Avatar Aang, by series co-creator Bryan Konietzko.
It may seem excessive to devote an entire write-up to a single character, but I believe Aang, the chief protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender, warrants such an exploration. In an age of brooding, melodramatic, and angst-filled heroes, Aang provides a refreshing counterexample to what it means to be an emotionally intelligent, internally resilient, and ethically principled individual. His role as the outsider to a war-torn world, coupled with his unique upbringing and temperament, makes his character growth throughout Avatar fascinating to watch.
Transcending war and borders: An outsider’s perspective
Aang is exceptionally well-traveled and worldly for a twelve-year-old. He prides himself on his vast network of connections that not only transcend national borders, but even lifetimes. He is always receptive to the lessons imparted during his travels; Iroh explains the wisdom of this receptiveness towards learning from other people and cultures:
“It is important to draw wisdom from my different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements, and the other nations will help you become whole… It is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful.” (Bitter Work)
Aang is also the last of a vanished people, an outsider a century removed from his own time. As one of the few remaining people in the world who grew up in an era of peace, his worldview contrasts sharply with those born in a world worn down by conflict and cynicism. This difference in perspectives is best illustrated in The Avatar and the Firelord, one of the standout episodes of the series. After Aang informs his friends of the friendship and betrayal between Firelord Sozin and Roku, the previous Avatar, the others react in disgust. But Aang has a different interpretation of the same events:
Katara:You mean, after all Roku and Sozin went through together…even after Roku showed him mercy, Sozin betrayed him like that.
Toph: It’s like these people are born bad.
Aang: No, that’s wrong. I don’t think that was the point of what Roku showed me at all.
Sokka: Then what was the point?
Aang: Roku was just as much Fire Nation as Sozin was, right? If anything, their story proves anyone’s capable of great good and great evil. Everyone, even the Fire Lord and the Fire Nation have to be treated like they’re worth giving a chance.
Like Kamin from The Inner Light, the protagonist of a previous Ekostory, Aang’s role as the outsider is of great significance. By being free from a century of conventions and traditions built up by the three remaining nations, he is able to see things and people differently. His friends, having lived life in a war-torn world, find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept Fire Nation people as anything more than soldiers and inhuman monsters. But Aang is able to see people not merely as vessels of good and evil, but as individuals with choice, each deserving of a chance. He understands that while those we perceive to be evil may be misguided or may have diametrically opposed points of view from us, they still deserve fundamental decency and kindness. This is a powerful message that applies not only for the fictional world of Avatar, but to our own as well. Both are in need of more peace, understanding, and respect.
Inner balance and emotional maturity
Aang’s ability to shift between light-hearted childishness and deep maturity is what I appreciate most about his character. Throughout his development over three seasons, he learns to shoulder the burdens of being the Avatar without losing his inner child. His personality is such that even as the most powerful force in the Avatar universe, he will always be a kid at heart, making jewelry, riding various types of animals, and taking mini-vacations with gophers. But at the conclusion of his character arc and the narrative, he proves that he is able to step up, push through the obstacles in his path, and do what needs to be done in order to fulfill his duties as the Avatar.
Aang’s ability to balance his childish wonder and attitude with his responsibilities comes from having a high emotional intelligence quotient. He knows and understands himself, yet is not afraid to show emotion and talk out his problems, especially to Katara. The show explicitly shows that the few instances in which he tries to wall himself off from others actually lead to the detriment of himself and the ones around him (The Serpent’s Pass & The Awakening). Avatar shows that Aang’s high degree of self-awareness and his willingness to establish open and honest channels of communications are his core strengths; with them he is able to move on from the mental guilt of losing his people, and to tackle the daunting challenges that lay in his path.
What is personally intriguing to me is that Aang manages to eschew many of the traits that define the majority of male protagonists in favour of being a balanced and emotionally mature individual. As an Air Nomad monk, he values teachings, experiences, and relationships over material goods; the objects he genuinely treasures are things that remind him of his past and his connection to the world. As a pacifist, he uses force only in the defense of self and others, as a regrettable necessity, understanding that an aggressive attitude only perpetuates an escalating cycle of retaliation and resentment. He never revels in the act of violence itself, being constantly afraid at the unintended devastation that his uncontrolled Avatar spirit would unleash upon the world.
Here is a scrawny bald vegetarian boy who saves the world, born with great power but does not revel in its use. Instead, he constantly demonstrates empathy towards others, is not afraid to show emotions and rely on others, and is a genuinely nice, considerate, and worldly individual. Aang is as nontraditional and unconventional a male hero in today’s Western popular culture as one can get, and a much-needed positive role model for children and adults alike. We need more depictions of heroes in popular media who can be balanced and emotionally mature, acting as leaders for change by being strong and sustainable from within.
Moral Courage: Forging one’s own path
What is intriguing about the narrative of Avatar is that the ultimate resolution of this American action cartoon lies in growth of Aang as a person. The final battle against the Firelord does not merely tests his fighting prowess, but his moral fortitude.
