The most important lessons don’t always strike immediately. Sometimes, time is required for revelation to sink in. When it does, though. That time only helps to build up momentum to create a truly — and literally — breathtaking moment of realization.
Such is the case in The Dragon Prince. Netflix’s animated adventure lives up to the excitement built by its connections to Avatar: The Last Airbender. ATLA is celebrated for its deep storytelling, broad cast of lovable characters, grand plots, and impactful messages. The Dragon Prince continues this legacy in its own right, building on its ATLA foundation and growing in a fresh and unique way.
What viewers have paid particular notice to is the diverse nature of the characters. Main heroes have varied ethnic backgrounds, strong warriors communicate exclusively via sign language and lip-reading, and lovable teammates have specific gender identities.
These characters end up being vehicles for important lessons about society as a whole and individual groups living within the broad expanse of their — and our — world. Can we not find ourselves able to connect to the cast of The Dragon Prince as different races find themselves defined by the worst among them, all the while wanting peace? Most strikingly, do we not also find ourselves trapped in a cycle of revenge perpetuated by a select few in charge?
“You don’t want to die, and I’m sure they don’t want to die,” young Prince Callum reasons with his father to try and call for peace between humans and elves. It’s a simple idea that really gives onlookers pause. At the end of the day, shouldn’t we all just want to live our lives to the fullest? A shared wish by all races, yet instead we cut it short with wars and bombs.
This is one of the subtle parallels to real life that The Dragon Prince offers. But while this talks about mankind’s acts on a grand, geopolitical, strategic scale, the series also offers impactful messages about groups forgotten not just by the elite few, but by the many common folk all around us.
Ellis speaks to any young child with unflinching love towards any adorable creature when she cares for the injured wolf Ava. Ava already faced terrifying trauma when her paw got caught in a bear trap, and then might have been condemned to an early death when that same leg was amputated. Even with a strong, fighter’s heart, her amputation made her the runt of the litter…in society’s eyes, anyway.
That is where Lujanne enters and teaches everyone otherwise. And perhaps this ties in well with Lujanne’s messages about reality, about needing to accept we are not always seeing the full picture with our eyes.
Ellis, upon being told that Ava should be put down now, flees with the pup in her arms. Alone, afraid, and heartbroken, she cries with her canine friend clutched close in a place known to humans as the Cursed Caldera. In reality, the place is a location of miraculous beauty and wonder.
So is Ava. And Lujanne’s wisdom as a Moonshadow elf helps her see this.
When Lujanne comments on Ava’s beauty, even Ellis herself contradicts this, taught by society that her wolf pup is, at the end of the day, regrettably flawed because of her amputation. But Lujanne corrects this notion.
Though she cannot heal an amputated leg, Lujanne instead helps Ava in another way.
She didn’t need that leg to be happy, the rest of the world did.
Ava, Lujanne recognized, had a fighter’s heart, a determined spirit. Her body didn’t quite match up, but that didn’t matter. If the world would give her a chance, Ava could show things such as an amputation or other physical impairment don’t matter. One little crutch to level the playing field, to at least make society look at her long enough to consider her capable of keeping up, was all Ava needed to prove herself.
Ava herself didn’t need that fourth leg to be strong; she already was, on the inside. Humans don’t automatically see strength if it doesn’t match with their image of it. But it exists fundamentally in our hearts. If that strength persists inwardly, then it can be expressed outwardly if only others will accept that and give it a chance.
But society wanted to see a wolf with all four legs to deem her healthy and happy. Even though she was already “perfect.”
Writing as someone with a physical disability as well, I understand the draw towards things that will totally fix a situation. Ideally, Ava would have all four legs. Ideally, I would have two functioning eyes instead of one…or, half of one. If presented with a way to amend the situation, I would accept it gladly.
In a way, I do have such a solution, in the form of corrective lenses. Perhaps this is my version of the illusionary leg Lujanne granted Ava to appease society’s needs so it could accept the wolf pup. They certainly help, just as Ava’s illusionary leg helps her.
Living with a disability is a complex lifestyle. Both you and the world around you may have different, contradictory definitions of what your condition means. Proud members of the Deaf community see their lives as just another way of experiencing the world; they have their own language, culture, and community, and that community is called Deaf with a capital D as you would capitalize the A in American or J in Japanese.
But in our rush to figure out labels — handicapped, handicapable, disabled, differently-abled, impaired, etc. — it is easy to forget some other equally important details. Specifically, we must consider the strong hearts of those affected by whatever they live with. Legislation and advocates act to maintain a level playing field, and this is crucial because all of society functions best when everyone can participate with dignity.
Ava was prepared to be a part of society and the world Ellis brought her into. But society only saw an injured wolf incapable of bringing anything in and doomed to be rejected by any pack. Yet Ava had all the important ingredients for success within her fighting spirit. And so Lujanne simply did what was needed to make society content with Ava enough for her to let her strong will shine forth.
Even as we navigate the nuanced world of living as a differently-abled individual, The Dragon Prince presents an important lesson that takes its time to really deliver a punch to the gut. Ava was already perfect and she herself didn’t need that fourth leg to be content and strong. Society wanted her to fit a mold. But even with that amputation, she had the same strength of will as any other wolf. Just because something is good for one does not mean it is necessary for all. Individuals carry an inherent beauty and capability in them regardless of any features not matching the nonexistent perfect mold people desperately want to hone for everyone to live by.
This exploration focused on embracing those who are differently-abled as already perfect without needing to conform to societal images of what perfection should be. But The Dragon Prince presents important lessons concerning strong parallels to conflict. This too shall be explored in the future. Thank you for reading, and let me know your thoughts!
Originally published at http://thequiltedatlas.com on February 3, 2020.