Our exploration of gracious themes in Avatar: The Last Airbender continues on with its fourth installment. To start at the beginning of our series, go here.

In the English language, the words “childlike” and “childish” are nearly identical, though they have opposite meanings. The word “childlike” is a positive word, associated with compassion and idealism with a sprinkle of charming naïveté thrown in. The word “childish” refers to the worst attributes of a kiddo, things like tantrums, pettiness, and fear. It’s hard to fully define the difference between those two ideas, but English speakers intuitively grasp the concept. Readers of the Bible regularly walk the line between these two opposing ideas. St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth that their infighting and division was childish (1 Cor 13:11). But when Jesus’s disciples are bickering about status, Jesus tells them to become childlike (Mt 18:3-4). There’s something negative about childhood that we should avoid, but there’s something positive about childhood that brings forth the kingdom of God.

Exploring this distinction, between the childish and the childlike, is the challenge for our main hero in Avatar: The Last Airbender. While friends Katara and Sokka embrace their call to adventure in the context of becoming adults, the task for our hero Aang, the last of the airbenders, is to leverage the mighty power of childhood. If Aang can engage his enemies with “faith like a child,” he will bring about an end to a century of violence and conflict. But if Aang engages in childish behavior, or leaves his idealism behind for the life of a soldier or warrior, the world will remain in jeopardy for generations to come.

As a young child, Aang’s tribe of Air Nomads quickly identified him as the next Avatar and whisked him away for protection. As rumors of war with the Fire Nation grew, however, the nomadic monks made the difficult choice to begin Aang’s Avatar training early. The boy’s childhood was a necessary sacrifice, so they thought, to prevent the coming war. Aang is enraged by their decision, especially the plan to separate him from his father figure, monk Gyatso, to be trained by others. He flees his temple in a tantrum with his flying bison companion Appa, but the two are caught in a nasty storm that sends them crashing into the frigid waters near the south pole. Unconscious and drowning, a mysterious blue light overtakes Aang’s body, and the duo are mystically frozen in a ball of ice. It’s this iceberg that Katara and Sokka discover in the show’s first episode, freeing Aang and Appa from their century-long interment.

In the first season of the show, the problem of Aang’s childishness is quickly revealed. The world’s only hope for peace would rather surf the elephant-koi and go penguin-sledding than engage in the serious training his vocation requires. When attempting to firebend for the first time, Aang’s playfulness with the dangerous element burns his friends. Aang also conceals a letter from his companions that was sent by their long-lost father, fearing his friends would abandon him if they read the correspondence. He is not immune to the consequences of his own actions, quietly stewing in guilt for abandoning his Air Nomad tribe a century prior. But when matters become difficult, Aang’s childish avoidance of responsibility is a serious liability.

At the same time, his childlike innocence becomes one of his greatest assets in his success as an Avatar. When King Bumi puts him through a series of tests, it’s Aang’s playfulness and creativity that help him survive. When two rival clans seem irreconcilable, preferring death in an arid canyon over cooperation, his impish playfulness brings about mediation. His humility and compassion allow him to calm a furious forest spirit attacking a village, and his hope and idealism allow him to extend a hand of friendship to his enemy, Prince Zuko.

When Aang embraces his childlike idealism, he brings about reconciliation, healing and friendship. Childhood is the emotional opposite of war and soldiers and fire, and at the end of the show’s first season, Aang’s anti-soldier, spirit-filled child-power spectacularly defeats an entire Fire Nation armada. Despite a number of childish actions, his embrace of childlike ideals opens doors that soldiers, warriors, and chieftains cannot seem to budge.

In the show’s second season, Aang is forced into conflict with those soldiers, warriors, and chieftains, none of whom embrace the gift of Aang’s childlike vision for the world. An Earth Kingdom general thinks psychological pressure will mature Aang’s Avatar powers and goes so far as to attack Aang’s friends to force him to act. One of the season’s prominent story arcs is Appa’s capture, which mirrors the sad and grief-filled childhood milestone of losing a pet. Aang also struggles in his meditations with guru Pathik, which emphasize the practice of Stoic detachment from the world around him. These are tall tasks for a twelve-year-old boy, and the show wants us to see how much he struggles with cosmic bending power and childlike idealism.

