Chapter Thirty: “The Library”
(Rating Out of 15)
A while back, I was accused of wanting more “grimdark” in Avatar: the Last Airbender. “Grimdark” is one of those grammatically elusive words that could only exist on the Internet, and when someone who wants “grimdark,” it means they want a specific show, film, etc. to be much darker and more brutally “realistic” than it is already.
Since “grimdark” advocators seems to be the Communists of Avatar fandom, I might as well explain myself. This accusation arose because of one of my complaints in my Introduction page:
…being conceived and produced strictly as a kids’ show was all but detrimental to the show’s overall success. At times, it felt like DiMartino and Konietzko were caving in to the demands and expectations of the Nickelodeon Studio that funded and aired the show…it’s pretty fishy that the worst of Avatar‘s episodes play exactly like the worst kind of shluck you’d normally find on any kids’ programming channel, Nickelodeon included.
If you read that paragraph carefully, you’d see that my point is not that Avatar should have been darker so much as it shouldn’t have been so childish at times—just because your format aims at the lowest common denominator doesn’t means your artistic standards have to stoop low as well.
I’ll admit that I personally tend to gravitate towards the darker aspects of a piece more than anything else–and Avatar certainly has more than enough darkness to supplement my diet–so consider that another bias that colors my reviews. That said, what I always wanted from Avatar—which was only granted sporadically until now—was a certain honesty; stories that were fantastic but still true to human nature; an admission that, while there may not be good and evil, people’s interests and actions do not allow coincide, and thus there are often heavy consequences.
“The Library” has that honesty. The main conflict is not between good and evil, nor is there really a distinction between right and wrong. Unlike other kids’ shows, this lack of a moral or ethical stance is not the product of lazy, anything-for-a-laugh nihilism; by not choosing a side, DiMartino and Konietzko and company provide the perfect platform for exploring the implications and consequences of both sides. This is quite an intriguing episode, in addition to being one of the most thrilling.
In “The Library,” the kids meet an anthropologist named Professor Zei who is obsessed with finding the Great Library, a sacred place that seemingly contains all the knowledge in the world. Sokka immediately senses an opportunity to find a way to defeat the Fire Nation, and soon they’re all flying through the desert in search of a library that might not even exist.
This story is set in motion by a cute little subplot involving mini-vacations. The kids take turns picking places to go for a brief moment by selecting spots on Aang’s map. The map is, of course, outdated, so the vacation spots either no longer exist, or, in the case of the Misty Palms Oasis, are not quite the beautiful wonder it used to be.
It’s here that every major plot element comes together: the meeting of Zei, and the first encounter with the unpleasant Sandbenders who are interested in Appa. This episode is so well-written that the setup feels less like plot contrivance and more like a chance meeting that could have actually happened. (I sure wish I knew who wrote the episode so I could congratulate him by name.)
It also helps that Zei is such a delightfully eccentric character. He’s a friendly man totally lacking in normal societal interaction skills. He seems to live only to acquire great knowledge for no other reason than to acquire it.
After a very long flight through the desert—punctuated by yet another great “Toph-is-blind” joke—they finally come across a huge tower sticking out of the sand. As it turns out, the tower is the top of the Library; the rest is completely buried.
However, as Toph is able to “see,” the inside of the Library is completely intact and explorable. Not only that, but they witness a fox running up the tower and going inside. Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Zei (and Momo) go inside, leaving Toph and Appa to wait outside. Their interactions as they wait are pretty cute, but notice how we’re subtly given exposition in the midst of it: we learn that Toph can’t “see” on sand because it’s too loose. This will be very important later. (Geez, who wrote this episode? This is brilliant!)
The group in the Library find that it is indeed very large, filled to the brim with all sort of books, scrolls, parchments, etc. It also contains a giant owl known as Won Shi Tong, the owner of the Library and knower of 10,000 things. (Why 10,000 things, I don’t know: even considering how big of a number 10,000 is, would a self-proclaiming “all-knowing spirit” really have limits to his knowledge?)
Wan Shi Tong no longer allows humans into his library, and for good reason: they only seek knowledge to gain the upper hand over other humans. While this is true for the most part, being an all-knowing spirit, wouldn’t he have come to terms with that very basic fact of human nature long, long along? (Unless that’s just not of the 10,000 things he knows.)
You’d think Wan Shi Tong would be more concerned with people destroying his knowledge than misusing it. After getting the information on the Moon Spirit, Zhao had the entire section on the Fire Nation burned down. I’m quite surprised Wan Shi Tong didn’t decide at that moment to take his Library back.
