[Excited about “Last Airbender: Legend of Korra“, Overthinkers? Check out John Goodman’s article connecting the two series. – Ed.]
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the world is based around the four classical elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Select individuals are capable of manipulating or ‘bending’ one of these four elements, but the only person who can bend all four is the individual known as the Avatar. The show is vague with regards to the nature of the Avatar’s existence, but we do know that his power comes from some sort of higher spiritual authority, and that it is his duty to use this power uphold balance in the world. The question is: what right does he have to this power?
Let’s look at the show’s perspective on power, both physical and political. The two clearest perspectives we get come in the Season Two episode “The Crossroads of Destiny.” Here, we hear the opinions of Azula, one of the show’s primary villains, as well as from Iroh, a wise man who acts as a mentor to several of the show’s heroes. While the former claims that “True power–the divine right to rule–is something you’re born with,” the latter, talking to Aang about his powers as the Avatar, insists that “Perfection and power are overrated. I think you are very wise to choose happiness and love.” But in choosing the Avatar as their hero, the writers of the show seem to be implicitly condoning the idea, supported by Azula, that true power does not come from the people, but from a divine mandate. The Avatar’s power, though he has to work to hone it, is something he’s born with.
Ultimately, the problem with the Avatar system is that the people of the Four Nations never entered into any form of social contract with the Avatar, and there is no compelling reason why he should have authority over them; he is simply able to maintain this authority because he has more brute power than anyone else. The Avatar’s rule is most akin not to the presumed democracy or constitutional monarchy of the Water Tribes, nor even to the federal monarchy of the Earth Kingdom, but to the fascist regime of the Fire Nation, and yet the show simultaneously glorifies the Avatar and vilifies the totalitarian Firelord.
The show’s writers attempt to resolve this friction in an interesting way: they make it not only a meta-conflict applying to the writers’ choices, but, especially in Season Three, a central internal conflict for Aang, as exemplified by the show’s title and subtitle. Aang must choose between the role of Avatar and the role of Airbender, and as he progresses in his journey he increasingly finds these two roles to be mutually exclusive.
In order to look at the nature of the Avatar’s power, we need to look farther back than just the most recent person to hold the position. The clearest pictures of previous Avatars are presented in the episodes “The Avatar and the Firelord” and “Sozin’s Comet.” In “Sozin’s Comet,” we hear the story of how Avatar Kyoshi, the third most recent Avatar, responded to the expansionist efforts of the conqueror known as Chin the Great. Though Kyoshi claims that Chin was a ‘horrible tyrant,’ even calling him ‘Chin the Conqueror’ rather than using his usual epithet, Earth Kingdom history remembers him quite differently. In describing the cultural memory of Chin, one Earth Kingdom citizen states straightforwardly that “Everyone loved Chin the Great because he was so great. Then the Avatar showed up and killed him.”
Regardless of whether Chin was a hero or a tyrant, when asked about the circumstances surrounding his death, Kyoshi states, without shame, “I killed Chin the Conqueror.” Kyoshi firmly believed that, as Avatar, her power superseded that of Chin, despite his clear public support evidenced by his massive armies. Because she was more physically powerful than him, she believed that she had the right to take his life.
Similarly, when Avatar Roku, the Avatar following Kyoshi and preceding Aang, discovers that Firelord Sozin has established a colony in the Earth Kingdom, he demands that the Firelord withdraw his troops. “How dare you, a citizen of the Fire Nation, address your Firelord this way?” Sozin replies “Your loyalty is to our nation first. Anything less makes you a traitor.” In answer to this assertion of Sozin’s legitimate sovereignty compared with Roku’s rule-by-might authority, Roku simply replies “Don’t challenge me. It will only end badly.” Their exchange ends with Roku sparing Sozin’s life only in the name of their past friendship, and warning the Firelord that “Even a single step out of line will result in your permanent end.”
