Avatar the last airbender - the ordeal

The Ordeal: Apotheosis – The hero’s journey


In the hero’s journey, the Ordeal is more or less the equivalent of the “climax” of a conventional story. In this stage, our protagonist gets to confront his greatest foe and get a new power/understanding of the world as a reward for winning (think about ANY shounen anime showdown as a reference).

During the Ordeal, the hero is facing his most difficult challenge yet. He has already been through a lot of difficult trials in stage n. 6 Tests enemies and allies, but this is the biggest obstacle in his path, the moment where the boss shows up.

This stage of the journey is often called “death and rebirth” or even simply “death”. The reason for this is that the hero has to “die” in order to be reborn again as a stronger or better person. Of course by “die” I don’t mean that the hero of the story has to actually drop dead and leave us all hanging there.

More often than not the death and the rebirth are symbolical, the protagonist will experience some kind of defeat, learn a lesson from it, and proceed to kick the villain’s ass.

According to Joseph Campbell, the Ordeal can be of two types:

  • Apotheosis
  • The ultimate boon

I’m going to cover the ultimate boon in a different post, for now, it’s better to focus on explaining what the Apotheosis is and why it’s important. As an example, let’s take the climax of Avatar The last Airbender.

The Ordeal: final fight

This is the most tension-filled moment in the whole story, or at least it is supposed to be. In order to make the final fight something worth the hype, it must be more than a simple fistfight, it must be a battle of ideals that moves the emotions of the audience.

Christopher Vogler, in his book The writer’s journey, says that the villain can be the “shadow” of the hero. The exact opposite of everything the hero represents and stands for, but also the embodiment of everything the hero fears most.

The writer's journey

In all 3 seasons of The last Airbender, Aang’s enemies are constantly switching: first Zuko, then Zhao, then Azula, and finally Firelord Ozai himself.

But what do all those enemies have in common? They’re all part of the Fire Nation and they all have the task to capture and imprison the Avatar (except for Ozai who has the simple dream of WORLD DOMINATION).

Aang’s “shadow” is the Fire Nation and its quest for power. In the 100 years without the Avatar, they have managed to imbalance the world and annihilate the people who tried to stop them.

So Aang now sees the Firelord as the symbol of fear, destruction and cruelty. He is so afraid of everything that involves the Fire Nation that he even refuses to use fire for most of the series despite being capable of firebending.

Before the fight, Aand even has nightmares about a faceless Firelord who defeats him and succeeds in his conquest.

By the time the Sozin comet rolls around, the confrontation is inevitable. But despite Aang’s determination, a few minutes into the fight, his fear and insecurity have the better of him and he tries to hide.

This is when we get to the second part of the Ordeal: the death of the hero.

Death of the hero

The ordeal - the hero's journey

As I said before, the hero must “die” so that he can be reborn as a better individual, but how does he do that?

First of all, we have to say that the Ordeal is meant to be a rollercoaster of emotions. The protagonist wins, then loses, then lands a few good punches, gets knocked down again and so on…

The death is the lowest moment for the hero, the one where all hope seems lost and everyone in the audience believes that the protagonist won’t be able to get up again.

In all 3 seasons of The last Airbender there is a moment similar to this one:

  • Book 1: the Fire Nation invades the Water Tribe during the eclipse and they seem to be one step away from victory when Aang gets into the Avatar state and fends them off singlehandedly.
  • Book 2: Aang seems to be unstoppable now that he has gained control of the Avatar state but Azula almost kills him with a lightening, fortunately, Katara manages to bring him back to life.
  • Book 3: just as Ozai is delivering the finishing blow, Aang’s Avatar state is restored and its power turns the fight in favor of the boy.

The last “death” though, is much more important than the others.

Aang has been struggling with his insecurity for the whole series, and even though he has grown significantly since he woke up from the iceberg, his final attempt to hide shows that he is just not ready yet.

Just like he did 100 years before, the Avatar hides in his little bubble (like a literal stone bubble) and hopes that the storm will pass.

Fortunately for us, the hero doesn’t stay metaphorically dead for long.

The Ordeal: Apotheosis

The word “Apotheosis” literally means divinization in ancient greek, and it describes the process of taking something or someone ordinary and making it “god-like”.

So what happens to our hero once he becomes a god? Does he start throwing thunders and banging mortals like Zeus? Does his hair turn a different color like Goku’s? Does his wife’s and kid’s ashes get attached to his skin like Kratos? Does he get Conqueror’s Haki like Luffy?

Well maybe, depending on the story you’re writing… but that’s not the point. The change in the hero is not as much in his appearance but rather in his power and worldview.

Once the protagonist is reborn with newfound power, (according to Campbell in The hero with a thousand faces) his body and his mind stop obeying the rules of nature.

“Pain and pleasure do not enclose him”

– The hero with a thousand faces

He becomes so strong that he appears to be invulnerable to his enemy’s attacks, and so wise that his feelings and fears are not in the way anymore. His new strength gives him courage and his courage motivates him to give everything he has to give.

The hero with a thousand faces

After regaining the Avatar state, Aang has the power he needs to defeat his foe. The big and strong Firelord realizes that he cannot compete with the Avatar’s godly powers of and runs away.

Just as the power imbalance was in favor of the villain before, now it helps the hero instead.

Aang is after Ozai, he doesn’t give him a chance to breathe, he doesn’t let any of his attacks succeed, the Firelord is pinned down to the ground (by the ground itself) and it’s all over for him.

The voices of all the previous Avatars come out of Aang’s mouth, telling Ozai that he is sentenced to death for his crimes:

“Firelord Ozai, you and your forefathers have devastated the balance of this world. And now you shall pay the ultimate price.”

– Avatar The last airbender

Aang raises his harm to finish him and… SIKE!! The Avatar decides to let him live.

The rebirth

This is the part where the “new worldview” I mentioned before comes into focus.

The ordeal isn’t always a test of physical strength or psychological resilience, it’s a process that changes the hero to his core. The protagonist that begins the battle will not be the same person that ends it.

Just 2 episodes before Aang was trying to contact his previous lives in order to seek their advice. After a long chat with the other Avatars, he thinks that he must fulfill his duty of killing the Firelord even if his conscience tells him that he shouldn’t become a murderer.

TV show on amazon

Now, after being dead and born again, after experiencing the power of a god, he rebels against his past lives (who had taken control of his body) and takes the decision to spare the enemy himself.

“Even with all the power in the world, you are still weak”

– Avatar The last airbender

Those words of the Firelord would have hurt the Aang of before who considered himself fragile and unsuited for being the Avatar. But this boy is different, he doesn’t listen to Ozai’s insults and proceeds to do what he thinks is right.

We get another mini death-and-reborn moment when it appears that Ozai’s spirit is taking over and corrupting Aang’s, but no worries, he manages to overcome this obstacle and defeat his enemies once and for all.

As Ozai collapses to the ground we learn that Aang has found a peaceful solution that doesn’t involve killing: he took Ozai’s firebending away, now he cannot use it to hurt others anymore.

Just like Ozai has lost his power, our hero, Aang has gained the physical strength and the confidence he needed to be the Avatar.

So… that’s all! This is the Ordeal of the hero’s journey. A bunch of ups and downs that keep the audience on the edge of their seat. A series of trials that take a good but incomplete character, and turn him into a real hero.