I have to confess, I came to the Bending world very late. I was aware, and had seen a couple episodes, of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But I didn’t completely jump onboard until Legend of Korra Book One was released. Since then I’ve been all in, and have gone back to get caught up with this world and its rich mythology.
The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air picks up 70 years after the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang has since passed away and the Avatar spirit has chosen Korra, a teenager from the Southern Water Tribe to be the next Avatar. Korra comes from a line of Water Benders, a people who can manipulate, or “bend,” water telekinetically. The first book is structured very closely to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” At the beginning of Book One Korra leaves her home to study with Aang’s son, Tenzin, to master airbending. She mastered earthbending and firebending with ease, but continues to struggle with airbending. With Tenzin’s help she hopes to master all four elements and take up the mantle left vacant after Aang’s passing.
Korra struggles to balance the power and responsibility that comes with being The Avatar. Her youthful exuberance, as well as hotheadedness, serve her well during “Pro Bending” competitive bending matches, but proves to be her greatest liability. She rushes headlong into a battle with Amon, a bloodbender, who strips her of her bending abilities. Losing her connection to the other three elements, marking her descent into what Campbell referred to as “the abyss,” is the catalyst for her transformation and ascendance. Only after losing everything is her mind free enough to master airbending and make the necessary spiritual connection to her past. Korra returns stronger and wiser. She is able to defeat Amon and undo all of the damage he had done to Republic City.
The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits picks up 6 months after the defeat of Amon. Where Book One was about Korra’s ascent in this world, Book Two is about Korra claiming the heritage of the Avatar and her journey into the spirit world. There have been reports of angry spirits terrorizing the south seas, near Korra’s homeland. The Hero’s Journey is a cyclical event, and these reports are Korra’s invitation to her next great quest. Korra, wiser but afraid for the people of the Southern Water Tribe, forgoes her training with Tenzin. She chooses to go into training with her uncle, Unalaq, for guidance in taming the spirits. Unfortunately, this places her in the middle of a civil war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes.
Korra soon discovers that Unalaq orchestrated the civil war and is using Korra’s power for his own ends; he intends to free the spirit Vaatu and merge with it, giving him the power to banish the Avatar spirit and become something of an all-powerful Dark Avatar. Throughout this battle we learn more about Wan, the first Avatar, and Raava, the Spirit of Light with whom Wan bonded. Wan and Raava’s joined spirits created the balance necessary to lock away Vaatu, Raava’s evil counterpart. Unalaq was able to destroy Korra’s connection to Wan and Raava, leaving Korra as the last Avatar, and in another abyss. Tenzin enters the spirit world and encourages Korra to meditate inside the Tree of Time, the prison that held Vaatu. In doing so she is able to connect with her deepest spiritual energy. With the help of Jinora, Tenzin’s oldest daughter, Korra is able to reclaim Raava’s spirit from Vaatu, purifying the dark spirit and destroying what is left of Unalaq. She fuses her spirit with Raava and marks a new age in the world, one where spirits and humans coexist. The Avatar is no longer the bridge between the realm of spirits and humans but it remains unclear what that means for Korra and future Avatars.
Book One is pretty much a textbook case of the Hero’s Journey. It is the story of a young hero coming to terms with a destiny they can choose to embrace or reject. Korra is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. It’s a time that is confusing for most people, let alone those with a destiny to bring balance to the world. I felt like Book One did a great job of expanding on the mythology from The Last Airbender. From what I have seen, The Last Airbender picks up about halfway through Aang’s journey. The Avatar is more of a myth than a reality. Aang is an improbable figure, a 100 year old boy. He’s essentially a prophecy that the people hope is real and the Fire Nation fears. Aang seems like a myth brought to life. Korra’s story is an interesting contrast. She’s a product of a world where Aang has already been. The Avatar isn’t a far-off ideal, or merely symbolic. In Korra’s time the Avatar is real, his children are grown and the legend has grown. Korra knows she is, and actively wants to be, the Avatar. It’s already real for her. But she clearly doesn’t realize how much her life will change when the myth becomes real. Ultimately, Book One is a story of growth.
In many ways, Book Two repeats the cycle and simply raises the stakes. However there were a few changes in Book Two that are significant to the mythology moving forward. About halfway through the season the story moves away from Korra and focuses almost exclusively on Wan and Raava. This gives the viewer a much deeper and richer view of the history of the Avatar spirit. It expands on things that were only hinted at previously. It opens up the myth and shares the realities behind the legend, giving the audience a great appreciation for the Avatar spirit and what Korra had experienced.
Throughout the story there is a subplot involving Jinora and her natural connection to the spirit realm. Jinora is Tenzin’s oldest daughter and the granddaughter of Avatar Aang. For reasons yet to be explained, Jinora has demonstrated an amazing aptitude for communicating with spirits. Before the climax of Book Two she was one of the few humans that could interact with spirits in the human world. This ability to walk freely in the spirit world is where Jinora’s plot merges with Korra’s. During the final battle it is Jinora’s spirit that illuminates the fragment of Raava left within Vaatu.
In Book One the antagonist, Amon, has a history linked to Aang and Republic City. He’s basically a standard villain, albeit a very powerful one. His presence is primarily to be a test that Korra must pass in her quest to become the Avatar. In Book Two, Unalaq is more than just a villian. He represents something different, something bigger. He is Korra’s uncle, and therefore someone that she trusts implicitly. Unalaq brought the struggle between Raava and Vaatu into the modern world and created a civil war, starting between the Water Tribes and leading directly to his family. Therefore, I find it interesting that Korra needs the help of Jinorra to succeed over her uncle. Jinora, being Aang’s granddaughter, is a member of Korra’s new extended family. The juxtaposition between Jinora and Unalaq, between past and future, indicates that Jinora represents an innocence that Korra was in danger of losing. It’s likely that the struggle with Vaatu and the betrayal of her uncle could have lead Korra down a dark path of vengeance or anger. Perhaps Jinora was there to provide a light not just to illuminate the last remaining spark of Raava, but to ignite that spark in Korra as well.
All of this brings us to the current series, Book Three: Change. The dawn of the new age has begun and new journeys await!