Poetically springing a new life in the midst of a global pandemic, Avatar: The Last Airbender regained massive popularity when many were confined to their homes. Even two decades after its finale, the show provided its viewers with a chilling reflection of the world outside our window. A shocking world for a kids’ show, it addressed lying governments and dictatorships hemorrhaging war that led to the death of thousands. Avatar: The Last Airbender tackled these issues head-on. The grand rebirth of this series sparked interest online, with many debating who the best or worst Avatar in the series is.
Last year, I confronted this debate by ranking the most featured Avatars in the franchise from the worst to the best. Although everyone will have their own opinions on different Avatars, one frequently appearing at the bottom of lists is Avatar Roku.
Who Is Avatar Roku?
Following Avatar Kyoshi’s 230-year tenure as the Avatar, the Fire Nation assumed the next position in the cycle. Roku, born into a noble family, grew up alongside the Prince of the Fire Nation, Sozin. The two developed a close friendship, sharing many moments, including Sozin setting up Roku’s eventual marriage to Ta Min.
Their bond was so strong that it was during Sozin’s 16th birthday celebration the Fire Sages revealed that Roku was the Avatar — much to Sozin’s delight. Even the hairpiece worn by Roku was a gift from Sozin before Roku embarked on his journey.
Roku initially studied airbending with Monk Gyatso, who would later become Aang’s mentor in the next Avatar’s life. He subsequently traveled to the Northern Water Nation, dedicating several years to mastering his most challenging element. Finally, Roku perfected earthbending, completing all four elements and ascertaining the Avatar State. While mastering the elements is a crucial aspect of the Avatar’s journey, so is the journey itself. Along the way, Roku learned the most valuable lesson of his life.
Despite being born into privilege with a noble family and a close relationship with Sozin and his family, Roku’s travels enlightened him about the diversity, power, and love present in each nation. No single nation was deemed more important than the others. However, upon Roku’s return to the Fire Nation, he discovered that his best friend, Sozin, was now the Fire Lord and held a different perspective on the world.
During Roku and Ta Min’s wedding, the Fire Lord approached the Avatar. Sozin had a vision of the Fire Nation entering an era of growth and prosperity through expansion. Roku strongly disagreed and instructed Sozin never to bring it up again. Unfortunately, this disagreement resurfaced years later, leading to Roku’s most significant mistake that continues to tarnish his legacy to this day.
The Worst Avatar’s Biggest Mistake Tarnishes His Legacy
Almost two decades after the two confronted each other over the expansion of the Fire Nation, the Avatar discovered that Sozin was establishing colonies in the Earth Kingdom. Roku confronted Sozin, and the two entered an intense battle.
Avatar Roku had the Fire Lord on the ropes, capable of ending Sozin’s life at any moment. Ultimately, however, Roku spared it, even allowing him to retain his new colonies in the Earth Kingdom due to their past friendship. However, the Avatar vowed to bring a “permanent end” to the Fire Lord if he persisted in expanding the Fire Nation. In the end, Roku’s biggest mistake was not “ending” Sozin when he had the chance.
Avatar Roku died, infamously, while attempting to halt the eruption of a live volcano on his home island at the age of 70. Sozin initially arrived on the island to assist Roku with the volcano but betrayed his childhood best friend in his final moments.
12 years later, Sozin launched full-scale attacks on the Air Nomads and Earth Kingdom during The Great Comet, later named Sozin’s Comet. The assaults decimated the entire Air Nation, with the exception of the next Avatar, Aang, who fled the temple beforehand but eventually crashed into the sea. He saved himself within the Avatar State, encased in an iceberg.
Roku struggled to establish boundaries with his best friend. He would draw a line, Sozin would cross it, and then Roku would draw a new line, allowing the Fire Lord to retain the ground he had taken. His inability to separate the soon-to-be mass murderer from his best friend resulted in the demise of an entire people.
Prior Avatars’ Accomplishments Dwarf Roku’s Tenure
One of the more fascinating themes in Avatar: The Last Airbender is the inheritance of faults from predecessors. Everything in the Avatar Universe originates from Avatar Wan’s initial mistake of releasing the dark spirit Vaatu from the light spirit Raava.
Subsequently, Yangchen inherits a corrupted economic system from Avatar Szeto. Avatar Kuruk, Yangchen’s successor, grapples with the consequences of broken deals between humans and spirits, leading to his early death at 33. Kuruk’s shocking and premature death creates turmoil in the world that Avatar Kyoshi has to overcome, etc.
Despite Avatar Kyoshi’s feats and incredible lifespan, she is not perfect. In her lifetime, she founded the Dai Li, who later became the extremely corrupted police force of Ba Sing Se. Aang, of course, deals with the fallout of Roku’s inaction to stop Sozin.
Meanwhile, Korra navigates the aftermath of Aang’s Republic City project and addresses hundreds of years of struggle between humans and the Spirit World. The question arises: What is in store for the Avatar after Korra? Presumably, attempting to reconnect with their past lives — a severance that stands as the biggest red mark on Korra’s legacy.
Avatar Roku’s Potential Redemption Is on the Horizon
All these stories and histories stem from the shows and, more importantly, the Chronicles of the Avatar novels. These books delve into in-universe stories and expand on the lives and histories of past Avatars, specifically Kyoshi and Yangchen. These characters have provided fans with four books worth of stories that the shows never achieved, and the Kyoshi novels also include the added bonus of incorporating Kuruk’s legacy.
Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender have only witnessed Roku’s biggest mistake; they have not seen his greatest accomplishments. While the Avatar: The Last Airbender tabletop RPG provides more lore about Roku’s life, it is not the same as experiencing it in a complete novel. However, this is set to change as Avatar Roku is slated to be the main focus of a future novel. The Reckoning of Roku is set to release in August 2024, leading many to wonder if fans will finally see Roku’s feats and the completion of his Avatar duties.
Perhaps we can witness Roku attempting to prevent the Dai Li from becoming more powerful or implementing safeguards to save the dragons before they are hunted. Until then, what we know of Avatar Roku tarnishes any reputation he could have from events we are not yet aware of. Perhaps the upcoming Netflix live-action adaptation will tackle this as well.
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