Adventure Time and Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag

Massive spoilers for all of Adventure Time.

I’m deeply excited for this post, since it’s a chance to write about two things dear to my heart that both left us this year: Cartoon Network’s hit Adventure Time, and speculative fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin.

What do these things have to do with each other? It’s hard to imagine Ursula getting excited about a children’s cartoon, especially after the controversial reception of the nominally Le Guin-inspired Tales From Earthsea. However, I’m going to propose today that in 1989, Le Guin called for the evolution of a new form of fiction, and starting in 2010, Adventure Time answered that call.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite novelists, most famous for her Hainish and Earthsea Cycles. Easily on the influence level of Tolkien, she bestrides both science fiction and fantasy while simultaneously remaining as true a native of her Oregon home as William Stafford (she was a regular guest at the Fishtrap gathering of writers, where I once worked). Her work is famous for interrogating concepts of gender, race, and class within fantasy and sci-fi.

As I wrote in my senior thesis, Le Guin is dedicated to healing the wounds of humanity that manifest themselves as gaps: between ourselves and our planet, between our women and men and others, between ourselves and our own mortality. If there is one central virtue in her novels, it is wholeness, of the kind she–and I–have found in Oregon’s wilds. If you want proof of her greatness, ask yourself: “Can I name any other authors who influenced both Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling?”

In addition to stories, she gave great writing advice, including admonishing her audiences not to be afraid of exposition. Here, though, I’d like to draw attention to an essay published in a 1989 anthology, in which she laid out her “carrier bag” theory of fiction. To summarize it inadequately–like all her writing, it’s easy to read yet dense with meaning–Le Guin is here proposing that the traditional model of a story as conflict hurtling toward a resolution is misguided. The original purpose of the story, and so of humanity, was to hold things, not to reach or strike things–but “the Hero” obscured this purpose as civilization grew.

It is the story that makes the difference. It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero…It sometimes seems that that story is approaching its end. Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another one, which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished.

In other words, while so many of the stories we hear are based on hunting, it is time for a new sort of story based on gathering.

Adventure Time

Try to keep it short. Adventure Time always did. Two hundred eighty-some episodes across eight-plus years, a near-decade of candy-colored mythbusting musical tragicomedy, Final Fantasy plus H.P Lovecraft times Philip K. Dick divided by Mystery Science Theater 3000 raised to the Charlie Brownth power, but funnier, but sadder, but weirder. And every episode still, what, 11-and-a-half minutes? Less, with an opening credits sequence only a heartless streaming service would ever skip? –Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly

Adventure Time began as the tale of two heroes, Finn the Human and Jake the Dog, who romped around the Land of Ooo fighting evil, looting treasure, and saving princesses. All the typical elements of a day’s work for an RPG character. The first couple of seasons were best known for resembling an acid trip–one of the voice actors even called it “this generation’s Yellow Submarine.” It was fun, it was weird, it was definitely popular, but groundbreaking? Not exactly.

But then an amazing thing happened: like Lord of the Rings, the tale grew in the telling. From the very start, close observers could see the detritus of modern civilization scattered around Ooo, leading to the outright confirmation that it’s actually set on Earth–1,000 years after we destroyed ourselves with nukes in a “Great Mushroom War.” Storylines centered around long-lived characters who remembered the war and were personally affected by both its brutality and the kindness that came in its wake. As the show’s lore grew, so did Finn: he experienced heartbreak and loss, questioned his purpose, and had his identity as a “hero” constantly challenged.

Through all this, the show never lost its boundless imagination: episodes involved Finn flying to Mars, meeting his past lives, living an entire alternate life inside a pillow fort. Scripts riffed on Ovid, Shakespeare, Shelley, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. By the time Finn locates his biological father (a sociopathic space conman) and mother (a domineering but ultimately kindhearted digitized intelligence), defeats an avatar of his evil impulses made out of grass, and learns to be less clingy with girls, he’s moved on from trying to be a great hero and just wants to be a good person.

That’s the core of it, for me. Even if Adventure Time didn’t feature a prominent same-sex romance, even if it wasn’t chock-full of gorgeous scenery or positive mental health representation or anti-nihilist philosophy, even if it wasn’t funny, it would be one of my favorite works of art because its teenage hero learns “how the real world works” and becomes more empathetic as a result. “Finn the Human” isn’t a description by the end, it’s an aspiration.

What makes Adventure Time a herald of the new form of storytelling Le Guin discusses with her carrier bag? It’s not just that her allegory involves a lot of names that sound like “Ooo.” Back at the essay, we can see her distaste for “the Hero,” on every page. The Hero, she writes, has an “imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse…to take everything over.” He “has decreed…first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative…is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.” (emphasis mine)

I’d like to spend the rest of this post dissecting each of these as they relate to the show.

