Hey Allie, I had a question, but it was too long to fit in an ask.
So, I’m writing an essay on Over the Garden Wall for one of my college classes, and in looking at Wirt’s character, one of the things I discussed was that his arch is not learning to love Greg. One of my points for this being that if this were Wirt’s arch, the climax doesn’t make sense. If Wirt needed to learn to love Greg, then sacrificing himself by becoming the lantern bearer would be the natural conclusion. Then I realized, that that is in fact the Woodsman’s arch! He sacrifices himself out of love to save his daughter. But rather than being a hero in the story, he’s more of a cautionary warning. It’s his sacrifice that has kept the lantern lit, requiring more edlewood trees, and keeping the Beast alive. Wirt points out that this is dumb, but rather than blow out the lantern himself, he hands it back to the Woodsman, saying “I’ve got my own problems.” As the Woodsman told them at the beginning the lantern is his “burden to bear.” Thus, it’s his responsibility to blow out the lantern, not Wirt’s.
Am I way off base? Did that make sense? Do you have any further thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think about how the climax went down!
This makes a lot of sense–I love your observation that an arc about learning to love Greg might have ended more naturally in a decision to take the lantern!
I agree with you that his arc isn’t about learning to “love” Greg–if by “love” we mean what we usually mean in the context of a familial relationship, i.e. affection. Wirt clashes with Greg a great deal, he expresses constant frustration with him, he even thinks his life would have been better if Greg had never been born, and yet the love is paradoxically there–maybe you have to actually have a sibling to see it clearly, but I always think of the banter between them at the end of “The Old Grist Mill”, when Greg abandons his original intention to call their frog “Kitty” and decides he’s going to call it “Wirt”:
Wirt: That’s gonna be really confusing. Greg: No, I’m gonna call you “Kitty.” Wirt: What? Maybe I’ll start calling you “Candypants.”
(For all you only kids out there, that means “I love you” in sibling. Trust me, I’ve made a twenty-year study.)
But fondness isn’t enough. Wirt’s journey, I think, isn’t about love but about responsibility: about shouldering the burden that’s appropriate for him, and that burden consists of both himself and his younger brother. He ended up in the Unknown because he was afraid to take responsibility for his own actions and ran from the consequences, proceeding to spend the rest of the show blaming Greg for everything that had gone wrong. It’s far easier for Wirt to perceive himself as a victim and to blame outside circumstances for everything that happens to him than it is for him to admit that he acted, that he did something to influence the world around him, for better or for worse. There comes a time when carrying himself becomes too much for him, let alone the extra weight of the younger sibling, and at that point he shrugs off the heaviness of being “captain” and lies down in the woods to die.
When Wirt faces the Beast, he’s offered a choice that appears loving, even selfless: make up for what you’ve done to your brother by taking up the burden of the lantern and keeping his soul alive. But at this point it’s important to remember that Greg isn’t dead yet. Taking the lantern would be easier for Wirt: it’s his most persistent and damaging impulse, to quit while he’s ahead, to refuse to take the risk. By accepting the lantern, he could alleviate the guilt he feels about landing Greg in the Unknown, while ridding himself of the terrible task of saving his own life and his brother’s–forever. He could be the eternal victim–it’s a role he’s used to. And, fleetingly, it appears to be the only option. The Beast isn’t extending a viable alternative.
That’s why Wirt has to carve the path home out for himself. Accepting the lantern might feel better for him,but it’s not what’s best for Greg–it would only preserve him by killing him.Rather than check out of the game altogether and, in recompense, maintain some semblance of his brother in some vague state of undeath or suspended animation, Wirt finally takes on the responsibility he’s evaded all this time: it’s all or nothing. He got them into this mess, so he’ll get them out of it. “My brother and I are going home.”
I appreciate the way you connect the Woodsman’s initial summation of responsibilities in “The Old Grist Mill” (he not only refers to the lantern as his own burden, but tells Wirt that as the “elder brother” he’s responsible for both himself and Greg) with Wirt’s leaving the lantern with the Woodsman at the end. He’s finally caught on, hasn’t he? My brother IS my problem; this one’s yours.