• Daniel Kephart

Toph: Moving Heaven and Earth

"You've seen nothing once, you've seen it a thousand times."

Katara and Zuko boast the two most most impressive heroic journeys in Avatar (sorry, Aang). The young blind girl Toph, on the other hand, changes very little over the course of her two seasons on the show. There's a reason for that: The young blind girl rejects the heroic journey altogether.


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.


Toph, the greatest Earthbender to ever live, has her arrival foreshadowed early in the second season. The powerful Earthbender King Bumi tells Aang that he will learn to control the power of Earth from a warrior who is a true master of "neutral jing."


What is neutral jing? Well, oddly enough, it is non-action. Bumi describes neutral jing as "doing nothing," while other characters in the show suggest that it is more akin to the act of listening. What people say often differs, though, from how they act--and there is perhaps no better example of neutral jing than simply watching the actions of Toph, neutral jing's greatest master.


As any viewer of Avatar can attest, Toph is hardly fond of "doing nothing." The young Earthbender is a fury of temper and drive that makes Zuko look mild-mannered by comparison. Toph picks fights, goes on adventures, and is never afraid to make a bold move in the name of friendship or romance. We might be left scratching our heads, then, if we accept Bumi's definition of neutral jing as applying to Toph. The shoe just doesn't fit (which is appropriate, since Toph doesn't wear shoes).


If we think of Toph as a master of non-action, on the other hand, things become much clearer. Most of the other characters on the show, particularly Aang and Zuko, are reactive--they shift in order to address the circumstances surrounding them in life. They choose the adaptive path, altering their course as the world dictates. Toph utterly rejects this kind of thinking. Toph charts her course and moves heaven and Earth rather than deviate. She teaches Aang how to be an Earthbender by emphasizing the importance of the unshakeable will. More importantly, Toph teaches Aang how to live in accordance with a set of higher principles--which we can see echoed in Aang's refusal to shed the Phoenix King's blood in their final duel.


This unshakeable will is why Toph is both blind and capable of bending metal. The Earthbending prodigy's single-mindedness conceals important developments from her figuratively in the same way her blindness literally obscures her vision. Toph doesn't keep track of appearances, and for this reason she is especially vulnerable when things are up in the air (again, literally or figuratively). Toph's disregard for appearances also allows her to simply rely on the tangible feelings of reality. Toph bends metal not because she is more powerful compared to past Earthbenders, but because she is not deceived by comparisons at all.


Toph moves heaven and Earth because she is unconcerned with the motions of either.


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