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General Iroh's Entire Backstory Explained

Above all else, Avatar: The Last Airbender has depth. The world of Avatar is, in fact, a world: Each character we encounter has their own story, their own problems, and their own way of getting through the day. The wars they wage, the communities they build, and the futures they fight for are hugely rich as a result, and unlike any other all-ages fantasy series around.

In the world of Avatar, everyone from Prince Zuko, villain for much of the series, to orphaned freedom fighters boasts a deep backstory. But even within this complex collection of characters, General Iroh stands out as an especially impressive creation. The one-time Fire Nation general has, by the time we meet him, committed to a life of balance and peace — but getting there wasn't easy. Though he provides a calm counterbalance to Prince Zuko's brashness, Iroh's pacifism and wisdom arrived after years of loss and struggle. Learning why and how Iroh soured on his homeland years before he set sail with his nephew is one of the great pleasures of this spectacular series. We're here to celebrate the man who wouldn't be Fire Lord: The one and only General Iroh.

Heir to the throne

Nothing comes easy in Avatar. So it goes with General Iroh, whose considerate nature came to him late in life. Iroh was born into the Fire Nation royal family, the firstborn son of Fire Lord Azulon. From the day he was born, he was heir to the throne of the imperialist nation — and for a while, he lived up to its bloodthirsty ideals.

Iroh was born to a world already at war, decades removed from Fire Lord Sozin's genocide of the Air Nomads. As such, Iroh was immersed in the Fire Nation's propaganda from a very young age: As Aang would encounter himself in a Fire Nation school, Iroh learned that the Fire Nation was "civilizing" the world by bringing its greatness to the farthest reaches of the globe. While he was always possessed of a casual demeanor and frequently balked at his younger brother Ozai's naked aggression, Iroh dutifully followed through on what was expected of him. He became an incredibly talented firebender and joined the army, eager to prove his prowess.

A gifted soldier

Like his formidable forefathers, Iroh proved to be a masterful tactician. His time as a general was marked by a series of grand conquests and martial victories which furthered the Fire Nation's goals considerably. At this time, Iroh committed himself to total war, just as his ancestors had. Battle wasn't just something he was good at — it was his highest ideal.

Indeed, for a time, Iroh even believed himself to be divinely ordained in his quest to bring the entire world under Fire Nation rule. Years after his change of heart, he spoke of a vision he had as a young man: Himself, conquering Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom. The idea of sacking that city was ambitious, even by the standards of his expansionist homeland. Ba Sing Se, which translates to "impenetrable city," is a vast city-state surrounded by three formidable walls. The city had never fallen to an invading force — but Iroh believed he'd be the one to change that. This vision set him on a path that would  change his life forever.

The siege of Ba Sing Se

Iroh had become a legend by the time he marched on Ba Sing Se. In addition to his accomplishments on the battlefield, he'd become known as "The Dragon of the West," as he was widely believed to have slain the last living dragon. This was held to be one of the most impressive feats a firebender could achieve, and though Iroh had actually let the dragons he encountered live, his renown was such that no one had reason to doubt the story. Thus he was entrusted to lead the siege of Ba Sing Se.

Taking over the Earth Kingdom via its capital had long been understood as the final obstacle on the road to global Fire Nation rule. Iroh led his forces to the city's outer wall and began a siege that lasted for 600 days. Iroh was, in fact, able to breach the city's outer walls and lead his troops into the massive municipality's farming district. The Earth Kingdom generals who were guarding the wall surrendered, and Iroh sent a triumphant letter home. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.

But the breach came at a terrible cost. Iroh's only son, Lu Ten, was killed by Earth Kingdom forces. Devastated, Iroh ordered a retreat, ending the siege for good.

Finding himself

Iroh's power-hungry younger brother Ozai saw an opportunity in Iroh's tragedy. Ozai met with their father, Fire Lord Azulon, and argued that he should be made next in line for the throne. After all, Iroh no longer had any heirs, while Ozai had young Zuko and Azula — and besides, Iroh's shameful retreat rendered him unfit for leadership. Azulon was so offended by his son's lack of compassion that he ordered Ozai to kill his own firstborn son, so that he might know Iroh's pain. To protect Zuko, Ozai's wife, Ursa, hatched a plan to kill Azulon and place Ozai on the throne. After it was carried out, she was banished for treason. Ozai became Fire Lord, and Iroh accepted his new role without a fight. 

Rather than return to a capital where he was no longer needed, Iroh traveled the world in search of greater meaning. Upon confronting the hardships of the world, many of them wrought by the Fire Nation, Iroh began to see the humanity in those he had long considered enemies. He began to absorb the teachings of the other nations, incorporating them into his own philosophy of harmonious living. He returned to the Fire Nation a changed man ... only to find his nephew walking the same violent path he himself had once traveled.

Guiding Zuko

Iroh tried fruitlessly to temper the ambitions of his young nephew. Raised to believe in the never-ending glory of the Fire Nation and desperate for his father Ozai's approval, Zuko could not be bothered to listen. He saw his uncle as an old fool, someone who had quit on the Fire Nation out of personal weakness. To Zuko, obsessed with proving himself worthy against his brilliant younger sister, Iroh represented his greatest insecurities.

Despite this, Iroh held a soft spot for the young prince, doting on him as if he were his own son. Foolishly, Iroh caved to the preteen prince's request to sit in on a war council with the Fire Lord and his generals. Being young and impetuous, Zuko spoke out against a particularly bloody battle plan that hinged upon the intentional sacrifice of Fire Nation battalions. Zuko excoriated the old general for exploiting soldiers' patriotism — and was immediately met with his father's fury. Fire Lord Ozai demanded his son engage in an Agni Kai, a Fire Nation duel for matters of honor.


Believing that he was going to face the general, Zuko eagerly agreed to enter into an Agni Kai. When he arrived in the dueling arena, however, he was shocked to find his father facing him. Zuko might have criticized the general, but by doing so in Fire Lord Ozai's war room, he had most grievously insulted his father. Terrified, the prince refused to fight. Ozai viewed this as further disrespect, branding his son a coward before burning his face and banishing him from the Fire Nation. 

Ozai told Zuko that he could return to the Fire Nation on one condition: That he find and capture the long-lost Avatar. Iroh, grasping the sheer cruelty of his brother's actions, offered to go along to help his nephew on this seemingly impossible quest. Iroh spent the next several years urging Zuko to cool his heels, rightfully noting that Zuko had the rest of his life to search for the Avatar. Zuko viewed Iroh's casual demeanor and repeated requests to relax as utter laziness, and continued to endanger his crew and himself in a headlong sprint across the world.

Capture and escape

Iroh's leisurely attitude did cause trouble on occasion. During a stopover in the Earth Kingdom, he relaxed in a hot spring while his nephew urged him to get back on board their ship, so that they might continue their hunt. Iroh won the argument, and Zuko allowed him to relax a while longer. Unfortunately, he fell asleep ... and awoke to an attack from Earth Kingdom soldiers who recognized him from the siege on Ba Sing Se. They captured him, chained him up, and began the long journey to the Earth Kingdom capital.

Along the way, Iroh dropped markers of his passing for Zuko to find and follow. He even came close to escaping on his own after managing to convince a soldier to loosen his handcuffs. With a dazzling display of firebending, Iroh broke free and attempted to escape by rolling down a mountainside. He was ultimately recaptured, with the soldiers deciding to smash his hands so that he could not firebend at all. Before they could hurt the old general, however, Zuko intervened. He freed his uncle, and the pair successfully escaped.

Life as a fugitive

Having escaped the Earth Kingdom soldiers, Iroh and Zuko were free to pursue the Avatar to the Northern Water Tribe. But the war that met them there saw them reduced to fugitives from their own country.

The crux of the conflagration lay between Admiral Zhao, a well-respected Fire Nation figure, and Prince Zuko. The pair had clashed several times, neither one gaining the upper hand. Eventually, Zhao attempted to assassinate Zuko — but Zuko was able to escape, and stowed away on Zhao's ship. Iroh, aware of Zuko's survival, played the bereaved uncle and traveled with Zhao to the Northern Water Tribe. During the attack on the North, however, Zhao very nearly threw the entire world into chaos when he killed the mortal embodiment of the moon spirit. As waterbenders become more powerful at night when they are aided by the moon, Zhao decided that destroying the moon spirit would end this advantage forever.

Believing that Zhao had doomed the world, Iroh attacked him and his crew. Still a warrior of legendary skill, Iroh was able to incapacitate all of Zhao's soldiers. Though the moon spirit was restored by the actions of Princess Yue and the Fire Nation forces were turned back by a massive show of Aang's power, word spread of Iroh's attack upon his own countrymen, making him just as unwelcome in the Fire Nation as his nephew. 

Finding meaning

Iroh and Zuko rid themselves of identifying clothes and insignia, even shearing away their traditional topknots. Dressed like Earth Kingdom civilians and hiding their firebending abilities, the pair traveled across the countryside incognito. Ultimately, they landed inside the city of Ba Sing Se, the very same metropolis that Iroh failed to capture years before. They were able to sneak into the heavily guarded and secretive city using fake passports that Iroh procured via his membership in the Order of the White Lotus. A secret society, the Order is a transnational organization devoted to knowledge of the wider world and universal truth.

Iroh and Zuko began working in a tea shop. Iroh quickly gained renown for his exceptional tea-brewing skills. While this brought Iroh no end of satisfaction, Zuko became increasingly upset by what he saw as their stagnation. He wanted to get back to hunting the Avatar, which was, he still believed, the only way to restore his honor.


Zuko did cross paths with the Avatar in Ba Sing Se, nearly stealing Appa, Aang's sky bison, in order to lure him into a trap. But ultimately, he let Appa go. At last, Zuko was beginning to understand that honor was not something to be bestowed upon him by his father, but a quality to determine on his own. Iroh was immensely proud.

Unfortunately, Zuko's sister, Azula, managed to track down Zuko, Iroh and the Avatar in Ba Sing Se. Well aware of her brother's insecurities, she tempted Zuko into attacking the Avatar with the promise of their father's love — a temptation Zuko could not ignore. As Zuko fought alongside his sister, Iroh guarded Aang, allowing Team Avatar the time to make their escape. Azula took Iroh into custody and brought him back to the Fire Nation while giving her brother total credit for the defeat of the Avatar. The Fire Nation received both siblings back with celebration: The Avatar was dead, Ba Sing Se had finally fallen to the Fire Nation, and Iroh, the traitor, was behind bars. 

But Iroh wasn't out of ideas. Locked away, he began a workout regime that would allow him to escape. He also nudged Zuko, who furtively visited his uncle in an attempt to assuage his own guilt, into studying his own ancestry. Slowly, Zuko pieced together the complex history of his country — and the truth of his own destiny as a peace-maker.

Taking on the Fire Nation

Newly buff, Iroh managed to break out of prison. At the same time, Zuko, having finally realized his rightful place at the Avatar's side, became Aang's firebending master. The end of the war drew closer, eventually bringing Zuko and Iroh back together again. Zuko was overcome with shame as he begged his uncle to forgive him — but as Iroh made clear, he was never angry with his nephew, only sad because he thought "he had lost [his] way." Free of his father's expectations, Zuko had at last become the young man his uncle had always known he could become.

When Zuko suggested his uncle become Fire Lord, however, Iroh refused. Such an act, he argued, would be seen as yet another ambitious power grab in a family history filled with them. Instead, he suggested Zuko take up the mantle, providing a peaceful path forward for the Fire Nation. As Aang set off to face Ozai and Zuko traveled to the Fire Nation capital to duel his sister, Iroh and the other members of the Order of the White Lotus gathered in a camp outside Ba Sing Se. At last, Iroh broke into the walled city, as his vision foretold so many years prior — but as a liberator, instead of a conqueror. 

