“This place is designed to mess you up, to mess with your head, none of this is real, it’s all just designed to trial your heroic attributes.” – Jake the Dog
Finn the Human, the last human still living in the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo with his best friend and adoptive brother Jake the Dog are the protagonists of cult television programme Adventure Time, created by Pendleton Ward.
Jake and Finn are post-modern heroes of a neo Marxist representation of reality, what is discussed within the following essay, however, are the poetics of martyrdom and the reoccurring sacrifice of the self which is continually evident in the actions of the main characters, particularly Finn.
Adventure time may have a cult following because the main character is a symbolic representation of the mythopraxis of European society, deeply entwined with ancient Christian theology (Wandinger, 2010), through the genre of fantasy storytelling.
Finn is a performative martyr in training (Kelley, 2006) while simultaneously a martyr following the metaphorical death of his childhood and potentially profane pre-apocalyptic life, being “just a normal dude” (Adventure Time, 2010).
Cumulatively, his actions are a representation of ‘the encompassing entity of which they are ‘part’’ rather than of truly autonomous actions of the individual (Laidlaw, 2014: 179).
At the start of each episode Finn pledges to sacrifice himself in some way to the greater good, for want to be righteous and noble, and from a sense of responsibility exacerbated by the fact that he is the last human alive after the devastating Mushroom War. Finn is a symbol of sacrifice; he is also a symbol of new beginning.
Within Islamic cosmology a martyr is a person or persons fighting to advance the word of God, martyrdom is exemplified by youth, good deeds, and tragic happening or a sudden death, one in which the intent of the performers actions are to benefit someone other than themselves (Ghannam, 2015).
Martyrdom is hard to define as it is contextual in nature, engendered by the interconnection of intention, life and afterlife, ‘the notion of a ‘good ending’ […] is central to these technologies.’ (Ghannam, 2015: 634)
The transformative power of death is exhibited with Finn’s sense of responsibility as a saviour, a hero. The transformative mytheme (Levi-Strauss, 1958) of mythopraxis based on Christian theology has been identified previously, observing both modern and ancient stories of heroism (Campbell, 1949) and sacrifice (Wandinger, 2010).
Finn’s seemingly autonomous will, sacrificing an innocuous and passive life to save Ooo from potential villainous threats are an embodiment of Finn’s responsibility and his preparation for martyrdom (Kelley, 2006). To transform the tragedy of the human deceased to a more settling transcendence of death to life, to reintegrate the deceased into the world of the living through the only affiliate left from the pre-apocalyptic era. Finn himself is metaphorically dead, he sacrifices his childhood and his profane existence to transform the deceased into a personification of martyrdom, as he embodies the righteous hero, his repetitive performative acts are mourning practices, a way to remember the deceased (Ghannam, 2015).
In the Islamic imagination a ‘good ending’ is usually determined by a ‘culmination of a pious and socially meaningful life’ (Ghannam, 2015: 635). Paralleling the concept that a ‘good ending’ will be the death following a socially meaningful life, is the ubiquitous concept of ‘preparing for martyrdom’ within ancient Christian texts (Kelley, 2006). For the deceased to reintegrate into the realm of the living as a martyr often demands death of the character. Within fictional media, however, martyrdom may be assigned by how the hero approaches death within a life of performative selfsacrifice rather than posthumously (Wandinger, 2010).
The tragedy of the Mushroom War transforms the world of Adventure Time, beginning again in the new, post-apocalyptic world of Ooo. The sacrifice exhibited by Finn with each performative act of heroism brings with it a new beginning, these performative acts at the start of each episode begin each respective adventure. Finn’s passion, anger and frustration at the want to perform as a saviour, relinquishing his own self, are the subtle violence that Finn undergoes in his quest to be the ultimate righteous hero; as Michael Lambek writes; ‘self-sacrifice exhibits this inextricable connection of action and passion or ‘resoluteness of released engagement’’ (Dallymayr 1993: 58-59; Lambek 2007: 31).
With every example of sacrifice of the self, shown by the protagonists, Finn and Jake show a naivety and joyful excitement for adventure which negotiates the more obvious expectations of reciprocation for their generosity, making their intentions truer to the concept of the ‘free gift’ (Laidlaw, 2000). What makes Finn’s actions as a sacrifice rather than a gift is the delicate savagery that he subjects himself to with each act of martyrdom (Lambek, 2007). Finn’s intrinsic depth of responsibility shows his actions as genuine of altruistic intent, his preparation for martyrdom is not a conscious one but a narrative that has been self-affirmed and created (Ghannam, 2015) for him by the mythopraxis of the fantasy genre (Kelley, 2006), the transformative power of the hero’s narrative (Campbell, 1949).
