ATLA Book One: Water
Chapters One and Two: The Boy in the Iceberg/ The Avatar Returns
In which Katara and Sokka go fishing, Iroh eats roast duck, and Aang makes use of the water tribe’s bathroom.
It begins with a boy in an iceberg.
Only, it doesn’t. It actually begins with the voice of a girl, our narrator, introducing the story in a familiar title sequence. But while it’s familiar, it’s not quite the title sequence we’ll come to know and love. Instead of hearing about the discovery of Aang and his quest to become the Avatar, we hear about The Southern Water tribe’s plight in the war, about our narrator and her brother being left to take care of their village. We hear about the saviour who has vanished from the war. We hear about the narrator’s hope.
Then we cut to our narrator, Katara, and her brother, Sokka. Katara is struggling to manipulate a puddle of water, and Sokka clearly needs a lesson or two in gender politics. They are both fishing, and bickering, as siblings do, and only then do they discover the boy in the iceberg.
That boy is, of course, Aang, our protagonist. Over the course of the story the mystery surrounding Aang’s appearance in the iceberg is slowly revealed, and the nature of his story becomes clear: he has been tasked with a classic hero’s journey, where he must gain strength in order to end the war that has ravaged his world. Aang is a reluctant hero, who has run away from his duty (a classic refusal of the call), and over the course of his journey must learn to accept his role as the Avatar. However, there are two other characters set up to join Aang on their own hero’s journey, journeys that will take on just as much weight in the narrative: Katara and Zuko. The heroes’ journeys of the three characters will mirror one another throughout the narrative, constantly intertwining and separating. However, while each character is set to go on a hero’s journey, their roles in the narrative vastly differ.
As has already been mentioned, Katara is the narrator of our story. This is a crucial part of the series’ DNA: our way into the story is through one of the least well off people in the Avatar world, a peasant and a woman of colour, who starts the series by brutally and brilliantly calling out her brother’s sexism. We are introduced to the story, the world, and the protagonist through her eyes. The nature of our introduction to Aang is made explicit by the titles of these episodes: “The Boy in the Iceberg” is a description of Aang as first seen by Katara, while “The Avatar Returns” is a payoff of the hope she expresses in the introduction for “The Boy in the Iceberg”. And her story for the season is set up as a parallel to Aang’s: both characters need to get to the Northern Water Tribe in order to master waterbending. And just like Aang, she gets her own refusal of the call and crossing of the threshold in “The Avatar Returns”, having to stay with her tribe when Sokka sends Aang away, before leaving her village for the first time ever when she leaves with Sokka to rescue Aang from the fire nation fleet. The episode also manages a lovely display of the way Katara masters her element within her bending limitations: she cannot shoot water where she aims it, so compensates by turning round and taking out the guards who are facing the opposite way to the way she aims. Katara is already being shown as the kind of person who will master her discipline through complete tenacity.
Zuko, meanwhile, is set on a redemption arc, although that isn’t an arc the show is able to place him in yet. At the moment, he understands, quite rightly, that he is on a redemption arc: “I must capture the Avatar to regain my honour” is famously practically his catchphrase. However, he misunderstands the rules of the arc, assuming honour is dictated by the terms of the father who scarred and exiled him. He still understands the fire nation as being on the right side of the hundred year war, and as a result, is unable to be anything other than an antagonist, at least at this point in the show. However, he has Uncle Iroh to guide him toward the right path. While Iroh is primarily presented as a comedy character in these episodes, offering Zuko soothing tea and tucking into roast duck, everything he does is consistent with his later attempts to help Zuko. He offers Zuko the tea to distract him from his obsession with finding Aang, and eats the Roast duck to make a point about needing to take a break from training. Everything Iroh does, in this episode and throughout the series, is done with the aim of keeping Zuko grounded, and moving his conception of honour away from that of the Fire Nation.
And like Katara, parallels are drawn between Zuko and Aang are drawn early on, in fact the moment the two characters meet for the first time:
Zuko: You’re just a Child!
Aang: Well, you’re just a teenager.
Both boys have had unwanted and seemingly impossible burdens thrust upon them from an Early age. Zuko has been banished and tasked with capturing the man who should be the most powerful being in the world. Where Zuko has been burdened as a cruel punishment, Aang has been burdened by the weight of chance and history: he has been tasked with becoming the most powerful being in the world, and saving the world from an ongoing war. This is the first of many such parallels between Aang and Zuko: the comparisons and contrasts between the two characters are set to be a prominent theme throughout the show.
While the story spends its time establishing our main leads and the nature of the heroic journeys they will undertake over the course of the show, these two episodes also spend a great deal of time establishing another crucial member of the show’s ensemble: Sokka. And, as I noted earlier, the first thing that stands out is that he’s really rather sexist. He opens the story downplaying the importance of Katara’s bending abilities, skills that could be crucial in helping defend their village, and throws himself recklessly into a toxic warrior mindset that refuses to show fear and treats toddlers needing the toilet as wildly inappropriate. And Sokka’s toxic masculinity is partly what causes him to come into conflict with Aang: where Sokka treats the bathroom habits of the children as gross, Aang happily engages in their toilet humour, and is comfortable doing so. In fact, he represents everything Sokka is opposed to, with his fantastical bending and embracing of fun coming to a head with Sokka’s practicality and need for order.
However, for all Sokka’s sexism and problematic understanding of masculinity, he remains a sympathetic character. He’s funny, with his aforementioned discomfort with the fantastical creating some of the funniest moments in the episodes, as he attempts to calmly walk away from the supernatural events following the discovery of Aang, and when he gets more excited than he wants to admit about Appa finally flying. Furthermore, he’s clearly more than just a comedy character from the get go: facing down the Fire Navy ship with dignity, and offering to help Katara save Aang. The narrative allows him complexity and gives him respect, instead of just having him be “the funny one”. This portrayal is important: the Avatar Franchise immediately acknowledges that prejudice isn’t just something that belongs to moustache twirling villains: basically decent people are still capable of holding problematic views. In the case of Sokka, the fundamental goodness he displays alongside his more problematic attitudes is what offers hope he can become a better person.
Just as Sokka shows an inner steel beneath his comic-relief exterior, there is a somewhat unsettling edge to even the show’s more humourous moments. An empty fire nation ship from a past raid lurks on the village’s borders. Aang begins to hear hints of the hundred year war, and of the air nomad genocide, but is constantly distracted by new questions that need asking, penguins that need sledding. The episodes repeatedly engage in classic evasive Airbender tactics, pushing heavy revelations away for a later point in the show’s narrative. Darkness bleeds out of the edges of the script, only to be punctuated by humour before we learn too much. In that way, the script reflects the nature of its protagonist.
Aang may seem like a goofy, fun loving kid, who shows off his airbending, cracks jokes, and loves penguin sledding, and he is all of those things. However, he is also haunted by dreams of the night he was frozen in the glacier. He is willing to hand himself over to the fire nation in order to save the innocent people he’s just met. He’s running from a terrible burden. There is a tendency among fandom to treat these things as separate, but they aren’t. They are all a part of what make Aang who he is. Aang may be set to go on a hero’s journey as old as any, but he is far from the usual protagonist to be placed in such a story.
Katara: Why didn’t you tell us you were the Avatar?
Aang: Because I never wanted to be.
End of Part One.
[Curator’s Note: this series is continued here)
“From the South Pole Iceberg to the Republic City Portal: A Critical Study of the Avatar Franchise, Part One,” ©scarvesandcelery, originally posted 19 June 2015