Tag Archives: Avatar Series

Controlling Passion: Fire as Emotion and Desire

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

Remember that series we started? With this handy-dandy little reference sheet? Well, you’ll probably need the Fire Nation blurb for this post.

In the Avatar universe, fire plays the role of energy and passion, requiring balance and control to keep it from devouring everything in its path—and ultimately devouring itself. The fire-bender characters met in the series are often acutely aware of this and, by their attitude toward fire and fire-bending, serve as examples of different responses to the power and pull of our passions. The character known as the Deserter (properly called Jeong Jeong), a Fire Nation general-turned-hermit, captures the problem of the passions in his lament: fire is a powerful force with great creative potential and a pivotal role in human life; yet its very use predisposes the fire-bender to yield a little more room to fire. Without the proper discipline and moderation, even the best-intentioned and most vigilant bender could cause great destruction, even self-destruction. So too, the human passions are a great good and indispensible to human life; yet if simply yielded to passively at each opportunity, emotion and desire alone would certainly lead someone astray into great harm.

Some of Aang’s first attempts to fire-bend serve as a good example of this danger. In his need to master fire-bending in order to fulfill his mission as the Avatar, Aang seeks out the aforementioned Deserter, a great fire-bending master, to teach him this art. When Aang finally finds the Deserter and makes his request, the hermit reveal’s the great danger that comes from someone playing with fire. For someone like carefree Aang, childlike and sometimes childish, the power of fire would simply be too great to trifle with; for someone with less pure intentions, the consequences could be even graver. On these grounds, the Deserter initially refuses; but after great insistence, Aang finally secures the Deserter’s help, on the condition that Aang train with unrelenting discipline.

So far so good! After much training, Aang learns to control his breath.  (For the most part.) Under constant pressure from Aang to be allowed to play with fire, the Deserter leaves him with an ember, burning a hole through the middle of a leaf which, in true Japanese style, Aang is to keep from burning out to the edges.  In his excitement, Aang expands the ember into a whole flame and begins to manipulate it freely and playfully. Katara, who stands nearby watching, recognizes the danger Aang is playing with and warns him; but her words of caution fall upon deaf ears until Aang accidentally burns her hands with his fire-bending tricks.

Such an example of the danger that comes with fire-bending may not be so serious; in fact, Katara is able to heal herself with a water-bending technique she soon discovers. But, for fire-bending and the human passions alike, a more unhinged person might let loose something much graver through rampant desire and emotion. Admiral Zhao, the Fire-Nation leader of great ambition, personifies this more serious danger in his obsessive hunt for the Avatar—much like the imperialism of the Fire Nation as a whole. In the climax of the same Deserter episode, Admiral Zhao tracks Aang down to the Deserter’s location and leads a group of Fire-Nation gunboats to secure both fugitives—a perfect means to satisfy his ambitions. But when Aang confronts Zhao, he shows himself to have learned his lesson as well as he shows Zhao to be self-destructive in his heedlessness: by simply allowing Zhao to expend himself in fire-bending attacks, avoiding them with graceful control, Aang successfully leads Zhao to destroy his own ships with his reckless assault. In this way, the inferno of unchecked passion or fire-bending ultimately undermines and extinguishes itself.

The dangers of unrestrained emotion or desire are thusly displayed in fire-bending. However, more positive examples of properly cultivated passion exist as well. The Deserter, in his great sorrow over the rampant destruction caused by fire-bending, shows a path of self-denial and resignation in his refusal to fire-bend except for the most serious reasons. On the other hand, Uncle Iroh leads a more harmonious life as a fire-bender, informed by well-ordered passions. Far from abandoning the art of fire-bending, Uncle Iroh perfects it in his mastery of lightning-bending, a very demanding technique possible only for the most disciplined masters. Yet this expertise does not come from heedless indulgence but from great self-mastery: a trait also on display in Uncle Iroh’s personality as a whole. Rather than fixating upon the great objects of ambition common to the series’ unbalanced firebenders—power and wealth and honors—Uncle Iroh is most memorable for his great Chestertonian appreciation for the simplest of goods: innocent pleasures like a cup of tea or a game of pai sho. So too does his humble demeanor, good-humored and self-effacing, contrast sharply with the feverish personalities of Admiral Zhao or Fire Lord Ozai, who are so consumed by self-destructiveness and self-import. In these ways Iroh shows that with fire-bending—like the human passions—rather than needing to be unequivocally renounced altogether or extinguished, a life of full flourishing embraces both the intensities of emotion and desire as well as the fundamental vision of the true good needed to shape these into a force which can be genuinely creative.

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The Basic Storyline and Structure of Avatar: the Last Airbender (Book One: Water)

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

As an introduction to the series of posts on this animated TV series, I would like to introduce the characters and the plot.  Be warned: this entire post-series is one long string of spoilers, so if you’re not familiar with it and want to be surprised, don’t read this.  If you aren’t familiar with it and don’t plan to watch the series or don’t care if the plot is ruined for you, this is the post (and series) for you.

We will focus for now on the first season (or “Book”): Water.

The World:

There are four groups into which people are born.  These groups are defined by the elements they can bend (bending is a type of psychokinetic martial art manipulation of the Empedoclean elements).

