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Forgotten Realms vs Avatar The Last Airbender: Best Fantasy World

The importance of worldbuilding cannot be overstated enough in the fantasy genre, where authors play god as they invite audiences to inhabit their constructed universes. Narnia would not nearly so memorable without its talking animals, nor Lord of the Rings without its elves, dwarves and hobbit holes that kicked the genre into high gear. Fantasy stories cannot be disentangled from the worlds they inhabit, which makes them half the draw, yet we will endeavor to attempt to find the best fantasy world today.

As always, I’m joined by fellow fantasy author, and all-round academic extraordinaire, Daniel E. Olesen, to put this issue to bed.

Matt: Despite my long-standing running water policy for any world I’d like to inhabit, I’m going to break from tradition and emphatically state Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar from henceforth out) is the pinnacle of fantasy worlds. If by chance you are somehow a fantasy fan who has not seen this wonderful show, the world in question is analogous to ancient China where the nations are divided by the four elements they follow: Air, Fire, Earth and Water. There, certain individuals known as benders are able to control the elements through martial arts forms and literally bend the elements to their will.

And that there is what makes Avatar so superior to other worlds: The simplicity of its core conceit. Yes, there’s a lot more to the world, what with the hybrid animals and the spirit realm, but at its core it is exceptionally easy to grasp. Hell, the show intro is pure genius as you see each of the bending types and can instantly understand the world and central conceit in just a few visual seconds. [link]

How one could dare to compare this to a world that already has “forgotten” in the name, I don’t know, but I await with baited breath.

Daniel: It’s so easy, I don’t even know if I should start by pointing out how Forgotten Realms is superior or how Avatar is inferior. But let’s begin just by pointing out a few great things about FR. Arguably its greatest advantage is clerical magic. For anyone who isn’t a massive geek and thinks clerical involves paperwork, clerics in FR are priests and champions of the gods of the FR cosmos. In return for their service, these clerics are granted actual, freaking magic by their chosen god or goddess. Even better, a lot of this magic focuses on healing.

Broke a leg? The healer will fix it up. Lost an eye? Spell of regeneration. They can even raise the dead, provided the body is intact. There is a limit, of course; the clerics don’t have inexhaustive access to this magic, and they often charge for it. Even with these limits, however, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where all the diseases and injuries can potentially be healed? Compare to our medieval age, where a small rift could grow infected and kill you. In Avatar, only waterbenders has access to healing magic, for lack of a better term. This basically locates all of the magical healing at either the North or the South Pole. That’s pretty inconvenient. In FR, any village can have a cleric able to do at least basic healing magic. I haven’t mentioned how you get to skip the long healing process either. Six weeks for a broken leg? Try six seconds, and you’re back to playing medieval football again.

Matt: I must say, you have me at a disadvantage, sir, since you are clearly familiar with Avatar and I’m busy googling this FR you speak of. And this comes from a lifelong nerd who grew up playing D&D (albeit only in Krynn). Which does not really help your argument since I would posit that Avatar’s popularity proves its superiority; so much so that I just discovered “earthbender” is built into google’s spell checker. That’s when you know you’ve made it as a fantasy author: When dictionaries begin including your made up words.

But, as the sales of my novel demonstrate, popularity does not always equate quality (at least that’s what I tell myself at night), so I will deign to pick apart your argument instead, which really seems to boil down to: Hey, there’s healing.

I in no way mean to take away from the importance of healthcare, especially in ancient times when a splinter could wind up ending you through infection, but there’s a good reason why no one is writing thrillers about doctors just doing their jobs. Because it’s so boring! Like as interesting as a retirement account boring - yes it’s a good thing to have for the future, but it’s not fun in the moment.

Fantasy by its very nature is meant to be fun, which Avatar had in spades. Sure your entire tribe might get wiped out by an ambitious firelord, but at least you’ll have a blast first.

Daniel: I am only getting started. Clerical magic, and the fact that it is available to anyone who joins the priesthoods of the deities, is another massive advantage over Avatar. Sure, bending is fun - for the small, privileged elite. The power to bend seems to be genetic, both in terms of being limited to a particular ethnicity and certain bloodlines within those population groups; the fact that all the members of the royal family of the Fire Nation are powerful firebenders would support this. There are some odd undercurrents of keeping ethnicities divided and promoting an aristocracy in Avatar.

FR is far more egalitarian. A child of the lowliest peasant can rise to great power, both personally and within the hierarchy of their chosen priesthood, purely based on their personality, devotion, and service.

You mentioned fantasy is meant to be fun. FR has races too, but not of the unnerving kind as Avatar has, but the fun kind! Elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs, dragons! It’s a world of wonders to live in FR. The pervasiveness of magic makes for amazing creations, creatures, and structures. And the existence of half-elves prove that diversity can be harmonious in FR.

Matt: Elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs and dragons, you say? My, how diverse. And also so very derivative. You should have just opened by saying it was a Tolkien clone with clerics and be done with it.

I do find your diversity dig at Avatar to be a little spurious for a show that featured non-white, non-European cultures for a rare change (opposed to the abominable movie, mind you), but your point about elitism vs egalitarianism cannot be ignored. Yes, the world of Avatar would be a blast… so long as you’re a bender that is. While the random punter on the street probably benefits from bending in some way, the vast majority of the populace does not demonstrate these special abilities, and probably has the same backbreaking job and short lifespan expected in a pre-industrialized nation. So in that sense, the greatest good is done for the greatest number of people in your Forgotten Realms realm

But the fantasy genre is built upon the idea of individuals being special: All a farmboy needs is a sword to save the world, and all orphans are really deposed princes/ princesses brimming with an inherent magic waiting to be discovered. Yes, they may be out for the greater good in saving the world, but the only reason a fantasy hero is out on his/ her quest in the first place is because they are inherently different from the general populace. In fantasy, elitism is king.

Which is the long way for me as an American to say you and your European socialism paradise can go suck it. Sure you’ll be outliving me in your Forgotten Realms with your superior, low cost healthcare, but I’m going to keep arguing for policies that benefit the elite because I immediately assume I’m going to be one of them. Because I am special, dammit!

At least that’s what my mother tells me.

Daniel: I was going to talk next about the amazement of a world where you know that deities and afterlife is real, the sheer certainty and calm in life that this affords everyone, but I honestly don’t feel compelled to keep arguing; being called a European socialist on the topic of healthcare makes me feel so smug, I couldn’t possibly top that. Now pardon me, I am going to go slay a dragon in Forgotten Realms as any quintessential fantasy hero should; let me know when Avatar affords such heroics.

Matt: I, in turn, intend to whirl around my living room in my best facsimile of bending until I’m wounded enough to need your free Forgotten Realms healthcare.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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