The First Avatar

Screenshot from The Legend of Korra.
The Avatar was born from two desires: to change a circumstance and to right a wrong.

Ten thousand years before Korra and Aang, there lived a man named Wan who was not content to live in poverty while others hoarded their wealth. His story is told in two episodes of The Legend of Korra Season 2, Spirits.

In “Beginnings,” Parts One and Two, we learn that, during Wan’s time, humanity is fractured and at war with the spirits. Humans live in cities built on the backs of giant lion turtles, who protect them from the Spirit Wilds. Benders as we know them do not exist; people receive the gift of whatever element their lion turtle possesses only when they need to venture into the Spirit Wilds to hunt for food. Upon returning to the city, they are required to give the element back.

Wan, however, ends up befriending the spirits. Not willing to accept his poverty, he devises a plan to change his own life: he joins the next hunting party to the Spirit Wilds and receives the gift of fire. When they get to the Spirit Wilds, Wan pretends to be too scared to go on and the hunting party sends him back. But, he does not return his fire to the lion turtle and, instead, uses it to lead a rebellion against the wealthy folk in the city. The rebellion fails and Wan is banished. He accepts this, but asks the lion turtle to let him keep the fire so that he can protect himself in the Spirit Wilds. The lion turtle agrees.

The spirits are wary of Wan at first. But, after he rescues a cat deer from hunters, the spirits accept him and he spends the next two years living with them, learning to wield fire. He becomes the first firebender.

The Great Spirits

During his time in the Spirit Wilds, Wan meets Raava and Vaatu, the Great Spirits. They are the spirits of Light and Dark who, every 10,000 years, battle for the fate of the world during Harmonic Convergence. When Wan meets them, Vaatu tricks him into using his fire to free him from Raava’s grasp. It is then that Raava tells Wan of his mistake: that Vaatu is the Dark Spirit and she has been holding him under control for the last 10,000 years.

It’s not what we do that makes us great, but the kind of people we are in the face of adversity.

Wan offers to help her defeat Vaatu during the next Harmonic Convergence—only a year away— saying that he can’t let his mistake cause the world to fall out of balance. Raava refuses at first, but comes to accept his help after they encounter each other again at another lion turtle city, this one floating in the sky. He asks the lion turtle for the element of air, but no human can handle two elements at once; the only way he can learn to control air is if Raava holds the element for him and then merges their energies together, which she can only do for a short time. Wan and Raava travel the world together, finding more lion turtle cities, and Wan learns the last two elements: water, and then earth (completing what becomes the Avatar cycle).

“This isn’t what I had in mind”

The hunters who saw Wan in the Spirit Wilds spread the word that he was still alive. His friends, Jaya and Yao, decided to follow in his footsteps, and left the city with a group of others to make their own lives in the Spirit Wilds.

But where Wan used his fire to protect the spirits, Jaya and Yao used theirs to destroy. Wan and Raava encounter them in the Wilds. What is a happy reunion quickly turns sour after Wan learns that they have been destroying forests and do not differentiate between dark and light spirits, choosing, rather, to throw their fire at all spirits. They tell Wan that they were inspired by him and Wan says, “This isn’t what I had in mind.” Wan wanted to bring humans and spirits together, not tear them apart even further.

Harmonic Convergence

Because of Raava and Vaatu’s separation, Vaatu has been getting stronger while Raava grows weaker. When the time for battle comes, Raava is so small that Wan has to carry her in a teapot.

The battle takes place in the Spirit World, at the place where the Spirit Portals meet. Wan fights in Raava’s place, but soon realizes that he cannot defeat Vaatu alone while only bending one element. He asks Raava to merge their energies and, while they are melded together, Wan touches a Spirit Portal, fusing him and Raava together; Raava becomes the Avatar Spirit that enables him to wield all four elements at once. Together, Wan and Raava trap Vaatu in the Tree of Time, where he will be held for the next 10,000 years.

At the end of the battle, Wan closes the Spirit Portals. Humans and spirits have warred for too long, and  Wan decides that the best course of action is to separate them. No longer needing the protection of the lion turtles, humans go out into the world and find each other. Wan spends the rest of his life trying to guide humanity towards peace, creating the mandate for all other Avatars that follow.

But where Wan used his fire to protect the spirits, Jaya and Yao used theirs to destroy.

Changing Course

After Korra faces Vaatu again during Harmonic Convergence, she decides to leave the Spirit Portals open, saying that maybe Wan made a mistake in closing them. I’m not so sure it was. Wan’s actions brought humans together, which brought about more war and suffering. I think the situation would have been worse if the spirits had remained in the human world; there was still too much prejudice between the two groups for a peaceful resolution, as evidenced by Wan’s friends. Humanity needed time to find its own path. By Korra’s time, 10,000 years later, humanity was ready to live with the spirits again.

Wan changed the course of the world. Even though bringing humanity together caused more war, I think it was a good thing in the end. Humanity also brought about the innovations that led to the four nations coming together, to Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and Zuko finding each other.

Before Korra battled Vaatu and her situation seemed most dire, Tenzin, her airbending mentor, told her that Wan was great not because he was the first Avatar, but because of who he was: courageous and humble. This is what gave her the courage to face Vaatu and ultimately defeat him. I think we can learn from Wan’s example. It’s not what we do that makes us great, but the kind of people we are in the face of adversity. If we have courage and walk humbly, we too can change our lives, and the lives of others, for the better.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld