When the average person thinks of mythology, they are most likely to think about archaic stories about gods and heroes with fantastic powers and histories. While living in our technologically advanced time period, these myths that we learn about were once common teachings in ancient lands used to explain natural phenomenon and teach moral standards to people. As fantastic as the stories of myth sound like, many people dismiss them and assume these stories of fantasy no longer play a role in out modern-day lives.
What most people do not realize, however, is that many aspects of myth are still involved with the media we see every day. Just as the stories of Krishna enlightened the people of their time to understand the world and society around them, movies and television shows act as our storytellers and influence our thoughts and morals. One television show not only acts as one of these modern-myths, but reuses some of the same motifs commonly present in past and current mythology: Bryan Konietzko’s and Micheal DiMartino’s Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The motif we see in this series is commonly known as “The Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey” as originated by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. To get an understanding of the presence of the motif in the referred television series, we need to understand what exactly is “The Hero’s Journey”. Joseph Campbell describes this common mythological motif, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell 23).
One of two most basic aspects in this motif is the hero and the problem he must overcome. Campbell has developed seventeen stages in between the hero starting his quest and completing it, but we will focus on the ones most outstanding. These stages broken down into three major segments are “The Departure” where the hero begins, recognizes, and accepts his duty to go on his quest, “The Initiation” in which contains the obstacles and struggles the hero faces during his journey, and “The Return” where the hero accomplishes his task, but must apply his victory to benefit the normal world.
The television series Avatar: The Last Airbender reflects this motif as the main protagonist Avatar Aang, chosen manipulator of his world’s basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water, after being in a coma for 100 years steps up to accomplish his role as “the chosen” and saves the world from the overpowering Fire Nation that threatens to take over the world by force.
While mildly popular with today’s youth, the television show has one of the best examples of the usage of “The Hero’s Journey”. Just as the television show reflects the monomyth, chronologically The Last Airbender storyline begins with Aang’s “Departure” where he faces his “Call to Adventure”. This summon in the order of “The Hero’s Journey” discusses how the hero faces abandonment of his normal life in order to fulfill his heavy task into the unknown.
In episode twelve entitled The Storm, Aang retells the story of how he was told he was The Avatar (the protector of the world) to his fellow comrades. 100 years ago while training as an airbender monk at twelve years old, Aang suddenly discovers that he is the Avatar, chosen to master all four elements when the elders of his temple inform him and request that he begins his duties as Avatar earlier than expected because of the danger the Fire Nation poses to the rest of the world.
Overwhelmed by the responsibilities that suddenly came upon him, Aang flees in the middle of the storm on his flying bison and ends up plunged in the ocean and frozen in ice for a hundred years. Specifically stated by Aang when asked about why he never introduced himself as The Avatar, he responds, “I never wanted to be” (Avatar: The Last Airbender, episode 2). Shortly after explaining his “Refusal to the Call”, Aang meets his “Supernatural Aid” in the form of the previous Avatar before him named Avatar Roku when visiting the Spirit World.
While the Spirit World Aang ventures into also acts as “The Crossing of the First Threshold”, he is convinced by Avatar Roku that he must take on the task of saving the world. In “The Hero’s Journey”, this is a significant role because the hero finally becomes selfless and truly begins his duties to go about his quest. In the case of Avatar: The Last Airbender, his newfound motivation allows him to leave “The Belly of the Whale”, where a metamorphosis of eagerness is born, Aang goes about the steps he needs to save the world.
In the next part of “The Hero’s Journey” called Initiation, where our hero suffers from trials and obstacles in order to accomplish his goal. Following the list of steps in Campbell’s analysis of “The Journey”, Airbender show creators did not quite follow the formula verbatim. However, what was present was “The Road of Trials”, in which our hero is tested to falter on his journey only to prove that he is suited for the task.
