One of the most well executed aspects of Avatar: The Last Airbender is its depiction of the four elemental nations of its fictional world. The depth and care taken to create the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads contributed enormously to the richness of the show, creating a world of diverse cultures and perspectives. This helps to separate Avatar from many contemporary and more derivative works of fantasy.
Embedded within the fictional world of Avatar is the idea that each society and its people reflect the tendencies of their element. But after a century-long absence of the Avatar, the nations have become stagnant, unbalanced, dysfunctional, and in need of serious reform. In this entry, I’ll explore how the protagonists of Avatar serve as agents of change in the world by embodying the best qualities of their respective elements.
Fragile and rigid: The Water Tribes
“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.” (Iroh, Bitter Work)
The first season of Avatar explores the inner workings of the Southern and Northern Water Tribes. A century of constant Fire Nation raids has left the Southern Tribe in ruins. The people of this once great culture hold on tenuously to life in small villages, and community bonds are stretched almost to their breaking point. The exchange of cultural knowledge has been disrupted; there are few left to pass down unique arts and skills.
In sharp contrast to their southern cousins, the Northern Water Tribe remains largely intact. But it is also a society mired in deep dysfunction. The people stubbornly cling to sexist traditions that actively hindered war efforts against the Fire Nation. They refuse to adapt and learn about their enemy, preferring to retreat behind their own frozen walls. As a result, they are ill prepared when the Fire Nation navy arrives at their doorstep, and would have fallen to the ensuing siege if not for the timely interventions of the show’s protagonists.
Through external and internal factors, the Water Tribes have become fragile and rigid – uncharacteristic for societies based on the element of change.
Despondent and subversive: The Earth Kingdom
“Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring.” (Bitter Work)
In the second season, the main characters traverse the Earth Kingdom in search of allies for their fight against the Fire Nation. What they encounter along their journey are a broken and defeated people. Contrary to their element’s nature of persistence and endurance, most Earthbenders have given up mounting any form of resistance against the constant injustice that surrounds them:
“The plan? The plan is to survive – wait out this war. Hope that one day some of us can get back home and forget this ever happened.” (Tyro, Imprisoned)
But despair gives way to something more sinister within the capital city of Ba Sing Se. The last stronghold of the Earth Kingdom has shut itself off to the plight of people beyond its walls, transforming into a totalitarian state that pursues subversive agendas of segregation and brainwashing in order to suppress diversity of opinion, consolidate power, and maintain order. After a century of conflict, the core of the Earth Kingdom has become corrupted, leaving its people devoid of hope.
Stunted and destructive: The Fire Nation
“Fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want.” (Iroh, Bitter Work)
In the final season, the protagonists journey into the Fire Nation. What they find is a society heavily hampered by a century of propaganda. Children are indoctrinated about the greatness of their leader and the glory of the Fire Nation campaign at an early age. The rich and creative cultural traditions of the past have been forgotten or suppressed.
Within this repressed society, the Fire Nation people channel their ambitions and energies towards the war effort as they expand outwards to oppress other cultures. Emotional maturity and empathy towards others are regarded as weaknesses, eschewed in favour of aggression, control, and domination. Even the art of firebending has been corrupted by the royal family regime, as anger and hatred replace passion and creativity as internal sources of firebending. These factors all lead to an untenable situation where direct intervention by outside authorities (the Avatar and his friends) is required to restore balance.
Hope and change: The next generation
You kids had a big impact on Suki. She said you inspired her and she wanted to help change the world. (Oyagi, Avatar Day)
What’s great about the protagonists of Avatar is that they embody the qualities that a stagnant, unsustainable, and unjust world requires to return to balance. Their own personal journey of character development serve to spread ripples of hope throughout the Avatar world, helping to inspire real tangible change in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. The following section explores the key trait that makes each of the characters a force for positive reform for their respective societies.
The young prince of the Fire Nation was exiled and burned by his father for speaking his mind. Out of all the characters in the show, he has the most difficult journey to becoming a well-adjusted individual. By experiencing life as an outcast, a refugee, and a traitor, he begins to question his assumptions and worldview, breaks free of his Fire Nation indoctrination, and grows into a decent human being and a capable leader. He comes to understand the world through the eyes of others and to draw wisdom from their perspectives. His defining moment is undoubtedly his confrontation with his father (The Day of Black Sun: the Eclipse):
“Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history and somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation! They don’t see our greatness, they hate us! And we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world. And if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.”
It is with this realization that he is able to take up the Fire Nation throne at the end of the series and work with the Avatar to live more harmoniously with the other nations.
The self-proclaimed world’s greatest earthbender, Toph turned her handicap of blindness into an advantage, learning to navigate the world by sensing vibrations with her feet. She acquired her abilities by learning from giant badger-moles, animals that were the original Earthbenders (The Western Air Temple). With her unique perception of the world, she revolutionizes the art by inventing the ability to bend metal. Always preferring to meet challenges head-on, Toph exemplifies the element of earth: Stubborn, persistent, honest, and direct. She understands and despises the bureaucratic, indirect, and obscure forces operating within Ba Sing Se (City of Walls and Secrets). It is not surprising that her legacy in the Avatar world is one devoted to eliminating the type of corruption seen throughout the Earth Kingdom, being primarily responsible for the formation of the police force in Republic City – the setting for the Avatar’s sequel: The Legend of Korra.
