When Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired in 2005 the producers had probably no idea that their show would become one of the most successful children’s tv shows of all time. But considering the world building and the character developments within the narrative there is no question why. Just after watching the first couple of episodes it is crystal clear that the world of Avatar has as much detail and richness of meaning as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. Soon Avatar was also watched not only by children but also by teenagers and adults of all ages. A new fantasy epos was born.
But now, as I have set the stakes so high, comparing it to The Lord of the Rings, I do have to explain why it is such great work and often overlooked but not forgotten. Somehow, maybe because it is animated, (its style is held within the spirit of Japanese Anime but produced in the USA and written mainly for a Western audience) it simply has never been taken that seriously, as shows in real life action, like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings have been. Here it is important to mention that there was a real-life Avatar film in 2010. Unfortunately, the producers did everything wrong that could be done wrong. From the representation of the world, to the narrative and the casting. This has probably given Avatar a bad reputation, the absolutely brilliant tv show has nothing to do with it.The tv show holds universal themes and incorporates various Asian and Eastern believes and cultures. And just like Harry Potter and other fantasy, it appears to become timeless. Since May 2020 you can now stream it on American Netflix and Amazon Prime and the streaming numbers have gone through the roof. This is because it resonates with so many themes and meanings that deeply affect our world but at the same time Avatar tells a story through light-heartedness and offers a wonderful world to escape into.
If you have not watched the show, the plot is explained in the introduction within a little of over one minute:
‘Water, Earth, Fire, Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days. A time of piece, when the Avatar kept balance between the Water tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless fire benders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed, and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the war. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads and that the cycle is broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that somehow the Avatar will return to save the world.’
This introduction is told by Katara, a young water bender and one of the four main characters. She and her brother Sokka find the young Avatar, an air bender named Aang, who was frozen within the ice for one hundred years. Katara’s grandmother tells them to go to the Northern Water Tribe and find a water bender master for the young Avatar. Because he must learn to control all the elements within the holy Avatar cycle: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. And then he must be the one to defeat the Fire Lord and bring back balance to the world.
Sounds simple and is pretty much what will happen within three seasons of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Our three heroes, Katara, Sokka and Aang set out on a journey that will transform them from children into adults. Later in season two they are joined by the fourth main character, Toph, the most powerful earth bender in existence. It is a coming of age story. Together with Aang’s flying bison (this fantasy world holds many fantastic creatures) and a flying lemur, they set out on a voyage across all nations, fight, fall in love, make friends and enemies, and ultimately confront the Fire Lord and his allies in an epic battle deciding the fate of their world.
While this show is about four children and their friends, a story about coming of age, it is also deeply political and reflects on historical events of our world. The Fire Nation lived in prosperity and created new inventions, especially within industry, thus becoming the most powerful of nations. In comparison, the other three nations were still behind. Therefore, the Fire Nation believes to be superior and starts to colonise the other countries. Sound familiar? Throughout history, people, or let’s better say nations, from the Roman Empire to the British Empire and the USA, they have done nothing else but what the Fire Nation is trying to do in the world of Avatar Aang. Besides, the Fire Nation committed a genocide on the air benders. They killed them all because the cycle of the Avatar would constitute an air bender as the next Avatar. Fortunately, the young Avatar Aang flew into a storm and was frozen within the ice. And this is probably what makes this completely different world so familiar to our own and makes it so universal. It is about historical themes that have shaped our present: Colonialism and genocide. It is a story about power and exploiting the weak, simply a narrative about what is right and what is wrong.
And now I come to the actual point I want to make. The reason why Avatar: The Last Airbender is more relevant than ever before and continues to be one of the best children’s stories I have ever watched: Its ecocritical narrative. The people of the Avatar world are just like people in our world. They live, work, some are rich others are poor, they get sick and die. But they have the power to control the elements. Or at least some of them. In this fantastical world there are people who can either bend air, water, earth or fire. They are bound to nature and nature is bound to them. Of course, conflict can easily erupt from this constellation as the different benders all have very different cultures.
As explained before, the fire benders have a nation with one royal family and a Fire Lord. They are a very progressive and ambitious people. Fire is the element of desire and will. They get what they want.
The earth benders have a vast kingdom that consists of many cities and villages with a lot of noble families. Earth benders value tradition and their social political culture is defined through agriculture. Earth is the element of substance. Their people are resilient, diverse and strong.
The water benders have two tribes, one in the very North and one in the very South. They stand together and they have a strong sense for community. They are closely bound to the ice and water, as they live in houses and palaces of ice. Water is the element of change and water benders are able to adapt to nearly everything.
The air nomads are the most spiritual people of this world. They seek enlightenment above all else and do not give so much credit to the material world as the other nations do. They consider themselves free of this world and are pacifists.
And this is it. The four people of this world. And wars are their constant companion. Every nation wants something different and every couple of decades conflicts and wars have erupted between two or more nations. Yet, there was always hope, and balance was eventually restored with the help of the Avatar. This person, always reborn into a different nation, has the ability to learn all the elements and see the world through the eyes of all nations. It is the combination of mastering all four elements and understanding the four nations that make the Avatar so powerful. Yet, in the main story, the young Avatar goes missing for one hundred years and therefore balance could not be restored. Of course, the other three nations suffer greatly from that. Especially the Air Nomads, as they are all killed, many water benders get enslaved and the Earth Kingdom is at constant war with the Fire Nation.
