Essay: The Transcendentalism of Avatar

Here is an essay I wrote in the 11th grade. The prompt was to find transcendentalism in modern culture TV, internet, movie, etc. I chose the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sources are mediocre. I got an A 100 on this essay–my teacher was also a fan of the show so not sure if that influenced it. Not quite sure of the quality of the essay (it seems a bit repetitive from skimming it back over) otherwise but I remember greatly enjoying writing it! 

Emerson’s Earthbending and Thoreau’s Tea: The Transcendentalism of Avatar

                The slowly developing America of the 1840s was filled with much turbulence—occupied by harsh debates about impending wars and civil rights. Yet it was among these tense times that another conversation began to rise: the first truly intellectual movement in America—Transcendentalism. Fueled by elite thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the Transcendentalist movement stressed the power of the individual and divine messages. Their ultimate goal was “oversoul,” or a divine-spark-within reached through intelligent intuition (Lewis). A movement unlike any others, Transcendentalism manages to exceed time; a lens tuned to the Transcendentalist perspective can peer through 21st century culture and find striking examples of Transcendentalism in the most interesting places. In the award-winning Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender (colloquially called ATLA or Avatar), a young boy named Aang and his band of friends work to fight a war with the Fire Nation. It takes place in a world filled with benders from each of the four core elements—water, earth, fire, and air. Throughout the journey, Aang and others are challenged in unexpected ways as profound concepts and ideas are introduced into the story. Despite being developed over 160 years afterward, many of the philosophies in this children’s cartoon seem to draw right from those of prominent Transcendentalists. The concepts such as sanctity of nature, free will, and the power of the individual are both seen in the Avatar show as well as in Transcendentalism, and prove the expanse of the intellectual movement in today’s modern sphere.

Similar to Transcendentalism, the best “benders” in Avatar believed that understanding and acceptance of nature (in their case, the four elements), as well looking deeper into oneself, were the key essentials for reaching an ultimate goal. An easy-going, spiritual hedonist, the character Uncle Iroh was considered the most skilled Firebender throughout the show. His success resulted from an appreciation not just of fire, but all the elements. Iroh was a large believer in the balance and harmony of the four elements (Iroh). Speaking to his nephew, Uncle Iroh once said, “Understanding others, the other elements, the other nations, will help you become whole” (Uncle Iroh Quotes). Like the Transcendentalists, Uncle Iroh believed it was through connection to elements that one reached the better bender (person) that was so desired. Both the Transcendentalists and Iroh saw the flawlessness of nature superior than the corrupted and war-stricken world around them. There was more harmony and peace in elements than anything else, and it therefore held sanctity. The Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau even went as far as to completely cut himself off from material matters to be with the elements (American Literature 335). This concept is not far off from that of Avatar Aang’s original teachers, the Air Nomads. These spiritual and harmonious people taught Aang, in his words , “to detach myself from the world so my spirit can be free” (Sozin). Many of the Air Nomads and their friends, such as a spiritual brother of the monks named Guru Pathik, hoped to help Aang unlock his spiritual force-centers, or “chakras,” and let go of the worldly concerns that weighed him down. This, in the way Thoreau had, would allow Aang to let go of the worldly concerns that weigh him down. Guru Pathik thought unlocking the spiritual chakras was done by looking deep inside; it was the only way for Aang to gain control over and reach the “Avatar State,” a powerful ability that would allow the Avatar to channel his cosmic powers and perform awesome bending feats. Equally, the Transcendentalists believed that one should look deep inside to unlock their inner self so they could reach oversoul (Lewis). Having harmony both within oneself and with the world around oneself were the only ways for Transcendentalists as well as Aang to reach ultimate goals.

One of the major, prolonged themes of ATLA is that of destiny and free will. Throughout the story, the characters learn to follow their own beliefs and destiny rather the lives society wishes them to live. Likewise, this theme is also a major part of Transcendentalism (Lewis). Early on in the show, it is established that as the only one who can end the war, Aang must eventually fight and kill Firelord Ozai. However, Aang is conflicted as the time nears, as killing goes against all he believes. Eventually, Aang ignores the urging of everyone around him and follows a philosophy put best by Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Trust instinct to the end, though you can render no reason” (Emerson Quotes). Although he doesn’t kill Ozai, by following his instinct and doing what it is he feels is best, Aang still manages to restore peace to the world. In a similar situation, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is banished by his father and convinced throughout the majority of the story that his destiny is to capture the Avatar. However, even when his family takes him back into acceptance after helping with the siege of Ba Sing Se, Zuko never manages to feel fully content with himself. This is because he was following the path set out for him by others. His uncle angrily points this out to him, asking “Is it your own destiny or one that something is trying to force on you?” (Uncle Iroh Quotes). Eventually, Zuko teams up with the Avatar and helps defeat Firelord Ozai. He realizes he must do what it is he wants and in the last episodes sees that, in the words of Emerson, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment” (Emerson Quotes).

