Avatar: Iroh’s Reputation With Fans Vs. In-Universe COULDN’T Be Any More Different

An easy contender for a fan-favorite character from the cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender is Iroh, the sage uncle to Fire Prince Zuko who guided his nephew to discover his true destiny. Though Uncle Iroh started the series as a seemingly doddering old man, the audience came to respect and admire him as (secretly) one of the most noble figures in the series' cast. That's exactly why it's easy to forget that the world of Avatar at large does not share the fans' opinion of him. To them he's a lowly disgrace, and that's just the way he likes it.

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The story that fans know is how Iroh was a great military general in line to succeed his father Azulon as the Fire Lord, ruler of the Fire Nation. During a 600-day siege on Ba Sing Se his only son, Lu Ten, died in battle, and the distraught Iroh retired to mourn. At some point, he became a Grand Lotus in the Order of the White Lotus, an organization which sought to transcend national differences. He still held this position as he joined his nephew Zuko on a journey to find the Avatar — one that Iroh helped transform into a journey of self-discovery. But the Avatar world at large knows almost none of that.

iroh sad, crying at his son's grave

In the same episode that the audience learns of Iroh's legendary siege, it's also revealed that his reputation is in tatters. He's referred to as the "once-great General Iroh" and taken prisoner. A later episode, following his helping Team Avatar and imprisonment by his own people in the Fire Nation, the prison warden Poon mentions Iroh was once "the pride of the Fire Nation" and "the Dragon of the West." He then ridicules Iroh as fat, filthy and disgusting during his imprisonment.

Even during Iroh's heyday in the Fire Nation, Azula referred to him as "His Royal Tea-Loving Kookiness," and following the death of Lu Ten, Azula considered him a "quitter and a loser." Each individual instance of ridicule toward Iroh establishes the ridiculer as unfairly antagonistic against a beloved character, but they also show how the world outside the main cast and viewers sees Iroh. By the harsh and militaristic standards of the Fire Nation, he is past his prime and completely unlike the beloved Ozai, and by the standards of nearly everyone he met in exile, Iroh was just a harmless old man. And this is exactly how he wanted it.

At every turn, Iroh benefits from his opponents underestimating him. He escapes the Earth Kingdom soldiers and his Fire Nation prison alike because he played fully into the expectation that he was incompetent or addled. With a complete lack of ego, Iroh thrives in a world state where few truly understand the power and sharp mind he wields, and it's unlikely he went on to correct anyone's opinion even after the war. He just wanted to reclaim his tea shop and live a humble life playing Pai Sho, and even to the extent he involves himself with his nephews' politics as the Fire Lord, it is always in a distant and removed manner.

The disconnect between what fans know to be true about the character and what his world at large believes about him just adds to the dimension that makes Iroh so great. Once exalted as the Dragon of the West, it shows just how dynamic the history of Avatar is that public perception could change so starkly. The man thought to slay the last dragon in existence was in truth their protector, and such a disparity perfectly embodies yet another valuable nugget of wisdom the sage has to offer us. Your true ideals and actions matter far more than the beliefs others hold about you. In the words of Iroh himself, "Pride is not the opposite of shame, it's source."