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 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.”
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 those 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 tackle the daunting challenges that lay in his path.
What’s 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 devastation that his uncontrolled Avatar spirit would unleash upon the world.
Here’s 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 for all life to his position as the Avatar. Through his deeds, Aang 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?
Avatar Aang, by series co-creator Bryan Konietzko.
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.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – World and Mythology
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – Forces for Change
- Winter’s Tale: The Left Hand of Darkness
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.
My kids and I have watched this series and I’ve often enjoyed it.
You raise a good question about whether anyone is walking the talk in the sustainability movement. In some ways, I think Van Jones is an example of someone who is trying to do that. When he was more or less deposed from being a green czar for Obama, he found a way to keep moving forward and is now leading a project, that I believe is called Rebuild the Dream. I haven’t been involved with it myself, but I was always impressed by his desire to bring sustainability to all people not just the wealthy in America who might be able to afford to be green.
I’m sure there are many other people doing great work in sustainability throughout the world, but I can’t think of anyone who is recognized as a global leader in sustainability by the masses.
Do you have anyone that you see doing this?
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To be quite honest, I’m not sure if there is a globally recognized leader in sustainability with the level of moral authority present in other social movements – Environmentalism has no Gandhi, no Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first person that comes to mind for me is Wangari Maathaii, the creator of the Green Belt Movement, but she passed away last year. David Suzuki probably comes closest in my country of Canada as a recognized champion for sustainability, having been voted as one of the top ten greatest Canadians of all time. But even he has trouble walking the walk, admitting that his lifestyle has led to an enormous carbon footprint. It seems like it’s tough to practice what one preaches and still be well-known and well-regarded.
I’ll have to mull this question over myself. Thanks for commenting!
You raise some good questions. I love how you tie Aang’s leadership (and his concern for peace and balance in the environment) with our need today. So well done.
That’s what I endeavour to do in each entry – to explore (at least in part) how the ideas within each story can help us look at the world around us a little differently.
Appreciate your thoughts.
I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing this article. I imagine that you hoped this piece with resonate with people, but I am not sure if you really know the significance and the importance of this essay, at least for me. I have been fascinated by Aang, and even the complexity of the other characters, including Zuko who battles light and darkness within himself. Having read this piece, it felt like having a conversation with a friend who understands what you’re feeling, and with every paragraph it was as though I asked a question and you answered it.
I also appreciate as a woman, that you are rooting for a complex superhero who is atypical of the usual boy protagonist. Aang is an important role model and I hope many will be able to understand him the way you do.
The gratitude I feel for this, I cannot say enough.
I am very touched by your comment. Part of why I write, besides feeding my own ego (haha), is to reach out and connect with people. I’m honoured that this piece resonated with you so.
Avatar is a show that is very dear to my heart, and the quality of the show has not diminished in subsequent revisits. I think Aang represents the type of people I would like to be friends with: thoughtful, fun but conscientious, confident and self-aware. Zuko’s journey is a brilliant one as well, but I think I identify less with his struggle because so much of it is self-inflicted haha.
I have also written a shorter post that’s partly about Aang titled My Favourite Superhuman Protagonists. I hope you find it interesting as well.
It is this collection of Avatar essays that first brought me to Ekostories, and I’ve been fascinated every time I’ve come here ever since.
An immense Avatar fan myself, I highly recommend you explore Korra. If you’ve already done so, I’d love to perhaps see an essay offering some of your ideas on the series. At first, I was somewhat disappointed in the series, believing that it didn’t delve deeper into the spiritual core that made the original series so fantastic. Recently though, especially with the probable ultimate series of the franchise as a whole, I’ve found that Korra offers much more than initially meets the eye. The cinematography, for one, is simply outstanding. If you watch the last scene of “The Calling,” you’ll see just how beautiful this series can really get. The sequel series touches on much darker topics and failures of the Avatar, really blowing back the claim this is a kid’s show.
Avatar is very dear to my heart too, and I’d very much enjoy having some more in depth conversation with you about it!
Always nice to connect with a fellow ATLA fan, and thank you for checking out my work! Even though it’s been a few years since I’ve fully immersed myself in the series, elements of it seem to surface up in my thinking, whether it’s narrative or themes and ideas. It is an enduring piece of work for me.
As for Korra, I don’t feel like I’m fully qualified to judge it, having not seen it in its entirety. I do find that on a fundamental level, the mini-series format crippled its capacity to do justice to the amazingly rich mythology of the Avatar universe, and repeated viewings of the series have only reinforced for me.
That being said, I think that the creators are very brave in attempting to tackle the themes that they’re tackling – social inequality in Book 1, notions of civil unrest and anarchy in Book 3 (which I think is probably the strongest book I’ve seen), the notion of legacy and change throughout the entire series. Korra does enough to differentiate itself from ATLA, and I applaud it for that, but I don’t think it measures up in any front, hampered by pacing and characterization issues that stem primarily from the shortened storytelling format.
Beautiful Article! The Dali Lama is nearly identical to Aang. From morality to being hunted around the globe (by china), they both focus on inner peace, pacifism, love and compassion, respect for nature and respect for all life.
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Hi! I really like this article! I absolutely love this show as well and I agree that Aang’s hero type is one that is not commonly found in entertainment today. I really agreed with all the strengths you pointed out, which is somewhat surprising because my favorite character in the show is Zuko, who is the typical angsty character. I think there are definitely strengths to both, but I cannot articulate things as well as you, I was wondering if you could also write a piece about the strengths in a character like Zuko’s, if you see any at all. I would love to hear your thoughts good and bad on his character!
Used these points for aspects of a good leader in school. We have an assignment about what makes a good leader and you showed all the points of a good, morally strong, and compassionate leader, thank you!
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