Earth: The Earth Kingdom is very reminiscent of imperial China.  It consists of big cities with sophisticated technology and clever inventors, each city ruled by its own king.  The capital is Ba Sing Se /bah-sing-say/.  Members of the Earth Kingdom dress in shades of green and brown.  Earthbending is associated with a firm “center” but flexibility and creativity.  They tend to be offensive fighters.

Water: The Water tribes live at the North and South Poles and appear to be Inuit.  The Northern Water Tribe is a massive civilization made of ice and snow, and its city layout is reminiscent of Venice with canals being one of the main methods of transportation.  The Southern Water Tribe is much more like what people imagine when they hear the word “Eskimo”: a small village of igloos and tents.  It is also very lacking in benders, unlike the Northern Tribe–the Fire Nation did its best to exterminate the benders of this tribe.  Also, all its men are helping the Earth Kingdom fight the Fire Nation’s invasion.  Members of the Water tribes dress in shades of blue, with white (sometimes fur) trim.  They are often wearing long sleeves and/or parkas, depending on where in the world they are.  Waterbending is associated with fluidity, flexibility, and creativity.  Most waterbenders can manipulate water into and out of its frozen state at will.  They can be either offensive or defensive fighters.

Air: The Air nomads live in the sky.  Literally.  Air temples are usually on the tops of mountains or in the sides of cliffs–basically, as far away from easily-accessible as possible.  You can only get there on a flying bison.  The air nomads of the Eastern and Western Air Temples are modelled after Tibetan monks.  All Air Nomads seen in the series have been airbenders, most likely because of their civilization’s monastic way of life.  Air nomads dress in yellow and orange.  Airbenders, after a certain point, receive airbender tattoos: a series of blue arrows tattooed over their bodies with their points at the center of the forehead, the centers of the backs of the hands, and the centers of the tops of the feet.  Most airbenders shave their heads; some grow facial hair.  Airbending is associated with flightiness but revolves around meditation and control.  They tend to be defensive (non-violent) fighters.

Fire: The Fire Nation heavily resembles feudal Japan.  Society revolves around a very strict system of “honour,” where in order to maintain the honour of your family you must not dishonour yourself.  Exile is a very real thing in the Fire Nation.  Since in this series, the biggest plot point is that the Fire Nation is attempting to rule the world with force (and to keep it down with martial law, once it’s conquered), the Fire Nation itself is difficult to describe because of its far-reaching arm.  Under the rule of Fire Lord Ozai, the Fire Nation has a primarily military presence in the world.  Members of the Fire Nation dress in shades of red and often look militaristic or samurai-esque, even when not in battle.  Firebending is associated with power and passion but revolves around control through proper breath control.  They tend to be offensive fighters.

Cast of Characters

The Good Guys:

Aang: The Avatar.  He is discovered in an iceberg in the first episode, but you don’t find out he is the Avatar until the second (they were initially aired back-to-back).  This means that he is pivotal to the survival of the world: he is the only one who has the capability of controlling all four elements AND he is the bridge between the mortal and the spirit worlds.  He is an airbender from the Southern Air Temple.  At the time of the series beginning, the airbenders had all been killed by the Fire Nation–but he didn’t know this because he was frozen in stasis in the iceberg for 100 years.  Because of this stasis-freeze, he is still twelve: the age he was when he froze.  He is a happy and bouncy personality, but still understands his responsibility as the Avatar.  He also has a very strong desire to help everyone with whom he comes into contact.  His job is, literally, to save the world from the Fire Lord.

Katara: The only bender left in the Southern Water Tribe.  She and her brother Sokka (below) discover Aang in the iceberg when they are out fishing.  She is very maternal, as she has had to take care of the household chores since her mother died at the hands of a Fire Nation invasion.  Her father is fighting with the other men from the Southern Water Tribe.  Katara and Sokka live with their grandmother, Gran-Gran.  Katara seems to be about thirteen.

Sokka: Katara’s older brother.  He is a non-bender (which means he can’t manipulate any elements) but has a good mind for strategy.  He often fills the role of comic relief and is usually hungry.  He has been the “man” of the village for two years now, since all the grown men left to fight.  He seems to be about fifteen.  His weaponry consists of a mace and a boomerang.

 

Momo: Aang’s flying lemur.  He is adorable and can always find food (often making him friends with Sokka).

Appa: Aang’s animal companion (all Avatars have one).  He is a flying bison.  Like Aang, he has arrows on his body at his head and all his limbs (he has six legs and a very big, flat tail).

The Bad Guys:

Prince Zuko: Son of Fire Lord Ozai; he has been exiled and must capture the Avatar in order to regain his honour.  He has a flame-shaped burn scar on his face from a vital backstory plot-point.  He is a firebender with a tendency to let his temper get the better of him.

 

General Iroh: Zuko’s uncle.  Also exiled, so he travels with Zuko and teaches him (as well as talking sense into him).  The comic relief for the bad guys, Iroh is a funny old man with a passion for tea, food, and pai sho (an invented-for-the-series game which appears to be like mahjongg with some elements of Go.)  If you try to harm Zuko, though, he will kick your butt faster than you can blink.  Iroh is also a firebender (which is why he teaches Zuko).

Commander Zhao: A generally bad guy.  Commander in the Fire Nation Imperial Army.  He hates Zuko; Zuko hates him.  Much more about him later, as he has a LOT of issues.

Did we forget anyone?