Crime and Punishment and Adventure Time: A Kierkegaardian Reflection on Lowliness

“Because when you have stanky old wizard eyes, sometimes you see things that are real, […]

Zack Verham / 1.11.19

“Because when you have stanky old wizard eyes, sometimes you see things that are real, and other times it’s like crazy, crazy, crazy, in your face, all the time.


All the time.”

– Ice King

Adventure Time​ is the single best kids show (which is also secretly for adults) of all time. I’ve obsessively watched this show since high school and am confident it will become as influential for cartoons as Lord of the Rings is for fantasy or ​Tommy Wiseau​ for so-good-it’s-bad cinema. Of course, I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch Adventure Time if you haven’t seen it yet — my favorite episode is ​“Sons of Mars.” Enjoy yourself. It’s a wild ride.

Set in the fantasy-apocalyptic land of Ooo (which is actually Earth after the nuclear holocaust), Adventure Time follows the exploits of Finn, a human boy with a penchant for adventurous heroism, and Jake, his stretchy dog. The show’s brilliantly crafted 15-minute episodes deftly weave together profound thoughts on mortality and ethics with fart jokes and a full-fledged mythology where Abraham Lincoln is a Christ figure who resides with the pseudo-deity ​Grob Gob Glob Grod​ on Mars. There’s also a Cthulian cosmic horror trapped on Ooo as a penguin named Gunter who has been adopted by one of the main antagonists of the show, the Ice King. Like I said, this show is a trip.

The Ice King​ is an incredibly compelling figure. Long before the bombs fell on Ooo, the Ice King was a professor of archaeology named Simon Petrikov who stumbled upon an evil ice crown. The crown granted him long life but inadvertently stole his memories and corrupted his personality. In the same way that Smeagol transformed into Gollum, Simon eventually became a twisted shell of his former self and took on the moniker of the Ice King.

Ancient and ever-lonely, the Ice King traces his lack of self-worth to his lack of friendship. He over-compensates for this by attempting to either (a) kidnap the various princesses who reside in Ooo and betroth them, or (b) insinuate himself into Finn and Jake’s friendship by guilt-tripping them whenever they destroy his ice castle so that he can live in their tree-house. His compulsive attempts to mitigate his own loneliness stem from his subconscious; although he has forgotten his past life due to the corrupting influence of his crown, he had a romantic interest with a woman named Betty who spurned him because of his transformation:

“Just watch over me until I can find my way out of this labyrinth in my brain and regain my sanity. And then maybe Betty, my princess…maybe you will love me again. Please love me again, Betty!” (​“Holly Jolly Secrets Part II”)

By taking on the role of the Ice King, the man beneath the wintery visage lost the relationships which helped to make him human. At his core, he is driven by his fear of social non-existence; he has “gained the whole world but lost his soul.”

As every failed attempt at friendship or princess-kidnapping forces him to confront his loneliness over and over, he “suffers even more agonizingly in self-contradiction” (​The Essential Kierkegaard, ​319). The Ice King is a character defined by his futile attempts at self-improvement which only make his flaws more apparent and his grasping at relationship progressively more desperate. But at the end of the day, his single consistent friend is ​the abyss of Cthulhian chaos​, subtly represented in the show by ​Gunter​ the penguin. No matter how hard he tries, when the episode credits roll, he only has his penguins, his “#1 Babe” drum set, and his ​Fionna and Cake fan fiction​ to go home to.

In many ways, the Ice King is a modern take on Raskolnikov, the main character from Dostoyevsky’s ​Crime and Punishment.​ Raskolnikov is driven by his academic theory that the leaders of humanity refuse to bend to a higher ethic, and instead have the authority to act as they wish. The life of Napoleon is the perennial example for Raskolnikov. At his core, he wants to prove to himself that he is made of the same moral fabric as the French conqueror, and in this single-minded desire, he attempts to create his own moral economy by murdering an innocent woman. He justifies the murder to himself and Sonia, the de-facto Christ figure in Dostoevsky’s tale (​Crime and Punishment, ​xxix), by stating that:

“…power is only entrusted to the person who dares to bend down and pick it up… I wanted to find out then and there whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man. Whether I can overstep barriers or not, whether I dare bend down to pick up or not… (​397-398)

Crime and Punishment​ describes the fallout from Raskolnikov’s attempt to “become a Napoleon.” Like the Ice King, Raskolnikov is driven by a primal fear of not-enoughness. Of course, Dostoyevsky’s protagonist seeks the ability to create his own moral landscape instead of magic ice powers, but the principle is identical. Raskolnikov fears being “a louse” like everyone else, and he grasps for self-empowerment in the same way that the Ice King grasps for relationship. Raskolnikov primarily seeks to make something of himself on his own strength, and ultimately, both characters are driven mad by the loneliness brought on by their constant battles against non-existence.

Raskolnikov is trapped by his inability to speak of his actions with anyone, all the while knowing that he is not the “Napoleon” that he wishes to be, and that he is still morally culpable for his actions. ​Crime and Punishment​ explores Raskolnikov’s primal fear of both his legal peril and his inevitable social exile after those dear to him learn of his monstrous act. He is utterly alone with the Gunter-esque chaos of his own thoughts and the utter failure of his struggle against non-existence.

