“I am Wan Shi Tong, he who knows ten thousand things, and you are obviously humans; which, by the way, are no longer permitted in my study.”
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not a big fan of anime. Friendly, furry tree spirits aside who like umbrellas aside, I’ve never understood the appeal. That said, I began watching Avatar: The Last Airbender with my husband, who is a fan of anime. Three or four episodes in, I became hooked. Aang and his group of friends are endearing, the story is magical and unique, and the world of the story is fascinating. In the same way that Harry Potter engenders the imagination, Avatar makes you think about our own world in relation to the make-believe, and it even allows you to match your background and personality with that of the different tribes. For example, I know very well (after taking numerous online quizes) that I’m a Ravenclaw and a waterbender. So there! So, forget about the travesty that was the 2010 film adaptation directed by He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named – in fact, forget I even mentioned it right here. The show is brilliant. Period.
The second season of a follow-up series, The Legend of Korra, is currently airing on Nickelodeon. The story centers around the next Avatar in line after Aang, a waterbender named Korra. While it touches on a few of the same themes, it just isn’t the same experience for me. The world is similar, although “newer” and less rough, but the characters are older and more annoying. I don’t feel the same love for Korra and her friends as I did for Aang and his. We’ve been dutifully watching new episodes on Hulu, but without much interest. Lo and behold, I was quite pleased the other night when we sat down to watch the latest episode and one of my very favorite characters made an appearance: his name is Wan Shi Tong, and he’s an owl. Well, more to the point, he’s a spirit owl. Oh, and he’s a librarian. And his ancient library is amazing.
In the world of the original Avatar series, the ancient library was largely a mystery – no one truly knew where it was located, as it had been buried in the sand for centuries. Team Avatar (Aang and his buddies) needed to do some research about blah blah plot details, so they go out to look for it in the desert. In the end, they are only able to locate the structure because they happen to see a Knowledge Seeker enter the building through an opening in the desert sand. What is a Knowledge Seeker, you ask?
Yes. Fox spirits. These knowledge seekers do exactly that: they travel the world looking for books to add to the ancient library. Even after the library is buried and all but inaccessible, they still fulfill their duties. They also assist patrons when they need to locate information. In these ways, they serve as both acquisitions and public services staff members, and they all serve Wan Shi Tong – the head librarian.
Wan Shi Tong is the worst example of a librarian: he’s mean, territorial, single-minded, and spiteful. He’s the reason why the library is buried in sand to begin with, and after he encounters Team Avatar, he’s the reason the library vanishes all together from the human world. That he takes the form of an owl is no coincidence; owls often symbolize wisdom, which is a fitting animal for a librarian spirit. The barn-owl mask is also an interesting choice, because it gives him a stony, ghostlike expression that changes little. The actor who voices Wan Shi Tong, Héctor Elizondo, does so with a slight haughty grace, but it’s subtle and not cartoony by any means.
His innate distrust of humans reminds me of a prickly, old librarian who has dealt with the public far too long and can therefore no longer trust them. (Remember: Librarians are Mean.) His main concern is the collection and protection of knowledge, which in librarian-speak makes him a kind of archivist. If that’s the case, he’s one of those paranoid archivists who dislike the idea of their precious rare materials getting in the wrong hands; soon enough, the “wrong hands” become “anyone’s hands.” Wan Shi Tong allows Team Avatar to peruse his library, but forbids them to use anything they find to aid them in the war against the Fire Nation. Spoiler alert: Team Avatar totally goes against Wan Shi Tong’s rules and as a result the ancient spirit Shuts. Down. Everything. Out of spite, he pulls his library from the human world forever. All that knowledge, gone.
Or that would have been the case, had The Legend of Korra not revisited Wan Shi Tong and his library in the recent episode “A New Spiritual Age.” Korra and her friend Jinora travel to the Spirit World, and Jinora makes her way to the library. Wan Shi Tong is even more hostile to humans, if that’s even possible, and he becomes angered when Jinora (who is Aang’s granddaughter btw) challenges his Under No Circumstances rule when it comes to humans entering his library again. In a wonderful moment, Jinora tries to trick Wan Shi Tong into honoring an old rule of his: that a human may remain in the library if they offer new knowledge in exchange. (Awesome loophole is awesome!) While Wan Shi Tong does not fall for this, claiming it’s an “old rule”, he does allow Jinora to look around, but it turns out that Wan Shi Tong is in league with Korra’s enemy, her uncle Unalaq. Gasp shock! (Remember: Librarians are Also Evil.)
Despite his evilness, Wan Shi Tong and his library make for an incredible story. He’s a fan favorite character from the first series for a reason: you feel respect, awe, irritation, and terror at the idea of an incredibly old, intelligent, and diligent being who wants nothing more than to cultivate a mass of knowledge and keep it safe. His thirst for knowledge makes him lower his guard twice – once for the Avatar, and again for his descendent – and every time he does so, his belief in the folly of human-kind is reinforced. “Humans don’t want to learn,” he thinks. “They want to destroy.” Is he wrong? Is he so very wrong for wanting to keep his books – the very things he is meant to protect – out of the equation?
Mean librarian, old librarian, evil librarian – sure. But what about tired librarian? Been there, done that librarian? Besides – how bad can a character be if he hires fox spirits to staff his awesome library?
So you tell me: are you a fan of Avatar or The Legend of Korra? What do you think of Wan Shi Tong? How much do you want a pet fox now?
- TV: The Legend Of Korra: “The New Spiritual Age” (avclub.com)
- Impression – Avatar: The Legend of Korra Book 2: Spirit, Episode 10 (mahoutofu.wordpress.com)
- The Legend of Korra S02E10 – Review (weeklycomicbookreview.com)