This is the second part of the ecocritical narrative of Avatar: The Last Airbender. In case you have not read Part 1 yet, you can find it in the main blog feed.
Within season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender there is no deeper ecocritical narrative than the final two episodes titled The Siege to the North Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 starts with ashes falling like snowflakes from the sky and foreshadows the coming of the Fire Nation’s armada that is set for the Northern Water tribe with the intention to destroy them like they destroyed the Air Nomads. The image you get in the beginning is one of industry against nature. The grey and black steam ships against the blue ocean and the Northern Water Tribe city built of ice and snow. It is the industrial superpower against the nature of ice and water.
The viewer sees how deeply connected the people of the Water Tribe are with nature. Before they prepare for battle, they call upon the most ancient spirits, the spirits of moon and ocean, Tui and La, to be with them in the battle and give them strength. Zhao, the Fire Nation’s Admiral, in contrast, simply tells General Iroh how powerful he is, and how he will destroy the water benders like they destroyed the Air Nomads one hundred years ago.
The princess of the Northern Water Tribe, Yue, tells Katara and Aang the story of the origin of their tribe. The moon itself was the first water bender and this is also why water bending is strongest during a full moon. Yue also tells them that when she was born, she was very sick, and when her parents pleaded the spirits to save her, the spirit of the moon gave her some of its life force and she was healed. She tells them that the moon and the ocean are in constant movement with each other, so to say, a balance within balance, pushing and pulling each other throughout eternity. It once again states, how the water benders are bound to the spirits and nature. If either one of them would be destroyed, the North or the spirits, so too would the water benders find their end.
Aang decides to contact the spirit of the moon and the spirit of the ocean to find out how to defeat the armada of the Fire Nation. Yue shows him the spiritual centre of the Northern Water Tribe, a pool in which two koi fish, one black, the other white, swim together in an eternal circle. Aang enters the spirit world to find the moon and ocean spirit. He meets his former life Avatar Roku, who tells him to speak to the spirit named Koh. Only he is ancient enough to tell him where to find the spirits.
Meanwhile, Admiral Zhao opens up to General Iroh about how he wants to destroy the water benders. In an ancient library, he had found out long ago, that the spirit of the moon and ocean fell in love in the beginning of time. In order to physically be together, they left the spiritual world and transformed into mortals in the material world. Admiral Zhao wants to kill the spirit of the moon so he can take all the power from the water benders. General Iroh, a wise man, tells him not to do so, as the moon and the ocean are so much more than the Fire Nation’s victory over the water benders. If he destroys them, not only would the balance for the water benders be destroyed but the entire balance of the world, thus for the Fire Nation as well. The ultimate greed and quest for power of the Fire Nation would destroy itself sooner or later. The quest for ultimate power would destroy itself ultimately. But Admiral Zhao does not want to listen to the old man.
Aang speaks to Koh and finds out who the spirits are. He realises that he has already met the mortal spirits. They are the koi fish that swim in an eternal circle. They are Tui and La, push and pull. Meanwhile an epic battle, water against fire commences. So far, the water benders are evenly matched against the power of the Fire Nation. Yet, the Fire Nation breaks through the walls of the ice city. However, the full moon rises, and the water benders unleash their full power against the Fire Nation. Everything changes yet again when general Zhao kills the white koi fish, the spirit of the moon. The full moon in the night sky literally goes out and the water benders lose all their power. Princess Yue immediately feels the change, a rapture in the world that has been created within the balance of nature. Avatar Aang, filled with sadness, joins his spirit with the spirit of the ocean, and as a gigantic water koi fish, he and the spirit destroy the armada of the Fire Nation. Out of rage, the spirit of the ocean even drowns Admiral Zhao.
Yet nature’s balance is destroyed, and one of the four elemental forces does not exist any longer. The Fire Nation’s quest for power has ultimately vanquished an eternal order. However, Princess Yue decides to sacrifice herself to save the world. She gives back her life force to the spirit of the moon. She dies, but the spirit of the moon is revived. The Princess herself transforms into a new moon spirit, although her physical body dies, her spirit will live on forever within the moon. Nature is restored.
