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Uncle Iroh: The Uncle We All Need

Updated: Feb 21

During my primary school years, I was obsessed with Avatar—no, not the towering blue-coloured humanoids of Na’vi. I’m referring to the animation featuring a bald kid monk with a distinctive arrow tattoo on his head, Avatar: The Last Airbender. After school, I would follow the TV schedule religiously, not wanting to miss a single episode, along with other shows Nickolodeon had to offer at that time. As a child, what could be more exciting than immersing oneself in a fantastical world where mastery of all four of Earth’s elements was possible? Yup, those were indeed good times.

Only recently did my obsession with the show resurface. With Netflix set to release the live-action adaptation of the beloved series this month, I decided to revisit the animated version as a refresher, and oh my, the experience of rewatching as an adult has been nothing short of eye-opening. The anticipation and action-packed quality of each episode remain. Yet, the layers and depth of the plot that escaped my younger self have opened up new perspectives, making it a thought-provoking trip down memory lane.

Official poster for Netflix's adaption of ATLA.

War, genocide, corruption, self-discovery, and mental health are just a few of the topics that the animation covered. The creators incorporated so many other mature themes into a children’s series, yet amidst this complexity, the show brilliantly portrays unshakeable hope and resilience. As Jackson Geadelmann aptly stated in his article, "The show is a masterclass in storytelling, worldbuilding, and character development," as they understood how to tell rich, complex narratives that appealed to both adults and children.

Speaking of complex narratives, Zuko's widely praised redemption arc and Aang’s journey to embracing his Avatarship often take centre stage among fans of the series. But what speaks to my adult self the most lies in the heartfelt portrayal of the humorous Uncle Iroh. A former ruthless Fire Nation army general haunted by lingering grief, he embodies the show's most profound message: that one can find redemption and wisdom even with the darkest of pasts.

The once-feared Dragon of the West had to go through a gruesome journey of personal growth. During the siege of Ba Sing Se, the fatal loss of his only son, Lu Ten, broke the general in pieces and left him to retreat from conquering the great Earth Kingdom city. Despite his excruciating pain, he did not retaliate by seeking vengeance against the people who were responsible for his son’s death; instead, he surrendered to grief and chose growth by being self-compassioned.

The impact of his self-compassion extends far beyond his healing. It shaped him into the empathetic uncle we know. Rather than striving for great heights of stoicism or aggression, he unashamedly embraced vulnerability, defying the stereotype of masculinity. The rigid expectation of how a male should just power through hardship, unfortunately common in our society, not only breeds emotional suppression and isolation but also denies men their full range of human experiences. Uncle Iroh challenges these societal expectations, proving that true strength lies not in conquest but self-acceptance, accountability, and inner peace. By championing these virtues, he offers a powerful alternative to the limitations placed on men.

Uncle Iroh's journey of finding peace and wisdom wasn't just for himself. The essence of this wholesome character and his role as a mature adult role model is most notable in his mentorship of Prince Zuko. Fundamentally, Zuko's status as a banished prince left him with more than just a physical scar; it also deeply wounded his integrity. However, Uncle Iroh emerged as a pillar of support, guiding Zuko to restore his own honour and inner peace.

A poignant example of this mentorship unfolds in a scene where Uncle Iroh attempts to teach Zuko the art of redirecting lightning. Despite Zuko's frustration and repeated failures, Uncle Iroh remained calm, offering not only humour and technical guidance but also invaluable wisdom. He reminded his nephew that true mastery of this unique bending requires confronting and resolving the conflicts within oneself, emphasising the importance of inner harmony alongside practical skills.

Nevertheless, when presented with a chance to regain his honour by Azula during Ba Sing Se's fall, Zuko regressed, betraying his uncle, who was captured and branded a traitor. Despite this devastating blow, Uncle Iroh did not despair, believing the prince would ultimately choose the right path. He subtly guided his nephew, sharing helpful insights into his family's history via secret messengers. These nudges eventually led Zuko to remorse and a tearful reunion with his warm uncle.

More than just a mentor, Uncle Iroh became the father figure Zuko needed. All through the series, he was not blind to his nephew's shortcomings, but seeing Zuko’s immense suffering and potential offered him the space and compassion to grow into the man he knew he could be. Through these moments of guidance and unconditional love, Uncle Iroh nurtured Zuko's growth, helping him navigate the complexities of his identity and destiny. 

Thus, Uncle Iroh is a prime example of how mature, compassionate adults contribute to society. As a paragon of masculinity, he illustrates that true manhood is not all power and bravado, but rather expressing your virtues in a well-rounded and balanced manner. Moreover, Uncle Iroh embodies the truest meaning of love in his role as an uncle to Prince Zuko, showcasing sincere desire and wholehearted commitment to the good of another being. He emerges as the role model every child needs in their life. Indeed, moral compasses like Uncle Iroh are crucial to a child’s development, providing a guide for constructive actions and instilling good habits and perspectives. Through his example, Uncle Iroh underscores the significance of our role in shaping the younger generation.

Popular fictional characters through time.

In sum, Avatar: The Last Airbender truly is a master in storytelling, worldbuilding and character development. This winning combination results in characters who feel deeply real and relatable because they are not perfect, just like us. Our fictional heroes and mentors have the power to shape our values and perceptions. Still, there exists a dire need for inspiring role models in the world of fiction that can spark vital conversations, challenge harmful stereotypes, and motivate audiences to embrace empathy and kindness. However, the responsibility does not lie solely with content creators. As consumers, we must demand quality storytelling and consciously choose media that can reflect the richness and complexity of our humanity. In doing so, we can ensure that fiction inspires not just entertainment, but also understanding, acceptance, and positive change.


Marsya Mahfis,


Charisma Movement 23/24.

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