The Arrow and the Spear

Writers like me get and give an awful lot of advice. Much of it centers around how to make things streamlined, clear, brutally efficient. And more often than not, books written to that standard leave me cold. Case in point: my favorite reads this year have been a labyrinthine concoction of set-pieces and character flaws (Six of Crows), a fanatically overstuffed 19th-century epic (Ivanhoe), a Slavic pastiche about how owning a magic horse is even better than you think is (The Bear and the Nightingale), an anthropological survey of thousands of years of misread history (1491), and a fantasy that sprawls more than your humble author on any soft surface (To Green Angel Tower).

These books succeed because of their detours, their atmospheres, the little eddies and currents to get lost in. A story that has trimmed every bit of its fat has also lost all its nutrition. It’ll come out the rear exactly how it looked when you swallowed it. I use these metaphors because Le Guin is concerned with food in her essay, writing, “If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat.”

One characteristic of Adventure Time that sets it apart even from its contemporaries in the cartoon renaissance–Avatar: The Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and Gravity Falls–is its lack of any sort of overarching plot. Compared to the struggle against the Firelord, the fight for freedom against Homeworld, or the identity of the Author, Adventure Time hasn’t got much narrative drive: its most menacing villain, the Lich, only shows up a handful of times, and is almost always defeated soon after he appears.

In place of those myths, the show instead offers the story of its characters. Other than Finn’s growth from hyperactive childhood to reflective adulthood, the closest thing to a show-spanning arc is the redemption of 20th-century antiquarian Simon Petrikov, transformed by a magical crown into the immortal, deranged Ice King. To these two stories might be added the romance between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, which burns hot and slow enough to make Jim and Pam look like Romeo and Juliet.

Much like I described in my post about The Edge Chronicles, the narrative in Adventure Time tends to punish those who become single-mindedly focused on one goal, even if it’s one that seems noble. Betty is trying to lift her boyfriend’s curse, Huntress Wizard seeks spiritual guidance, Bubblegum just wants her kingdom to be safe, but all of them suffer from only seeing straight ahead. Neither is this an excuse for indolence, though: while Jake the shapeshifting dog is the most emotionally stable character, he suffers from a poor relationship with his children, and sets out to make things right. Heroism is important, but not only in itself.

Then there’s the ending. In the essay, Le Guin bemoans that “hunting” fiction “will be, and has been, triumphant (Man conquers earth, space, aliens, death, the future, etc.) and tragic (apocalypse, holocaust, then or now).” But Adventure Time’s finale rejects both triumph and tragedy. Finn and friends avert a second Mushroom War and banish an evil demon, and their ultimate reward is…getting to live their lives. Not a lot changes. The show asks: isn’t that enough?

What’s more, a frame story suggests that the world ended again sometime after the year 3,000, and is already on its way back by 4,000. Which means none of those ends were as final as they seemed. A post-apocalyptic story that suggests the apocalypse never actually happened: how’s that for a new genre?

Conflict

Le Guin again:

…when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world, and a mouse’s skull; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand.

One of my favorite things about Adventure Time is that it’s got several episodes where almost nothing happens. One episode spends half its runtime on a sentient banana voiced by Weird Al Yankovic explaining to Finn and Jake how an internal combustion engine works. Another, which parodies blockbuster podcasts like Serial, is nothing but Jake describing the actions of a regular bunny. An extremely sweet later-season entry consists almost wholly of best friends Jake and Finn sitting on a cloud, giving each other haircuts. Still others involve quests that do have real stakes, but are ultimately inconsequential.

Why do these episodes work? Simply because, like a forest, there is so much to discover even when nothing is happening. First, there’s the context, which transforms episodes from wastes of time into much-needed breathers. There’s humor, which is everywhere, as long as you’re really looking. There’s beauty–only today I was reminded of Cheryl Strayed’s line about putting yourself in the way of beauty, which is something Adventure Time never hesitates to do.

I don’t mean to suggest nothing happens in this show. Plenty of things do. There are battles, quests, deaths, villains, breakups, makeups, extraordinary heroism and tremendous sacrifices. As Le Guin tells us, fiction based on carrying things gathered does not mean nothing happens: “Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.”

Everything in the world is defined by its interaction with everything else, but that interaction does not have to take the form of a clash. Thus, we get a show whose purpose is to hold things: relationships, insights, and scenery. To put them together and see what happens, what evolves.

No less an authority than Terry Pratchett called Le Guin an architect of “the consensus fantasy universe…dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities…the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.” This easily describes both Discworld and the Land of Ooo, two of the most vibrant secondary worlds ever dreamt of–places where the quests are not as important as the seeing. Adventure Time‘s strong Dungeons and Dragons influence explains this as well, because what story has ever had less of a final goal than a D&D campaign?