The central conflict of the finale revolves around Aang’s struggle to reconcile his own values as an Air Nomad and his duties as the Avatar. As a pacifist monk with a deep respect for life, Aang does not want to kill Firelord Ozai even as he threatens to destroy the world. Everyone deems it necessary that the Firelord be killed in retribution for his and his ancestors’ war crimes; even Aang’s friends, including Ozai’s own son, see no other way to secure peace and are dismissive of Aang’s moral dilemma. The Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribe Avatars before Aang are similarly puzzled by his internal struggle; they advise Aang to take decisive action, mete out justice, and actively end the Fire Nation threat once and for all. Yangchen, a previous Air Nomad Avatar, advocates self-sacrifice as the only path towards fulfilling his Avatar duties:
Aang: Avatar Yangchen, the monks always taught me that all life is sacred. Even the life of the tiniest spider-fly caught in its own web.
Avatar Yangchen: Yes, all life is sacred.
Aang: I know! I’m even a vegetarian. I’ve always tried to solve my problems by being quick or clever and I’ve only had to use violence for necessary defense and I’ve certainly never used it to take a life.
Avatar Yangchen: Avatar Aang, I know that you’re a gentle spirit and the monks have taught you well. But this isn’t about you, this is about the world.
Aang: But the monks taught me that I had to detach myself from the World so my spirit could be free.
Avatar Yangchen: Many great and wise air nomads have detached themselves and achieved spiritual enlightenment but the Avatar can never do it because your sole duty is to the World. Here is my wisdom for you. Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the world.
While she sympathizes with Aang’s principles, Yangchen ultimately believes that maintaining the balance of the world is paramount, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the Avatar, and that the end justifies the means. Aang must be the righteous arbiter of justice, acting as judge, jury, and executioner.
But Aang rejects this. He is the Avatar, but the Avatar is not all he is. Being born into a role of power does not rob him of the right to decide what is best. By having the moral courage to stick to his principles of treating all life with respect, he is ultimately able to find an alternative solution to his problem. In doing so, he exemplifies the true nature of the element of air: Freedom. But this freedom is not rooted in escapism or the shirking of his responsibility to the world. Instead, Aang realizes freedom by transcending the false dichotomy of killing another human being or failing his Avatar duties. His approach to his dilemma reminds me of one of my favourite quotes in problem solving:
“To oppose something is to maintain it…you must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk another road.” (Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness)
Like a true Air Nomad, Aang tackles his problem from another angle; he has another goal, and walks another road. He does not seek to destroy his enemy, but rather prevents him from causing further harm. By adhering to his moral code founded on benevolence, compassion, and mercy, he discovers a power unknown to all others before him in the Avatar line. With this power, he is able to strip away Firelord Ozai’s destructive firebending abilities without killing him, thus ending the conflict in his own way.
To walk this third path was neither easy nor safe; Aang consciously puts his own life in extreme peril in order to hold fast to his principles. The final confrontation is animated specifically to depict the battle of wills between Aang and Firelord Ozai. Aang’s moral strength and unbendable spirit, depicted as a purifying blue light, resists and eventually overcomes Ozai’s corrosive soul. By making the difficult choice to stay true to his principles and his cultural teachings, Aang is able to resolve his inner conflict, bring balance to the world, and grow up without losing the qualities that defined him as an individual.
By aligning his values with his actions, Aang was beholden to no one but himself, bringing a dimension of moral authority that is rooted in benevolence, mercy and a deep respect to all life to his position as the Avatar. With this moral authority, he gains legitimacy in the eyes of the world and helps to usher in a new era of peace between the nations. In the real world, a leader who is capable of “walking the talk” in a humble fashion is a rare one, and can play a critical role for inspiring others to realize that a new possibility forward is possible.
- Who are some leaders in history who carried that moral authority?
- Is there anyone in the environmental movement who can be perceived as “walking the talk” for sustainability?
Aang is a very unusual leading character for an American television series, and has grown to become one of my favourite fictional characters. I consider him a refreshingly different and positive role model for children and adults alike. He is open-minded, goofy, peaceful, spiritual, forgiving, understanding, and believes the best in people – qualities not generally associated with male heroic protagonists in modern Western narratives. He embraces the significance of his heritage and the positive influences of his culture, but also understands that he is an individual with the gift of choice; he seeks advice from others but is able to forge his own path, acting always from a place of compassion, respect, and benevolence. All of these traits make him a strong, well-rounded, and resilient and well-adjusted human being who exemplifies external and internal balance, capable of forming strong and lasting bonds with the people around him, and negotiating and adapting to a complex and changing world. Combined with his unflinching respect and love for life, Aang is the keystone character that makes the narrative of Avatar: The Last Airbender work. Through his display of inner sustainability, he becomes a major contributor towards making the show a deserving Ekostory.
Next Up: One man’s life in the wild.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Berkley Publishing, 1969.
Images of Avatar: The Last Airbender © 2005-2012 Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved.