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The Legend of Zelda: Mythology and Culture

300px-Golden_GoddessesThe Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the most critically acclaimed videogames ever made. It stands the test of time (no pun intended), remaining as playable today as it was then. Most games in the Legend of Zelda series features a young hero, named Link, who must go on a quest to save the kingdom of Hyrule, its inhabitants, and the eponymous Princess Zelda. Even when Zelda and Hyrule aren’t involved, Link is almost always going on some heroic quest. Though every game features a similar looked green-tunic wearing player-character named Link, they are almost never the same Link.

Note the Legend portion of the title, a term which typically denotes a myth which is understood to have a historic basis. As such, the games in the Zelda series, a staggering fifteen to date, can be understood as part of a larger, often ambiguous narrative, the details of which are kept mostly under wraps at Nintendo HQ in Kyoto, Japan, or as discrete reinterpretations of one core legend. The Zelda series as a whole are not based on one religious or mythological cycle; instead, they draw upon stories and motifs from around the world. During this post Ocarina of Time will be the primary reference point for mythological connections within the series, but I will also be referring to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess in this rambling wall of text. If you need to get a drink right now, I’d suggest something hard.

I: The Creators

The world of Zelda and the region of Hyrule (where most of the games take place) were created by three deities called the Golden Goddesses. They are Din, the Goddess of Power, Naryu, the Goddess of Wisdom, and Farore, The Goddess of Courage. Din shaped the world, Naryu gave it order, and Farore imbued it with life. After their task was done, they departed for the heavens. The Golden Goddesses are an example of the watchmaker argument of design. Essentially, a supreme being or beings created the world, and then left it to flourish. They do not intervene at any point beyond that. This rationalizes the existence of evil in the world with omniscient creators. They simply aren’t around to fix it.

oot-link07The Goddesses are an interpretation of the triple goddess myth. Triple goddess myths crop up frequently in mythology, especially in Indo-European cultures. Examples include the Greek Fates, the Norse Norns, and the pre-Islamic Daughters of Allah. Notably absent in Zelda are any male deities. It is in this regard that Zelda combines both Shinto and Indo-European mythology. In Shinto mythology, the spiritual belief system of Japan, one of the primary kami (loosely meaning spirit or deity) is Amaterasu, the female sun goddess. So, destruction is secondary in the Zelda pantheon, the creation of life is the most primary function of deities. Evil is a purely human phenomenon.

II. Sacred Artifacts

The Triforce is a sacred artifact left behind by the Goddesses when they departed Hyrule, sealed in a hidden dimension of sorts known as the Sacred Realm. Each portion of the triforce was imbued with the aspect of a given goddess, so each portion of it is known as the Triforce of Power, Wisdom, and Courage. The Triforce was shattered by the antagonist of the series, Ganondorf, during the events of Ocarina of Time. Seeking to possess it, he was only able to obtain the Triforce of Power, a theme which has remained consistent in the games following Ocarina of Time (Ganondorf is the constant antagonist of the series, so Ocarina of Time can be understood as very early on in the theoretical “timeline” of the games). It granted him superhuman abilities. To Zelda went the Triforce of Wisdom, and to Link went the Triforce of Courage. The obvious reference is to the Holy Trinity of Christian doctrine, with divinity being represented as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (God (Yahweh), Jesus, and the Holy Ghost). However, the Triforce is a material interpretation of the Holy Trinity specifically as a relic of divinity. Interpretations of Ganondorf, Link, and Zelda being correlated to God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost are left up to the reader.

III. Arthurian Legend

Link’s own journey also parallels Arthurian mythology of the Medieval and Middle Ages. Though he does not wear the iconic shining armor, Link functions as the ideal chivalrous knight. He is a competent fighter, resourceful under pressure, and always places the needs of others before his own. Like medieval knights, he fights in the name of a lady, in this case, Zelda. Parallels might be drawn to the famed Lancelot of Arthurian legend, but remember that Lancelot brought about the downfall of Camelot because he slept with Guinevere (a classic mistake of dipping your lance in the castle’s ink). In this case a more appropriate parallel is Gawain of the epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of King Arthur’s most loyal knights who never let his base ambitions get in the way of the task at hand. For the majority of the series, Link wields the Master Sword, or “The Blade of Evil’s Bane,” a powerful artifact which is a direct allegory for the Sword in the Stone wielded by King Arthur. Link is able to use the Sword because he is “chosen” by it, a hero worthy of wielding it.

IV. Songs Are Power

Link-in-battleMusic has played a large role particularly in recent Zelda games. Link often bears some kind of musical instrument, such as the Ocarina of Time in OoT, and can learn brief songs, to perform actions like alter the flow of time, influence the weather, and teleport from one location to another. We associate music with performance, with ceremony, and with memory. It has been present for much of human history and is likely to remain present for some time to come. The mystical effects of song in the Zelda series are a projection of the very human affinity for music’s influence. We say a song can move us, so why not make a song that can move storms? Zelda answers that question in the affirmative.