These performative acts of sacrifice are explained well by Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, 1988). These heroic acts are Finn’s formation of himself as an ethical subject, he controls his own conduct, his thoughts and actions, formulating a state of righteous ethical superiority from the living, or his past self (Foucault, 1988; McClaren,2002).
Although Finn may seem to have agency as an individual, his profound sense of responsibility tells us that his apparent heroism, as individual acts, do not lie in autonomous performability. Once committed to his path of self-sacrifice, of heroism, this is intrinsic to who he is as a person, in context to who he is within society and of that society itself, ‘who one is is thereby understood existentially rather than essentially through the sheer initiation of being.’ (Lambek, 2007; 33). In this case the transformative power of death represents Finn-the-Hero as the deceased human community itself (Laidlaw, 2014). Finn’s agency is denied through his ongoing self-appointed responsibility, his responsibility imbued by the pre-apocalyptic society of which he is no longer a present part (Lambek, 2007).
Finn’s life is a series of performative acts, beginnings, which in turn begin his martyr story, the transcript of the ‘trial of the martyr which later acquires a narrative framework and other legendary accretions’ such as the label of the truly righteous hero (Kelley, 2006:728).
The villainous Ice King is a self-appointed martyr saying as he does to a passing ethereal owl; “Why don’t people like me? Is it because I’m a magic user? Is my beard too shaggy? I try so hard to be a good husband to girls, what wrong with me?” To which the owl replies “You’re a sociopath.” The Ice King’s selfishness and narcissism is the antithesis to Finn’s naivety and altruistic intent, the Ice King’s intent is want of immediate reciprocity highlighting Finn’s want only to be a truly righteous hero, in which any reciprocation will be assigned posthumously. The Ice King’s age is also an antithesis to Finn’s youth (being just twelve years old at the start of series one) for to lose one’s life to
responsibility at a young age may be another sacrifice worthy of martyrdom (Ghannam, 2015)
Finn is often romantically preoccupied by the vastly intelligent Princess Bubblegum, to whom which he often pledges his heroic devotion. Much of Finn’s sacrifice of himself to heroic virtue is with the apparent intent of making himself more available to Bubblegum, with redundant efficacy. As sacrifice and passion are concurrently existing, this passion Finn feels for Bubblegum turns Finn irreversibly on the path of the righteous hero inviting ‘identification and repetition’ (Lambek 2007: 33), this is actualised by Pendleton Ward aging and growing his characters’ throughout the show (Mumford, 2012).
In the episode Burning Low Bubblegum crouches down to Finn as he sits upon the grass and states; “Finn, sometimes you want someone and you want to kiss them and be with them but you can’t because responsibility demands sacrifice.”
The oxymoronic poetic tragedy of sacrifice for true love; being that one can never receive the love that one is seeking, as the beginnings that have transpired through the performative acts of selfsacrifice have taken these individuals down irreversible paths (Lambek, 2007). The only benefit to these two performative martyrs is that the characters, posthumously (metaphoric in Finn’s case), transforms and transcends death through martyrdom (Ghannam, 2015).
Finn’s sacrifice of the self leaves him within the realm of liminality. His character lies static, in a realm outside of the normal rules of transformative social order through its own fictional nature (Wandinger, 2010). He is simultaneously a metaphoric symbol of his own death and that of the deceased pre-apocalyptic community which lie upon his shoulders.
Finn is the embodiment of performative mythopraxis through acts of martyrdom preparation (Kelley, 2006) in a mythologically repeated hero’s narrative (Campbell, 1949). Finn performs heroic virtue in anticipation of a fictional canonization, he is the hero but also the victim of his own martyr transcript (Kelley, 2006). His sacrifice births his hero’s narrative and with it an irreversible path of repeated self-sacrifice (Lambek, 2007). Drawing empathy from the viewer, Adventure Time identifies Finn as the naïve and perpetually optimistic victim of his own narrative, in Finn’s suffering he has become a truly righteous hero, and that, for the audience is, “totally mathematical.” (Adventure Time, 2010)
Adventure Time. 2010. [Film] Directed by Pedleton Ward. United States of America: Cartoon Network .
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