Saturday, 26 October 2013

Lion-Turtles All The Way Down

There is a story (which nobody seems to know the origin of) that a flat-Earther, when asked what held the world up, answered that it rested on the back of an enormous turtle. When asked what held up the turtle, they said it was on top of another turtle. Then that turtle rested on another turtle, and so on. "It's turtles all the way down."

I'm beginning to suspect that Avatar - the cartoon, not the movie - works in a similar way.

Avatar is something I've talked about a couple of times but never actually bothered to explain. It's a Nickelodeon cartoon that uses eastern mythology and symbolism to tell an epic multi-generational story of people who can control one of the elements - known as "benders" (stop laughing) - and the one person who can control all four elements - the Avatar. It comes in two flavours: original medieval eastern flavour, The Last Airbender (or sometimes The Legend of Aang), and seventy-year-later now-they-suddenly-have-1950s-western-technology flavour, The Legend of Korra.
Both versions are fantastic. I wrote some confused and confusing praise of Last Airbender, and David did a much better job of explaining why Korra is awesome. Basically they're both great and you should watch them.

The current series of Avatar (the second series of Legend of Korra and the fifth series overall) recently revealed the origin of the first ever Avatar, a gangly street-kid called Wan.
This double-episode special - Beginnings - was gorgeous. The second series has been animated by a different studio and (say it quietly) it's not quite as good as the first, but these two episodes were handled by the original studio and they looked stunning. Wan's story is stylised to look like ancient oriental art, and the elemental effects especially are oh so pretty. Though it riffed a little too hard on Spirited Away (the Carrot Spirit was a bit much, guys) I loved what they showed us of this ancient world.
After a hilariously rushed setup - "Quick, Korra has amnesia; better dunk her in the magical memory-pond!" - it tells a great story, too. Wan is the first Avatar, a true hero, but he's also the reason the world needs a hero in the first place. He's the root cause of all the problems the many Avatars have had to face. It's really clever, and the idea of the Avatar as a melding of human and spirit is clever too, handily explaining both the reincarnation cycle and the Avatar State, and making this a story about friendship rather than superpowers.

But.
While I loved the explanation of the Avatar's spiritual side, the explanation of the Avatar's powers - Wan's ability to bend all four elements - is far less successful.

Until now the show's lore has maintained that humans originally taught themselves to bend by watching local animals that could do it naturally - namely badger-moles, dragons, sky-bison and, um, the Moon. In Beginnings we learn that this isn't true. Humans never actually learned to bend at all, they just had the power handed to them by lion-turtles.
This even changes Aang's story. When the infamous lion-turtle-ex-machina touched him, we assumed it was teaching him the pressure-points for energybending; but, based on what we see in Beginnings, it now seems the lion-turtle was actually just dumping the power of energybending into him. It's even lamer than we thought.

This has really bothered me. It takes away the specialness of bending - it's now a gift that was just given to people, rather than something they earnt through hard work. I think the show was trying to evoke the myth of Prometheus - but that guy stole fire from the gods, they didn't just hand it over willingly. The lion-turtles seemingly bestow this incredible power upon anyone who asks, regardless of who they are or what they might do with it.
Even worse, though, is how much it devalues the Avatar. We learn that the reason Wan can bend every element - the secret of the Avatar's unique power and the central concept of the entire mythology - is that he just happened to meet more than one lion-turtle. He's no more special than any other bender or even any other human, he's just more travelled. There is nothing unique about the Avatar.

This is a real shame, and it begs the question why Wan is the only Avatar (in the bending sense rather than spiritual)? Why didn't anyone else ever meet other lion-turtles? Well, here's where the story gets kind of disturbing, and where I start to make my point.

In Wan's time, the human race only existed in cities built upon the enormous shells of lion-turtles. There were many of these cities (at least a dozen, we are told) but no city was aware that any other city existed - they all thought they were the only one. This is why no human before Wan ever met more than one lion-turtle.
There's no denying that having cities on the back of these enormous animals is a very cool image, and leads to some great moments in the show, but it also leads to some troubling questions. How did this situation arise in the first place? How long ago was that, since the humans seem to have long forgotten any other way of life? And why did the lion-turtles never tell their respective humans about the other cities?

The only explanation that seems to make sense (that I can see, at least) is that the lion-turtles have taken it upon themselves to protect humanity from the spirits. In keeping the other cities secret, perhaps the lion-turtles are trying to protect their humans from venturing into the dangerous Spirit Wilds to look for them.
Yet this doesn't seem to make much sense either. The spirits we meet don't seem particularly fond of humans, but (at least until Wan frees Vaatu) they never attack unless threatened - and the only time the humans can threaten them is when the lion-turtles give the humans superpowers. The humans wouldn't need protection from the spirits if their protectors didn't keep giving them power against the spirits.

Maybe I'm wrong, and the spirits would violently wipe out the humans if they didn't have the lion-turtles' protection. But, in that case, the lion-turtles don't seem particularly dedicated. If we accept that they don't want the humans to seek out the other cities, because crossing the Spirit Wilds is dangerous, then it's weird that they don't seem bothered about letting the humans outright invade the Spirit Wilds.
"We don't want to live on your backs any more," say the humans. "Give us the power of bending so that we may drive the spirits from the homes they have lived in for centuries, and claim them for ourselves." Without a moment's hesitation, the lion-turtles - protectors of humanity and keepers of the peace - hand over these incredible powers, which the humans don't really understand or respect.
When, predictably enough, forests get burnt down, spirits get angered, and nature itself becomes unbalanced, it seems like we're supposed to blame the humans for it, and the humans alone. This, just so we're clear, is bullshit.

The lion-turtles' attitude to bending, and their ability to just bestow it upon humans at will, is summed up best by the banishment of Wan. He is thrown out of his lion-turtle city specifically because he misused the power of firebending - he has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted to use bending responsibly. He has not earnt it and he does not deserve it. And the lion-turtle lets him keep it!
That's just mindblowing to me, that one of the wise and ancient guardians of humanity would be so irresponsible with this power. It is the lion-turtle's responsibility - in the same way that if I give a weapon to a child, whatever happens is my responsibility. Yet the lion-turtles unleashed these selfish, dangerous, superpowered humans upon the world, causing untold damage and suffering, and then vanished into obscurity.

I can understand how this happened from a real-world standpoint, though. It seems like the writers, knowing what a painfully obvious plot-contrivance Last Airbender's original lion-turtle was, have tried to make them into a more relevant part of the mythology. But, in doing so, they have made the lion-turtles the cause of every single thing that happens, from the shape of human history to the existence of the Avatar. They are no longer just a plot-contrivance - they are every plot-contrivance!

I've done that that thing again where I'm unfairly critical of something I actually enjoyed, and I'm sorry for that. I really did love Beginnings and the story of Wan and Raava. It made the entire cartoon about the dying promise of two friends, ten-thousand years ago, and that's both ballsy and brilliant. But, much as I love the idea of that touching ending, I can't help questioning the specifics:

Wan, the Avatar, dies because of the chaos he unleashed, caught in a war between different tribes, each armed with different kinds of benders.

Or, more accurately, Wan, the Avatar because lion-turtles made him the Avatar, dies because of the chaos he unleashed with firebending that he was given by a lion-turtle, caught in a war between different tribes who were defined and kept separate by lion-turtles, each armed with different kinds of benders who were given their powers by lion-turtles.

It's lion-turtles all the way down...