So, gardens in stories. It’s pretty fantastic to work with. Of course, I’ll tell you why. The garden is a place where you can go to chill out without worry of being eaten by a bear – Because when you go into the woods, traipse about the forest or the jungle, there’s always an expected element of danger. That’s not to say a garden can’t be dangerous.
In the stop-motion film Coraline, the Other Garden in the Other World is at first quirky and enchanting, designed to draw Coraline into a world of curiosities and wonder. It later becomes a perilous place, when Coraline challenges the Other Mother. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the garden is the labyrinth, and at the beginning, Ofelia follows a faerie into the old labyrinth garden; it’s all wonderful and magical. By the end of the film, the atmosphere in the labyrinth is highly charged with danger and urgency. She flees into the labyrinth with her baby brother, pursued by the evil stepfather, Vidal, who corners her at the heart of it.
The garden is typically someone’s domain, that means it’s controlled. Depending on the master’s attitude, it could be visitor-friendly or hazardous to your health. A negligent master would leave a garden to ruin; it could grow wild and inhospitable. A master who would prefer to keep others out would maintain tall hedges and thorny thickets. Which brings me to my next point: gardens can be a prop to a character role.
The Dark Gardens of the Underworld
If you don’t know the story of Persephone and Hades, here’s the low-down: he lured her, kidnapped her, courted her, and then tricked her into eating a bit of pomegranate. And everybody knows what eating food from another realm means – Some part of you belongs there now.
So the pomegranate must be of the Underworld. That means there’s an orchard. Stories are always on about how Hades bends over backwards to please his lady love – that’s Persephone, and she’s the Goddess of springtime, flowers and vegetation. It’s not too far a stretch to imagine the orchard as a feature of a larger garden. What’s more impressive than an otherworldly garden? He wants her to be comfortable, and to see the underworld as her new home. Of course he’s going to give her a garden.
What would this garden look like?
It’s going to be beautiful, of course, and dark like him. It’s going to be enchanting and welcoming to its new mistress. Filled with deep shadows and blanketed in an atmosphere of mystique. It’s going to be a romantic garden, abundant and luxuriant, where a goddess of springtime can learn to love losing herself in. This is the allure of the dark gardens, and it can be seen as a reflection of Hades himself.
Painted Roses and Croquet
When Alice looks through the tiny door that she is much too huge to go through, she sees ‘the loveliest garden’ with ‘beds of bright flowers’ and ‘cool fountains’. If you dismiss the example shown in the Disney animated film, there’s not much to go on. Many gardens have bright flowers and fountains and there are so many kinds of lovely. But then, Alice comes across the Queen’s gardeners who are hastily painting the white roses red, because white is a ‘wrong colour’ and they mustn’t let the Queen find out. With what we know of the Queen of Hearts, what would her garden look like?
A Tidy Garden of Geometric Forms
The Queen of Hearts is excessively prideful. She expects order, and for things to be exactly right, just the way she imagines it. Her garden would have to be perfect. And there is perfection in straight lines and regular shapes. Roses will be painted; trees, bushes and hedges will be trimmed. The croquet ground requires a flat lawn. Hers would be a highly maintained garden that wouldn’t be left to grow freely. The irony is in that she appears to deeply value the art of order and symmetry, it is what she demands, yet she would also be the first to escalate a perceived imperfection by screaming at the top of her lungs for heads to roll, causing chaos to erupt. The garden is now an exercise in strict maintenance to keep up with appearances, rather than a tribute to beauty and art.
Gardens Captivate and Sometimes Ensnare
Gardens can be a prop to a character role, like in the case of Hades’ orchards or the Queen of Heart’s roses, but it can also carry greater weight in a scene. It can set the stage, like any background in general but there’s something extra about gardens. Despite being filled with growing, living things, it can be ordered in a way the wild cannot. Statues, stairs, archways, and pillars – solid structures that wouldn’t be so strange in a garden, could go a long way in creating the ambiance. Trellises may adorn walls, bearing fruit or flowers; they also make fine climbing aids, excellent for secret rendezvous.
It’s more than just bright or dark, tidy or wild. Backdrops like gardens can come alive in stories the way characters do. Imagine rich colors in the midst of greens, and light spilling in from gaps up above. Imagine a path made of evenly placed cobblestones, with moss and vegetation growing in-between. It is both bright and dark, tidy and wild. What would make it more creepily ethereal, or more cosy and welcoming? There’s so much that can be done between textures and color alone. A finely placed statue could make all the difference.