Sokka: The Humble Warrior
"Each of you is so amazing, and so special, and I'm not. I'm just the guy in the group who's regular."
In Avatar the Last Airbender, Katara may be the most prominent water-bender we meet. But Sokka? Easily the most well developed character in the series.
Over the past month, Avatar: The Last Airbender rocketed to the top of the Netflix charts. A decade-and-a-half after its release, the series seems to be undergoing a renaissance. Huge audiences, new and old, are more fascinated than ever with this mythic story of a war between four nations.
Warning: Major spoilers ahead. When we first meet Sokka, he's the sole male warrior of the Southern Tribe, tasked by his father with guarding the tribe in his absence. When a Fire Nation ship threatens his village, plowing through the defensive ice walls, we immediately see the seeds of bravery and loyalty within him. Even as the mighty steel vessel looms over him, threatening to crush him, Sokka stood his ground. Just one man against the world. Armed with a boomerang. However, despite these positive attributes, Sokka harbors a deep concern that he is not strong enough to protect his tribe. He's worried he'll fail his neighbors, and he's terrified he'll be unable to shelter his family. This insecurity, sadly, fuels an arrogant misogyny that initially seems to define his character.
When Sokka is bested and taken prisoner by the all-female Kyoshi Warriors, for instance, his pride refuses to let him acknowledge that he lost due to the Kyoshi's superior skill. Even when the Kyoshi release Sokka, he saunters into their training hall and attempts to save face by proving his worth as a warrior. This tactic goes rather poorly--and our young hero is quickly dispensed with by the better-trained Kyoshi. Humiliated, Sokka slinks away. Sokka's humiliation, though, turns out to be the impetus for personal growth. Faced with shame, he realizes the truth of his insufficiency and chooses humility rather than resentment. Sokka returns to the Kyoshi and asks that they teach him. Under their tutelage, Sokka is transformed from wanna-be warrior to someone genuinely handy in a scrap. Later in the series, when a wayward comet ignites wildfires that threaten a Fire Nation village, Sokka again finds himself feeling useless and powerless. Aang, Katara, and Toph use their incredible bending powers to reshape the world around them. Sokka, with no such powers on his side, can only watch. The young warrior again is confronted with fears of ultimate insufficiency. But Sokka proves that human limitations are the source, not the inhibition, of true heroism.. Upon entering the village Team Avatar saved from a fiery end, he learns that a great master swordsman named Piandao lives there. Eager to become powerful as his bender friends have done, Sokka approaches him, despite the rumors that Piandao rejects all who seek to learn from him. When he faces the master swordsman and his intentions are questioned, Sokka responds not with a snarky quip as he usually would, but rather with a bow. A far cry from the prideful boy we saw two seasons ago, Sokka doesn't use his wit and humor to hide his insecurities anymore. Instead, as he did with the Kyoshi warriors, Sokka adopts a posture of humility. Strikingly, we learn that this attitude is exactly what Piandao was waiting for in a student: A warrior not enslaved to their own pride. But Sokka's encounters with humiliation don't end even when he is a master swordsman. When charged with briefing an army on the invasion strategy for an attack on the Fire Nation, Sokka is stricken with fright and simply botches it. Shaken by this experience, Sokka is overwhelmed with self-doubt. More than any of the other characters on the show, Sokka demonstrates a very human tendency to shrink back in the face of failure.
But when his father is gravely injured during the invasion, Sokka shows his true nature by acting upon his brave warrior spirit and assumes command of the invasion force. This moment, perhaps more than any other, speaks to the depth of Sokka's heroic spirit: In the end, Sokka is not heroic when it looks most impressive. Instead, he is heroic when most concerned about those he loves. Beautifully, Sokka experiences this whole transformation without ever sacrificing the quirks of his personality. The Water Tribe boy still cracks jokes at awkward times, still has a ravishing appetite for food, and still fall in love at the flutter of a pair of eyelashes. Growth, Sokka promises, does not mean the total destruction of an inner identity. Instead, growth stems from tapping into the twin virtues that define a true warrior: Humility and love.
And that's quite a promise.