Once upon a time…
Okay, so making a fairy tale connection in a children’s show (which is debatable for Adventure Time) isn’t a leap of interpretive genius, but it’s where we’re going with this episode. It begins with Finn and Jake following a frog king/prince into a locked garden and being tempted by a donut tree, which is guarded by a witch, so…you do the math.
Using a basic psychoanalytic paradigm, we’ve already positioned Jake as a representation of Freud’s concept of the id (possibly Finn’s id, where Finn is then his own emerging ego, slowly developing an understanding of reality and the social order in Ooo). With this possibility plus the fairy tale bit, my mind went directly to Hansel and Gretel, which brought me to the Norton Critical Edition of The Classic Fairy Tales, a collection that I taught for a few years at my previous school. Since most of my pedagogy is bent toward social consciousness, and since most of humanity is bent toward storytelling (as a means of socialization), it makes sense to have students study the intersection of the two: children’s stories.
Adventure Time, which we might say builds a postmodern fairy tale universe, frequently plays around with the tropes of this narrative tradition. In this episode, we see how Pendleton Ward and his crew mock the former didactic intent of fairy tales in favor of a fun yarn. Finn and Jake are seemingly at the mercy of maternalistic figures – the witch and the mermaid of the river – where salvation becomes possible only through learning a lesson. The witch strips Jake of his magic and declares, “admit your error, say you’re sorry, and mean it,” which can be viewed as an imposition of the reality principle (by which the ego must abide) and the superego (through which an ethical sense is established). The witch is trying to convey a social order/hierarchy in order to teach Finn and Jake where they belong within it. They must learn their place and understand how to relate to their elders. In former times, this was the purpose of fairy tales, and so the message would’ve been clear to children in terms of how they ought to behave. In this episode, Finn and Jake ultimately learn that their own friendship is paramount, regardless of the arbitrary rules and power structures the adult monsters (especially the motherly ones) struggle to maintain. The show thus gives its youthful audience what it wants, fun and escape, rather than what it doesn’t, order and obedience.
In fact, we can see the show as a screw-you to the ethical encoding present in classic fairy tales. They presented more harm to children than good, where harm takes the form of repression, obedience, manners, morals, cultural norms, and simplicity, and where good takes the form of freedom, possibility, ambiguity, and complexity. Children weren’t ever permitted the latter; they couldn’t be. After all, they were children and couldn’t handle it. The show posits the opposite. Not only can children handle freedom (at least of the imagination), it’s necessary that they have it in order to experience adventure, which is the only way they’ll really grow.
Adults should learn not to present themselves as the “evil,” withholding witch figure (reminiscent of the Old Testament God in the Adam and Eve story). Or society should rethink the way it situates mothers and fathers in the proverbial family tree. Maria Tatar, editor of the fairy tale book I mentioned already, writes, “development is thus conventionally defined in terms of growing away from the mother, who represents dependence and domesticity, and turning toward the father.” In Hansel and Gretel, as in this episode, “the children have successfully negotiated the path from dependence to autonomy by eradicating the mother and joining forces with the father,” which is to say, they join forces with the power afforded by the freedom to leave the home, or to leave confined spaces. Both the witch and the mermaid are stuck in their spaces (and places), while Finn and Jake are free to roam. The boundaries of their travel are limited only by the imagination. This isn’t to say the show deliberately boxes in gender; in fact, Adventure Time liberates its characters across a number of typically paralyzing identity markers.
As I mentioned, Finn and Jake learn only that their friendship is essential. The audience learns that the world is absurd, rules are arbitrary, and unless we’re going on adventures – meaningless though they might be – what are we doing?