I am absolutely certain that I’m not alone when I say that I find the Earl of Lemongrab from Adventure Time extremely disturbing. Extremely Disturbing, like something out of Winnie the Pooh that requires capitalization to convey the full horror of it. And horror is what Lemongrab inspires. The old-fashioned kind of moral horror authors like Mary Shelley were after when they reflected the monstrousness of human failings in the mirror of humanity’s own sad, monstrous creations. For an interesting comparison to Frankenstein see Carol Borden’s excellent article The Shrieking Horror of Castle Lemongrab. In fact, I’ve always found Lemongrab so horrifying that I have never been able to relate to him, until now.
A big part of my job is to work with System X. I am That One Guy in the company who knows all of the weird ways System X works, like the secret handshake or that car door handle you have to wiggle exactly the right way. You try it and nothing happens. Then I do what appears to be exactly the same thing and it pops open. I bet you’ve met that guy before. But take my word for it when I tell you that being That One Guy is even more annoying than having him open the door for you. Do you know why? Because the system should not work that way. I should not have to put a fish on my head and spin around three times counter-clockwise to get it to work, and you should not need my help with the accursed handle. It is a fundamental flaw that should not be allowed to continue exist.
Those of you who are familiar with the Earl of Lemongrab may begin to see where I’m heading with this, but I should take a moment at this point to attempt to describe him for those who have not experienced him. How do I even begin? He’s an experiment gone wrong, created in a lab by candy scientist Princess Bubblegum (PB) and then basically exiled to Castle Lemongrab where he lives alone until PB gives in to his shrieking demands to ”donate” candy citizens to populate his kingdom and assuage his loneliness. They don’t behave the way he believes they should, so he administers shock therapy in his reconditioning chamber until they comply. When PB creates a brother for him, the two of them find the secret formula for creating candy life and obsessively create more and more candy subjects while their existing candy subjects are starving and have begun cannibalizing each other and themselves. In an exceptionally disturbing narrative twist, Lemongrab consumes his own brother in a fit of pique, unable to tolerate the otherness of even another Lemongrab.
He creeped me out completely, until last week when I realized that there is nothing in the world that captures my feeling about the way System X currently works better than Lemongrab shrieking “Unacceptable!”
And that’s the way it is. You lift up a rock somewhere in your soul and it’s “oh look, Lemongrab!” Watching his character development over time, I’ve come to appreciate both how awful and terrifying he is, and also how he represents something that is a piece of every human being, isolated and condensed into a single character for maximum effect. It’s a great example of how archetypal Adventure Time is, which I think is part of why it’s been so successful with such a wide audience. The characters have the quality of a fairy tale, albeit a somewhat warped one, where they represent different parts of human nature, tendencies, or temptations without becoming didactic or judgemental.
Perhaps Lemongrab’s most relatable expression is the one reserved for anyone who does not do what he thinks they should do: “One million years dungeon!”
Most of us have enough of a super-ego to respond to other people’s choices with some degree of understanding that they’re not going to do everything the way we think they should. In fact, a lot of the time we may even see that as a feature rather than a bug, something that expands and enriches our lives even when it’s challenging. But Lemongrab has a total inability to tolerate the otherness of other people, and I know there are moments when there is a Lemongrab inside me that wishes with all its little lemon heart that it could just lock the things it can’t cope with away for one million years.
What Lemongrab needs from other people is precisely the thing that he is incapable of doing himself, which is accepting him for who he is and how he needs to be in the world. When Princess Bubblegum tries to teach him the Candy Kingdom way to treat people, it makes no sense to him. He challenges her with “…who says your way’s right, anyway? I look in the lemon heart that you gave me and see my lemon way to act and that must be right.” His brain is different from the other candy people and he’s never going to see the world the same way. It doesn’t make the suffering he inflicts ok, but it does make it very difficult to figure out how he can live in the Land of Oo with the rest of the candy people without being left all alone.
A friend helpfully reframed my take on it by explaining that he can relate to Lemongrab because his own experience of the world is that people all around him are constantly doing things that he considers unacceptable and deeply upsetting. Of course, I find Lemongrab’s idea of what is acceptable deeply upsetting as well, but it helped me have compassion for my own lemon ways. Since I am not a Lemongrab though, I plan to use that self-awareness to recognize when the outrage in my lemon heart is actually justified and use the honesty of that feeling to create change, even when all I really want to do is shriek “unacceptable, one million years dungeon!”
alex MacFadyen prefers the parts of Adventure Time where everything is a game that ends with sandwiches and snuggling down in a sleeping bag next to your best friend.