In light of the fact that Legend of Korra, book 2 is coming out next month, I thought it might be fun to write up this article/essay/paper/thing (I’m not sure what to call it) about what I hope to learn from the new seasons. One of the things I greatly enjoyed about the original Last Airbender series was how they developed and explored their fictional universe in depth. For instance, we learn more about the nature of the avatar as we learn things like the Avatar State and the Avatar Cycle. We understand what it means for Earth to be an element when we discover that metal, too, is merely Earth in a different shape. We even touch at the origins of bending when we learn that badger moles, dragons, sky bison, and the moon were the first natural benders.
Not everything was explained, however, and there is a fundamental question left in mystery. I had hoped that Legend of Korra would have touched on this in book 1, and I now hope they answer it in the following seasons. The question is this: why is the avatar the only being capable of bending multiple elements?
For my own entertainment, I developed a hypothesis to this question which I believe to be consistent with our current knowledge of the avatar universe. First, however, we must look to one even more basic question: what makes someone a bender, at all? You might suppose that bending is hereditary. If your parents were benders, you most likely will be, too. And if they were not, you probably will not be. This does not seem to be the case, however. As we learn from “The Southern Raiders” (B3,E14), neither of Katara’s and Sokka’s parents were benders, yet Katara is. We also know from “Siege of the North: Part1” (B1,E19) and “The Cave of Two Lovers” (B2,E2) that the first Water and Earth benders learned to bend from the moon and from badger moles.
But you say there must be some genetic influence because the Earth Kingdom only produces Earthbenders and the Water Tribes only Waterbenders, etc. But this does not seem to be entirely true, either. In “The Blind Bandit” (B2,E6), we are introduced to a Fire Nation Earthbender. If non-benders can learn to bend, and benders of one nation can learn the bending of another, it would appear that the token elements of each nation are nothing more than practiced norms. A Fire Nation pupil could, in fact, learn Waterbending, instead. This would also agree with the statement made in “The Guru” (B2,E19), that the four nations are an illusion and the whole world is one people.
Then why is it such a rare thing for a person of one nation to bend a different element? It is reasonable to suppose that, due to the war and the long absence of the avatar, practicing other bendings has become taboo, until people may have even forgotten it was possible. Consider, for instance, the hostility of Jet’s reaction to Iroh Firebending his tea in “The Drill” (B2,E13). Maybe in Legend of Korra, where the nations have already begun to mingle, we may see evidence of cross-bending.
Now to get back to the original question: why can ordinary people not bend more than one element? I say they can, and this is where my hypothesis comes in. I call it the Hypothesis of Secondary Elements. Imagine the four elements arranged in a diamond, like a four-pointed color wheel, according to the Avatar Cycle (Water, Earth, Fire, Air). These are the primary elements. Now imagine a square overlapping these, who’s corners are between the elements. This is where we fill in the secondary elements. What do you get when you cross Water and Earth? Mud, of course. Earth and Fire? Lava. Fire and Air would logically become Lightening. Air and Water mix to become Cloud (or perhaps Bubbles?).
We know that these secondary elements exist, in that they are substances which are composed of two primary elements, such that it takes two forms of bending to control them. In “The Fortuneteller” (B1,E14), it takes Aang and Katara, together, to shape a cloud. In “The Painted Lady” (B3,E3), Katara and Toph work together to separate a muddy river into its components of Earth and Water. In “The Avatar and the Firelord” (B3,E6), we see Roku and Sozin battling a volcano, and, while Roku frequently bends the lava directly, Sozin is seen only to siphon the heat away—essentially separating the Fire from the Earth—leaving the hard Earth behind.
Lightening is a curiosity. We see at least five people, in Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, combined, who use lightening—all of them Firebenders. But it is plain that lightening is not ordinary fire. It has shifted form, in the same way that blue, mixed with a speck of yellow, has a shifted hue. These individuals have actually begun to mix a little Air into their Firebending.
Why not go all the way, then, and learn Airbending and Firebending? I believe there is no contradiction in saying they could. The reason we have not seen it fully developed is two-fold. Learning one form of bending is difficult, learning another one must be truly daunting. By a similar token, it would be strange to have a PHD in Physics, and then go for another one in Art. Once again, there is also the war to consider, along with the extreme segregation of nations. These individuals who utilize lightening probably do not realize they are mixing elements. It is a technique that works and, in wartime, that is all they need know. As Legend of Korra develops, we just might see the occasional dual-bender.
Could it go the other way? Could a Firebender choose, rather than being a Lighteningbender, to become a Lavabender? Only the avatar is ever seen to Lavabend. No pure Firebender has been observed to do it. I hypothesize that the Avatar Cycle is not binding to the avatar, alone, but actually is a natural law. Therefore, the bender who wishes to learn two elements must follow the cycle from wherever he chose to start. So, an Airbender may become a Cloudbender, but not a Lighteningbender. An Earthbender may become a Lavabender, but not a Mudbender. And so forth.
Why stop at two elements? Why can an ordinary person not learn three? As explained in “Bitter Work” (B2,E9), the elements have opposites. Earth is the opposite of Air, and Fire is the opposite of Water, which is why they are also opposite each other on the Avatar Cycle. Imagine, for a moment, what you would get if you crossed Fire and Water. I can only think of hot water, which is still just water. There has been no shift in form. It would be impossible for a Waterbender to learn Firebending because the two are intrinsically opposed. The same would be true of an Earthbender trying to learn Airbending. Thus a bender would have to stop at two elements because to go further would contradict his chosen element.
So why is the avatar so special? The avatar is a living paradox. He is one person, and yet many persons. He dies, and yet is born anew. He is man, but also spirit. Only in such a paradox is the total union of all the elements possible.
I do not know how accurate the Hypothesis of Secondary Elements is, but I believe it to be consistent with what we know thus far. Whether I am proved wrong or right by the coming seasons, I will enjoy watching The Legend of Korra, Book 2: Spirits, and will be anxiously watching for the answers to these mysteries.