Saturday, March 17, 2012

WORD OF THE DAY! 3/17/12

Today's subject is an attempt to reach a more academic look at a concept that is important in science fiction and fantasy. This is the first part of an awesome project to divulge history and opinion on the subject of story-telling with a fair bit of nerdly entertainment thrown in the mix for good fun.

archetype [ahr-ki-tahyp]
1. The original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.
2. (in Jungian psychology) A collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.
 EX. In order to look over too staple theories that have done more to shape the way we look at story-telling, myth, and the human character, this is the first part of a two-part look at one of my favorite fantasy series Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender. First, we're going to talk about the cast that makes up the epic fantasy story by looking at the main characters and how they fit into the archetypes defined by Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist and father of analytical psychology.

To start, I'll give a short synopsis of the series and world of Avatar (the one without the blue people, unless you count the arrow on our hero's head): Avatar is set in an Asian-influenced fantasy world with culture, philosophy, and stylistic choices from East-Asian, Inuit, South-American, and even a brief introduction to South Asian philosophies.

 The world is split into four nations: The Air Nomads, made up of air-bending pacifist monks, the Water Tribes, made up of Inuit-influenced hunters, sailors and the occasional riverfolk, the Fire Nation, an imperial society ruled by might and cunning, and the Earth Kingdom, a large nation of hard-working and industrious folks. In this world there are individuals able to manipulate the classical elements of Chinese mythology, Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, through psychokinetic martial arts known as "bending".

At any given time, there is only one special individual capable of wielding all four elements known as The Avatar. He or she is the human representation of the planet in one person and is responsible for maintaining or creating a balance between the elements, the spirit world, the material world, and all things in it. When an Avatar dies, they are reincarnated as part of the Avatar Cycle, into a different one of the four nations, starting with their native element, they then master all four elements and, during their life time, as the most powerful being on the planet and representative of all of its facets, is destined to do great things.

More than a century before the series starts, the Avatar, an airbender, went missing shortly before the Fire Nation massacred the Air Nomads. Over the next century, with no sign of the Avatar, the Fire Nation waged war against the other nations, acquiring land and technology in their conquest, and as the series starts the only thing between themselves and complete world domination is the Northern Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom's capital Bah-Sing-Se.

That is until two members of the Southern Water Tribe discover a young boy buried in a ball of ice with his pet Sky Bison. The young boy is an air-bender, named Aang, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is the Avatar that went missing 100 years ago. Aang and his new friends must go on a quest to help him master all of the elements and save the world from the Fire Nation.

Joseph Campbell
So, now we're going to discuss the classical character archetypes defined by Carl Jung and refined by Joseph Campbell's "The Heroes Journey" which will be the subject of the second part of this set up. 
Over the next week, we will cover these archetypes through my Word of the Day articles and provide analysis for each of them. But trust me when I saw that many of the villains, secondary, and tertiary characters also fit into various roles.


Aang is our series main protagonist, our Luke Skywalker, but even younger and more naive. Aang is a funny and care-free boy; friendly, playful, and kind. Yet, when our series begins, we discover that Aang has a fatal flaw. All heroes must have some flaw or weakness that they must overcome to achieve their destiny. In fact, this flaw is the only thing he has in common with The Doctor. Aang is running away from his responsibility, his destiny, and, in fact, he became frozen in the ice because of his fear. After abandoning the Air Nomads, he also abandoned the planet for over a century, and what holds Aang back during his life is his fear of his own power. 

An example of  this is during the first season, he discovers a fire bending master and begins training under him. Although fire-bending is akin to air-bending in its flow, fire is dangerous and requires control, which Aang discovers when he accidentally burns Katara. For years, his fear of hurting his friends keeps him from pursuing fire-bending which, in turn, delays his destiny. This leads us to other major weakness that Aang has to overcome, his attachment to individuals.

Aang's age, he starts out the series at the tender biological age of 12, and his naivete and childish nature hinder him from taking his responsibilities seriously enough. At the beginning of the series, Aang would rather travel than go after his quest, and only after being pushed into defending people, does he begin to change. I believe that is why the first season of the show can be frustrating for first time viewers. The show seems aimless. Aang and his friends travel from place to place, fight fire nation goons, then rinse and repeat. Even more frustrating when he acts out emotionally over his crush on Katara. It is not until Aang is forced to enter the Avatar State, a power that allows Avatars to tap into all the strength/knowledge of their past lives but also leaves them vulnerable, to save the Northern Water tribe that he realizes his true responsibility and he begins to mature.

In the second season, Aang's presence becomes more vital and, as the war escalates, Aang takes his quest more seriously, accumulates allies, and matures. By the end of the season, he has master Air, Water, and Earth-bending and goes on a quest to acquire control of the Avatar state. Then, he interrupts the ceremony to save Katara's life. This interruption leads to him being mortally wounded by Zuko's sister, Azula. This is where the character suffers the Apotheosis or physical death. Like Luke Skywalker, he is set back and loses something physical, in this case he is put in a coma and his connection to the Spirit World is damaged. And leads to the final march in his journey.

Aang is arguably still a child but arguably he is also begun the journey to adulthood. All the world, except for his closest allies, believe he is dead. As his allies plan an attack on the Fire Lord, Aang and his friends secretly travel through the Fire Nation believing it is the last place that their enemies would look for them. Aang is missing something. Then, the attack on the Fire Lord is all but successful and ends with all of their adult allies being captured. The Fire Nation plans to burn the Earth Kingdom from coast to coast in a few weeks time and the only one capable of stopping it is Aang. He masters fire-bending with the help of Zuko, but there is one problem; Aang is a pacifist at heart and, if the only way to defeat the Fire Lord is by killing him, Aang believes he cannot defeat the Fire Lord. Yet, Aang, having mastered the elements, is granted the ultimate power by a Dragon-Turtle and uses it to defeat the Fire Lord, not by destroying him, but taking away his bending.

The series has one of the best endings I've ever seen for a series. Most of the loose ends are tied and Aang is finally able to live in a peaceful world where all the other nations will learn to cooperate. He is now free from war and free to pursue his true love, Katara. The only question left to me is "What about the Air Benders?" Perhaps, this and more questions will be answered in the new series:

To Be Continued...And if you haven't checked out this incredible animated series, give it a shot. It really kicks into gear in the second season.

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