The Dark Art of Bloodbending

“Two Sides – Katara” by Blue-Ten ( Used with permission.

What separates an extraordinary power from a dark art? There are enough dangerous powers in the Harry Potter series to fill a class at Hogwarts and enough in Star Wars to power the Dark Side of the Force. In those stories, darkness is characterized by how a power is used. The Unforgiveable Curses are illegal and Force Lightning is frowned upon because they lead the users down a dark path.

Bloodbending is another dark power. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, bloodbending is explored in detail, including how it’s mastered. Katara encounters a bloodbender in the Season 3 episode “The Puppetmaster.” Team Avatar is travelling through the Fire Nation in disguise when they meet Hama, a waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe. Hama has been living among her enemies as an innkeeper. She doesn’t tell Katara the full story of her escape from a Fire Nation prison until the two of them are alone under the light of the full moon, the time when waterbenders are the strongest.

Decades ago, Hama was kidnapped from the southern water tribe with other waterbenders and locked up. Similar to Magneto’s prison of plastic, her prison was kept entirely water-free, and her hands were bound when she was given water to drink.

She finally devised an escape plan that relied on the full moon’s extra strength. “I realized that where there is life, there is water,” she says. “The rats that scurried across the floor of my cage were nothing more than skins filled with liquid, and I passed years developing the skills that would lead to my escape—bloodbending. Controlling the water in another body. Enforcing your own will over theirs. Once I had mastered the rats, I was ready for the men.”

She used the technique on a guard to make him unlock her cell. She gained freedom—but she exchanged her soul for it. After her escape and while living in the Fire Nation, she kidnapped villagers during the full moon and forced them into an imprisonment like her own. She was bitter and angry, blaming innocent people for her torture. “We have to fight these people whenever we can, wherever they are, with any means necessary,” she warns Katara.

Even before Katara learns Hama has been kidnapping the villagers, she questions the art of bloodbending, hesitating to learn a skill that gives her such control over another person. But her obsession with learning everything about waterbending encourages her to watch the technique working in action. When Sokka and Aang confront Hama, she bloodbends them into attacking Katara and each other. Katara stops her at the last moment by using bloodbending against her.

Though she used the power to defend her friends, Katara’s actions opened Pandora’s box. And she weeps when she realizes it.

Despite its appearance of evil, twice in the episode bloodbending is used to accomplish a nonviolent goal—escaping from prison and subduing an attacker. Applied objectively, the technique could have great value. But thinking along those lines would backfire for three reasons.

First, applying bloodbending requires mastering its essence. The mental attitude Hama gained while mastering it is that people are just objects—sacks of water—to be manipulated. Their personhood and dignity are lost.

I can’t put back what’s come out of the box.

Second, people aren’t objective. Katara uses bloodbending one other time in the series, a few episodes later, when she’s tracking down Fire Nation raiders. Her anger at the Fire Nation has peaked after she’s bottled up bitterness toward her once-enemy Zuko, and she bloodbends the man she suspects killed her mother.

Katara never bloodbends again, but the knowledge is always inside her. This is the third reason bloodbending cannot be redeemed: the temptation to use it, to control others, will never go away. In fact, giving Katara that temptation was Hama’s goal. After being captured by the villagers, Hama looks back at Katara and says, “My work is done. Congratulations, Katara. You’re a bloodbender.” The mere knowledge of a dark art can corrupt.

In the world of fantasy, the application of a dark art often involves physical manipulation of a person’s body—like the Cruciatus Curse or a Force choke. But dark arts in the real world might be more subtle. If I lie or deceive to get others to do what I want, I’ll gain power over them, but I’ll also begin to see them as my pawns in the way Hama did. If I try to control others in a casual, I’m-just-exploring way, in time my actions will become a more natural and constant temptation, just as Katara was left with the constant temptation to use bloodbending. I can’t put back what’s come out of the box.

And there’s no way to put these “dark arts” to good use. If I tried, I might end up like Hama, with a free body but a damaged moral compass. I must be like Katara and practice only the good aspects of a skill I’ve learned. Instead of dabbling in the darkness, I can be a light to the world, a waterbender who encourages people rather than trying to control them.

Alex Mellen

Alex Mellen

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Alex Mellen likes a little bit of everything, including movies, books, sports, music, crafts, and especially Star Wars. She works as a copyeditor for a small-town newspaper while freelance writing and editing on the side.
Alex Mellen