There is question to ask at the beginning of this that I feel is legitimate: can one learn anything from fiction? Fiction, by its definition, is not real, ergo how could it apply to real life? Short answer: yes. There is a whole article that I could write on the history of storytelling and the evolution of the fable… but that’s not the point of this article. To paraphrase a line from Tropic Thunder (I’m so cool, I know): “just because it’s made up doesn’t make it not true.”
With that in mind, let’s turn to Avatar: the Last Airbender. I could (and maybe will) write an article on every main character from this show, but let us instead just focus on Iroh (more commonly known as Uncle Iroh). First, a quick rundown of what Avatar: the Last Airbender is about – an ancient world (Eastern themed) where people control, and fight with, the elements. Iroh hails from the Fire Nation (the antagonists of the series). Despite this origin, he is not a bad guy, in truth he is the morale heart of the show. Iroh is the oldest main character that the audience follows. He was a general of the Fire Nation but retired after the loss of his son (killed in action). Iroh is the uncle of Zuko (the series’ first antagonist), hence the “uncle” association. How could a guy on the “evil side” be so good? Let’s discuss his character.
Iroh is like a father to Zuko. Zuko is actually the prince of his nation, but was banished (and scarred) for speaking out against his father. Zuko’s father… kind of a dick. Anyway, Iroh is Zuko’s role model, although it is against Zuko’s wishes. At the start of the series, the Fire Nation Prince reflects the spoiled nature of a teenager, and fluctuates between listening to and rebelling against his uncle’s advice.
Here is where the strength of Iroh’s character starts, with what might be his greatest virtue: his patience. Iroh does not have it easy in this show. In short: there is no one who treats him worse than Zuko. Hold on, you say, isn’t Iroh supposed to be a father to the prince? He is, but Zuko, as a character, is very confused (only slightly more decisive than Hamlet). Zuko is from a screwed up family. His sister is psychotic and so is his father. His mother… is gone. That leaves Iroh, and Iroh knows and, more importantly, understands the implications of this.
Iroh is an excellent role model because the writing for the show allows for real world situations to take place. In his relationship with Zuko, there are few moments where the prince acknowledges what an incredible influence his uncle is being. More than that, most of Iroh’s misfortune comes from Zuko’s actions. Yet Iroh is there for him, no matter what. It is the importance of family and of being there for the people who matter.
Iroh can be interpreted as many things. He is a man who sees beauty in the simplest aspects of life (especially tea). He is a man who values his family. He is a man with conscious who understands the weight of his actions. He is a father who lost his son. The audience never knows anything about Iroh’s wife (kinda strange now that I think about it) but when one understands that he lost his child: Iroh’s motivations become clearer and take on a more tragic light.
In watching the show, Iroh is a great man, but what makes him believable is his journey. He didn’t start out as a mystical Buddha with life figured out. He was broken, he lost the thing that mattered most to him, and it defined him. The good news, and I believe the lesson, of this is that Iroh had it define him in the best way. He could have been bitter and angry but he instead chose to live the remainder of his life to the fullest, in an attempt to avoid the mistakes and regrets from his earlier life.
I love Avatar: the Last Airbender because it is an excellent, albeit fantastical, look at humanity. Every character in that show is worth watching, but if one wishes to see the wonder and love in all things: look no further than Uncle Iroh (plus herbal teas are amazing, just saying).