Is Growing Up Such a Good Thing?

Adventure Time and Philosophy takes us on a journey to the land of Ooo in search of truth.

The term man-child gets batted around quite a bit when describing pop culture targeted at guys. From superheroes to dinosaurs, an argument can be made that many pop culturally plugged in males live in a state of arrested development, more focused on the nostalgic flavors of the past, rather than climbing out of the basement and into the bright light of something new.

Of course, that’s a cynical way to analyze what millions hold close to their hearts. But people do. Cultural critics of a certain stripe tut-tut that men are no longer men: they’re boys. And it’s probably true you can know more about someone by the toys they keep and the shows they watch, rather than what salad dressing they use, a thought explored by Eleanor Catton.

But what’s so bad about being young, if not in body, perhaps in heart? In Adventure Time and Philosophy: The Handbook for Heroes, editor Nicolas Michaud and a selection of philosophers and professors, dive into the hidden complexities of a long running cartoon that has morphed into something unique and profound. Or, perhaps, that depth has always been there.

For those unaware, the television show, Adventure Time takes place in the land of Ooo, featuring young human Finn and his shapeshifting dog Jake. The two have adventures, save princesses from the evil Ice King, fight monsters, and generally lead an interesting life one cannot help but envy. As the book’s introduction states, the show’s opening lyrics, “C’mon grab your friends, we’ll go to very distant lands” might be all you need to know to get invested.

While Adventure Time seems to be a brightly colored cartoon skewed towards all ages, albeit one filled with non sequiturs, contributor Daniel Vella notes, “Something strange sets Adventure Time apart from most other examples of the sword-and-sorcery genre…”

Too true.

The show is rich in meaning and open to interpretations of dizzying shades, as The Handbook for Heroes demonstrates. The show is also quite sad. Ooo is a place where magic and science exist side by side after the Great Mushroom War, an apocalyptic event with pretty apparent connections to atomic warfare. Finn is the last human survivor. In a roundabout way, the show is about loneliness, isolation, and identity, as well as playful adventure and friendship. It’s also about growing up.

Over the course of 26 separate essays, Adventure Time is picked apart. Issues of fate, memory, play, and the nature of good vs. evil are explored. Like any collection of essays from multiple contributors, some stick, some reach. In a book written by professors, it can skew towards the dry side of things or stumble trying to fuse content with concepts. I should know, I’m a professor, too, and have been guilty of spending too much time in my own skull.

What also is an occasional misstep is a lack of context. Of course, this text is targeted at fans of the show, those with an understanding of how Ooo works, who populates it, and what adventures have been had. A general reader, interested in philosophical concepts, if such a general reader exists, is likely not the intended audience.

Yet, even fans of the shows might be put off. Adventure Time has aired for so many years, produced so many episodes (shorter than the typical 22-minute long cartoon), that without proper grounding a haze settles in and obscures the when, where, and who of some essays. Each entry has an italicized introduction, but these can often hinder, rather than help.

For example, Michaud’s own entry on identity and the Ice King relays dialogue from a scene but without sufficient stage direction or context. The end result is an essay hobbled by uncertainty. Good points are made but without that specificity, they could have been applied to anything, not exclusively to Adventure Time. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the episode in question, but of course, memory is a seriously faulty thing. A better reminder would have been appreciated.

Still, this collection speaks to the power of Adventure Time, and the excellent balancing act that makes the series so popular and profound. As contributor Marty Jones explains, “The show’s achievement is in its sharpening and clarifying the spirit of play that characterizes our younger years without sacrificing either adult sophistication or youthful exuberance.” We are reminded of childhood without being pandered to.

And that brings me back to the beginning. For a show featuring a young boy and his talking dog going on adventures, Adventure Time has attracted a great deal of adult attention. Yes, children watch the show but I’ve found most fans have left puberty a great many years ago, and are now at a point in their lives where they’re told to do as St. Augustine did, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Is growing up such a good thing? Well, like everything, yes and no. To be young is to be unhardened in one’s ways, but also to be inexperienced. Of course, we get older and mature. To use youth as a life raft is untenable, though some may try and live, as Finn once exclaimed, “youth culture forever!”

What Adventure Time demonstrates, and this book explores, is that you can, and should, try to have it a mix of both ways: the openness of youth with the wisdom of maturity.

Despite some missteps and unevenness, this book, as Finn and Jake would agree, is: “mathematical!”

RATING 7 / 10