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Movie Critic Article (5/5): On The Last Airbender

Shades of Philosophy

in The Last Airbender

Article by: Muhsin Khalid*

Part Five

Back to our question: why the hero of this film is a child.
In my assessment, this reading of the film deduces and sometimes invents philosophical shades for the movie in a structure parallel to it that does not answer this question but takes us into the details of the Leviticus, one of the books of the Old Testament.
In the book of Leviticus there is the story of the two brothers Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron
of whom the verses of the Old Testament  read: {1- And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron,
took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange
fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. 2- And there went out fire from the Lord,
and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.} Leviticus, 10: 1-2.
First, think thoroughly of the issue of offerings (to God), and tie it to the earlier two offerings
made by Adam's sons Cain and Abel where only the offering of one of them was accepted while
in the case Aaron's sons both offerings were rejected.                                          

It is clear that Aaron's sons had violated particular teachings in regards to giving offerings to God when they forwarded him a "strange fire" because they were punished by being burnt to death by an immediate fire thrown on them by God. 
A punishment of the same nature as the sin. There are many
interpretations for these verses. Some of these go beyond the provision of “strange fire” to ascribe their plight to another sin which is being drunk!

The phrase (strange fire) is both charming and mysterious. But there is no description or definition of this “strange fire”. Nor is there any clarification as to the essence of “strangeness” of the fire or to why and how it was strange!
This is what concerns us in decoding some symbols in this movie.
This strange fire, offered by these two young priests, without an order from God, and in the ambiguity of which they both were killed by another fire sent out by God, is in itself  strange.
To attempt interpreting and examining the symbolism of fire, let us accompany some of the explanations of scholars of the Bible to aid us in linking the legend to real life.

Said the Christian philosopher Origen (185 - 254) “I have heard that those who have made a fire unclean before the Lord died, and you as you get inflamed and possessed by anger, burnt by revolt and this bodily love ignites in you, you become a victim of shameful lust for this fire is wholly impure and against the Lord, and he who lights it will win, without doubt, the fate of Nadab and Abihu”.

This might reveal some of the symbolism in this movie, which speaks of a Fire Nation that enslaves people and controls everything.  A nation driven by limitless greed as they try, by all means, to capture the airbender, this young and strong master who, despite his innocence, his nobility and lack of experience, possesses the four powers of the elements combined.  A capacity that neither the Fire Nation nor any other nation possesses.

The book of Leviticus is known in the literature of the Old Testament and as the Gospel of Sinners!
But are there more sinners than present day capitalists who, with greed, keep a tight rein on life and trigger wars everywhere.
We are not yet done with the implications of the "strange fire" story in this movie for out of it was made the age of this young priest.
And we have not, as yet, reached the Levites! But these highlights are a necessary prelude to them.
Talk about the Levites is abundant but thorny and with plenty of versions. Jews have perceptions of their own of the Levites. The Levites are different in Samaritan Torah than what they are in the Torah of the Hebrews or in Christianity and subsequently in Islam.
At any rate, they came into existence a little later than the ages when only the sons of Aaron took control of priesthood. They were privileged by being appointed to serve the Meeting Tent erected after the victory over the Calf Worshipers. So the Levites were one nation of twelve tribes of nations about which the Qur'an tells: {And We divided them into twelve tribes, as nations...} verse 160, surat Al-Araf.
The Levites certainly appeared after the punishment of Nadab and Abihu by the fire of the Lord, when they forwarded to him the 'strange fire'. After the demise of the sinner priests, priesthood and offering of rituals shifted to Levi, the son of Jacob and his descendents who became servants to the high priest Aaron. The name Levi is common in English and other Latin languages. The Bible says: { Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. They shall perform the duties for him and for the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. They shall also keep all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, along with the duties of the sons of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. You shall thus give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the sons of Israel. So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons that they may keep their priesthood, but the layman who comes near shall be put to death.} 3.6 New American Standard Bible.
Following this, emerge the differences between the priests in general and the Levite priests in particular. Levites priests made the original acts of worship, while other priests carried out and complemented them. It is possible to say that the Levites stood between the Lord and the priests.
The priests, in their turn, stood between the people and the Lord the rituals of sacrifice and offerings.
The distinguishing quality that is more important to us in regards to this movie is that the Levites could start from the age of one month and on. So here comes our twelve year old friend Noah Ringer (Aang in the movie), unlike the biblical tribes who started priesthood from the age of twenty years! The Levites were recruited from all the firstborn of the children of Israel and even the firstborn of their beasts!
3.6 New American Standard Bible reads:  {Number the sons of Levi...every male from a month old and upward you shall number...So the Levites shall be Mine. For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the Lord.}
Being inspired by a "strange fire" has never drained or stopped since Prometheus, the powerful Greek fire-thief who sided with mortals (humans) and supplied them with fire i.e. knowledge, which brought upon him the anger of Jupiter, or Zeus, the god of gods and heir greatest. But how was he punished?

He was tied to a rock and left to a huge evil falcon to eat his liver whenever it was fully grown as it was made to regrow after it had been eaten and thus the torture was made to last. But Prometheus remains a beloved hero in the book of the Earth. He still inspires great artists and his sacrifice has always been summoned since the great poet Ovid to the era of Beethoven and the poet Shelley. Thousands of painters and sculptors have depicted him in many ways and thought of him as a savior of Man and as biased in favor of virtue and the Earth, against all those tyrannical and haughty gods conceived by humans.

Greek Fire
The inspiration by the fire goes also to what was known in recent history as the Greek Fire (known also as wet fire). This fire has been used by the Byzantines against the Muslim Amaoi armies and against the Ottoman armies. As for the way it is described in the books of history, it resembles to a great extent the way in which the movie presents the confrontation of the Fire Nation with the Water Nation.
End of 5/5
* Muhsin Khalid is a novelist and scholar who lives in London, UK.


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