I find the entire storyline of both episodes deeply meaningful and enormously beautiful. The way the Fire Nation interferes in nature and destroying it, reflects strongly on how humans interfere in nature and destroy its balance. CO2 emissions of human industry interfere with and destroy natural habitats all around the globe. This even echoes to the Water Tribes within the world of Avatar. The ecosystem that is already affected and its change was seen first when global warming began to alter our planet, is the ice of the North and South pole. So to say, the industrial world of humans is a Fire Nation, not actively going North to destroy the balance of the world but doing the same thing through the growth of the economy, causing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Right in the beginning of season 2 there is an episode called The Swamp and pretty much sums up everything of how the world within Avatar, and also our world works. At the start of the episode, Aang believes that the swamp is calling him while they fly above it on the bison Appa. Out of nowhere, a tornado takes them down. Then a swamp monster, a giant creature of vines and plants, attacks them after Sokka tried to cut his way through the vines of the thick forest which grow everywhere. The three friends are split up and each of them sees something different within the mist of the swamp. Katara believes to see her mother who was killed by a fire bender when she was a little girl. Aang sees Toph, whom he has not met yet and Sokka has a vision of Princess Yue as the spirit of the moon.
Eventually, they find the centre of the swamp where the monster attacks them again. Together they defeat the monster and realise that it is not a monster at all but a water bender who hid himself within the vines and bent the water within the plants to make the monster move and attack. He explains to our three heroes that he attacks anyone who tries to harm his home, like Sokka, who tried to cut his way out of the swamp. He also tells the teenagers that the swamp is not only his home but so much more. Years ago, the swamp brought enlightenment to the old water bender. At the centre of the swamp, there is the original vine tree that stretches on throughout the entire ecosystem. It is one organism, one living being that breathes as one and connects everything within the swamp. He says that the swamp is a microcosm for the entire world because when one listens hard enough, one can hear everything living and breathing together. Everything is alive and wants to live. ‘We all have the same roots. We are all branches of the same tree.’ He says.
The old water bender is also able to explain their visions. In the swamp you can see people you have lost, or someone you will love or will have an important role to play in your life. And because everything is connected, breathes together and lives throughout time and space, so death is an illusion and therefore one can encounter even the dead within the swamp. And when death is an illusion so is time. Aang saw someone, whom he is yet to meet: Toph, the earth bender, who will teach him the next element within the Avatar cycle. As everything is connected, Aang touches the vines and sees through them and finds Appa and Momo. Reunited with wisdom, they leave this mysterious place and start looking for Toph.
There is so much to say about this episode as it retells the story of the Avatar world within the microcosm of one ecosystem. The swamp is nothing else but a metaphor for the entire world that connects all the elements with each other. Within the wisdom of the swamp, the old water bender was able to expand his water bending skills like no one else was before him. He realised that there is water within all the plants and was therefore able to bend the plants, or let’s better say, to bend the water in the plants. He saw how everything is connected and must be connected to work. The same goes for our world. Although, there are over 200 different countries and nations in our world, ultimately every single country and its people strive for the same things that are deeply anchored within human beings: The call to be connected with others, or with someone else in order to live and thrive together.
Not only is this episode a deeply ecocritical one, but a deeply evolutionary one. It clearly states that everything has the same origin, the giant swamp tree is almost like Darwin’s famous tree of life and can be applied to all living things on the planet. The same goes for the elements themselves. Although they are different and the people who wield their powers have different cultures and believes, they are rooted within the same core. Water can bend the vines of a tree that grows within the earth. That earth is being fertilised through decomposed beings or ashes, the most fertile soil. Ashes originate from fire and fire needs oxygen, air, to breath and so do all living things and everything alive consists of water. This clearly underlines more than ever the importance of the Avatar and that everything should and must be in balance with each other. There must be air, water, earth and fire. Not too much of one or the other, otherwise balance will be broken, and chaos can evolve. The same can be said about our world that is just like the world of Avatar Aang, out of balance.
