Modernist Lit and Plato in Adventure Time’s “Five Short Tables”

On the latest episode of Adventure Time, “Five Short Tables,” Ice King’s ‘Fionna and Cake’ fanfictions get jumbled together in an experimental anthology episode. It’s the eponymous time again!

A while ago I responded to a Reddit thread asking if Adventure Time could be considered a piece of modernist narrative, to which I answered, absolutely; the multiplicity of side characters and plots defies expectations of a single ‘master narrative’, the focus on nostalgia lets us re-examine pop culture and tropes, and Adventure Time is definitely aware of its own existence as a series, and frequently breaks the fourth wall. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Fionna and Cake episodes, where the writers made the absolutely genius move of anticipating its own fandom.

And now, magically, we’re gifted with a Fionna and Cake episode that serves remarkably well as a primer of modernist literature and ideas. In “Five Short Tables,” the writers take the narrative strangeness of fanfiction to ever greater heights, as they explore the ways in which random detail creates realism, and we can consider the artist simply as the person who arranges said random details; the storytelling occurs purely in the viewer’s random associations and personal interpretations. “Five Short Tables” turns the idea of an anthology on its head by using similarly random, disconnected stories that, nonetheless, still manage to connect into an overarching message about the way we (both creator and viewer) create stories.

Fionna shows Cake some Pancake Parables in Five Short Tables

Past Fionna and Cake episodes centered on fanfiction as a vehicle for wish-fulfillment, but “Five Short Tables” focuses more on the storytelling process, and the surprising ways in which a story is actually created. The framing tale focuses on Ice King, who’s found random pages from his fanfictions unceremoniously scattered by Gunter. He cobbles the pieces together (with Ice King-decorated washi tape) into a single extended story. His patchwork method of storytelling introduces the idea that even when confronted with random pieces of data, the mind of the viewer will do logical backflips in order to make the data ‘make sense.’ And this ‘sense’ is called a story.

The first miniplot sees Cake (the gender/species-flipped Jake) in the position of the artist: she’s cooking up some pancakes, in the name of art rather than breakfast. She’s trying to tell a story with her pancake pieces, with each piece signifying a different part of the story, but as Fionna points out, if all the pieces are indistinguishable blobs, then there’s no discernible story. They decide to go into the world so that Cake can see real people, and make more realistic pancake pieces. Cake’s realizing that lifelike detail is the key to making stories that actually feel like stories–just as Ice King’s random miniplots will magically coalesce into an anthology episode, random detail precipitates believable stories. On the other hand, non-random detail is what makes stories feel cliched and artificial, which Ice King demonstrates later when he ‘splains the whole theme at the end.

From here on out, the short stories (which parody the fable-like Grayble series of AT episodes) feel absolutely random and disjointed, intentionally; this is still just a collection of Ice King fanfics strung together, and the conceit is that any meaning you find in the short stories are therefore completely accidental and of your own design (except they aren’t, because Ice King didn’t write “Five Short Tables”, the writers did, and oh my god this is a difficult episode to write about but let’s do this anyway).

Fionna and Cake spy on Prince Gumball in Five Short Tables

Fionna and Cake first turn to Prince Gumball for a life model. They find him obsessing in his lab, looking through Candy periodic tables to find a way to beat Butterscotch Butler (Peppermint Butler’s Scottish genderbent version!) at Go. Gumball soundly loses, and Butterscotch explains that her key to victory is knowing Gumball inside and out: she explains her familiarity with his dreams (insert reference to Fuseli’s The Nightmare), his regrets (something to do with Marshall Lee, in reference to the whole Bubbline situation), his hopes (something like godhood), and fears (mortality and loneliness). Once again, we’re confronted with a collection of random details that form a definite point: a character portrait of Gumball. Fionna and Cake might not have found a great model in Gumball, but they’ve at least learned a lesson in creative writing.

The various short stories are visually strung together by some linking visual, again with the theme of random detail; Gumball’s diary transitions to become a book in Turtle Prince’s library, where Flame Prince (bafflingly voiced by deadpan comedian Hannibal Buress) nearly burns down the place down with his flames. The smoke in the library transitions to clouds in a night sky, and below them Marshall Lee is trying to get a sore-throated and reluctant Lumpy Space Prince to swallow a tablespoon of medicine. LSP hides out in a tree knot, and Marshall Lee tries to guilt him into taking the meds by faking a monster attack. In an oblique reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, LSP hears the staged sounds produced by Marshall Lee, leading him to believe Marshall’s been mortally wounded in a fight. Again, random details (Marshall’s sound effects) are strung together to form a narrative, which LSP totally buys; he takes the medicine, believing it to be Marshall’s dying wish.

