Just to make it clear, this will not be about James Cameron’s Avatar. Nor is it about The Last Airbender, the horrible live-action film by M. Night Shyamalan. This series of entries will be devoted to the popular animated television series titled Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’ll simply refer to the show as Avatar in this and other subsequent entries.
The series was first brought to my attention by a good friend of mine; I initially paid little heed to his initial sales pitch of “it’s really good!” because we generally have very different tastes. But on one Sunday afternoon, I happened upon an episode (now known to me as the excellent Bitter Work) and was caught off-guard by the show’s blend of Eastern influences, subtle characterizations, sharp dialogue, slapstick humour, layered mythology, and most important of all, excellent storytelling. Intrigued, I decided to catch up on the series from the very beginning. It has since grown to become one of my favourite television shows, animated or not, of all time.
Like many contemporary works of fantasy for children and young adults, Avatar is a coming-of-age story built upon universal themes of duty, love, honour, and redemption. What makes the show special is the execution of its vision; the pacing of its narrative, the richness of its mythic world, its mature handling of race and gender, and its multi-faceted character development are all second to none. The fact that it is animated and marketed primarily to children does not diminish its worth and quality; creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dimartino ensured that the show never talked down to the audience, giving it universal appeal across a broad demographic. The Peabody award-winning show constantly rewards its viewers not only with a riveting adventure punctuated by expertly crafted action pieces, but also powerful moments of pathos and poignancy. As a result of all these factors, Avatar is an enduring classic that improves with repeat viewings and holds up to detailed analyses.
There are a lot of connections I found within Avatar’s narrative, characters, and mythology that make it a fascinating Ekostory. This extended analysis will comprise three entries: The first primarily explores the workings of the show’s world ; the second will focus on the various societies and characters of that world; the final essay will focus on the show’s main protagonist, Aang, and his role as the moral center of the show.
In the world of Avatar, there exist individuals known as benders – people who have the ability to manipulate the elements of water, earth, fire, or air. The element they can control is dictated by the origin of their birthplace: The Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, or the Air Nomads. At any given time, there exists a single individual with the capability of manipulating all four elements. He or she is the Avatar, the person responsible for keeping peace and order between the nations and is also the conduit between the physical and spiritual worlds. When an Avatar passes away, the spirit is reincarnated into a new individual, cycling from one nation to the next. At the beginning of the show, the Avatar has been missing for over a hundred years, and as a result the world has fallen into warfare and strife.
Each of Avatar’s three seasons chronicles the adventures of Aang, the last of the Air Nomads and the Avatar, and his journey to master the elements and bring balance back to the world. Rather than writing out the details of the saga, here are brief synopses of Book 1: Water, Book 2: Earth, and Book 3: Fire.
The world of Avatar: Nature and culture in peril
Our nation is enjoying an unprecedented time of peace and wealth. Our people are happy, and we’re so fortunate in so many ways… I’ve been thinking. We should share this prosperity with the rest of the world. In our hands is the most successful empire in history. It’s time we expanded it. (Firelord Sozin, The Avatar and the Firelord)
The central conflict of Avatar is a century-long war started by Fire Lord Sozin. Capitalizing on the power vacuum left by the death of an Avatar, Sozin and his descendants leveraged their nation’s technological prowess to seek control and domination over others, justifying their warmongering as a way to share their wealth and prosperity with the rest of the world. In the audio commentaries of the series’ DVDs, technological advancement and a ravenous appetite for natural resources were cited as key factors behind Sozin’s campaign of aggressive expansion. The Fire Nation was in part modeled after Japan’s rapid industrialization during the Meiji Restoration and its subsequent decades of imperialism and militarism. (source). The environmental and social consequences of this path of development are seen throughout the world of Avatar.
Coal was the fuel of choice for powering Fire Nation war machines; many instances of its social and environmental impacts resulted from this ravenous dependency. The Fire Nation occupied Earth Kingdom territory and subjugated its people for the access of their coal mines (Imprisoned). Southern Water Tribe members learned from grim experience that a rain of black soot, a result of coal-burning warships, generally preceded a Fire Nation invasion (The Siege of the North, Part 1 & The Southern Raiders). War masks, machinery, and smog come to serve as primary visual imagery for the Fire Nation.
