Wisdom from Avatar: The Last Airbender

At ThinkingWest we take a special interest in the great books, however in this article we will focus on a different form of media: television. Though the passive nature of TV will always make it a less desirable medium for the development of the mind, certain content contains pros that outweigh the cons of the medium. 

During a recent bout with illness, I powered through the entire three seasons of the highly acclaimed Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA). Despite being somewhat disgusted by how much television I consumed, I realized that, in addition to its beautiful score and artistic style, the show contains a remarkable amount of wisdom for a children’s program. It is a far cry from the usual nonsensical cartoons (I’m looking at you Spongebob) and even contains more valuable insights than many adult shows. In this article I will highlight just some of the great wisdom contained in ATLA.

To bring you up to speed if you haven’t seen the show, ATLA was a children’s anime-style cartoon on Nickelodeon running from 2005 to 2008. The series is set in a fictional, Asiatic-inspired world where certain individuals have the extraordinary ability to manipulate, or “bend,” the four elements – fire, earth, water, air. The peoples of this world are divided among the elements and consist of the Fire Nation, Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, and Air Nomads. Typically, a “bender” (one who can manipulate an element) can only bend the element associated with his or her people, however the Avatar is an individual who can bend all four elements. The Avatar’s mission is to bring balance to the world. ATLA centers around twelve-year-old Aang, the current Avatar, and his group of friends as they attempt to settle the hundred-year-long war between the Fire Nation and the other nations. 

Though primarily written for children, ATLA contains many concepts and themes that adults can relate to. Throughout its various characters and quests, the show offers sage wisdom touching on a variety of topics. Let’s take a look at some of the wisdom offered in this greatly acclaimed series. 

War is Hell

Iroh holds a memorial service for his son Lu Ten in the episode “Tales of Ba Sing Se.”

Though perhaps not as explicit a theme as in a gritty work like Saving Private Ryan, ATLA does not shy away from displaying the traumatic nature of warfare and violence. Many characters throughout the series suffer losses or serious upheaval as a result of the ongoing war with the Fire Nation. 

One of the main protagonists, Katara, continually struggles with the loss of her mother to the Fire Nation even though her loss was years before the events of the show when she was a small child. She frequently displays outbursts of rage and sadness triggered by reminders of her past, symptoms that a modern observer might attribute to post-traumatic stress or suppressed trauma. These symptoms are common to those that have experienced war or other seriously distressing events.

One character from the Fire Nation, Uncle Iroh, suffered the loss of his son Lu Ten during a siege. His failure to protect his son as a father resulted in a mental breakdown leading to his removal from military service. His regrets encourage him to “adopt” the banished Prince Zuko as his son, hoping that he can successfully mentor the young prince better than he could his own son. Iroh’s situation shows that he is still affected by his son’s death years later and uses his mentorship of Zuko as a way to make amends for his perceived failure. 

The show also shows more widespread effects of war such as in the episode “Serpent’s Pass” which highlights the many refugees that have lost their homes, livelihoods, and cultures as a result of the war. 

The difficult experiences of the characters in ATLA show the scarring and traumatic nature of war. Even after the events that cause the trauma are long gone, there are often irreparable losses that cannot be undone. ATLA shows a lot of action and physical combat, yet the series does an excellent job of showing why war and violence should be avoided at all costs rather than glorifying them.  

Redemption and Reconciliation Are Always Possible

Zuko and Iroh reunite. Iroh forgives his nephew for his past transgressions.

One of the defining character arcs in ATLA is that of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. Born the heir to the throne, he was banished for his insolence and lack of respect shown toward his father after he spoke out of turn. He now wanders the world searching for the Avatar in the hope that if he captures Aang and brings him to the Fire Nation, his honor will be restored and he will be welcomed back by his father. This makes him the main antagonist during season one as he constantly attempts to apprehend Aang and his friends. He is singularly possessed by the idea that his honor can only be restored through the capture of Aang. 

As the seasons progress, we find that Zuko’s world begins to unravel as he questions whether he has chosen the right side in the war. His father eventually welcomes him back but he struggles to love the man that would banish his own son over a petty mistake. His past actions while chasing the avatar have also pushed him from the one man that truly loved him, his uncle Iroh. Zuko feels intense regret at his treatment of his uncle who tried to steer him towards good. Zuko finally concludes that his destiny is not to thwart the Avatar but to help him. Understandably, Team Avatar does not welcome Zuko into their group immediately, yet over time he is able to earn their trust. With the Avatar’s help, he ultimately takes his place as the rightful ruler of the Fire Nation, but on the side of peace and justice rather than violence and conquest. The wounds Zuko caused to Aang and his friends, to Uncle Iroh, and the larger world would never be completely healed, but Zuko does his best to repair what he can and is ultimately viewed as a just and noble person. 

Like Zuko, the damage in our lives won’t always be completely repairable, but it’s never too late to choose good over evil and amend past mistakes. Zuko’s story proves that redemption and reconciliation are always possible no matter how far we have turned from the narrow path. 

Violence is Never the Answer

Rather than kill Ozai, Aang finds a unique solution to end the Firelord’s reign – Aang takes away Ozai’s bending.

As the Avatar burdened with bringing about balance to the world, Aang had a lot resting on his shoulders. His success or failure in defeating Firelord Ozai affected the fate of the entire world. Most who advised him regarding this matter assumed that he would need to end the Firelord’s life in order to subdue him. Given the circumstances, deadly force would have been absolutely justified. 

However, Aang viewed every life as valuable and the killing Ozai as another step in an endless cycle of violence. He thought that using violence to end Ozai’s conquest would undermine his message of peace and harmony. Because of this, he searched for alternatives to defeat the Firelord. Eventually Aang discovers a method of subduing the Firelord by taking away his ability to bend. Once the most powerful firebender in the world, Ozai was powerless without his bending, paving the way for his peaceful removal. 

Aang’s resourcefulness and strict adherence to his beliefs are admirable, and illustrate that seemingly impossible situations can be resolved without violence and bloodshed. ATLA portrays violence only as a last resort. The series also conveys that cool-headed contemplation can usually find the answers to difficult ethical conundrums. 

Conclusion

ATLA is a great show for children because it instills appropriate values and bestows some serious wisdom for a kid’s show. Unlike many shows today, it doesn’t try to shove a particular political or social narrative down the audience’s throat. ATLA teaches the viewers basic, ethical truths in a fun and entertaining way. 

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