(I found this image on DeviantArt, a site which lets artists upload their work. I've started my own DeviantArt profile as well. This is something I wrote for ECTA about Christian themes in Avatar: The Last Airbender.)
I finally got the complete third season of Avatar on DVD, and am anxiously awaiting Thanksgiving break when I can re-watch the whole show. Avatar is the most intelligent animated series I’ve seen (even more so than most regular TV shows), beautifully drawn and superbly written. Two characters in particular are almost Dickensian in nature: Uncle Iroh and Prince Zuko. If Charles Dickens were alive today, I would not be surprised if he created a character like Uncle Iroh: a wise, eccentric old man with a wry wit, a passion for tea, and a silver tongue.
Both Iroh and Zuko are deep, three-dimensional characters. The story of Zuko’s transformation from an angry, selfish malefactor to a strong, virtuous hero is as dramatic as the miraculous redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Though the writers may or may not be Christians, the story of Zuko’s redemption is particularly poignant to me because I know that, in the real world, such a change can only be effected by the healing power of Christ’s love.
For me, one of the most profound stories of the Bible is that of Saul’s conversion, when he became the Apostle Paul. Saul was a Roman citizen, and he persecuted the early Christians, and was even responsible for the death of the first martyr, Steven. However, even a man so evil was not beyond the power of Christ’s love. But Jesus appeared before Saul on the road to Damascus and struck him blind.
God asked his disciple Ananias to heal Paul, telling him, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15b). Paul’s sight was restored, and he went on to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles, and even became a martyr himself.
In Avatar, when the audience first meets Zuko, he is just as monstrous as Saul. He is heavily scarred, he is obsessed with taking the heroic Avatar his prisoner, and he treats his soldiers and his Uncle terribly. The viewer’s first impression of Zuko is that he is a run-of-the-mill villain. However, Zuko is much more complicated than that. When he was thirteen years old, Zuko begged Uncle Iroh to bring him to one of his father’s war councils. A general unveiled his plan to sacrifice a whole troop of new recruits, using them as bait for the enemy, and Zuko spoke out against the plan. For showing this disrespect, Zuko’s father challenged him to Agni Kai, a fire duel, scarred his son, and banished him from the Fire Nation until he captured the Avatar. Uncle Iroh, blaming himself for bringing Zuko to the meeting, accompanied his nephew. “But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory” (Daniel 5:20 NIV). Technically, Zuko wasn’t deposed because of his pride, but he was stripped of glory, and as he tries to reclaim his honor, he grows more arrogant and prideful.
Throughout the series, the story of Zuko and Iroh serves as the “B plot,” secondary to the main plot of Aang the Avatar’s journey with his friends. Yet, in my opinion, the story of Iroh’s influence on Zuko is even more compelling than the “A plot.” Much of Iroh’s advice reflects Christian truths. “I don’t feel any shame at all. I’m as proud as ever,” Zuko claims defiantly in the episode “Bitter Work.”
Uncle Iroh responds, “Prince Zuko, pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”
“The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, 'Who can bring me down to the ground?'” (Obadiah 1:3 NIV).
While on the run, literally living in the clefts of the rocks and on the heights, Zuko asks his uncle to teach him more advanced fire bending. He fails to learn how to generate lightning, but his uncle does teach him how to redirect it. Zuko wants to test his mastery of the technique by having his Uncle throw lighting at him, but when Uncle refuses to take that risk, Zuko climbs high on a cliff in the middle of a lightning storm. There he yells angrily, as if speaking to God, “You’ve always thrown everything you could at me. Well I can take it, and now I can give it back. Go on, strike me! You’ve never held back before.
Despite Zuko’s many mistakes, Iroh forgives his troubled nephew every time without reservation. Once, Zuko had a choice between joining his Uncle and helping the Avatar, or helping his sister Azula capture the Avatar. Wanting to reclaim his throne, Zuko chose to betray his uncle. Later, he regrets his decision and attempts to right his mistake by joining Aang’s group. When Zuko next sees his uncle, he is afraid to face him. Iroh’s reaction is reminiscent of the father’s in the story of the prodigal son; he embraces Zuko before the confused teen can even finish his apology. “How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me!”
“I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you'd lost your way.” Iroh’s relationship with Zuko is very Christ-like; Iroh forgives his beloved nephew instantly and unconditionally, in spite of his terrible past actions. The series ends with Zuko appointed as the new Fire Lord, ushering in an era of peace, the “beautiful prince” his uncle hoped he would one day become.