The groundwork of Transcendentalism is based upon an idea that mankind is basically good, and corrupted only by society (American Literature 336). Avatar is also based on the idea about inherent goodness of other people. Uncle Iroh claims many times that his nephew has good in him, but is simply “misguided.” A modern Transcendentalist, Iroh shows compassion toward his nephew despite all that he does wrong. He believes that it is only the problems in his past that scar and make him bad, and Zuko can find the right path if he simply looks deep enough inside himself. In another example, Airbenders are known to naturally believe in the goodness of and respect for all forms of life (Air). Aang, an Airbender, is always willing to give someone a chance and believe they are better than they appear. He often fears hurting others, and like his Air Nomad brothers, Aang advocates a philosophy of nonviolence similar to that revolutionized by Thoreau in his essay “Civil Disobedience” (Air; American Literature 420). When Aang is at his final battle with Firelord Ozai, he says to Ozai, “We don’t have to fight. You have power to end it here and stop what you’re doing” (Sozin). Despite all the horrible things he has done, Aang still believes that Ozai can be good.

In the final episode of ATLA, a creature called the Lion-Turtle gives Aang the final insight before his battle with Firelord Sozin, and essentially delivers what is perhaps the core ideas of Avatar:

The true mind can weather all lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can touch the poison of hatred without being harmed. From beginning less time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light…To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable, or you will be corrupted and destroyed. (Sozin’s Comet)

In an equivalent fashion, Emerson summed up what is the core of being a Transcendentalist in his 1842 treatise, “The Transcendentalist”:

The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power…He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. (Lewis)

Though written more than a century apart, the two excerpts are fascinatingly similar. They speak of empowering a certain individual (one who is true, one as “He”, the Transcendentalist) by allowing him to reach deep inside of himself until the person reaches as well as understand their more open, spiritual level. The similarities show that the core ideas of one idea have been able to shape another; rather, the ideas of the Transcendentalists have managed to influence those of a modern cartoon. ATLA characters such as Uncle Iroh and the Air Nomads stress key details of Transcendentalism—such as inner and nature-based harmony—to achieve some kind of enlightenment. Emerson believed that “nothing can bring peace but yourself,” as many in Avatar also had to find out about their destinies (Emerson Quotes).

The “good” people in the story follow the Transcendentalist idea that mankind is fundamentally good and society is what corrupts them. The Transcendentalists created a movement so everlasting that it’s philosophies are still being applied and in the 21st century. Obscure places such as Earthbending or the Air Nomads are not the only sources of Transcendentalism; the movement espoused such diverse philosophies that Transcendentalism manages to almost appear every day and everywhere in our 21st century. Their timeless ideas helped to create more great television shows, as well as many long-lasting platinum songs and some rising political movements. Looking around, a Transcendentalist sees a culture-rich world shaped and created by their thoughts. The modern-day man on the street sees it too; Transcendentalism has been engrained in his culture and world, and, just perhaps, even in the world inside of him too.

Works Cited

American Literature, Grade 11: Mcdougal Littell Literature Pennsylvania. Boston, Massachusetts : Holt McDougal, 2007. Print.

“Air Nomads.” Avatar Wikia. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2011. <;.

“Iroh.” Avatar Wikia. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2011. <;.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Transcendentalism – Definitions.” The Transcendentalists – including Ralph Waldo Emerson – Henry David Thoreau. JoneJohnson Lewis, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2011. <;.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes.” ThinkExist. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2011. <;.

Sozin’s Comet – Avatar: The Last Airbender. Dir. Lauren MacMullen. Perf. Zach Tyler Ellison. Netflix/Nickelodeon, 2008. Film.

“Uncle Iroh (Character) – Quotes.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2011. <;.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2011. <;.



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