By the end of Adventure Time, Finn gets it. He’s tired of fighting, even at 17. He wants his life to have more music in it instead, more love. He’s learned fighting is a means to an end, frequently necessary, not meant to be the point of living.

The Hero

Le Guin:

…the Hero has frequently taken (the novel) over, that being his imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse, to take everything over and run it while making stern decrees and laws to control his uncontrollable impulse to kill it.

And later:

…it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.

Le Guin works hard in her essay to equate the term “Hero” with “control freak,” and indeed, if we look back at Adventure Time, we’ll notice this is Finn’s main character flaw. In the first half of the show, he gets into trouble for wanting everything–quests, romance–to go his way. This culminates in the controversial episode “Frost & Fire,” where this habit destroys his relationship with his girlfriend Flame Princess.

The narrative studiously avoids giving him any special treatment for this screw-up. It’s tragic, but it’s not hero-tragic, not a noble flaw leading to a destined destruction. He’s just a stupid kid who did something avoidable. This leads him to do a lot of soul-searching that culminates in what is arguably his last moment as protagonist: rejecting a cosmic deity’s offer to take him to a higher plane of existence, Finn decides to continue being part of “meat reality,” and from then on is far more obviously just one character among many.

Beginning with the magnificent, Raymond Briggs-esque third-season episode “Thank You,” Adventure Time began experimenting with stories that didn’t revolve around Finn and Jake, and some where they didn’t even appear. “Root Beer Guy” follows an unremarkable citizen of the Candy Kingdom. “The Mountain” gives the leading role to the screeching, complex-riddled Earl of Lemongrab. “Little Brother” stars a minor supporting character created from another minor supporting character. Flame Princess, introduced as Finn’s love interest, gets to shine in “The Cooler,” where her ex-boyfriend neither appears nor is mentioned.

And so on. At once, these moves reflect both a Pratchett-like desire to enrich and complicate the setting, and a confidence that Ooo doesn’t need a hero to survive. It needs humans. Even if some of them are dogs, or vampires, or made of candy.

I’ve heard people complain that, as the ending approached, Finn felt like a supporting character in his own story. While I sympathize–as I’ve said, he’s one of the most lovable characters to ever grace a TV screen, equal parts Charlie Brown, Bart Simpson, and Conan the Barbarian–I contend that these complaints misunderstand Adventure Time. It was never Finn’s story, or if it was, it was the story of Finn discovering that it wasn’t his story.

(And I should add: the fact that it does all this without one single moment of arch 4th-wall-violating self-winking tweeness does wonders to endear it to me.)

Where does that leave us?

OK, so a kids’ show from the 2010s matches up surprisingly well with a 30-year-old essay by a master writer. So what?

First of all, this should be taken as a clarion call for writers. There are so many more ways to tell a story than the ones we’re so often taught. If a story about a vampire falling in love with a sentient wad of chewing gum can work, there’s literally no idea that can’t, save for the explicitly bigoted ones. But while you’re writing, remember that the climax is not the story, and someone doesn’t have to get killed for the characters to have done meaningful work. Stories are journeys and journeys are stories and conflict is only part of both of those things.

But to think beyond writing, I’d like to share another, longer quote from Le Guin’s article.

This theory (of stories as carrier bags) not only explains large areas of theoretical obscurity and avoids large areas of theoretical nonsense (inhabited largely by tigers, foxes, and other highly territorial mammals); it also grounds me, personally, in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before. So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted, any particular share in it…The society, the civilization they were talking about, these theoreticians, was evidently theirs; they owned it, they liked it; they were human, fully human, bashing, sticking, thrusting, killing. Wanting to be human too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that’s what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then evidently I was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all.

That’s right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero.

Go on, say I, wandering o{f towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.

Look at the world destroyed by the Mushroom War. Look at the Lich, who never says a word that isn’t about death, endings, finality. All these things–the bombs, the war, the world, the Lich–are ultimately human creations, and in the world they rule, who are our heroes?

First, Simon: a quiet, patient gatherer of the past, a devoted father figure. Then Marceline, who hardly makes a decision in her life that isn’t out of love for someone else or desire to be loved.

As time moves on, we meet others: Bubblegum, whose empathy overcomes her totalitarian instincts, and Jake, who treats the little pleasures of camaraderie as the utmost importance in life. And Finn. First the Human, then the Hero, then, at last, just human. If he’s the last of us, he’s also the best of us. All of them, together, represent a story so much better than the one we’re told about who humans are.

We look at the news every day and see the catastrophic certainty that everything, all the time, is about to end, that the arrow is going to thud into the mammoth any day now, and then where will we be? But if these are the people who will take up the fire of civilization after it’s burned low, it’s tempting not to fear the bombs when they fall.

Not Le Guin, but Camus: “Knowing that certain nights whose sweetness lingers will keep returning to the earth and sea after we are gone, yes, this helps us to die.”

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