Mr. ideas and sarcasm guy. As the only non-bender in the main cast, Sokka is a perfect mix of the clown and the everyman, a relatable foil to a world full of heroes with extraordinary powers. But it is through Sokka that we see the embodiment of some of the very best qualities of the element of water. The inner workings of his frequently strange mind make him a gifted strategist and planner (The Day of Black Sun: The Invasion). He is quick to shed the cultural prejudices he grew up with, accepting that the world and its people have a lot to teach him (The Warriors of Kyoshi). He shows a knack for scientific and critical thinking on numerous occasions. His master aptly summarizes Sokka’s best qualities:
“Creativity, versatility, intelligence…these are the traits that define a great swordsman. And these are the traits that define you.” (Piandao, Sokka’s Master)
His adaptability and humility not only provide a refreshing counter to the rigid and unbending traditions of the Northern Water Tribe, but also make him an ideal leader for reconstructing the post-war societies of the Avatar world. Most importantly, Sokka’s non-bending nature highlights the fact that an individual, ANY individual, is capable of making an enormous difference: One doesn’t need special powers or abilities to do so.
The glue that holds the group together, and according to the creators, “the heart of the show” (Art of the Animated Series, p.16). Having to take on overwhelming responsibilities at a young age after the death of her mother during the war, Katara developed a deep sense of community and love that has helped her through life’s many challenges. In a situation where she is stripped of her bending and denied her supports, she is able to rally the group together through sheer determination (The Desert). There’s a quote from the show about inner strength that I am always drawn to:
“You must never give into despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road, and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner-strength.” (Iroh, Avatar Day)
It is this inner hope and strength that makes Katara a resilient individual in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversities.
Empathy. Transparency. Adaptability. Resilience. These qualities, showcased by each of the four characters, are all desperately needed by the nations of the Avatar world. This connection gives additional meaning to their struggles to restore balance to the world. Alex Weitzman from RottenTomatoes puts it succinctly:
“They all exhibit the true tendencies of their elements, in their best and most honest ways. It gives an added resonance to their heroism; not only are they restoring the world away from an oppressive force, but their examples will set the standards for their elements and their nations, should they succeed.”
Guidance and mentorship: The old generation
‘All old people know each other. Don’t you know that?” (Bumi, The Old Masters)
The older generation also plays a pivotal role in affecting societal change. Members of the White Lotus, a clandestine society that seeks to transcend the divisions between the four nations, offer guidance and serve as mentors for the younger generation. They come from different backgrounds, but all are inspired to act through the deeds of the young protagonists.
Each of the five White Lotus members seen in the show offers unique insights and perspectives. Piandao, Sokka’s swordmaster, subscribes to internationalism, believing that knowledge belongs to all who seek it. Jeong Jeong, Aang’s first firebending master and deserter of the Fire Nation army, stresses the need for control and balance when wielding great power. Pakku, Katara’s waterbending master, proves that it’s never too old to change, shedding his adherence to outdated traditions in order to reconcile and reconnect with the Southern Water Tribe. Bumi, the odd King of Omashu, practices the principle of wu wei – action from stillness and taken with proper timing – by waiting for the right moments to escape and attack.
Finally, there is Iroh, the wise man of the Avatar world. Beneath his calm and friendly demeanor is a man experienced in both the physical and spiritual world. Like the other members of the White Lotus, he demonstrates a genuine appreciation and wonder for other cultures, understanding that true wisdom comes from having an open mind and a humble relationship with the world. He is a guide to all that he meets. In his brief meeting with Toph, he gently reminds her that there is no shame in accepting help from loved ones (The Chase). In his brief conversation with Aang, he praises the young Avatar’s maturity in pursuing happiness and love over perfection and power (The Crossroads of Destiny). He even helps his would-be mugger to make a fresh start in life (Tales of Ba Sing Se).
Iroh naturally has the greatest influence on Zuko, his troubled nephew. Iroh regards Zuko as his son and always wants what’s best for him, even after Zuko constantly lashes out at him and even betrays him. But it is through Iroh’s persistent guidance and unconditional love that allows Zuko to become a leader uniquely capable of leading a kinder and gentler Fire nation.
The world of Avatar was a bleak one at the outset of the show. Whether they were bogged down in politics and traditions, war-torn and on the verge of collapse, or stifled by iron-fisted dictators, the various nations suffered from serious structural problems. But by the end of the show, the young heroes, with their energy and passion, combined with the old mentors, with their wisdom and worldly experience, succeed in bringing about fundamental reform to their world. Avatar’s characters and narrative speaks to the importance of this cross-generational cooperation in order to affect positive change. Hopefully their journeys can provide inspiration for us in the real world to bring about a better, more sustainable, and fairer future.
Next Up: A focus on a unique protagonist.
Dimartino, Michael D. & Knietzko, Bryan. Nickelodeon Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Art of the Animated Series. Dark Horse Books, Milwaukie OR: 2010.
Weitzman, Alex. The Elements and their Mismatched Nations. Retrieved at http://vine.rottentomatoes.com/vine/showpost.php?p=15543620&postcount=106
Images of Avatar: The Last Airbender © 2005-2012 Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved.