Adventure Time and The Myth of Sisyphus
This month saw the finale of the acclaimed animated series Adventure Time with the conclusion of its tenth season. Created by Pendleton Ward, and developed by a long line of artists, writers, producers, and directors, it’s been called, “the trippiest show on television,”¹ and, “the most inventive cartoon since The Simpsons.”² In 11-minute sequences Finn and Jake protect their friends and the land of Ooo from the likes of zombies, witches, and overzealous businessmen. But under the surface of its psychedelic aesthetic, whimsical humor, and tales of knight-like heroism is an existential exploration of the meaning of striving in a world fated for destruction. Over the arc of these nearly three-hundred episodes, the series develops an outlook that shares many similarities with Camus’ philosophy of absurdism, expressed in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus.³
In this way Adventure Time manages to blend the philosophical notions of the absurd, the struggle between the, “human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any,”⁴ and the comically absurd, that it is the, “extremely silly or ridiculous.”⁵ When first introduced to the land of Ooo, it’s a fanciful world where brothers/best-friends Finn the human and Jake the dog embark on a litany of adventures, including one in which they protect the candy princess from an anthropomorphic heart named Ricardio — brought to life by a mad wizard with the power of ice in his constant attempts to kidnap and marry one of the many princesses, each characterized by their elemental composition, whether fire, slime, or lumpy.
As the series progresses, however, this madcap landscape starts to take on a semblance of logic, one born of a series of grim consequences. We learn that Ooo is a continent on Earth; that humans are nearly extinct after the apocalypse of the Great Mushroom War a thousand years earlier; that the fallout of nuclear weapons led to the “mutagenic” creatures that now inhabit the world; and that the princess-obsessed wizard, the Ice King, was a Professor of Archaeology at the time of the war and came to possess a jeweled crown that, when worn, gave him surreal visions and magical powers while slowly eroding his grip on reality. Beyond the facts that define the present circumstance, the show also introduces metaphysical figures and elements that point to an ontological explanation for their universe’s entire existence— like that of the deity Grob Gob Glob Grod, the Catalyst Comets, and the prophetic Cosmic Owl.
These expository revelations have led to countless fan theories that try to encapsulate the meaning of this reality into simple truths. Some are rather tired and hand-wavy, such as that Finn is in a coma and all of Ooo his imagination, while others use meticulous details to construct a complete history of life on this alternative Earth, like one which tries to reason that the 1,000 year gap between the Mushroom War and the show’s present narrative was actually measured by the lunar cycle due to nuclear winter blocking out the sun.⁶ It is altogether natural to search for such an explanation. After all, as Camus writes:
The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity.
However, Adventure Time mirrors the dilemma of our position in our own reality by denying the possibility of absolute answers.
But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles: an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding.
As much as viewers might want a grand unified theory to the meaning and origin of life on Ooo, it is impossible to find. The show is, “littered with clues, but open to endless interpretation.”⁷ Take for example the episode “Puhoy” in the show’s fifth season. Finn, upset over a perceived riff with Flame Princess, burrows into a pillow fort to be alone. There he finds a portal which transports him to Pillow World, where everything from the houses to the people are made of pillows, blankets, and cushions. As soon as he enters, the door back to Ooo disappears. Finn grows old searching for a way to return. He marries, has kids, and eventually, unsure if Jake and the friends of his youth were even real, decides to accept his fate and stay with his pillow family. On his deathbed he’s surrounded by everyone he’s known and loved in this strange place. As he drifts away, a kaleidoscope of geometric patterns overtakes his vision. He finds himself drifting through space, bounces off an as of yet unseen cosmic entity, and wakes up back in the pillow fort only moments after he left.
Whether Finn’s lifetime there was real, trapped in a dimension where time moves faster, or just a strange, forgotten dream is unanswerable. There are several clues that point to it being a real place—like the fact that adult Finn in Pillow World has a robotic arm which foretells what will later happen to Finn in Ooo, the presence of this entity who proves to be a very real malevolent deity with enormous powers over life and death, and the proof of various other dimensions, universes, and astral planes in later episodes. The more information Adventure Time provides on the larger reality of their universe (or multiverse) it is simultaneously undercut by uncertainty and doubt.