Humans, like the Fire Nation have been interfering so much within the natural cycles of ecosystems that we are changing them. Through CO2 emissions and other pollutants, we change the temperatures and affect fragile ecosystems all around the world. Nuclear energy creates nuclear waste and fallout, making life impossible to thrive or we create waste products such as plastic that circulate all over the planet. Plastic can be found in the most remote places from the south pole to deep sea canyons. Once again this underlines the fact that everything in our world is connected. Otherwise, plastic, which we humans throw away, would not be found everywhere, if not the cycles of the ecosystems, the currents of the ocean, the winds and tides spread it all around and within the world.
As I have talked so much about the evil ambitions of the Fire Nation, I have put the element fire in a little bit of a bad light. The same of course happens within the narrative of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Up to the end of season two, where the four main characters are hunted by Fire Nation soldiers, the prince and the princess of the Fire Nation and the viewer sees their destructive nature in the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes and the genocide of the Air Nomads, one does not believe there is anything good within the Fire Nation. But all of this changes in season three. Most of the final season is set within the Fire Nation and shows how much destruction the dictatorship of the Fire Lord and the royal family has caused within its own country. The children and most of the peasants are manipulated by Fire Nation propaganda and the industrialised towns and cities have widened the gap between the poor and the rich. Many citizens are suffering, and their live conditions are just as bad as within the colonies or the cities and towns at war abroad.
One episode, that is yet again deeply ecocritical and of enormous importance for Avatar Aang to learn fire bending is episode 13: The Firebending Masters. Zuko and Aang go on a journey to find the origins of fire bending as Zuko’s fire bending power has decreased and he does not know why. Toph tells them about the origins of earth bending. The original earth bender learned from the giant badger moles. Toph learned how to earth bend from them as well. They were blind like her and showed her that earth bending was not about fighting but about understanding once surroundings. It was their way of interacting with the world.
Aang explains that the original Air Nomads learned air bending from the sky bisons and with them they found wisdom and enlightenment through absolute freedom in the sky. And the water benders, as explained earlier, learned their skills from the spirits of moon and ocean to express their balance with nature. None of the original forms of bending were about fighting and therefore the original form of fire bending must be something else too than about fighting and conquering the world.
Aang knows that the original fire benders learned their bending from the dragons, however there are no dragons left. Zuko and Aang visit the ancient temples of the sun warriors, the original fire benders of the old world. Zuko explains to Aang that Fire Lord Sozin started to slay the dragons. They were the symbol of ultimate fire benders and wisdom. If a fire bender could conquer one, you were awarded with the title Dragon. The last person who received this title was Zuko’s uncle, General Iroh. He killed the last dragon on earth.
At the temple, they are captured by the sun warriors whom they thought to be extinct. The two captives are presented to the masters of fire bending who will judge their hearts, souls and ancestry and will then decide whether they will live or die. Aang and Zuko must present a flame to the masters. Aang bends fire for the first time and he realises it is like a little heartbeat, almost like life itself. Astonishingly, the fire bending masters turn out to be dragons. Zuko’s uncle, Iroh, has lied all these years ago. He did not kill the dragons because he knew it would have been wrong to do so.
Zuko and Aang dance with the dragons, a fire bending form they have seen and studied earlier at the temple. The dragons judge them, a fire storm erupts around them, they enlighten them with their flames, they show them fire bending harmony. Aang realises that fire is originally not destructive but life itself. It is the purest form of energy, life giving, just like the sun, without whom the world would be cold and dead. Fire and fire bending are like a fruitful flame, like a sun inside of you.
