The Ice King: Philosophies of Morality and Insanity in Adventure Time

Curator's Note

 It can be argued that the surreal world of Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time is one that evolves from an incessant confrontation between good and evil. The series works through established pop-mythos of heros and princesses, vampires and fascist overlords. Yet, in Adventure Time there is a willingness to upend this Manichaeism and plunge it’s viewers into a universe where all becomes unfixed and bizarre, where the dream-like disintegration of traditional spatial and temporal limitations mirrors the questioning of established social concepts of morality and identity. One of the best examples of this is the character of The Ice King. 

There are several times in the first season that the Ice King is designated as “nuts” or “insane.” The Cosmic Owl calls him a sociopath.  Works such as Michel Foucault’s History of Madness reveal that "madness" and society’s reaction to it is ingrained with notions of truth, guilt, alienation, objectification, and freedom. Like those that were once confined in asylums in our own reality the Ice King is seen as an evil criminal by the rest of Ooo because the insanity that the crown bestowed upon him had made him immoral. Yet in the creators' decision to also make him incredibly powerful, they are essentially opening the door to the possibility that he could take over if he really wanted to. Indeed, his pet penguin Gunther is able to take over the entire land just by stealing his "evil wishing eye."

The accompanying clip is from season 3's episode entitled "Holly Jolly Secrets Part II.” It depicts an essential turning point in the storyline of not only the Ice King but the entire world of Ooo. The VHS of Simon Petrikov’s story gives to the viewers what the crown’s “promise of power” and the Ice King’s pursuant insanity had taken away: a past and understanding that provoked the empathy of others. It is this direct confrontation of the morality of empathy with concepts of alienation and guilt in the context of the insane and those of great power that I would argue is one of the central concerns of Adventure Time. Simon Petrikov became an essential component of the Ice King while also being set up to be the most important figure of the past of the Adventure Time universe, where we would learn how the savior became the insane







Thank you for this brilliant text Alexis. You were touch on something that Alexandre also alluded to and which I wasn't able to touch on: the realistic issues and mental problems that AT deals with. While Lemongrab could be considered Evil (even cartoonishly evil), the Ice King tends to be misunderstood and frustrated rather than properly evil. So many other characters in AT come off as much more complex than one might find in any other cartoon. Villains are often just acting out of desperation or ignorance. Finn's relationships are represented in a realistic manner. Although his failures might be frustrating initially for the viewer who wants to see him succeed, they end up being more true-to-life. Things brings me back to a question we will probably not be able to answer right away. What do these serious issues bring to a children's cartoon? Are they intentionally included, or simply the byproduct of an honest writing practice? Regardless, I'd like to link back to my discussion about fan appreciation of the show to suggest that these real issues that are dealt with by complex characters are part of the reason that AT is appreciated by such a wide-ranging audience. As fun as it is to see Finn vanquish demons, something even more special comes out of episodes such as "Simon and Marcy", "I Rembember You", "Puhoy", "The Vault", etc.

You guys are killin it. I like that we keep coming back to the central issue that motivated my interest in curating this week. Namely, the fact that AT (and to an extent, Regular Show) are pushing the limits as to what is considered acceptable for a kids show. I think you both are right on to suggest that we shouldn't be asking how much AT is a kids show, but how sophisticated its characterization and storytelling has become. In other words, how is AT "teaching" viewers about acceptance and "real" issues without the fluff and disregard we typically use to characterize (and wrongly dismiss) kids shows. The Ice King is a perfect example of the show suggesting, as Alexis insinuates, that not only are the lines between good and evil necessarily blurred in AT, but also that mental issues are more acceptable topics to open up for discussion in a younger audience. Although we get characters like the Lich who are positioned as evil, the Ice King is more lonely than evil. Even PB's stance on right and wrong is complicated with her interaction with Flame princess and the Flame Kingdom. Overall, great insights all around!

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