For all we know the creators have a bible that details a consistent and logical framework for the reality of the show, but from our position as viewers it is a realm of infinite possibilities. Likewise the philosophy of absurdism is not that meaning is, “logically impossible,” but, “humanly impossible.”⁸ For all we know there could be a creator of our reality and a single, absolute explanation for everything, but from our position as subjective consciousnesses it is a realm of infinite possibilities. The absurd, for Camus, arises from:
…my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle…
The Myth of Sisyphus deals in large part with the existential implications of life and death. The greatest enemy to Finn, to Sisyphus, and to the absurd man is both the possibility of death and a personification of death. The punishment which Sisyphus is subject to, rolling a stone up a mountain for all eternity only to see it again and again fall back to its base, is said to have resulted in part from his assault on Death.
Homer tells us…that Sisyphus had put Death in chains.
In Ooo there are many personifications of death, from Death, the ruler of the Land of the Dead, to Hunson Abadeer, the demon ruler of the Nightosphere, but these are more caretakers of their respective realms than the all pervasive threat of death looming over all of us. Indeed, in “Return to the Nightosphere” we see the bureaucratic nightmare that Abadeer manages and in “Wake Up” we see Death taking time off for a casual party in Prismo’s Time Room. Rather, the ultimate threat to Ooo, the force in a relentless pursuit of the end of all life, is the Lich, an immortal being taking the form of a decaying humanoid skeleton with ram-like antlers.
In the same episode as Primo’s party, the Lich remains completely frozen in place in the Time Room after being bested some episodes prior. Prismo explains that:
The Lich’s primary function is to cause mass death. And since he can’t do that while he’s trapped in my time room, he’s stuck in a standstill.
Unlike anyone else encountered in Ooo or the other lands or alternate dimensions explored, the Lich’s one and only cause is death. To the point where if he cannot cause death he literally ceases all functioning. Later, when unforeseen events allow him to break free, Finn confronts him once more. The Lich is able to stop time and command Finn to his knees. He tells him:
You are alone, child. There is only darkness for you, and only death for your people. These ancients are just the beginning. I will command a great and terrible army, and we will sail to a billion worlds. We will sail until every light has been extinguished. You are strong, child, but I am beyond strength. I am the end, and I have come for you, Finn.
Finn manages to stave off destruction by trapping the Lich in flesh, creating the warmhearted giant Sweet P. The Lich, for the most part, remains contained for the rest of the series—but is seen to still exist both in Sweet P’s subconscious and in a possibly infinite array of severed hands in each dimension. Death is averted and delayed but never vanquished. In the Lich’s last speech to Finn he says:
I am the ceaseless wheel. The last scholar of GOLB. I am your doom.
The Lich’s inexplicable connection to GOLB is important. Beyond this line of dialogue, the two share a ghastly green breath which is also mirrored in the explosion of the Mushroom Bomb. GOLB is the malevolent deity Finn sees in the void between his world and Pillow World. The Lich, like Finn, is a manifestation of the universe they reside in while GOLB is one of its elemental forces. Cryptically referred to over the course of the show, it appears in Ooo for the first time in this last episode and acts as the final villain.
After being summoned by Betty and King Man in order to harness its energy to save Simon from the insanity of the crown, GOLB immediately begins to wreak havoc. Princess Bubblegum warns that if not stopped it could mean the destruction of Ooo. The Ice King, upon seeing GOLB, flashes back to when he was Simon, an archeologist, and describes the deity as a, “mysterious entity that embodies chaos.”
When Betty, listening to Simon go on about GOLB’s power, offers him a sundae, he responds that:
GOLB would say ice cream is without meaning. Just empty calories devoid of purpose.
The enigmatic force that is GOLB is thus a manifestation of the threat of meaninglessness, the fact that the larger universe does not care about the concerns of conscious life on one small corner of one planet. It is not strictly malevolent, but rather embodies the natural force of disorder and chaos. Life does not have value to GOLB, and, as life requires an ordered existence, it is placed in opposition to the inhabitants of Ooo. As much as Finn, Jake, Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, Fern, Lady Rainicorn, and more of the show’s heroes try to physically defeat it and its minions, it is no use. It is only when BMO starts singing that they find a force to match its with.