With increasing technological control came an increasingly disregard for the natural world. Forests were burned down without regard, leaving scarred and barren landscapes (The Winter Solstice, Part 1). Even Fire Nation citizens were not immune to environmental degradation; in one instance, a nearby war factory discharges toxic sludge into the river that a local fishing village depends upon for their livelihood (The Painted Lady). Air bisons, giant flying creatures that served as the original inspiration for airbending, were wiped out during the genocide of the Air Nomads. Firelord Sozin also began the tradition of hunting dragons for glory, as they were seen as the ultimate firebenders; Only two dragons remain after a century of prestige hunting. Real world parallels are all too easy to find, as decimation of charismatic megafauna continues today for traditional medicine, sport, and status.
More blatant than instances of environmental degradation were acts of cultural destruction and corruption. During the century-long conflict, the Fire Nation committed terrible atrocities were committed against the other nations. These include the genocide of the Air Nomads (save Aang), the heavy occupation of Earth Kingdom territory, and the systematic elimination of bending disciplines in the Southern Water Tribe. Even Fire Nation culture has suffered during the century of warfare. In the Avatar universe, the original inspiration for firebending is the sun, the primary agent for creation and life (The Firebending Masters). The royal family regime has actively suppressed that notion through decades of propaganda and autocratic rule (The Headband). Most firebenders harness their powers strictly for the service of the state, utilizing their art for destructive purposes from a sense of superiority over others.
Domination, subjugation, and extermination of the other, whether they be different cultures or creatures, became the norm for the Fire Nation war campaign. In his final act, Firelord Ozai attempted to employ a scorched earth strategy in order to annihilate both nature and culture, seeking to purge the world of all that is undesirable and different in order to forge a world of his liking.
Avatar’s overarching narrative speaks to how without proper checks and balances, the choices of a few greedy, overambitious, and powerful individuals can create a world that is unsustainable, exploitative, and unjust. It is in this world that the Avatar must attempt to restore balance, justice, and peace.
Avatar mythology: A human force of nature
Automatically triggered when Aang’s survival is threatened or when he is under severe emotional duress, the Avatar spirit that is eternally reincarnated into each cycle of the elements is depicted as a powerful and unstoppable force throughout the show. Drawing from four elements motif of the show, the Avatar spirit is a combination of the tornado, the tsunami, the earthquake, and the volcanic eruption. It is a literal force of nature, capable of great acts of creation and destruction. But it is also primal in its essence; it cares nothing for the concerns and morality of humanity. It is made clear in the show that the power of the undiluted and uncontrolled Avatar spirit cannot be harnessed for personal or national gain; attempts to deliberately trigger it generally end in disaster.
What makes the Avatar a force for balance and ethical action is the human component. A fully-realized Avatar embodies both the vast elemental powers of nature and humanity’s gifts of selfhood and choice. In the series finale, Avatar Aang, Aang was able to temper the powers of the Avatar Spirit with his own principles and morals. The central conflict of the series was not brought to an end solely through the actions of a wrathful power, but also through the compassion, benevolence, and mercy of the human spirit. One of my favourite scenes is when Aang becomes a fully-realized Avatar to use his incredible powers not for destruction or meting out justice, but to heal and soothe the damage upon on the landscape that was caused by the conflict with Fire Nation airships.
For me, this is one of the most powerful, poignant, and important moments in the show. The completion of Aang’s journey into a fully-realized Avatar represents a reconciliation between natural and cultural forces within a single individual. Power is tempered by understanding and control. Action is governed by ethical considerations. Control over the physical world is not used to destroy or kill, but rather to heal and cleanse. As the Avatar, he uses both his powers derived from nature along with the morals he derived from his culture to become a positive and ethical force for the creation of a more sustainable, just, and peaceful world.
- How do these ideas translate over to the real world and the creation of a more sustainable, just, and peaceful future?
