Note: This essay was originally written on October 22nd, 2010 and was part of a school assignment. It uses concepts from The Hero’s Journey/Monomyth and compares them with The Last Airbender TV series. It was an essay that brought me not only a high grade but also helped solidify my choice to finish off my English degree. I have left it mostly in its original form, only editing a few grammar mistakes and formatting. Enjoy!
Avatar: The Last Airbender has only recently become popular, but the iconic characters and epic story are sure to go down in history as one of the best animations of its time. The story, one none too uncommon, follows Aang as he journeys around the world to gain the knowledge and power to defeat a tyrant ruler and save the world. We may ask ourselves, however, why is this type of story so common, and why does it keep us entertained even after thousands of years of similar stories? The answer isn’t so easy to find, but these archetypes and motifs are commonly found throughout history, starting as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s practically impossible to read a story that doesn’t contain any archetypes of motifs. It is the similar bonds between space and time make us feel comfortable and help us relate to the characters we read about. These monomyths, a term popularized by Joseph Campbell, follow similar patterns that we know and love. Avatar: The Last Airbender is no exception to this and, as you will see, follows much of Campbell’s ideas of the hero’s journey and many other archetypes.
Julia Kristeva, a literary theorist, believes in intertextuality, that is “every text is from the outset is under the jurisdiction of other discoveries which impose a universe on it.” This concept is somewhat of a deeper version of archetypes, which dates back to Plato, and motifs. The idea of intertextuality basically states that anything new we read is shaped by everything else we have ever known. With this concept, we shape the way we think of a hero from other hero’s we have read about. When we think of medieval heroes, we tend to think of King Arthur, who was very pure and represented well. However, we can similarly look at Beowulf who is a very different hero who gives into his deeper desires. We put him down for this and we feel he is not a good hero, until the end when he redeems himself and does the right thing. We find that many artists use intertextuality, archetypes, and motifs, to their advantage and because of this, it would be almost impossible to understand the characters in The Last Airbender without looking at their archetypes and also at the journey that they take.
The hero’s journey, as laid out by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, starts with the hero’s “departure” from normal life. With Aang, this actually happens one hundred years prior, when he is told that he is the Avatar. He runs away from home but gets caught inside a glacier, solidifying his “refusal of the call”. Katana finds him, but he still refuses to believe that he will be the savior of the world. Once he sees the destruction that the Fire Nation has done, he “crosses into the field of adventure.” After this point, he is determined but has to pass through “the road of trials” in learning each of the four nations powers. As difficult as this task was, one of the major conflicts Aang had to go through was struggling with his own inner turmoil of becoming the Avatar. He meets a spiritual guide who helps him achieve a higher understanding of himself and, finally, becomes transformed into the person he knows he should be. In the end, it leads up to “the ultimate boon” when he fights and defeats the Fire Lord, thus saving the world from his evil tyranny.
The first character we will look at is the archetypal Hero of the story, Aang. He is the reincarnation of the Avatar, which can be described as the embodiment of hope, and with that has been passed down great power from one generation to the next. He is the protector of the world, the ray of hope for the three nations struggling, and the link that is set in place to unite the whole world. The word avatar alone is much of what archetypes are and the creator of this series based a lot of the world around Campbell’s ideas, “Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known.” (Campbell, The Power of Myth) This idea of the hero never having to journey alone sparks true with Aang not only philosophically, but also because he can call on the help and knowledge of all his past selves in his time of need. Hero’s from myths can be seen in The Waters of Eternal Life with Alexander the Great and The Epic of Gilgamesh with Gilgamesh himself. If there was such a thing as a stereotypical archetype, Aang would be it.
The next character is Katana. For much of the series, she is the only main female character. At a young age, her mother was killed by the Fire Nation because she was believed to be the last with the power to control water, protecting Katana. Although her grandmother was still alive, it was up to her to take care of her brother, Sokka, and through that, she became a very motherly figure. When she grew older, her father went away to war and she became somewhat of a motherly figure to the whole tribe. She fits perfectly into the archetype of caregiver, or motherly figure, not only because of the way she grew up, but her personality is innately very caring and loving. Carol Pearson describes this archetype as an individual who is “most fulfilled when they can make a difference for someone else. Naturally compassionate, nurturing, and dedicated, they enjoy demonstrating their supportiveness.”(Pearson, Hero Within) It was no secret that Katana treated both her brother and Aang this way, and there was even a specific episode where they joke about her being more of a mother to them instead of a friend. If we take a look at A Taste of Earth, we can see that Au Co is a perfect example of this archetype as she ends up becoming a figure similar to Mother Earth.
The final character I want to talk about is Sokka. He is, as I mentioned above, Katana’s brother and very much a realist. When the men of his tribe left for war, he was told to stay behind because he was too young. His enthusiasm and drive made this feel like a slap in the face, even though his father told him it was his job to watch over the rest of the tribe. He doesn’t have any powers and isn’t a very good swordsman, but is “naturally empathetic, unpretentious, and resilient.”(Pearson, Hero Within) In their journey together, he is often the first to offer service to help others and is there to motivate Aang when he loses sight of the path he needs to take. This archetypal everyperson can be related to because in him we see ourselves and we can relate to his trials and tribulations. Pearson also points out that the everyperson “need(s) to be careful about playing the victim, becoming cynical and negative, creating an ‘us vs. Them’ mentality.” Sokka tends to go overboard and many times is the focus of jokes and hard feelings. The everyperson archetype can be seen in almost any story because it represents the common person. In many ways, Ma Andeh from Pa Pandir, or Daddy Moron can be seen as an everyperson because she does what she can to motivate and take care of her husband, despite everything that he does.
Of course, these characters are not one-sided and each has parts of them that lend themselves to other archetypes, such as Aang being an orphan and innocent, but these parts of them only serve to round out the character and not define him. The creators of The Last Airbender have said that Campbell was a heavy influence on each and every character, along with the journey that was ahead of them. In many ways, the story of the four nations at war is an over-elaborate myth that tells of the people involved. Thanks to archetypes and motifs, it isn’t hard to take any character or plot from this story and apply it to another. They can even be applied to our own lives in many ways. Each of us has archetypes which we can relate to or which we can relate others around us too. In the end, this epic tale of struggle, love, and overcome makes us not only understand more about them but also about ourselves.