariel is turned back into a mermaid, kidnapped by the thwarted Ursula, and used as a bargaining chip to steal her father’s kingdom.
Ariel has a confrontation with her adversary, although it is actually the prince who defeats her (typical Disney). And of course, her father decides to make Ariel human forever, and she can marry her prince, and everyone lives happily ever after – unlike the original story in every way.
I used to love the movie Supergirl as a child and recently re-watched it. Unfortunately, it does not stand up well over time. However, I did discover it is a Girls Underground story, of the reverse type where the girl comes from someplace magical and enters the mundane world. (Other examples include Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Nevermore, Except the Queen, and the backstory of Pan’s Labyrinth.)
Kara lives in a Kryptonian city isolated in trans-dimensional space. When the power source of the city is accidentally sent out into space, Kara impetuously follows it on its trajectory to Earth in order to locate and return it to her city. Somehow, she magically transforms into Supergirl once arriving on our planet. She assumes the secret identity of Linda Lee when walking amongst people, and befriends a human girl named Lucy.
The power source, however, is first found by the evil Selena and her minion Bianca. Selena uses it to perform magical spells and control people. She tries to enslave a man she desires, but the spell goes awry and he falls for Kara instead. After battling a bit more, Selena manages to send Kara into the Phantom Zone – a desolate land much like an oubliette. But with the help of her old friend Zaltar, she escapes and confronts the witch who has made herself a ruler of Earth. She defeats Selena, sadly leaves her love behind, and brings the power source back to her city.
“And so we met, my spirit guide to this new and awful Eden, and Miss Jamie Oldcourse became the first of my Helpers. For in this new world, one cannot navigate without them; the rules are particular, so peculiar and so dissimilar to the fey’s.”
It’s not a precise example, but I just finished Except the Queen by Midori Snyder and Jane Yolen, and it was interesting enough that I decided it at least deserved a mention here.
Serana and Meteora are fey sisters, banished by the Queen from their home in the Greenwood to separate cities in the mortal world, and immediately thrust into a dangerous situation (unbeknownst to them, initially) – on top of the confusion and danger of trying to adjust to human life. This is both an example of the “reverse Girls Underground” story (where the protagonist starts in what we’d consider the “otherworld” and comes to the mundane, human world), and the rare double-protagonist.
The sisters have companions, including animal ones, and what seems to be an Adversary (though there may be a more threatening one). They have a goal – each to save a wayward young person who ends up in their care. While they have not forgotten themselves, they have lost their former selves in new, very changed bodies. They must expose the truth of the situation and fight the forces that wish to take even more from them.
Even so, it does not quite hit enough points to make it a solid GU example. Nonetheless, it is a great read, an interesting format (with point of view shifting between the sisters, with occasional glimpses into the lives of the other players), and delightful in the details of fey creatures adapting to our world.
Aside from simply being a masterful story and stunning visual experience, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a significant Girls Underground example.
In a way, it’s two versions of the archetype in one, mirroring each other. We infer from the beginning that Ofelia is really Something More, a return of the princess Moanna, who lived in an underground realm. Moanna was sort of a reverse GU, going from otherworld to this world (there are a few other examples of this, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Nevermore). Having lost her knowledge and memory of herself (as many Girls Underground do at some point), she sickened and died, leaving her father to wait for her return in some other form.
Now, Ofelia is living in post-Civil War Spain, moving with her pregnant mother to the estate of her new stepfather, a vicious man. Her mother is not well, and the adults are all busy, so Ofelia is able to explore a little on her own, and one night an insect-turned-fairy guides her to a spiral staircase (at the center of a maze) leading down to a strange place. There she meets the Faun, who tells her of Moanna and gives her three dangerous tasks to complete to prove her “essence” is intact (which must be completed before the full moon, thereby giving the sense of urgency that many of these stories have).
Tiny fairies assist her now and then throughout her journeys, although some pay the price for her foolishness when she disobeys instructions and eats the food on the Pale Man’s table (hearkening back to common folklore that one should never eat the food in Faeryland). In most ways, her stepfather the Captain is the adversary, as he is cruel and violent and may keep her from her tasks. But at times it also seems as if the Faun himself is opposing her, especially when she does not act correctly.
Ofelia does not go all the way into the otherworld like most Girls Underground do, but rather straddles the divide, going back and forth as necessary to complete her tasks. The worlds bleed into each other – the giant toad with a special key lives in a tree just beyond where she lives; the Pale Man’s realm is accessed via a chalk-drawn door on her wall; her mother may be healed by a special mandrake root the Faun gives her. Magic is all around, and the only truly otherworld is the one that she (as Moanna) originally came from and may return to.
SPOILERS In the end, fleeing from her angry stepfather, Ofelia takes her newborn baby brother into the labyrinth, at the urging of the Faun. There she is told that the baby’s blood is needed to open the portal to the otherworld she came from, where she can be reunited with her true family. But she refuses, proving herself worthy. Instead, she is killed by her adversary (the most violent final showdown I think I’ve seen so far in these examples), which releases her spirit to return to her former self. And so the girl who was originally from the underground, comes back to her true home.