I watch Adventure Time, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Currently produced by Cartoon Network, from its premiere in 2010 this animated kids show has quickly drawn a cult internet following for its irreverent and often nonsensical take on the heroic-boy-magical-sidekick-swords-and-princesses genre replete in children’s animation. I can give many reasons why Adventure Time is the best show on TV: its ongoing exploration of Finn’s adolescent psyche; the simple beauty of its Miyazaki-esque visual style; the ever expanding backstory that rewards a long-time viewership of druggos and man-children (guess which one I am!). Most of all, it’s the sheer amount of cultural and literary references that are packed into any one episode that make it worthwhile as an investment of your precious fandom. In particular, the references to Western mysticism and the Gnostic canon allow Adventure Time to transcend the childish fantasy-world pastiche you would grok with only a shallow viewing.
The evidence has been mounting for a few seasons now that series creator Pendleton Ward – himself quite the kooky character, just look up his self-made interview from a few years back and see for yourself – is committed to slipping some grown-ass references into the more childish elements of the show. Peppermint Butler is a prime example: servant to the candy-themed Princess Bubblegum, Pep But is the figure of a long-standing joke in the series, as this seemingly innocuous sentient breath mint has shown himself to be in command of some powerful and esoteric magic. His penchant for the supernatural was first introduced in the second season episode “Death In Bloom”, in which he helps the intrepid duo enter the Land of the Dead (in return for their living flesh, of course). This episode contains some rather meaty classical references as well as a Lovecraftian reference to boot. In the episode “The Suitor”, a throwaway scene shows Pep But summoning “Ogdoad, master of level eight shadow world”; the ritual features items and animals significant to the Book of Ezekiel while the name Ogdoad, meaning “eighth” or “eightfold” in Ancient Greek, refers both to the Gnostic concept of the supercelestial eighth sphere of heaven, and to a sect of eight deities worshipped in Hermopolis, 3rd Millenium BC. Peppermint Butler’s heretical activities earn him a nemesis in the form of Peace Master (voiced by Rainn Wilson), a fanatical crusader against all forms of dark magic, whose conflict with “the dark one” feature in the aptly-titled episode “Nemesis”. Pep But utilises Sikh protective mantras and evokes the major arcana of tarot & the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in his defence, while Peace Master keeps items such as an ankh and a rubber chicken in his “charm sack”.
To make another case study, the quite recent episode “The Mountain” reflects almost to a tee several Thelemic and Hermetic initiation rites. It opens with a view on the workings of Castle Lemongrab, now a bucolic city-state efficiently run by the now-reunified Lemongrab (There were two Lemongrabs for a while. They didn’t get along). Perturbed by the mural on his ceiling demonstrating some sort of warrior’s journey, Lemongrab sets out for the Mountain of Matthew. This is no regular mountain: in the next scene Jake alludes to the “bookoo-spookoo legends” that surround it, after they spy Lemongrease rolling up to the spot on his Lemoncamel. He enters and Finn pursues, while Jake is barred entry, as, according to the gatekeeper, he “has no beeswax with the Mountain of Matthew, while Finn’s beeswax is “way-cray”. What follows closely resembles various initiation rites and other rites of passage in Western mystic belief, specifically the Rite of the City of the Pyramids as in Thelema. Rejecting the worldly temptations of love, companionship and comfort, the initiate is led by their guardian spirit – for Lemongrab, his dear little Lemonsweets, a china doll; for Finn, a butterfly, which in previous episodes has been shown to be both a past life and his astral beast incarnate – into the Void, a liminal state between the mundane material world and the immaterial heavenly world. Here, after confronting whatever worldly baggage tether the initiate to their physical self, they shed their corporeal bodies and continue into the Void, “where only my pure essence can go.” Lemongrab, tasting the surface of his greater self, realises that he is grease, while Finn joyously runs with, then past, his greater self, significantly lacking his right arm which he regrows upon reaching for the light.
And so our initiates have journeyed through the Void and thus have reached the City of the Pyramids, which is translated in Adventure Time as the chamber of the singular Matthew. Aleister Crowley, self-proclaimed prophet and founder of Thelema, described the bodies of the enlightened as made up of dust or stones, and this is how Matthew appears: a formless amalgam of white stones, suspended above an infernal pit. His name alludes to the Biblical books of Matthew and Revelation, which correlates with Matthew’s claim that he will “keep adding to himself until the second age of terror (the Second Coming of Christ) when I will … restore (judge) the world.” Lemongrab then considers merging with the collective consciousness of Matthew, and hence “know the ecstasy of my ego-death.” An integral concept in Eastern as well as Western Mysticism, ego-death refers to a total loss of subjective self-concept, permanent or transient*; aside from spiritualists it holds particular interest to Jungian psychoanalytics as well as in Joseph Campbell’s seminal research into the archetypal Hero’s Journey. From there, the episode gets a little weird: finding his omnipotence to be “unacceptable” Lemongrab kills Matthew by feeding him pieces of lemon candy (originally a giant Lemongrab called Lemonjon), thereby reverting Matthew back into a group of individuals, who don’t take too kindly to their lost nirvana, and so Lemongrease and Finn high-tail it out of there. To close off the episode, Lemongrab caulks up damage to the prophesying mural with a wad of chewed-up Lemonjons, uttering my favourite line of the episode, “Yo yo, it’s ‘grease.”
This is just one example. As I said before, if given a closer viewing you will find Adventure Time replete with unexpectedly intellectual references. Earlier in season six the episode “Little Brother” perfectly observes the aforementioned Hero’s Journey, ending in a moment of transcendent beauty; the two sphinxes of “Goliad” resemble other dualistic deities locked in permanent stalemate; Finn connects with alternate and past lives on a few occasions, especially in “The Vault” and “Puhoy”, not to mention the whole gender-swapped universe of Cake the Cat & Fionna the Human. The complex dream logic of “Memory Of A Memory”, “Is That You?” and “King Worm”, and the latter’s allusions to surrealist cinema a la Un Chien Andalou; destiny, premonition and the afterlife in “The New Frontier”, extra-temporality in “Bad Timing”, dialectic out-of-body experiences in “Astral Plane”. Princess Bubblegum’s relentless search for immortality and an eternal empire, as evidenced in the episodes “Goliad” and “Red Starved”. Rulers of the underworld ranging from the soul-sucking demon Hunson Abadeer to the cowboy shaman Death, the animist space-god The Cosmic Owl to the entity of true annihilation, The Lich. “Evergreen”. Again, just, “Evergreen”. I hope the examples given here would be enough for even the most skeptical of readers to have a second thought the next time they see some fruity glyph or hear Peppermint Butler praise ‘Angra Mainyu’. I really could go on, and would were it not for the limitations of the paper medium, so please, come find me around campus so that, together, we might talk all kinds of shit about a children’s tv show. Peace.
*this concept of ego-death is reflected in the proceeding (and at time of writing most recent) episode, “The Diary”: Jake’s son T.V, obsessing over the lost diary of the teenaged “BP”, experiences hallucinations in which he sees and interacts with the people that feature in the diary, such as her friends and boyfriend, as if he himself were BP. I feel that it is important to add that T.V is voiced by Dan Mintz who is also the voice of Tina from Bob’s Burgers which is another show you should totally watch. Though they don’t quote Nietzsche as often.
Words by Nick Morlet