And this is one side of the story. The other great victim in this war is nature itself. For nature is what defines the people in this world and therefore when its people are at war, nature is at war and suffers greatly. This resonates throughout the three seasons of Avatar but there are a couple of episodes, and in my opinion, the best episodes, which define this world and at the same time echo and create a mirror image for our world.
Avatar: The Last Airbender first demonstrates its deeper ecocritical meaning with the two episodes The Spirit World Part 1 and Part 2. Avatar Aang and his friends fly over a forest in the Earth Kingdom that is completely burned away. His friend Sokka refers to it as a scar in the landscape and Aang responds ‘It’s the Avatar’s job to protect nature.’ Close by, they find an Earth Kingdom village that has been haunted by a monster- spirit called Hei- Bai, destroying the homes of the villagers and abducting villagers, disappearing with them into the forest. The villagers beg the Avatar to help them as he is the bridge between the material world and spirit world. They fear that, at the winter solstice, the spirit monster will destroy the entire village, as then, the veil between the worlds are completely lifted. Aang and his friends agree to help. By accident, Aang enters the spirit world and there he meets Avatar Roku’s former animal guide the red dragon Fang. The dragon shows him that Aang must be at Avatar Roku’s fire temple by the winter solstice, as his former life has important knowledge for him to share on how to defeat the Fire Lord. Aang also finds wisdom on how to deal with the spirit monster.
When Aang returns into the material world he confronts the spirit monster. He realises that it is not a monster but in truth the protective spirit of the forest turned angry because of the forest’s destruction. Aang shows the spirit an acorn he and Katara found among the ashes of the woods. He explains to the spirit that it is not the villagers’ fault and the forest will heal and grow back eventually. The spirit monster transforms into its original spirit form, a giant, peaceful Panda, releases the abducted villagers and returns into the forest to help it heal.
It is a simple narrative but one as old as time. Through the physical transformation of the spirit the message is crystal clear. The spirit not only acts as a messenger of the forest, but the spirit is a message sent by nature itself to state that the natural world, in this case, the forest, should not be harmed by men. Otherwise, men too will feel the consequences of their destructive behaviour. And nature will not express its consequences towards the destructors, so the fire benders, who had already left, but everyone and anyone who lives nearby, in this case the villagers. Because when an ecosystem is destroyed it affects everything around it and everyone will feel the consequences. Although, it is all magical and spiritual within its expression, this episode clearly shows how nature reacts and what must be done for nature to be restored. The message at the end of the episode is clear: Aang shows the spirit to plant the acorns and other seeds within the ashes and slowly the forest will grow back.
The other episode, The Winter solstice Part 2, sets the stakes for all three seasons and clearly shows how deeply connected even the industrialised fire benders are with nature. Aang and his friends reach the temple island in time which has been built on an active volcano. At the centre of the temple Aang meets Avatar Roku in the spirit world and he explains to the young boy that it was a comet from the sky, burning more powerful than anything else, that gave Fire Lord Sozin the power to start the war one hundred years ago. By the end of this summer, the comet would return and give the current Fire Lord Ozai the power to destroy all the other nations and the Fire Nation would rule forever and destroy the balance of the elements and nature completely. Avatar Aang must master all four elements before the end of the summer and defeat the Fire Lord and the Fire Nation before the comet arrives.
Clearly, not an easy task, but here of secondary importance. The same as the earth benders, water benders and air benders draw their powers from nature, so do the fire benders. Their source of power lies within the sun and other natural forces, like a powerful comet can enhance their power greatly. And although, the modern Fire Nation is industrialised and has moved away from the spiritual world, the reason why they have become so powerful is because of a natural, celestial event. Their power is not rooted within their modern ways of living but deep within nature.
Avatar Aang’s mission is not only a political one but a deeply ecological one. Avatar Roku’s words are clear: If he does not restore balance, fire will rule over the world. And by now it is safe to say that nature, the elements and balance are the same thing within this world. The elements must be balanced out, the power of the different nations must be in equilibrium with each other. It is as if the nations themselves represent a fragile ecosystem which must be in balance to work. Otherwise, the spiritual world, nature will reflect all of this upon the people who live with and through the elements. Exploitation, slavery, dictatorship and sickness are the consequences when the elements are not in balance with each other. When the political world is in trouble then nature itself is in trouble as well.
The same can be said about our world. Throughout human history nature has always thrived when people took care of it in times of peace because they were not only able to do so but they had the time. When humans are at war, they not only stop caring about each other but about their environment as well. Of course, this does not mean that in times of peace humans have not exploited nature, but in times of peace, people are more likely to be concerned about the world around them because it is the very thing they leave behind for their children. To put it simple: Peace can be about growth and sharing, whereas war ultimately leads to destruction.
In the second part I will discuss the deeper ecocritical meaning of the Water Tribe, the connection between all elements within the Avatar world and if the element fire really means destruction or so much more.