Roku later states that he regrets this show of mercy when, in “Sozin’s Comet,” he tries to persuade Aang to kill Firelord Ozai. Clearly Roku and Kyoshi both believe that the Avatar’s authority supersedes that of sovereign rulers, and even extends to administering capital punishment at the Avatar’s discretion to any resident of the world, regardless of their nationality or citizenship, and without anything even remotely resembling due process.
Looking at previous Avatars’ uses of power, it’s not surprising that the current Avatar of the show’s time, Aang, might be tempted to use his power in similar ways. In the third and final season of the show, Aang is asked to use his powers as the Avatar to kill Firelord Ozai. This action would conflict not only with Aang’s personal moral code, but with the teachings of the Air Nomads who raised him, who maintain that all life is sacred, even maintaining strictly vegetarian diets for this reason.
When Aang consults previous Avatars, however, they all give him the same advice: he must kill the Firelord. Even the last Air Nomad to be the Avatar, Avatar Yangchen, tells Aang that “Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the World.” In framing doing what is morally and spiritually right as a selfish decision, Yangchen is able to equivocate around the issue, creating a paradigm wherein the Avatar is above even basic morality. By Yangchen’s logic, the Avatar could commit whatever atrocity he chose so long as he was able to justify that it was somehow ‘protecting the world’. The phrase ‘whatever it takes’ is an extremely weighty one. Yangchen, as well as every other Avatar whom he asks, tells Aang that it is not only his right, but his duty to kill Ozai.
In the end, however, Aang does not go that route. In refusing to execute the Firelord, Aang takes one step away from the antiquated notion of the Avatar, and the show portrays this as the morally correct decision. Furthermore, when Aang goes into the Avatar state, where a combination of all of the past Avatars takes control of his body, he almost kills Ozai, and has to become himself again in order to spare the Firelord. In this turn of events, the writers are implicitly condemning all of the Avatars who came before Aang.
But why is Aang the Avatar to make this decision? Well, the world of Avatar, as we see it throughout the show, is on the brink of major change. It is undergoing an industrial revolution, as evidenced by the invention of the steam engine, steel, functioning dirigibles, and even automobiles such as tanks, and it is also undergoing social change. The Fire Nation is much more socially progressive than the other two nations, for instance, while the Fire Nation Army seems to have about equal numbers of men and women, the Earth Kingdom army is exclusively male, and we are given a good look at the institutionalized misogyny of the Northern Water Tribe in the final two episodes of the first season.
The fact that such a progressive nation could become a villainous force just because a few psychopaths happened to be born into its royal family may be the wake-up call the people of the Four Nations need before they can see that power concentrated in a single individual and based on physical power alone is a system that simply does not work. Maybe the day will soon come when the people see that the Avatar Cycle is an archaic and unjust institution, and that the world no longer needs it. When Aang decides that, though he does have the ability to kill Ozai, he does not have the right to do so, he enacts the beginning of this change.
This of course brings us to Legend of Korra, the sequel series to Avatar which is scheduled for some time in 2012. The series takes place seventy years after the original, in a world with skyscrapers, cars, electrical power, and at least one modernised city. It is into this world that Avatar Korra, Aang’s reincarnation, is born. The planned antagonists of the series are a group of people who are against the bending arts, and presumably also against the Avatar. What we still do not know, however, is whether these anti-Avatar rebels are going to be villains, or simply people who are no longer willing to live under a system of martial law which gives them no voice.
Maybe the time has come in the Four Nations where the Avatar should no longer exist. Whether the Avatar Cycle will quietly and gracefully end, or live longer than the people are willing to tolerate it and die through a violent revolution, is up to the Avatar.
[Does our love of the Avatar speak to the same power-worship that makes fascism possible? Will Korra bring about a revolution? Sound off in the comments! – Ed.]
John Goodman is this one guy from the internet. In addition to being
(and in his capacity as) a pop-culture enthusiast, he is also
tangentially involved with the shenanigans starting up over at the