Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Those of you who know me know I absolutely love Uncle Iroh. I think he is actually my favorite character of all time from any medium. It was a close race for between him and Jiraiya, but Iroh managed to edge him out. In truth, it wasn't really much of a race. I may be more like Jiraiya, but Iroh is the kind of person I desperately want to be. It is truly a rarity to find a character in fiction that does more then just entertain you, but makes you want to be a better person. Iroh is one such character.
Now, for those of you who have never watched Avatar the Last Airbender you truly have missed out. I have never experienced a story so well written and put together then this series. It ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008. I will admit that I am biased because this show holds a special place in my heart, since it was one of my families favorites. In fact, my kids and I still re-watch the entire show every year. When My kids were young I even did a series of special meals one weekend where I made dishes that were inspired by each nation.
Every character in this show has a well flushed out fulfilling story arch. Even minor characters such as Mai and Ty Lee are fully realized. The world is so vibrant and alive that it feels like you could actually live there. When it ended, I did not want to leave. Even today when ever I re-watch it, I still have the same feeling of longing and loss when the last episode ends. There are very few stories that have done this to me so completely. The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Narnia, Harry Potter and Naruto are just a few that inspire the same level of emotional attachment in me.
I could go on, but this post is about Iroh and not the show itself. We are introduced to Uncle Iroh as a slightly goofy companion to his nephew Prince Zuko. Zuko has been banished by his father Fire Lord Ozai and is unable to return unless he finds the lost Avatar who has been missing for 100 years. General Iroh who is also referred to as "The Dragon of the West", was a feared member of the Fire Army and older brother to the current Fire Lord Ozai. In fact he could have been Fire Lord himself, but he was unable to take the capital city of the Earth Nation Ba Sing Se leading to his disgrace.
The battle of Ba Sing Se will prove to be the catalyst that changes Iroh and turns him into the amazing character we have the pleasure of watching. There he loses his son who is killed in the battle just outside the city walls under a large tree. The loss of so many of his men and his son changes him. He can no longer ignore the horror of war and what his nation is doing to the world and returns to the Fire Nation a broken man dealing with PTSD who no longer believes what his nation is doing is right.
He eventually decides to take his nephew under his wing after his brother abuses him in an honor duel burning his face and embarrassing the boy before banishing him. Iroh leaves everything behind in order to go with the young man he has come to see as a surrogate son. Every where he goes he shows mercy, compassion and love to everyone he meets. I can't help but think that he is trying to amend for the horrors he was responsible for when he was young. There is even one instance when a desperately impoverished man tries to mug him. He disarms him and than shows him how to hold the knife better. By the end of the story, in true Iroh form, he helps the man see the error of his ways and ends up sharing tea with him. This happens as he is on his way to the tree where his son died. It would have been his birthday and he is going out to honor his sons memory. He cares so much for others, that he is even willing to put his own grief aside for the needs of others. This is just one of the many instances in the show where we see that every person who comes into contact with Iroh has their life made better somehow.
His redemption arch is so powerful that in the final battle against the Fire Lord and his armies, he leads the Order of the White Lotus as they retake the captured city of Ba Sing Se. He declares to his men that he knew he was destined to someday take the capital city of the Earth Kingdom but not in the way he originally thought. He had come not as a conqueror but a liberator. He stands against his nephew and niece to defend the Avatar because it is right thing to do even though it causes a rift between him and Zuko. Zuko eventually asks for his forgiveness and he hugs him telling him that he was not angry, but sad because he had feared Zuko had lost his way. He stands against Admiral Zhao when he wants to destroy the moon spirit even though it would be detrimental to the war effort, and he stands as the leader of the White Lotus during the battle of Ba Sing Se. He is a true hero who is willing to do what's right regardless of the consequences.
Iroh is a person who did not allow the failures and pains of live to destroy him, but to make him into a better person. He becomes a man who forgives easily, is filled with compassion for all people, loves others, is quick to laugh and a good mentor and father. He is not a perfect character and he makes many mistakes throughout the series; and at the start, he is a bit of a broken man who is simply trying to be a better person. Most of all, he is a father figure and mentor to his nephew Zuko. He is the man who is willing to step up and do the right thing even when it hurts and to love even when it's hard. He is the man who refuses to leave and to give up on the people he cares about, and in the end, his love not only redeems himself, but his nephew as well.
As a single parent who has walked a hard road, I can identify with Iroh. Life can be hard and it can take much from us, but it doesn't have to destroy us. Just like Uncle Iroh we can choose how we respond to the hardships life brings. We can either become bitter and hateful, or allow the pain we experience to be a catalyst that helps us become empathetic to the people around us. I don't know bout you, but Iroh is the kind of man I ascribe to be like. A person who's only asperation is to open his own tea shop so he can bring joy to people. A man who is willing to be a father to the fatherless and a brother to the botherless. A man who is truly selfless. As a Christian I have seen few characters in any story that embody the nature of Christ more than Uncle Iroh. He has had so much impact in the circle of fans I run with that we have a saying. "Be the person Uncle Iroh knows you can be."
So, I hope you have been inspired to watch the show and to fall in love with Uncle Iroh the way I have. Be warned, he will make you cry when he sings "Little Soldier Boy" at his sons grave in the Episode Tales of Ba Sing Se. I still can't hear the song or even talk about it without choking up. As a matter of fact, I am listening to it now as I write this post; and yes, my cheeks are streaked with tears. To conclude this post I will leave you with some inspirational wisdom from Uncle Iroh that I still think about when I feel that my life doesn't matter.
(Click the picture to be sent to a link to hear "Little Soldier Boy.")