Professor Peter Bolland
6 December 2011
The Last Airbender and The Hero’s Journey
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...