Avatar mythology: Responsibility to the world
Within Hinduism, the avatar is a deliberate manifestation of a deity in human form. It is most often associated with Vishnu, the preserver and sustainer face of God within the Hindu trinity. This particular version of the avatar is responsible for bringing dharma, or righteousness, back to the social and cosmic order (Wikipedia).
Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases
I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age. (Bhavagad Gita:4.7–8)
The Avatar of the show plays a similar role. The creators of the show describe him or her as a “keystone” being – the central element to the balance of the world. In the series bible, they go further, describing it as the literal incarnation of the spirit of the planet in human form (The Art of the Animated Series, p.14). Like the Hindu deity, the show’s Avatar strives to preserve and sustain the social and cosmic order, being responsible for the balance between the nations, nature, and the spirit world.
Maintaining and protecting cultural, natural, and spiritual balance in such a world is a tall order; the avatar must understand what things are worth protecting and why. Thus its spirit is reborn in human form to every generation to a different nation; he/she has to relearn and remaster the four elements, and has to experience the ever-changing dynamics of the human condition. The Avatar must learn to form worldly attachments, for these bonds and connections make him/her care about the world and give him/her the will to protect it. Yangchen, a previous Air Nomad Avatar, explains the need for the Avatar to be anchored to the world:
The Avatar must be compassionate towards all people…and the only way to do that is to live with them. The Avatar must experience sadness… Anger… Joy… and happiness. By feeling all these emotions, it helps you understand how precious human life is…. so you will do anything to protect it. If you were an all-powerful spirit living on the top of some mountain…. you wouldn’t have much in common with an ordinary person. So the Avatar continues to take human rebirth. And with each life, learns what it means to be human. (Yangchen, Avatar: Escape to the Spirit World)
Two significant bonds anchor Aang to the world a century removed from his own. The first is Appa, his wind bison companion. Appa represents the last living reminder of Aang’s heritage, teachings, and culture, and his only link to the past. The second is Katara, the Water Tribe girl who freed him from an iceberg after a century. Over the course of the show, she became his best friend, his source of hope, the confidant to his darkest secrets, his strength in the worst times. It was her support that kept him sane after he learns about the genocide of his people. Throughout the series, these two bonds were critical in maintaining Aang’s connection to the world, forming the foundation for his desire to save it.
- What bonds and connections motivate you to protect and fight for a better future?
Avatar mythology: Interconnectedness
Embedded within the mythology of the show is the notion of interconnectedness; several explicit examples exist of Aang coming to that realization during his Avatar training. In one episode, he has an interesting exchange with Hue, a hippy waterbender who attained spiritual enlightenment under a giant banyan tree:
“Sure, you think you’re any different from me? Or your friend? Or this tree? If you listen hard enough, you can hear every living thing breathing together, you can feel everything growing. We’re all living together, even if most folks don’t act like it. We all have the same roots, and we are all branches of the same tree.” (Hue, The Swamp)
The second example comes at the end of Book Two in the episode titled The Guru. While training with Guru Pathik, a spiritual brother to the Air Nomads, Aang learns that the notion of separation is an illusion:
Guru Pathik: The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation. Things you think are separate and different are actually one and the same.
Aang: Like the four nations.
Guru Pathik: Yes. We are all one people, but we live as if divided.
Aang: We’re all connected. Everything is connected.
Guru Pathik: That’s right. Even the separation of the four elements is an illusion.
Avatar conveys the notion that the world is an integrated whole. These examples remind me of a previous Ekostory I wrote on 6 Billion Others: Climate Voices. Although separated by borders and ideologies, deep down we all share deep similarities on what it means to be human. We are connected by the roots of being, and the earth is our country. The notion of interconnectedness found in the world of Avatar reminds me of this simple but often overlooked fact.
Dimartino, Michael D. & Knietzko, Bryan. Nickelodeon Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Art of the Animated Series. Dark Horse Books, Milwaukie OR: 2010.
Images and footage of Avatar: The Last Airbender © 2005-2012 Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved.