Many scholars have traced the evolution of the Agni Kai from a semi-spiritual mortal combat practised in the Fire Empire to a common system of duelling, noting its broadening of scope from a Firebenders-only sport to a martial system open to non-benders as well as benders of all elements. Most scholars place the origin of this development as during the early Zuko Dynasty (A.A. 114). However, the authors of this thesis believe that we can definitely disprove the popularised, romanticised version of the story which has become so sadly common among scholars who should, we fear, apply more intellectual rigour to their research.
In the first place, the Emperor Zuko himself was notoriously opposed to casual use of the Agni Kai. (Readers are referred to our publication Father-Son Relationships in the Fire Nation Royalty during the Roku-Aang period, where we reference the Iroh Letters.) How can it be considered likely that he would himself have engaged in one? Although his activities during the Ozai War are well known, his later reforms of Fire Nation firebending practices showcase a spirit and mentality far removed from the pursuit of aggression. It is no secret that he is known to be one of the most peaceful rulers that the Fire Nation has ever produced. How, therefore, can scholars believe the stories of him practicing the form himself after taking the throne? His last known battle with the Princess Azula (see our thesis on Born To The Inferno: A Study of Genetic Insanity In Sozin's Descendants) was clearly a "police action" of sorts.
Secondly, the character of Empress Mai is well known to history as one of the most politically astute and diplomatic women to have ever married into the Fire Nation bloodline. Such a woman would surely never have participated in a public drama in such a way! We acknowledge the work of our fellow researchers (in particular the Mai, Edge Empress: Biography From Behind The Scenes produced by the MetaBei group at Sokka University), but must nevertheless thoroughly reject all claims that this woman, this Empress, would have disagreed with her husband in public, and still less taken the matter to an official duel. With all respect to the legend, this simply won't do.
In fact, this whole piece of "history" can be easily traced back to its mythic roots. What we have here is a much earlier part of a lunar/solar myth cycle which has been grafted onto later historical events in an attempt to provide a personal and emotional explanation for what was clearly a political move by Emperor Zuko to help break the socio-political power of the firebending tradition and reintegrate it with the disciplines of other nations. This is contemporaneous with the rebirth of Fire Nation spirituality and the "Fire Sage Mania", as it has come to be known, not to mention the "Great Dragon Return" phenomenon. Given all these circumstances, can we truly blame history for revisionist thinking and supplying this popular legend in order to appease the masses?
The particular form of the legend is hardly new, and has appeared in other forms in other works of literature and art. (Readers may recollect the famous "You Rise With The Moon, I Rise With The Sun" love duet from the Siege of the North opera cycle.) The actual thematic principle of the solar male being dominant in the initial confrontation, then losing his control of the situation when the lunar female disrobes, is well-established. The granting of concessions varies between versions of the legend, ranging from sexual congress and the engendering of sons to, in this case, the permission for non-firebenders to take part in an Agni Kai.
We trust that this article will provide sufficient evidence for future readers to take a more nuanced view of the whole incident, and one less prone to what could be termed a "personal reading". For how does it in any way serve history to present a romanticised view of the facts, or serve our Glorious Emperor to suggest that changes in regal policy may have been due to personal reasons? Surely the Emperor Zuko himself would be shocked and horrified to hear that future generations believe that, rather than making a judgment for reasons of political and social harmony, he threw away his principles at the mere sight of his wife's bare bosom.