The Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant: Adventure Time and Existentialism

Curator's Note

From Camus to Sartre to Dostoevsky, big name existential philosophers and artists alike have mulled over the "adult" problem of human existence in a careless and unforgiving world. Although it's common in our postmodern world to see Woody Allen or Louis C.K.. help us laugh at the paranoia of a meaningless existence, we would be slightly taken aback to hear it from SpongeBob Squarepants or Dora the Explorer. Why, then, is it such a huge part of Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time? The possible meaninglessness of existence crops up multiple times in the show. Finn has to face the literal nothingness of the Lich, his own loneliness after breaking up with Princess Bubblegum and Flame Princess, and Jake's contemplation of and comfort with his own death in "The New Frontier" (S03E18). An even bigger question to ask, then, is why is this such a integral part of a kid's show? Adventure Time faces the problems of existentialism head on in "Something Big" (S06E10). The episode focuses on existential issues of The Psychic Tandem War Elephant and his epiphany of sorts led by the insight of the Sun (see clip to the left for a taste of the episode) and concludes that he will be "the match AND the candle" of his existence. Adventure Time bundles this existential crisis and insight between the humor of the Finn's inability to explain "meaning" in life and a fallen leaf that exclaims "well, this isn't how I saw things going." What is fascinating about the shows approach to the topic of existentialism, however, is how it doesn't seem argumentative, forced, or out of place within the show itself and STILL manages to be funny. It's not "dumbed down" for a children, nor does it pull any punches. How, then, should we read such an odd (yet not totally out of place) moment in Adventure Time? In this sense, I would argue that Adventure Time provides not only an interesting humorous examination of the meaning of life, but a forward thinking, non-patronizing questioning of life on its own cartoon-y terms. Adventure Time refuses to skip over the difficultly of "large" issues (death, existentialism, absent parents, mental illness, war, love, etc.) in order to give an easy, clean-cut payoff. It makes you earn your insights. For a show that is ostensibly for kids, that's pretty awesome and unique.


This is an impressive take on the show's use of existentialism which I hadn't really realized before. I always felt that there was a distinct feeling of 'meaninglessness' surrounding Finn's life among other characters though existentialism never really came to my mind. I am tempted to say that the show expresses a bit of Nihilism as well. As you mention, the show treats a lot on the void of existence. The Tandem war elephant's epiphany is a great example of this, being the light and darkness of his own existence. This is indeed, pretty dark stuff, stuff even adults have a hard time dealing with. Existentialism I might add, brings unwanted realizations of meaninglessness for adults, I feel children may not perceive it as such on account of simply being children. Although many children are faced with existentialist issues early on in life whether it being the death of a loved one or simply understanding the meaning of birth and death for the very first time. I think it is safe to say that children are faced with existentialism early on though are there any truly good methods available to help them understand? I believe Adventure Time's inclusion of existentialism through youth characters such as Finn may helps in reaching out to kids who already associate with the character. I feel I may be getting lost within my thoughts on this although I think you have touched on a very significant aspect from the show and most importantly on its various impacts on children. Existentialism, Nihilism, and all those fun philosophies are taking their place within cartoons such as AT and even through Regular Show, which you mentioned early on, and I for one believe that its presence is a good thing. There is no escaping existentialism, we all face its grim realities one way or another.

Dewey, you've touched upon one of my favorite aspects of the show, which is it's willingness to combine the deeply philosophical with the ostensible absurd. Adventure Time is the show that will create an Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant and ask the questions why? and how? without presuming to give any answers. In this sense it is an incredible show for both children and, as Alexandre mentioned, for adults to be incited to question their own existence while still being able to laugh at the arbitrariness of it all. We need awareness and appreciation of our own capacity for comprehension but we also need to be able to not take ourselves too seriously, because the end of life can be just as arbitrary as the beginning. If and when I have kids they will have a steady diet of Adventure Time, to go along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so that they can be taught lessons of what it means to be a hero, a friend, and appreciate that though death is a reality it should not be feared but rather used as an impetus to live a significant life. Adventure Time is pretty clear in at least this one aspect: life is significant when you have great friends and are spurred on by love.

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