The second season’s new antagonist, Princess Azula, has excelled in navigating the adult world in a way that Aang has yet to master. In the season’s climax, Aang is beaten both politically and in combat by Azula, leaving viewers with a conundrum. What if Aang’s idealistic commitment to hope, mercy, and reconciliation is actually childish, not childlike? Should he abandon those principles and embrace the warrior/soldier ethic that defeated him at the second season’s conclusion? 

In the show’s third season, the powers of child and warrior take the forefront. On the one hand, Aang is capable of making mature decisions, like abandoning his prized glider to go undercover behind enemy lines. On the other hand, Aang hasn’t left the power of childhood behind, organizing an underground dance party for Fire Nation middle schoolers that subverts the propaganda of their classroom environment. As Aang learns more about the Fire Nation, he commits to an idea that the warrior and the soldier find remarkably childish. Perhaps, thinks Aang, there’s a merciful way to end the century-long war.

The gravity of his childlike idealism reaches a breaking point when his companions point out that mercy for the Fire Nation means mercy for the show’s great enemy, Fire Lord Ozai. Compassion for Fire Nation middle schoolers and civilians is one thing, but what about the show’s great villain responsible for a century of warfare? Aang’s vocation and childhood idealism are now in conflict. The topic of death hasn’t been at the show’s forefront until this episode (it is a kid’s show, after all!), but now that the show is nearing conclusion, it can no longer be left undiscussed. How could Aang possibly manage to defeat the most powerful bender in the world, a genocidal maniac with imperial intentions, without killing him?

The act of killing is often seen as the bridge between childhood and manhood. The boy goes out into the woods by himself and takes the life of an animal for the sake of survival, or the boy joins the hunting party to bring meat and skins back to his village. Killing, whether it’s a soldier or a woodsman, is understood as a work of sobering maturity. Will Aang choose his adult responsibility to kill or his naïve childhood commitment that all life is sacred?

In frustration and fear, Aang retreats to an island and meditates on the battle to come. Through spiritual providence, what Aang thought was a simple island turned out to be the massive shell of a Lion Tortoise, one of the ancient mystical animals of this fantasy world. Aang asks the great and wise Lion Tortoise for help, who agrees that Aang’s challenge is unique. He blesses Aang with a bright green light, empowering him to face the Fire Lord whose armies are quickly approaching.

When the final battle arrives, the wrathful Ozai and the childlike Aang engage in their fateful duel. The battle itself is broken up over nearly fourteen minutes of animation, and it’s spectacular to watch. Aang holds true to his ethical stance, refusing to kill Ozai when given the opportunity, but it’s quickly apparent that he is fighting at a severe disadvantage. Once Aang uses his mystical and deadly blue Avatar powers, however, Ozai is no match for him. When Ozai is down for the count, Aang puts his Avatar powers aside and uses his new technique learned from the ancient Lion Turtle. Instead of killing the Fire Lord, he takes away his power to bend fire, rendering him impotent and harmless. 

It’s a satisfying conclusion to a profound story arc. The great pressure in Aang’s life was to grow up, take on adult responsibility, kill the villain, and save the day. Give up on childish values, embrace the real world, be the hero, and don’t hesitate to erase evil when it arrives. Instead, Aang approaches the challenge in front of him with a childlike idealism, preferring mercy to vengeance, hope to pragmatism, and life to death. The result is that Aang can indeed defeat the great evil of his time when soldiers and warriors had all failed. 

Aang’s core conviction was this: there has to be another way to deal with a sinner besides death. Which, when you phrase it like that, sounds remarkably childlike and naïve. It sounds pretty Christian, too. Children are much less likely to compromise on their values, or at least, they are more imaginative in coming up with out-of-the-box solutions. So when God elects to deal with sinners besides retributive death, it’s little surprise that the plan would involve foolishness, children, and love alongside blood, death, and sacrifice.

It’s a powerful message in what is, after all, a show for children. The show wants to dignify its kiddo viewers and imbue them with the same steadfast commitment to the goodness that Aang represents. The innocence and potential of a child is offered by the series as the solution to war and tyranny, one of the reasons that the show remains timeless. Who knows what good can be done in the world by people who refuse to grow up too much? When it comes to God’s kingdom, after all, it won’t be an adult, but a little child, leading the way.