According to the stories of the Ice King and Raskolnikov, the world of self-making is one which leads to only loneliness, corruption, and madness. In his​ Christian Discourses,​ Kierkegaard states that the weight of this self-making is “enormous” (The Essential Kierkegaard​, 318). What is the Christian response to the impossibility of getting ourselves out of the lonely world of self-improvement? What do we say after we’ve overspent our stay at Finn and Jake’s tree house, been spurned by the princesses, when our ice crowns lay heavy on our heads, and we only have Gunter left to keep us company?

When Kierkegaard analyzes Jesus’ comments on worry (from Matthew 6:25-34), he focuses on our universal need for self-improvement. When man is “tortured by the futility of his efforts to become something” (​319), he stumbles under the weight of his own inadequacy. Kierkegaard writes:

His care is: ​being nothing​ — indeed, not being at all. Thus he is a long way from being like the bird, which is what it is. Therefore, in turn, his concern is: ​to become something in the world​…

He sinks deeper and deeper into desperate care, but he finds no footing for bearing his burden — after all, he is nothing, of which he becomes conscious to his own torment by dint of the idea of what the others are. (​318)

This is precisely the situation experienced by both the Ice King and Raskolnikov. Both man and wizard, when faced with the threat of non-existence, thrash and rail against non-being in just the manner that Kierkegaard is describing. The habitual impulse to fight the gravitational pull of obscurity, loneliness, and powerlessness is well-known to all of us. This is especially true when we inevitably compare ourselves to Finn and Jake or Napoleon. The pressure of non-existence is compounded and spurred on by self-comparison.

I know that the fear of being alone or of not reaching my full potential when my delusions are constantly telling me that I am a Napoleonic socialite both well up from inside of me and are thrust down upon me by the society in which I live and work. Knowing the source of this tension, however, doesn’t aid Raskolnikov in his existential plight. It doesn’t help the Ice King when Finn and Jake make fun of his home movies. And it certainly doesn’t short-circuit the death spiral for me.

In response to this dismal reality, Kierkegaard writes:

The lowly Christian, who before God is himself, ​exists​ as a Christian ​before his prototype.​ He believes that God has lived on earth, that he has allowed himself to be born in lowly and poor circumstances, yes, in ignominy, and then as a child lived together with the ordinary man who was called his father and the despised virgin who was his mother. After that he wandered about in the lowly form of a servant, not distinguishable from other lowly persons even by his conspicuous lowliness, until he ended in the most extreme wretchedness, crucified as a criminal — and then, it is true, left behind a name. But the lowly Christian’s aspiration is only to dare in life and in death to appropriate his name or to be named after him. (​316)

The response offered by Christianity is a simple acknowledgement that our prototype in Jesus is one of ignominy and lowliness. Christianity proposes that our inability to fight non-existence through our own efforts has somehow been incorporated into the life of God through the earthly existence of the Word made flesh. It observes that, on the cross, Jesus was well-acquainted with the chaotic non-existence of Gunter experienced by every man.

Christianity embraces the fact that I am the Ice King, and my neighbor is the Ice King, and we’re all the Ice King. Yet there is peace in this, because Jesus became like the Ice King for us. If the Christ figure in ​Crime and Punishment​ is Sonia, the really outrageous claim of the Christian message is that Jesus paradoxically becomes Raskolnikov for us, as well. The slanderous claim of the Gospel is that Jesus fully understands the pain and suffering and utter loneliness of Ice King while at the same time offering the salvific atonement of Abraham Lincoln.

When we hear this good news, we are often tempted to transmogrify the Gospel into a message of self-martyrdom which requires us to become lowly to become more like Jesus. But the reality pummeled into us by Kierkegaard (​3​25), and more fundamentally by the Gospel itself, is that we’re all ​already​ in our Ice Castles writing fan-fiction with Gunter. And ultimately, even attempting to become more lowly still keeps us in Dostoyevskian paranoia, because we’re still trying to fight non-existence on our own fruitless terms. By making ourselves martyrs, we still believe that “we” are the primary variables in the equation, which inevitably fails time and time again. The short-circuiting of the death spiral is fundamentally out of our reach.

The alternative reality presented by the Gospel is that our ​full​ selves, both in our inherent lowliness and in our inability to climb out of the hole on our own strength, are completely in the hands of God. The good news of the Gospel is that God has already acted on our behalf, in spite of ourselves, and incorporated our inherent lowliness and non-existence into the Godhead itself, completely independent of our own doings and strivings and attempts at self-glorification (or even self-sanctification). In the lonely and obscure places, Jesus is present and grace abounds for us as we are.

I’ll let the Ice King close this one out:

“This must be it, man. I’ve crossed into some new super-insane zone where I feel like I’m just normal again.”

This super-insane zone is the place where the Gospel, and specifically the crucifixion, takes us. Through the cross, God makes himself present in our lowliness. Through Jesus’ atonement, the Godhead is present in the nothingness and paranoia of Raskolnikov and the Ice King, regardless of if they try to fight it or not​. Through the Incarnation, reality is changed — non-being is made into being, the Ice King is invited into the treehouse even though he isn’t Simon Petrikov anymore, and the grip of Raskolnikov’s paranoia is loosened because the sin of his failed attempt at self-making is wiped away. The landscape of non-being is made into a place of comfort, beauty, and friendship with our creator, and we are allowed to simply be our weird, fan-fiction writing, ninja-cave building selves in the zany land of Ooo we call home. Thank Glob.

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