I can't help but think of many shows and anime I've watched where a main hero has to save the world. The ones that I remember the best? the ones where the hero sacrifices something to save the world. Sometimes you have sacrifice your values when your a leader, for the group. War is hard and usually you don't escape unscathed. Also when they found Gyatso's body, he was in an area filled with fire nation corpses. He fought until his death, killing the solders. Does that lessen who he was? No.
Aang definitely should have had to sacrifice something in order to defeat the Firelord. Head writer Aaron Ehasz tried to sneak some Aang development past Bryke in the Season 2 ending, where Aang had to let Katara go in order to enter the Avatar State. But then in Season 3, especially the back half where everything was winding to a close, Aang was still extremely attached to Katara to the point of assuming consent and literally not knowing illusion from reality.
These are all completely natural flaws for a twelve-year-old boy to have. The problem isn’t Aang himself so much as how his flaws and beliefs are all validated at the end of the show. And I wouldn’t have had Aang sacrifice his beliefs so much as adapt his beliefs the way others do throughout Avatar.
Why Zuko’s belief system holds up better than Aang’s:
“That’s cute. But this isn’t Air Temple preschool; it’s the real world.”
Much has been made of Zuko deriding Air Nomad philosophy in “The Southern Raiders” with this and his “guru goody-goody” line, especially when he himself is the biggest beneficiary of Aang’s philosophy of forgiveness. And let’s be honest: Zuko was being an asshole. But … just how wrong was he about how Aang is voicing his beliefs?
This isn’t Air Temple preschool.
Let’s do a quick recap of Aang’s stated beliefs throughout the show:
Ying: How can we abandon hope? It’s all we have.
Aang: I don’t know. The monks used to say that hope is a distraction. So maybe we need to abandon it.
Katara: Why do they have all these poor people blocked off in one part of the city?
Aang: This is why I never came here before. I always heard it was so different from the way the monks taught us to live.
Aang: As the monks used to say, sometimes the shadows of the past can be felt by the present.
Aang: The monks used to say that revenge is like a two-headed rat-viper. While you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.
Aang: Avatar Yangchen, the monks always taught me that all life is sacred. Even the life of the tiniest spider-fly caught in its own web.
Yangchen: Yes, all life is sacred.
Aang: I know, I’m even a vegetarian. I’ve always tried to solve my problems by being quick or clever, and I’ve only had to use violence for necessary defense, and I’ve certainly never used it to take a life.
Yangchen: Avatar Aang, I know that you are a gentle spirit, and the monks have taught you well. But this isn’t about you, this is about the world.
Aang: But the monks taught me that I had to detach myself from the world so my spirit could be free.
As a rule, Aang states his ideals in terms of generic aphorisms that were passed down from the monks that raised him. The fact that these truisms—including the one he used in the Southern Raiders—are direct sayings means they have traveled from the monks to Aang, uncontested and unchallenged. Throughout the show, Aang never has to question or analyze those ideals between hearing them and acting upon them. Every time we hear him speak of the monks, Aang repeats their beliefs as if they are immovable facts; and throughout all the evolution the series and its characters undergo, that never—not once—changes.
Now let’s look at Zuko’s stated beliefs.
I don’t need luck, though. I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that’s made me strong. It made me who I am.
You’re not soldiers; you’re bullies. You’re sick cowards abusing your power, mostly over women and kids.
The people of the Earth Kingdom are proud and strong. They can endure anything, as long as they have hope.
I’ve been through a lot these past few years, and it’s been hard. But lately, I’ve realized that I needed to go through all that to learn the truth. I thought I had lost my honor, and my father could return it somehow. But now I know that no one can give you your honor. It’s something you earn for yourself, by choosing to do what’s right.
Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history, and that somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation! They don’t see our greatness; they hate us. And we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world, and if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.
A hundred years of fighting has left the world scarred and divided. But with the Avatar’s help, we can get it back on the right path and begin a new era of love and peace.
Zuko’s beliefs come straight from his own experience, rather than somebody else’s. Zuko too has a wise old sage who spouts quoteworthy nuggets at him, but the way he interacts with that wisdom is completely different. Zuko never successfully repeats his uncle’s advice verbatim—the two times he tries, it comes out as indecipherable nonsense. It is through acting on this uncle’s advice and making it his own that Zuko succeeds; he needs to feel what Iroh means, rather than reiterating Iroh’s words. This is a much stronger method of learning than Aang’s is; it’s the difference between critical thinking and rote memorization. That is why Zuko thinks Aang’s beliefs are still in preschool mode—because Aang is telling Katara to just agree with something that the monks said because it was the monks who said it, rather than seeing that Katara’s sense of justice might be different from his own…and that’s okay.