Following his nephew's coronation, Iroh remained in Ba Sing Se. There, he owned and operated the Jasmine Dragon, the city's finest tea shop.


Iroh's time in the Earth Kingdom was far from peaceful. Beyond the fact that he was a fugitive from the world's most powerful army (and persona non grata in many of the places he attacked as a Fire Nation general), he was being personally tracked by his terrifying and methodical niece Azula. The heir to the Fire Nation throne was a sadist, and she carried her father's cunning and ambitious personality. She took great pleasure in embarrassing her brother and striking fear into other people, so she threw herself into finding Iroh and Zuko to bring them to justice. 

While Zuko and Iroh fled across the Earth Kingdom they were closely pursued by the wild-eyed princess, and occasionally had to clash with her. Azula nearly tricked them into boarding a ship back to the Fire Nation, but a loose-lipped crew member gave the game away by referring to the pair as "prisoners." Iroh and Zuko realized they were being captured and managed to escape. 

In another fight with Azula and the Avatar, Zuko was very nearly beaten. Iroh stepped in between his niece and nephew and was badly wounded before Team Avatar and Zuko worked together to repel Azula's attack.    

Reconciling with Zuko

Even an enlightened man might feel a bit of animosity toward the person who put him in prison. But Iroh was not the type to hold a grudge. He merely waited his nephew out, knowing that his ultimately good nature would bring him around to apologizing. He spent his time in jail pointing his nephew in the right direction and preparing his body for the eventual war with his family. 

When Zuko and Iroh did reunite, after a prison breakout but before the old general's final act of redemption, Iroh explained that he could never be angry at Zuko. When the young prince opted to side with Azula in the hopes of winning their father's affection, Iroh didn't feel rage. He simply felt sad that Zuko had strayed from the path to self-fulfillment that he'd set out on during their time in Ba Sing Se. While Zuko was ready to beg for forgiveness and work to earn his uncle's trust, Iroh assured him that no restitution was necessary.

After the war

Iroh settled into his more peaceful life as Zuko worked on setting the world to rights. Though he frequently wanted the advice of his longtime mentor, Zuko felt it was best to leave Iroh alone. His uncle had finally attained the peaceful life he'd spent decades striving for, and Zuko felt that bringing Iroh back into the politics of the Fire Nation would be selfish. 

However, Zuko taking the entirety of the Fire Lord mantle on himself did not sit well with the still-young ruler. He exhausted himself and was brought to Iroh to recover. Iroh schooled his nephew on how stubborn and foolish he was being, telling Zuko that he would always be welcome in his uncle's home, no matter what his reason for calling. 

Zuko eventually called in that favor to an extreme degree. When the Fire Lord set out to find his long-lost mother, he asked Iroh to serve as interim Fire Lord in his stead. Iroh's first action as Fire Lord was instituting a nationwide Tea Appreciation Day. He would continue to help Zuko throughout his reign, serving as a decoy for the Fire Lord when secret societies plotted against the new leader and acting as a Fire Nation envoy when the homeland was too hectic for Zuko to feel comfortable leaving his royal seat.  

Spirit guide

Iroh made the decision to leave the world behind and ascended to the spirit plane, where he promptly set up a tea shop. It was there that Avatar Korra encountered Iroh while she was lost on a trip through a dark forest. Much like he had done for his nephew, Iroh helped guide the young Avatar through her more complicated emotions. He preached positivity and control, noting that anger and hate are particularly destructive on the spirit plane. 

When Korra was at a low point and unsure of what to do, Iroh appeared again and explained that the Avatar is not all-knowing. Just because she is a symbol of the world in harmony, that didn't mean Korra was a god. He said she didn't need to have all the answers on her own and that it was okay to seek help. When Korra revealed that she wanted to talk to Avatar Aang, Iroh pointed her toward a still living Fire Lord Zuko.