With the release of Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix services last summer, streams of fans both new and old appeared together to appreciate the arguably best animated show. With its memorable characters, awesome fighting scenes, and lifelong themes, it’s no wonder it took the internet by storm. The Avatar world is incredibly thorough, and it carries deep connections to the classical elements system into nations, people, and magic. Today, Avatar acts as my model for magical world building and elements.
The four classical elements — Fire, Water, Earth, and Air — have been around in storytelling since its first appearances from ancient times. These elements were commonly used to explain natural occurrences, and were included in different mythologies from around the world. While there are plenty of examples of elements in pop culture, I believe Avatar is the best-suited to show an incredible world that's based on this element system. Before we begin, I will say that this only covers Avatar: The Last Airbender and not its sequel, The Legend of Korra.
There’s a lot to uncover here, but I’ll give a brief background of influences and lore for a better foundation. ATLA takes place on an alternate Earth, commonly called the physical world or human realm. There are four nations respective of the four classical elements: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. The fire nation such as it’s architecture and machinery takes influence from imperial Japan, the Water tribes come from Inuit and other Indigenous cultures, the Earth kingdom has influences from China, and the Air Nomads are based primarily on Tibetan culture and other religious influences such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Fire: Similar to it’s classical component, Fire represents willpower and passion. The Fire Nation is home to the element of fire and are the villains of the story. They take inspiration from Imperial Japan and are the most innovative of the nations. They began the 100 year war by using the energy from a comet to “spread their prosperity” (yes that’s how they justified it). The government is considered an absolute monarchy with the Fire Lord as head of state. Before the end of the series they also have control of fire nation colonies within the Earth Kingdom.
Water: The Southern and Northern Water Tribes come from Inuit and other Indigenous cultures. Like their element, they’re very compassionate and community-oriented people. The Northern and Southern Tribes are fairly different when it comes to culture. Both tribes technically call their leaders chief but the north became accustomed to a monarchy while the south continued to use a chiefdom. The North also acts more conservatively than the south, predominantly shown by teaching the female benders in only healing.
Earth: Earth represents endurance and strength, much like the Earth Kingdom itself. The Earth Kingdom primarily takes influences from China and acts as the largest nation in the Avatar world. The Kingdom is more of a constitutional monarchy due to its many cities within. Geographically speaking, the Earth Kingdom is incredibly diverse as it’s home to swamps with waterbenders, deserts with sandbenders, and of course fire nation colonies home to firebenders.
Air: The Air Nomads, protectors of peace and freedom, lived in four different Air temples around the Avatar world. They reflect Tibetan culture and religious practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. There isn’t a ton of information on them because of the war but it’s known they lived in hard to reach areas.
At first glance these connections may be obvious. But, the key part of these explanations are the philosophical properties they hold. A nation created from an element is bound to act like it’s element. Bear with me, and let me lead you into a rabbit hole of ancient alchemy to properly understand the elements.
In ancient alchemy and philosophy, the four elements were made to connect to a lot of things: divination, planets, gods, and us — people. If you’ve ever taken an online test that told you what your avatar element would be, there’s a good chance it’s the element that best reflects your personality over anything else. So, what exactly do the elements reflect? Iroh explains this to Zuko in season two, but let’s quickly go over it.
Fire: passion (both in skills and emotions); strong willpower and drive; independence; innovation
Air: intelligence; entertainment; freedom; peace
Water: emotions; strong sense of family or community; adaptable
Earth: grounded or realistic; persistence; stubborn
In theory, the different nations are direct reflections of their philosophical element. While that is true to an extent, I’d argue it’s only in extremes. But, what ATLA does very well to acknowledge this is make members of the same nation different in personalities just enough to be comparable to each other and other elements.
Here’s an example, take the water nation siblings Katara and Sokka. Katara’s personality is very present, even creating problems in some episodes such as being overly-caring and at times suffocating or too serious. Although Sokka is generally regarded as comedic relief, he shares many of the same traits. He can be very uptight about schedules but he’s very strategic and thinks fast. It wouldn’t be too far off to say Aang and Sokka are fairly similar. And, if you refer back to the list above, Air and Water do share similar aspects. Now, because we’re dealing with philosophical properties, there are different takes on it. Honestly, it’s a little unclear what position ATLA takes on it too. But, if we look at their bending, maybe we can understand a little better how elements relate to each other and personalities.
Avatar’s magic system is certainly unique, which is largely why I wanted to talk about it. Compared to other element based systems like Pokemon with ‘types’ or even Harry Potter and houses, Avatar’s system has a lot of variables. In the fight scenes, obvious setups like surprises or opposing elements weren’t always necessarily the deciding factor. I found that Avatar’s fighting scenes are very natural-like, as opposed to other popular animes like One Punch Man. In it, there is no question that the protagonist will prevail, setups might happen, but it doesn’t do much. While in Avatar, there are always inner workings going on that create obstacles for the group, and oftentimes major ones.
Specifically, I want to point out ATLA’s flexibility for opposing elements to have a fair fight. The infiltration of Ba Sing Se is one clear example. Think about it, in any other system a fire user would always lose to a water user because water extinguishes fire. But in ATLA, Azula barely had to do anything to win. It took strategic planning and deception, but the odds were in her favor even as a firebender against Katara (which at this point is an incredible waterbender). Similar interactions repeat through the show, In the season 1 finale we were told firebenders get their power from the sun, while water benders get it from the moon. But, even if a fire and waterbender were fighting at night, it wouldn’t be impossible for a firebender to win. Unfavorable? Definitely. But not impossible.
Going back to Pokemon, a fire-type would be entirely vulnerable to a water-type’s attacks. There’s no outside variables, no strategy, it’s just a bad idea. This type of magic system is commonly called “rock-paper-scissors” because of it’s simple dynamics between the types. Water beats fire, fire beats grass, grass beats water. Simple, right? ATLA is complex, it uses variables such as strategy and individual skill while Pokemon uses the rock-paper-scissors method.
Since Avatar bending uses variables, it’s hard to concretely say how elements interact with each other. Yes, water extinguishes fire, and air makes flames stronger, but other combinations are kind of lost. The creators certainly didn’t intend for a rock-paper-scissors style of elements, and it’s exactly why their relationships are unclear. But, we have answered what the different nations strive to follow by referring to their element counterpart. And, there is now a base idea of how characters think, feel, and what they aspire to do based on their nation's archetypal element.
is a high school sophomore with aspirations for digital storytelling. She always seemed to understand things better if she could read it, versus videos or lectures, so English and History quickly became her favorite subjects. She volunteers for both Juven and The Meraki Organization to tell stories.