GOLB is discord. It’s the harmony. Harmony hurts them.
The final battle is one of order vs. disorder, chaos vs. harmony, pattern vs. randomness. By singing together the gang manages to save Ooo once more, but GOLB is not defeated. Betty tries to wish it out of existence with the crown to avail. The force of chaos is fundamental.
The show makes it clear from the opening credits of the finale that their victory would be temporary. Instead of Finn and Jake we see two friends named Beth and Shermy. It is a thousand years in the future and much of what we’ve known of Ooo is gone. We find descendants of characters we knew and the continuation of familiar struggles but little more. All that remains of Finn and Jake are crumbled stone statues, pointing to the enormity of their existence but also that one day even the memory of them will be erased.
In Camus’s exploration of absurd creation he faults other authors grappling with these existential questions for ultimately inspiring hope. That is, hope that in the end there is some better, eternal future in store for us.
Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition?
There are hopeful moments in the finale of Adventure Time, but it makes clear that nothing is fundamentally solved by Finn and Jake’s efforts. The world goes on in its cyclical, unending nature of life and death. In an interview, executive-producer and showrunner Adam Muto offers his perspective on this glimpse into the future.
“I don’t even know how happy it is, to be honest. The future version of Ooo is not that cheery of a place. You get the sense that another apocalypse has sort of happened in the meantime.”⁹
It’s fair to say that in the end the only hope for Ooo is that life goes on. Like Sisyphus, its existence is subject to an eternity of striving in which all effort is eventually washed away only to be resumed from the beginning once more. In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus seeks to answer one question, does the realization of this meaninglessness and absurdity necessitate suicide? If meaning is not obtainable in life is it better then to opt out of it? In “The Comet,” Adventure Time’s forty-third episode in its sixth season, Finn is posed with such a question by the Catalyst Comet.
Finn, do you remember?
Yeah, I think so. A long time ago, I was you sort of and I crashed on Earth. And became a butterfly or some biz. And I guess it was just some random, absurd thing. Just a joke I’ve been playing out for centuries.
Who’s creating the joke? Are you? And if so, then are you my creator?
Uh maybe, I don’t know. Probably not.
Probably not but who knows?…I give you a choice. Come with me to the end and the beginning, or struggle here a while like a beautiful autumn leaf.
I feel like I put a lot of work into this meat reality. I’d like to see it through.
In the end, the lesson of Adventure Time is this: the world exists, there’s a lot going on but no one can say exactly what it means, there are forces of life and death at odds with each other, neither of these will ever fully triumph, and the world, whatever it is, will go forever—constantly changing yet repeating the same essential elements. For what its worth, that seems to be enough.
In Defense of Being Scruffy-Looking ← P R E V I O U S
¹Strauss, Neil. “‘Adventure Time’: The Trippiest Show on Television.” Rolling Stone, 2 Oct. 2014, www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-news/adventure-time-the-trippiest-show-on-television-84180/.
²Heritage, Stuart. “Adventure Time: Goodbye to the Most Inventive Cartoon since The Simpsons.” The Guardian, 5 Sept. 2018, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/sep/05/adventure-time-goodbye-to-the-most-inventive-cartoon-since-the-simpsons.
³Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated by Justin O’Brien, 1955.
⁴“Absurdism.” Wikipedia, 24 Aug. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism.
⁵“Absurd.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/absurd.
⁶Th3Novelist. “The Adventure Time Time Theory (*SPOILERS*).” Reddit, www.reddit.com/r/AdventureTheory/comments/2xyznn/the_adventure_time_time_theory_spoilers/.
⁷Kohn, Eric. “‘Adventure Time’ Is Slowly Going Off the Air, And Everyone’s Moving On.” IndieWire, 24 Feb. 2017, www.indiewire.com/2017/02/adventure-time-ending-cartoon-network-1201785332/.
⁸Silentio, Johannes de. Fear and Trembling. Penguin Classics.
⁹Frank, Allegra. “Adventure Time Showrunner Doesn’t See the Finale as a Happy Ending.” Polygon, 3 Sept. 2018, www.polygon.com/tv/2018/9/3/17806570/adventure-time-finale-finn-bubblegum-marceline-adam-muto-interview.