Uncle Iroh, from Fool to Sage -- or Sage All Along?

Eric Schwitzgebel and David Schwitzgebel

in draft

Book Three of Avatar: The Last Airbender portrays Uncle Iroh as wise and peace-loving, in the mold of a Daoist sage. However, in Book One, Iroh doesn't always appear very sage-like. We present textual evidence that Iroh's apparent foolishness in Book One is a pose. Iroh is wisely implementing the advice of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi for dealing with incompetent rulers by following peacefully along with them, unthreateningly modeling disregard for fame and accomplishment. We also conduct some experimental aesthetics, comparing the reactions of naive and knowledgeable research participants to selected scenes of Iroh from Book One. We hypothesized that viewers knowledgeable about Avatar: The Last Airbender would see Iroh as wise in those scenes, despite his superficial foolishness, while naive viewers unfamiliar with the series would see Iroh as less wise. However, our hypothesis was not supported: Both naive and knowledgeable viewers tended to describe Iroh as wise in the selected scenes, with no statistically detectable difference in mean ratings. Analysis of qualitative responses suggests that even naive viewers were able quickly to surmise that wisdom lies beneath Iroh’s seeming foolishness.

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