I’ve been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender lately and made an observation that I feel is worth exploring: The Court of the Fire Lord itself seems to corrupt people and actual physical removal from it appears to be necessary for a character to escape this effect.
There could be an in universe explanation for this; perhaps, among else, the culture of the court, molded by the monarchy’s lust for power above all, is especially conducive to selfish, amoral behavior. There is certainly a literary explanation; the Court of the Fire Lord is the symbolic heart of the Fire Nation’s own corruption and power and it’s there that it is strongest.
We know of two characters who definitively escape this influence, Iroh and Zuko. Both do so after extended absences from the court itself.
Iroh appears, from what little we know of his youth, to have been a good example of a Fire Prince in his youth, dutifully attempting to to conquer the Earth Kingdom and succeeding beyond any before him. It is during this extended time away though, that the most influential events of his life occur, the death of his son and meeting the dragons. Iroh comes back a changed man, incongruous with what we see of the court. It’s noteworthy that of all the members of the royal family he is shown at the palace the least1.
Zuko’s journey we see in detail. He never quite displayed the same lack of heart as his father, grandfather, or sister. The triggering event for his banishment was him expressing concern over the fate of troops, people far removed from him but, I think importantly, still definitively of the Fire Nation (emphasis mine):
“Those soldiers love and defend our nation. How can you betray them?”
We have to give him credit for showing more compassion than any of the generals or Ozai, but it’s comes from a nationalistic our-side-versus-them viewpoint. His objection isn’t to the wholesale slaughter, but the betrayal of abusing one of their own to gain an upper hand against the enemy.
It’s clear that the boy who leaves his father’s palace at 14, vengeful and angry, with a narrow idea, of the world, his nation and his place in it, is not the same one who returns 16, who is by then is at war with himself over what is right, true, and what role he and his nation are to play. Like his uncle, almost all of Zuko’s developmental steps happen far from home: being saved by his enemy at the north pole, his travels as a refuge in the Earth Kingdom, his time building a new life in Ba Sing Se.
The one striking exception is the catalyst for his final break with his family and nation: the war meeting where the destruction of the Earth Kingdom is planned, which is a scene deliberately in parallel with the one that has him banished. Here the wrong that shows him just how far gone his father, family, and nation are is not against their own as before, but an act against the Earth Kingdom, the other, their enemy. His concern now is for innocents of another nation; his actions to stop their destruction are truly altruistic. We see just how far his time away has brought him.
Likewise, I think Ozai is an important metric on this scale. Ozai, who is pretty much just a flat evil villain, is deeply associated with his palace, his court. He also almost never seen outside of it. For the first two seasons, the audience is kept from seeing his whole face. Thus, his throne room and by extension his palace, act almost as a surrogate face for him. Proximity to the palace is so important to his character that even during the Day of Black Sun, when it would be clearly advantageous to be as far from the invasion as possible, he stays in a bunker just under his own palace.
As well, of note is that the only mentions we have of Ozai’s participation in a happy family life are not tied to the palace, but to the vacation home at Ember Island. Zuko mentions that Ozai hasn’ been there “since our family was actually happy” and its there that we see the artifacts that show them as a somewhat normal family. Ozai’s villainy is so symbolically linked to his place near or on the throne, that one must leave the continent to find any evidence of him being part of a loving family.
Finally, we have the dual examples of Roku and Sozin. I don’t think it’s by chance that these two best friends, raised like brothers, start their story at the Fire Lord’s Palace together. They seem both like good people, kind and friendly. But Roku leaves Sozin behind, travels the world and learns about it. By the time he has returned, the good man he once new has started to change. Like his grandson, Sozin never seems to leave his palace2 and there he festers, growing his ambition and planning for seize power. The Avatar and the Fire Lord show a side by side comparison of what different men these boys become.
Because, and I think I’m reasonably well supported here, the message of this extended metaphor is about the virtues of pluralism, about the dangers of looking only inward for answers. Iroh and Zuko learn the same lessons: that the peoples of the world are all the same and all different but neither better nor worse, that there’s value in other viewpoints. It’s no coincidence that Roku’s tales of traveling the world and learning from others is contrasted with a scene a few minutes later of Sozin’s nationalism.
The corruption of the Fire Lord’s court is one of closing one’s mind to those who are unlike you, to valuing the “us” or even the “I” above all else, to thinking oneself inherently above. All of those illusions are broken best by actually leaving the echo chamber of one’s own “home” and seeing the world at large in all it’s splendid diversity. To learn about others reduces the hate you can feel toward them and makes you and all better for it.
And so, we come to Azula, who needs a multi-part series to really dig into. Seeing as she’s away from the Fire Kingdom for the whole of a book, she sort of screws up the strict “leave home, get better” nature of my thesis3, but she certainly follows the deeper message. Azula never looks to learn from the people she encounters. She seeks, and often succeeds, to prove the dominance of herself over others. She is not open to learning or connecting with the people she meets on her travels. If the lesson of the narrative is that one grows by going out and really seeing the world, Azula certainly hasn’t learned that. Her ultimate fate is not clear4 but I think it is pretty clear that if she is to get change, it won’t be at home.
Well, the first 5k word chapter of what is now titled Wright of Nobility has been up since just before I went to bed last night. At about the same time, I posted a fluffy little 1.4k word Korrasami thing called “Fess Up“. The difference in how the two have been received is probably the least surprising thing in the world. That’s alright: WoN is, at best, a slow burn and if it’s going to go anywhere, it’ll need some time. I’m working on the next update1 but this bit needs more work, including some actual rewriting. So it’s slower going. I’m hoping I get some actual comments/messages/feedback on it at some point, just to get a better handle on how people feel besides yay or nay.
In other news, how did the genre of ambient music never really cross my path until now? I’ve been listening to music while I write forever now. I usually have gone with classical until just the last week but I find myself pausing it frequently whenever my brain has to crank away on something actually interesting. With actually ambient music, that’s not really a problem. I love it; it’s the best.