Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Library

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What is the purpose of knowledge? Does it exist to
benefit others purely for scholarly reasons, solely for the betterment of
society, or can it be used for less than honorable purposes?  “The Library,” offers a few suggestions on
this question along with setting up the greatest emotional tragedy for Aang since
his discovery of the Air Nomad genocide.
The episode borrows a dash of archaeologist and desert mystery from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost
Ark
and also lays the foundation for one of the darkest jokes in the Avatar world.

It all begins with Aang demonstrating the musical acumen
of Earth Kingdom gophers who respond to music with their own matching
octaves.  It’s a subtle foreshadowing of
the main part of the episode, finding something much larger and interesting
just beneath the surface.  It’s quickly
decided that the gang will enjoy mini-vacations in the down time as Aang
proceeds with his bending education with Toph and Katara.  It’s Katara’s chance to choose, and she
selects a tropical-like location called the Misty Palms Oasis.  In Aang’s pre-frozen in time heyday, it was a
fine resort centered around a massive glacier of ice.  When the group arrives, they discover things
have changed.

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The peak of ice that once dominated the oasis is
barely the size of a shed and the town has the run down feel of any tourist
town that reached its peak popularity a generation or two ago, and now hangs on
out of some base necessity.
Disappointed, the group head into a nearby establishment and run into Professor
Zei, the head of the archeology department at the University of Ba Sing Se. Zei
is quickly established as a man of science and knowledge, who has been on a
multi-year quest to discover a fabled library built by a spirit of knowledge,
Wan Shi Tong, which contains all knowledge ever recorded.  Once Sokka realizes that information useful
for the defeat of the Fire Lord might be contained within it, he dramatically announces
that for his vacation, they’re going to the library.

As Team Avatar along with their new scholastic
friend exit to hop aboard Appa, they discover linen wrapped sand benders
standing about the air bison.  Professor Zei
dismisses them callously and they flee, but once again, the episode has elected
to foreshadow future, larger events with smaller elements.  The sand benders will return.  Appa soars over the endless desert with all
eyes peeled for a massive library building of domes and spires.  In a concise commentary on projecting normal
expectations on to those with disabilities, everyone leaps with excitement when
Toph suddenly exclaims she sees the library before reminding everyone she’s
blind.  It’s one of several gentle nudges
through the episode of her blindness playing against the forgetfulness of
others.

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Eventually, they locate the library by its highest
tower, the only visible piece of the building above the desert’s sand
dunes.  Toph elects to remain with Appa,
as the others descend into the library via a rope through a window.  We truly get to see the parallels between “The
Library” and Raiders of the Lost Ark
as the Ark of the Covenant at this moment, as both feature a long lost mystical
object (library/ark) which contains incredible knowledge and power, lost in a
desert.  Similarly, when both Team Avatar
and Indiana Jones discover their location, it requires accessing them by
climbing down a rope.  However, thankfully
for Team Avatar, there isn’t a massive number of snakes awaiting them
below.  Instead, it’s a massive owl
spirit, Wan Shi Tong.

Wan Shi Tong, well voiced by Hector Elizondo (you
might remember him from Pretty Woman
as the hotel concierge), is anything but welcoming.  The spirit complains that humans only want
knowledge for the benefit of getting the edge on other humans, not for their
own betterment, and hence, are forbidden from the Library.  The last, unnamed, human was none other than
Admiral Zhao, who discovered the location of the Moon and Ocean spirits in the
library (we also learn he destroyed the entire collection on the Fire Nation –
which might have also hurt the human standing for patronage).  Sokka quickly promises Wan Shi Tong that they’re
just for the sake of knowledge and Aang vouches for this.  The spirit, with some doubt, agrees to let
them look around in exchange for knowledge, and each member of the party offers
up a document or text in their possession.

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Not long into their search, Sokka discovers a cryptic
document concerning the ‘darkest day in Fire Nation history,’ accompanied by a
date.  A nearby fox spirit, one of the
servants of Wan Shi Tong who work to bring the knowledge to the library, guides
him and the others to an observatory where they discover the date in question
was a solar eclipse.  It’s an event that
renders fire benders powerless, a matter that would make the defeat of the Fire
Lord extraordinarily feasible.  Sokka
triumphantly acknowledges this fact only to discover Wan Shi Tong behind
him.  Furious that once again humans had
used his library to gain a benefit over others, the knowledge spirit decides to
remove the library from human access forever, causing it to begin to sink
beneath the sands of the desert.  At the
same time, he informs the group that they will never leave the library alive.

Outside, Toph and Appa had been sharing quiet
somewhat awkward moments.  The desert
sands render her vision fuzzy, nearly blinding her as much as her sight, and
the sudden descent of the tower catches her by surprise.  In an incredible display of earth bending,
perhaps the greatest she will exhibit in the series, she single handily
anchors the library in place with her hands to keep it from disappearing with
Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zei inside.  

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The tension of the episode accelerates as inside the
library, Sokka and Aang race to use the observatory to find out if another
solar eclipse will occur between then and the arrival of Sozin’s Comet, while
Wan Shi Tong chases after Katara and Momo with the intent to kill them
both.  Outside, sand benders appear and
begin to trap Appa, as a helpless and essentially blind Toph struggles to run
them off and not let the library slip beneath the dunes.  Unable to do both, Toph is forced to choose
to save everyone inside over saving Appa, who is dragged away by the sand
benders in ropes.  Inside, Sokka and Aang
successfully discover a date for an eclipse and make their escape with Momo and
Katara, as Professor Zei refuses to leave the object of his years long
quest.  

Safely outside, Toph crumples to the ground,
exhausted physically and emotionally, allowing the library to sink out of
sight.  Head in hands, she’s barely able
to make a sound as Aang realizes Appa is missing and asks what happened.  Aang’s face is frozen in a mixture of shock
and horror at the realization that his closest friend and only connection to
the past has disappeared.  The episode
ends.  

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“The Library,” offers an answer to the question
asked at the start of this recap, that knowledge exists for the betterment of
humanity, not to serve as a weapon or tool to be used to the detriment of
others.  When Wan Shi Tong confronted
Sokka in the observatory, Sokka argues that they will use it for a just cause
against an evil enemy, but the knowledge spirit quickly refutes his claim, “You
think you’re the first person to believe their war was justified?”  The price paid for the knowledge of the
eclipse is two fold, the loss of Wan Shi Tong’s library to humanity, and the
loss of Appa.

In the same manner, the forbidden knowledge gained with punishment also reflects the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, the price of gaining that fruit of knowledge resulting in the loss of Eden to humanity.

By violating Wan Shi Tong’s
promise, the payment of both losses became unavoidable. 

As a note, the library of Wan Shi Tong returns in Avatar: The Legend of Korra, where in a
parting glimpse, we see the skeletal remains of Professor Zei, surrounded by
stacks of books.  His choice to remain in
the library, a true believer of knowledge’s sake, setup one of the darkest
twists of the Avatar universe, as his parting comment to Aang was none other
than, “I could spend an eternity in here.” And so, we learn, he did.

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