This episode holds two deep truths that connects with our world. The first one is the killing of the mighty dragons. Killing dangerous animals is not only a political statement in the world of Avatar Aang but has been one in our world since the beginning of human history. Already the kings, fighters and nobles of the ancient Empire of Assyria slaughtered hundreds of lions in their arenas for sport 4500 years ago. The meaning behind it was the same. The lion was the king within the animal kingdom. If you killed one, you would state yourself superior over nature. And that is an interesting point, as it basically means, that since the beginning of time, people in our world wanted to set themselves superior over nature and make it their slave. Already the earliest cultures wanted to live against nature and not with it. The same course took the Fire Nation when it started killing their most ancient friends the dragons. Simultaneously, they commenced their industrialisation and started to wage war on the other nations.
The other point is the meaning of fire itself. Since the beginning of time, fire made us not only superior over animals, but it also protected us and gave us life. It gave us light in darkness, it gave us warmth within coldness, it was essential for healthy cooking as the heat killed bacteria. It helped us discover and form our culture through bending metals, bronze, iron and so on. Truly, without fire there would be no humanity as we know it. However, too much of it has always been more destructive to nature and to us than it was positive. The same goes for the sun itself. Not enough of it and life cannot thrive, too much of it and life will die, but the right balance within nature and ecosystems, animals and humans get to live.
I am writing this opinion piece at the end of summer in 2020. This year has seen some of the highest temperatures recorded. Within the last couple of years there have been some of the greatest fires humans have ever seen in the USA, the Amazon Rainforest and Africa. As mentioned earlier, because of CO2 emissions, ecosystems, especially the polar regions and the oceans are suffering greatly. Our world is out of balance. Our spirit of the moon and the ocean are dying, the wise Air Nomads are gone, the brave people battling fire who are still connected to the earth are realising that it might be too late and the fire rages on, not created by ancient and terrible dragons but by the most dangerous of all dragons, the humans.
While I presented the elemental world of Avatar and our world as two different ones, by now, I think it is clear to see that there are much more commonalities than differences. The one truly and obvious difference though remains. Our world has no Avatar to restore the balance of the world. Of course, I could say now that every one of us is an Avatar and every one of us can find balance within nature and try to fight the worldwide Fire Nation, institutions and politicians who do not realise that CO2 emissions must be cut, nuclear energy must be stopped and renewable energy, green energy must be the way for the future.
But the world of Avatar also teaches another thing. The one about the reality of how much in danger the balance already is and even if it is restored there is no way of saying that nature will heal again. Of course, Avatar Aang ultimately defeats the Fire Lord, but at a terrible price, as a lot of nature and the world is lost. The Air Nomads and their culture will never return, the dragons are gone, and many more cities and towns of the Water tribes and Earth Kingdoms are destroyed because the Avatar simply was too late but just in time to prevent the worst.
Our world might seem more complex than the Avatar world, however the balance within both worlds and the mirror images of nature and elemental forces are surprisingly very much the same. And all around the world there are little Fire Lords, from Japan to the USA, to Europe, to China who do not believe in global warming, continue to build new nuclear power plants and destroy ecosystems of animals which are then forced to live among humans and therefore spread viruses to humans which for instance this year, caused a global pandemic. Here it is important to note that the pandemic also became a global one because, as I have stated before, humans are interconnected throughout the world, just like all ecosystems are, and this is one of the reasons why this pandemic was also to spread everywhere so quickly.
I do not say that our world and its ecosystems are lost but our world truly is out of balance. We have the power to change it, but we also have the power to make it a whole lot worse and we probably will before it will get better. By the end of this century a lot of ecosystems will be lost forever. New ones might evolve but the question remains whether humans will be there to see it or not. We can either choose the path of Admiral Zhao and the Fire Lord, kill the ancient spirits and on our quest for dominion and economic growth destroy ourselves along the way. Or we might realise, like General Iroh not to kill the ancient dragons and try to live and thrive with wisdom, keep a fire burning within us, like a heartbeat, and become more connected with nature once more. But until then our world is and will grow much more so out of balance, and there is no Avatar in sight.
Avatar: The Last Airbender can be streamed on American Netflix, Sky and on Amazon Prime.