The Plato reference adds surprising depth to “Five Short Tables,” as it introduces the idea that random details point to a greater reality. In the original allegory, this greater reality refers to the phenomena producing the shadows on the wall; in terms of a single story, random details point to an overarching plot; in terms of an anthology, the random stories refer to an overarching theme. And as the original allegory explains, our minds reach for these greater realities in a search for meanings and conclusions regarding the reality we currently live in. In effect, the story-making function of the human mind is the same process we use to assign meaning and identity, and “Five Short Tables” comes to symbolize the act of confronting a world of random details, and attempting to make sense of it.

Lumpy Space Prince in Five Short Tables

The moon in LSP’s short story becomes the sun in yet another short story: the Ice Queen’s own fanfiction (within the current fanfiction) about Flynn the Human and Jacques the Raccoon, pondering the human condition with the Ice President. Ice Queen’s narration comes to an end, when she realizes the penguins are busy with Fionna and Cake’s pancake-portraits. Ice Queen ‘tables’ her fanfiction critique with Fionna as they fight it out–Fionna emerges victorious, and Cake finishes her Ice Queen pancake, which she calls ‘Portrait of an Artist,’ in one of two references (the first being Gumball’s diary, ‘Diary of a Youth’) to modernist author Jame Joyce’s work Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce himself was known for his mastery of stream-of-consciousness narration, in which the reader’s confronted with a ton of random detail (from the perspective of the narrator) that come together into a deeply detailed model of the world, as seen through the narrator’s or character’s eyes.

With that, Ice King concludes his fanfiction-collage, explaining to Gunther that the theme (as all Graybles episodes have a theme) was ‘tables,’ as in Fionna’s dining table, Gumball’s periodic table, Flame Prince’s burning of a table of contents, and LSP’s tablespoon of medicine; he struggles, however, to fit in Ice Queen’s story (not realizing that she had ‘tabled’ her fanfiction discussion). That last bit’s an interesting detail that demonstrates that in any given work of art, the creator’s intention is basically worthless–it doesn’t matter what the writer tried to communicate, what matters is what he did communicate, and what you (as the reader) experienced, processed mentally, and interpret. Once again, the episode focuses on the viewer as the ‘real’ creator, and on random detail and association as the ‘real’ building blocks of storytelling.

The penguins get a pancake surprise in Five Short Tables

“Five Short Tables” throws us yet another loop when we realize that this has all been a recording, another one of Cuber’s Graybles that he’d been rewatching, and once he finishes, he announces that he’ll “never look at tables the same way” again. What we have here is a series of short stories arranged ‘horizontally’ and ‘vertically’: all of Ice King’s short stories are horizontal to each other in that they constitute one anthology together, side by side. The vertically placed stories refer to the multiple framing devices–Ice King reading his short stories, Cuber watching his Grayble. The difference between the two types is that horizontally positioned stories call attention to a unified story (that of Ice King’s anthology), while vertically positioned stories call attention to the viewers of these stories, whose situations inform our own readings of these stories. Hence, Ice Queen’s story means something different when you realize that Ice King is reading it, and Ice King’s own story takes on new meaning when we realize Cuber is reading it. With this device, we get one final iteration of the idea that the viewer is the real storyteller.

…well, that was a hell of a trip, and I hope that made sense. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had to write so dang much about an episode, but that just goes to show how unexpectedly impressive “Five Short Tables” really is. The Fionna and Cake stories continue to be an insanely interesting subset of episodes, one subset of many that make Adventure Time an absolutely b-e-r-s-e-r-k series to follow.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew, what did you read to understand this stuff the way you do? I believe you when you say this is the metatext of the episode but there’s no way I’d be able to unpick it myself.

    1. Hey, thanks for reading! I happened to major in Literature in college, and happened to take a James Joyce class that really informed my reading of “Five Short Tables.” There’s a lot of parallels between the two (much of Joyce’s classic Ulysses is also made of tiny minutiae that string into a coherent plot). Actually, a lot of English modernist literature is obsessed with the idea that we’re coherence-making organisms reacting to an incoherent world, so modernism in general might be a good area for further reading.

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