It’s not until he confirms Aang and pals’ true intentions for coming to the Library that Wan Shi Tong decides that enough is enough. He begins to sink the Library down into the ground, taking it back so it can no longer be abused by humans. He also must kill the group because…well, they’ve seen to much: can’t go using that knowledge to cause more trouble again, can we?
Throughout all of this, Wan Shi Tong is never—until the last-act action sequence, I guess—portrayed as a “villain.” His problems with humans are pretty reasonable, and his resolve to take back his Library is more tragic than evil: knowledge is only good if it can be used and/or shared. Wan Shi Tong would rather take away his gift rather than have it aid humans in their ongoing quest to destroy each other.
On the other hand, Zei’s resolve to stay in the Library forever—because of the vast knowledge it contains—is darkly funny for the same reason. He only seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake, without ever putting it to use and contributing in a real way to the world. For such an intelligent man, his demise is rather foolish.
But enough of that. What do the kids learn that ticked off Wan Shi Tong?
Sokka comes across a partly burned sheet with a date and the words “The Fire Nation’s darkest day” written on it. What does that mean? Not having the Fire Nation section available, the group luckily get help from a fox, who leads them to a planetarium.
The planetarium sequence has some wonderful visuals. I especially love the gradual reveal of the eclipse, which Aang initially thinks means that planetarium is broken. When they figure out what happened, Sokka puts the pieces together: the Firebenders lost their Bending because the Moon blocked the Sun, which gives them their powers. Without the Sun, they’re extremely vulnerable. That’s how they can finally defeat the Fire Nation!
Of course, they’re immediately found out by Wan Shi Tong, who chases them away. But it won’t easy: not only do they have to escape Wan Shi Tong and the sinking Library, but Sokka needs to go back to the planetarium to figure out when the next solar eclipse is. Trying to go through each day would obviously take forever, but Sokka has the perfect solution: start from the day of Sozin’s Comet and go back until they (hopefully) find a day that another eclipse will happen. This solution is so genius that it nearly makes me forgive every single, stupid, pointless joke that ever came out of his mouth. (Who wrote this episode?)
Luckily, they do find a day—we’re not told when, but that’s not important for us—and get the Hell out of there.
On in the desert, Toph has noticed the Library sinking and does her best to keep it above ground level until the others get out. And on top of that, the Sandbenders come out of nowhere and steal Appa away while Toph struggles to hold up the Library. Since she’s unable to actually Bend the sand and stop them, her attempts at doing so are fruitless. It’s heartbreaking, to say the least.
In a nutshell, this last-act action sequence consisted of:
- Katara and Zei (and Momo) outrunning Wan Shi Tong and getting out of the library.
- Aang and Sokka finding out the next solar eclipse before they can escape the library.
- Toph holding up the library so the others can escape at all.
- Appa being kidnapped due to a flaw in Toph’s Earthbending training (it’s not her fault she can’t see on sand).
These elements all play out without the audience ever getting confused or losing sight of how they all relate to each other. This is extremely masterful storytelling. (Aaron Ehasz! I bet he wrote it! He’s the best writer on the Avatar staff.)
And so the kids—remember Zei chose to stay in the Library forever—make it out in one piece and with the information they went in there for in the first place. Happy days?
No, because, even though Toph saved their lives, she couldn’t save Appa. Upon realizing this, Aang bursts into tears.
And that’s the last shot of the episode.
This is an Aang-centric episode—Zuko and Iroh were not in this one, maybe the high quality that much more remarkable—and this is the first time I can consciously recall an Aang episode (and not a Zuko episode) ending on such a downer note.
This is a good sign. This is tremendously good sign. The happy-go-lucky days that were threatening to disappear are finally gone for good. Not that I’d want to see Aang so miserable—although, the only times I ever feel anything for him is when he’s miserable—but that he’s even allowed to experience misery without a last minute resolve is incredible. It’s a sign of maturity.
Daniel Thomas MacInnes once described WALL-E as Pixar’s Rubber Soul, and how it’s achievements would pave the way for greater and greater animated films. (That next groundbreaking animated film still hasn’t come, but I’ll keep my hopes high.) In a way, “The Library” is the Rubber Soul of Avatar, and it does lead to greater and greater episodes, if not immediately, then eventually. And don’t more than enough Beatles fans consider Rubber Soul their best album anyway? It’s safe to say that “The Library” is, if not the best, certainly high up there.
So who wrote this Rubber Soul episode?
No way! John “JOB” O’Bryan?! So he can write! I’m damn near willing to forgive him for “The Great Divide!”
Daniel Thomas MacInnes’ Ghibli Blog is definitely worth a look. He’s a very passionate person, and it shows in all of his posts, be they about Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki, or otherwise.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.