Balance is the central theme of ATLA, and it’s no accident that much of that world is inspired by Asian cultures and their art. Eastern philosophy divides existence into dualistic, complementary forces of Yin and Yang. Yin is embodied in what is solid, cold, sinking, feminine, etc. Yang represents the ephemeral, the hot, the expansive, the masculine, and so on. The elements themselves can be paired off too; water and earth are Yin, with fire and air being Yang. In this line of thinking, the elements perfectly complement each other, with none being “better” or more “good” than any of the others. This is why I wasn’t a fan of the show when it first came out.
As a practitioner of the magical arts, I thought that making the Fire Nation the antagonist of the story was hackneyed and lazy. By demonizing fire and using it as a dressing for the “bad guys” like so many other storytellers have done before, told me that the creators didn’t understand elemental theory. But as a practitioner of the martial arts, I found the fight scenes sublime, so I was lured in. I quickly came to enjoy the art, the characters, and the world so much that I forgave the show for what I almost treated as a personal slight (Surprise! Fire is my primary element!). The more I saw of Iroh and Zuko, however, the more I sensed that the creators had a greater comprehension of elemental theory than I first thought, and by the third season I was proven correct.
At the end of season two, Zuko, who up until that point had undergone tremendous personal growth, slipped back into moral unconsciousness when he betrayed his uncle, and joined forces with Azula to defeat the Avatar. Not only is Aang nearly killed in the battle, but the Earth Kingdom falls completely under Fire Nation control. Afterward, Zuko finally has everything he wanted; he returned home as a hero to enjoy the accolades of his nation, the love of a good woman, and the (conditional) approval of his father. But it wasn’t right, and he knew it. He wrestled with his conscience until he couldn’t take it anymore.
In the middle of season three he confronted his father, (who tried to kill him, of course) and left to join Aang to become his firebending teacher. He had hoped to free his uncle from prison, but upon entering the jail found that Iroh had broken himself out and disappeared because he’s a total badass. After meeting up with the Avatar crew, and encountering some much-expected trepidation on their part, he begins to teach Aang firebending, but finds that he can’t summon any flames. He soon realized that it’s because he’s finally confronted and released the source of his frustration and anger, and that anger was the emotional fuel that he and all other firebenders used to create fire in the first place. Desperate for a clue as to how to summon fire without anger, the two set off to find an ancient temple where the secrets of firebending were supposedly kept. Once there they met the first firebenders, a pair of massive dragons, and they were gifted with the knowledge of what fire actually is.
DrUpauli summarized the lesson in the episode brilliantly:
We find out how firebending is life and energy incarnate. It’s primal roots reveal how it was originally a beautiful art fueled by passion and willpower. By nature this makes it a double-edged sword. Passion on one end can be anger, rage, and hate; but on the other end, passion can be intense enthusiasm, an unwavering heart, and unconditional love. Ozai was the embodiment of the perverted art firebending had become. It was no longer an extension of who you are, but a military weapon of mass destruction. Iroh is the opposite, in that he represents what firebending was meant to be. Firebending, and bending in general, is an extension of one’s being, not a weapon.
Despite the fact that I had an intuitive grasp of fire’s dynamic and dualistic nature, (unlike Zuko and Aang who had to be taught what fire truly represents), I too misapplied its power. Like Zuko, I had been determined to “make things happen” for reasons that I had not even thought through. By the summer of 2020 I really started questioning what I was doing and why. Slowly, as I wrote these blogs, an answer began to reveal itself.
Iroh’s Wisdom – Choosing Humility Over Pride:
YouTube intro: https://youtu.be/4mBCCi1SNLQ