Aang’s “Road of Trials” appears in the form of mastering three other elements (water, earth, and fire) and being involved in countless battles with lesser antagonists who stand in his way to prevent him from reaching the Fire Lord who leads the tyrant nation trying to rule the world. The next characteristic in “The Hero’s Journey” called “Meeting with the Goddess” seems to be missing from Aang’s journey as the avatar, but there seems to be present the “Woman as a Temptress”, in which our hero is distracted by love and is unsure of whether to pursue his main goal or follow his heart.
The female character in Aang’s posse named Katara often reflects what Kal Bishop states on his online article on “The Temptress”, “the entity that causes the Hero to not think of himself; the entity for which the Hero is prepared to sacrifice himself; the entity that triggers the Hero’s change of attitude; (and) the reward at the end of the journey” (Bishop, Hero’s Journey: Woman as Temptress). Interestingly enough while Katara is portrayed as an ally, she is the cause for many of the stumbling Aang has on his journey.
While this could also feed into the obligatory relationship television shows have to offer in modern-day entertainment, Aang is halted many times during his journey because Katara is put into danger. Next, Aang’s “Atonement with the Father” comes in the form of The Fire Lord Aang has to defeat. He becomes a father-like figure when the Fire Lord’s son Zuko joins the Avatar in order to stop him. Recognizing that the Avatar finds peaceful ways to end injustice, Zuko questions Aang on how he will defeat his evil father without killing him, and so Aang must devise a way to overpower him whilst respecting the Fire Lord and Zuko’s wishes.
Aang’s “Apotheosis”, which is our hero’s temporary death or rest before his goal is reached, happens during his battle with the Fire Lord. In the heated match in the last episode of the series, Aang is about to face defeat. In the moment where it almost seems like he is going to cave in, he remembers his goal and forgets all of his worldy desires and becomes empowered with energy to overtake the Fire Lord.
In this sense, his past self of cowardice and selfishness has died and a new, brave Avatar was reborn and victorious. He uses his power to weaken the Fire Lord and remove his brute strength that gave him power in the first place. This win over the Fire Lord, poses as Aang’s role in “The Hero’s Journey known as “The Ultimate Boon”, where by defeating the tyrant he restores peace to the world. The last and final installment of “The Hero’s Journey”, our hero must undergo “The Return”.
The writers of the show leave out the first three stages, which is “The Refusal of the Return” where our hero does not want to go back to his normal life, “The Magic Flight” where he is forced to escape and take his prize with him, and “The Rescure from Without” when his return to the normal world is assisted by his allies. In fact, the only part of “The Return” that is implemented in the show is “The Crossing of the Return Threshold” and “The Freedom to Live”. Once the Fire Lord is defeated, Aang goes to the Fire Nation where he and his friends announce a new era of peace and love.
They are aware that the past 100 years without the Avatar left the world in turmoil, so they promise to help the world slowly restore its’ balance between the nations. At the last episode, they allow the audience to infer that they return to normal lives as the character live in harmony in one of the cities affected by the Fire Nation’s reign. While it might have been more interesting to see the show follow the Hero’s Journey, the reason why the writers left it out is due to the hardships Aang already faced leading up to his battle with the Fire Lord.
That’s not to say this series botched the formula for “The Hero’s Journey”, but it more aspects than others, they followed various elements spot on, such as Aang’s departure. It was interesting to note that Aang’s position in the fictional world was almost messiah-like where one is sent forward to save the world from danger. The story of Jesus Christ happens to follow some aspects of the “Hero’s Journey”, so similarities can be easily drawn between the two.
Most importantly, the fact that we can observe these mythical aspects in odern-day television shows that myths should not be dismissed and unaccounted for. They still affect us by what we decide to watch and how we can connect and be entertained by them. The “Hero’s Journey” format takes place not only in Avatar: The Last Airbender, but in many other television shows and movies. These are our currents myths in which we familiarize with, and oddly enough to think about it a 100 years from now they will be older myths our decedents will someday think about.