It should be noted that the show (or at least Bryke) take the same approach to Air Nomad beliefs that Aang does. There is this attitude in A:TLA that because all of the Air Nomads were peaceful and were wiped out, Aang needs to keep their ways and wisdom pristine. They were victims, even martyrs—so their ideals should not be touched. This is true even though the monks are only fleshed out in one episode, “The Storm,” in which they seem as flawed and human as anyone:
- They told Aang he was the Avatar before he turned sixteen, which
Monk Gyatso acknowledges was a mistake.
- They refused to let him grow up as a normal boy.
- They tried to rush Aang’s training.
- They tried to take Aang away from Monk Gyatso, his father
figure, mentor, and the wisest monk in the temple.
Is it a tragedy that all these men were killed? Of course. But does that make them the guardians of absolute morality? Should their wisdom be treated as infallible, when we can see that they themselves were anything but? Being the victim of genocide is a terrible thing, but it does not automatically elevate you and your culture to sainthood. Contrast this with the way every other nation’s beliefs are challenged in the show. The Water Tribe’s beliefs about the place of men and women are criticized and proven false by Katara. The Earth Kingdom’s belief in separating the social classes as a key to order is shown to be authoritarian. The Fire Nation’s belief in its own superiority and the rectitude of its conquest is destroying the world.
The Air Nomads, though? The Air Nomad beliefs are given a free pass in a way no other nation’s are. Their ways are right, period, and anyone who doesn’t know that will have to be taught otherwise. This sounds good for Aang because he gets to be right so much of the time. But from a narrative perspective, this doesn’t match what the rest of the show is trying to tell us about how understanding and learning from all the four nations makes us stronger.
Here’s my take: Aang’s Air Nomad philosophy works well in many situations, but not in all of them, and that is true of every philosophy in the Four Nations. That’s why Iroh says drawing wisdom from only one source makes your values rigid and stale. And what could be more stale and rigid than unquestioning repetition? In effect, the Zuko half of A:TLA’s narrative says you should draw wisdom from multiple sources, and the Aang half says that if you don’t stick to Air Nomad tradition, you’ll be compromising your principles. These diametrically opposed and incompatible viewpoints constantly fight each other, all the way to the end of the show, and even spill over into fandom discussions like this one.
Morality is just as much about how you interact with your beliefs as it is about the beliefs themselves. And this is why there’s a difference between who is the better person and who is the better character. Zuko’s beliefs are not superior to Aang’s in theory, but in practice, they are held to the fire, tempered, strengthened as they are proven right and cast aside when proven wrong. Thus when audience members disagree with Zuko’s values, they can at least respect how he came to believe them. Aang’s loss of the Air Nomads is enormous, but when it makes him cling to every belief they have no matter how it’s challenged by the outside world, it hurts his development. Especially since he’s the Avatar and his job is to understand the equality of the nations and their values. Aang’s narrative thread can definitely find an audience among those who already believe the same things that Aang does and don’t have to be told why. But people whose beliefs don’t match Aang’s will have a very hard time being told to just accept that those beliefs are correct without a rigorous examination of them in-show.
Is there a way for Aang to keep his core tenets the same while developing his own value system? Yes, and the key to it lies in the very scene you mentioned.
Behold the corpse of Monk Gyatso, surrounded by the bodies of Fire Nation soldiers whom he killed in self-defense. Aang was specifically shown that his mentor killed those men in the third episode of the series. Yet it never even occurs to Aang to doubt his cherished ideal. He never reconciles what he has heard from the monks with what he has seen with his own eyes. And the fact that Monk Gyatso and Avatar Yangchen—the only two Air Nomads we see break away from the strict Air Nomad code against killing—are also the monks that offer Aang the most genuine wisdom is a huge indicator that it is possible to reconcile the ideals of the monks with the reality of the world that they live in. It’s just not something that Aang was ever required to do himself. Rather, it is reality that is expected to bend and conform to Aang’s belief system so he doesn’t have to change his way of thinking.
The solution: We see a teasing glimpse of how Aang’s beliefs could have been adapted in “The Northern Air Temple.” Aang, as caretaker of his culture, is appalled when he sees the new technology defacing the legacy of his people. Yet after seeing the refugees embodying the spirit of the Air Nomads, Aang accepts them as guardians of the temple, even though they make changes he doesn’t agree with. This is one of the only examples of Aang actually adapting his beliefs to the world, rather than trying to adapt the world to the standards of his particular nation. He is not compromising his beliefs per se; he is learning to keep his beliefs in harmony with the world as it currently is. (Not surprisingly, that episode was written by Elizabeth Ehasz.) And perhaps the thing Aang needs to sacrifice is not the belief that all life is sacred, or that we should forgive our enemies, but the belief that the Air Nomad customs were as pure and untainted as the way he remembers them.