[MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. Seriously. Everything from who killed whom to who didn’t kill whom to everything that ever died and everyone who ever lived. You’ve been warned. Sort of.]
There are two serial children’s stories in the past decade that have stood out to me, mostly because they understood that children do not need sheltering, coddling, rigid morality or insipid sentimentality. In both Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender, children suffer loss just like everyone else. However, I would claim that Avatar is a more nuanced and thoughtful depiction of traditional heroism than Harry Potter because it deals with the problem of destiny, violence, choice and murder in a more active and thoughtful manner.
Harry Potter and Avatar each start off with the classically elusive “oh, sure, I guess death is a thing and it’s coming for your family” references. In children’s stories there are always people who have died, it’s just that no one seems to die onscreen anymore. In Harry Potter, his parents were killed, followed by every possible positive parental figure whose acquaintance he makes. In Avatar, Katara’s mother was murdered because the Fire Nation was too stupid to make sure she was telling the truth about being a Water Bender.
So now we have two unsafe environments that carry fatal consequences for minor slip-ups and that desperately need a hero who can wage war against the forces of darkness. Both Harry and Aang are chosen by the fates to defeat the supreme force of evil. In Harry’s case, a prophecy says that neither he nor Voldemort can live while the other survives. Similarly, Aang is the Avatar and must bring balance to the world by defeating Fire Lord Ozai. This is where the tales diverge.
Let’s look at Harry’s trajectory: a prophecy is made before his birth saying that he must either kill or be killed. For something that huge and life-changing, though, the word “murder” only shows up in one brief thought in Harry’s head in The Order of the Phoenix, when Harry realizes that “his life must include, or end in, murder.” Here we expect to see Harry struggle with plotting the death of a crazy tyrant, and the problem of being only 15 and devoted to premeditated murder. Does Harry struggle with this enormous burden, though? Not particularly. By the time we get to The Half-Blood Prince Harry is saying that he’d want Voldemort finished and that he’d want to be the one to do it. Notice the lack of the word “kill” “death” or “murder” now. “Finished” is the best we get.
Despite Harry’s ambivalence towards becoming a murderer (his focus being more on the “how” than any consequences,) he is the hero, and therefore must be a model to children in the audience. We can’t have Harry showing callousness or (heaven forbid) agency in the act of killing itself. So even though he goes to Hogwarts for a final showdown with the intent of killing Voldemort, we have to have two things:
1) An offer to let the supreme evil figure repent (unlikely), and
2) A guarantee that the supreme evil figure will be the cause of his own downfall.
We get both aspects easily in Harry’s final scene with Voldemort. He shows maturity, calls Voldemort “Tom” and then uses a disarming spell instead of a spell that would be remotely useful. Voldemort’s own Avada Kedavra spell rebounds on himself and kills him on the spot, and Harry’s pure and noble soul remains untarnished.
To me, this is a bit cowardly. Rowling builds up a theme of love and forgiveness that only extends to a point, when force must be used. I have no problem with that. Except that then, at the end, she takes it all back. “You only have to use force until the bad guy causes his own destruction,” she’s saying. “And you will not be damaged by the hard choices you make.” In the end, Harry was spared the ordeal of having to kill Voldemort, but he never wrestles with the fact that he was ready and willing to fight to the death. If you’re going to have Harry be willing to be a murderer, I say take that as far as it will go. Show us what kind of teenager that is, what he struggles with, and how he feels when he has to or does not have to go through with the difficult act. Don’t give me deus ex machina.
In the opposite corner we have Aang, who is so amazingly different from Harry. He’s silly, goofy, sweet and good-tempered. I know a lot of Harry’s angst can be attributed to puberty, but it’s still nice to be spared from pages of dialogue in all caps. The thing about Aang, though, is that he’s thoughtful, he thinks long and hard about what it means to actually face the Fire Lord, he understands that ending the war involves killing the leader…
And he refuses.
The Fire Lord tries to kill him and Aang finally has the opportunity to kill him right back. He doesn’t take it. He taps into a place of purity and light and strips Ozai’s Bending powers away entirely, rendering him ineffective.
It would have been really easy to write Aang deciding to do something vague like “face the Fire Lord” and then have Ozai fall off a cliff accidentally or something. Or to never bring up death and pretend that killing doesn’t actually happen in real life (another common children’s story evasion tactic.) But Aang is spurred on by his friends and his own freaking past lives to kill Ozai in order to bring peace to the world.
They tell him that he has to kill Ozai over and over and over again. And he says no. He finds another way and it works for him, but this is not the cop-out of Harry Potter. Aang is tenacious but he is also basically pacifist in his ideals. One comes to the understand that even if he didn’t learn to take Ozai’s Bending abilities away from him, he would have continued to abstain from killing until he found another way. Aang’s story is actually more vanilla. Ozai doesn’t even die; he is simply taken into custody. But the question of choice, agency and death are actively internalized in Aang’s character and he struggles with the question as any human probably should.
That is true morality, and an honest approach to the prophetic kill-or-be-killed trope that has been softened into mush by children show censors. Harry Potter’s soul is saved only through coincidence and his own curious unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that he plans to murder someone for 2 years straight. Aang, on the other hand, internalizes and rejects the path of a killer and finds another way to solve a complicated problem.
Maybe that’s what we should really be teaching our children.