IV. The Monomyth

Link’s quest in Ocarina of Time follows the monomyth, or hero’s journey. It starts with his Call to Adventure in Kokiri Forest, where he frees the Deku Tree of its contamination and is then told he must leave home and stop the evil Ganondorf. He also receives Supernatural Aid in the form of the fairy Navi, who accompanies the player throughout the game and acts as a targeting device during combat. Interestingly, Link then meets Zelda, who further educates him on the nature of his quest and the price at stake (everything) in what could be understood as a Meeting with the Goddess. Link undergoes a series of Trials, punctuated by a large gap in time, defeats Ganondorf, and returns home. Without an ultimate boon.

the-legend-of-zelda-ocarina-of-time-virtual-console-20070226043618830_640w Link’s journey is one of self-sacrifice. Because he is a silent protagonist, his mental reactions are left up to the player, and can be thought of as our own, essentially. Link is often an orphan in the series, and this is consistent in Ocarina of Time. Orphaned protagonists allow us to start with a fresh “template” character, without alteration by a mother of father figure. They are the perfect type of character to use in a videogame, because they often come with no familial baggage.

But let’s back up for a moment here. I mentioned a gap in Ocarina of Time. The game starts Link out at the age of ten to twelve. After a few dungeons, we discover that Link is simply too weak as a child to hunt down and defeat Ganondorf. Entering the Temple of Time, holding chamber of the Master Sword, Link pulls the blade from the stone and…wakes up seven years later.

Link has been in stasis in the Sacred Realm for seven years, under the watch of a sage known as Rauru. During Link’s coma Ganondorf entered the Sacred Realm, found the resting place of the Triforce, and shattered it, gaining the portion associated with Power. He then waged war on the kingdom of Hyrule and reduced it to ruins. Now at the age of seventeen, the remainder of Ocarina of Time plays out with the lead-up to and confrontation with Ganondorf. Afterward, Link is thanked by Zelda, who turns out to be a sage herself, for his service to Hyrule, and sent back seven years to his childhood. No one knows that he saved the world seven years in the future, because that future has already been prevented. No one would believe him anyway. Which leads us to…

V: Majora’s Mask: Fear and Loathing in Wonderland

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a succinct and surreal direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, which can be appreciated for its own merits or as part of the larger story. The beginning opens with Link, wandering the wilderness of Hyrule in search of “a long-lost friend” (implied to be Navi), when he is accosted by a being known as “Skull Kid”, an ordinarily unnerving scarecrow-like creature of the forest made even more disturbing by a large mask he is wearing, called Majora’s Mask. He leads Link on a wild goose chase into deep caverns, eventually emerging in a sewer. Link finds himself in Termina, a world very similar to his own Hyrule but existing parallel to it. He quickly discovers that the moon over Termina is falling, and that there are only three days before it makes impact, wiping out all life. If that sounds as bizarre as Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is.  I actually omitted a few details to spare your addled brain.

The threat of annihilation is always present in Majora’s Mask. In order to stop the moon from making impact and stop the machinations of the Skull Kid, Link must reset time at the end of the third day or earlier, returning to the dawn of the first day. Each time, Termina “resets” to 6am, with no knowledge of the reversal. Only Link is aware, returning with whatever items or information you have obtained in the previous three day cycle. And so you watch the world end over, and over, and over.

Gerudo_1Much of the gameplay in Majora’s Mask consists not of stopping the moon directly, but helping the inhabitants of Termina with their own personal struggles in a large variety of what could be called “side quests,” but what I would actually refer to as another aspect of the central quest itself, because they are so vital to the story as a whole. From actions as mundane as stopping a thief from mugging an old woman, to laying to rest the undead king of a ruined civilization, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is as much about saving the world as it is about saving the people in it.

This all culminates in the final battle of the game against the true antagonist, Majora’s Mask, a malevolent, sentient artifact that was actually controlling the Skull Kid. There are twenty four masks to obtain in Majora’s Mask, each with some specific function or functions, many of which are necessary for the complex strings of tasks the player must undertake to help the people of Termina. Masks are a powerful symbol in human history, and like songs, they have been used in both theater and in ritual to symbolize beings, invoke the elements or spirits, or to frighten and amaze. Consider that Majora’s Mask occupies a three day cycle, like the acts of a play, and that Link is a player in the greater tragedy of Termina. The people of Termina are the starring roles, ranging from comedy to pathos. Link must don identities of a myriad array in order to save them; so many that you may be dizzy of masks by the end. As one of the Moon Children implores Link near the game’s close, “I wonder, the face under the mask, is that… your true face?”

VI:  The Others in the Desert

Ganondorf began his career in the Zelda series as a fairly typical antagonist largely due to the constraints of design on the early Nintendo systems. Since his appearance in Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf and his culture have taken on an increasing complexity. Ganondorf is a member of the Gerudo, a desert dwelling tribe of warrior-women based loosely on the Greek mythological tribe of Amazons, an all-female nation of soldiers. The Gerudo have olive skinned, vaguely Arabic facial features and dress similarly to the Bedouin nomads of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Many also dress in the cliché “harem girl” outfits popularized in TV, movies, and cartoons. A male child is only born to the Gerudo once every hundred years (or so we are told), and he acts as the leader of the Gerudo population until his death.

Even though the Gerudo are fascinating they are also highly problematic. It is implied that they may have male offspring with the same regularity as any other women, but kill them. For breeding purposes, we are told that they “go to [Hyrule] to look for boyfriends.” In other words, they leave the desert to seduce men. Despite their fighting prowess, which is probably above and beyond any other race in the series, they are viewed as “Others” because they live in a homosocial environment (not necessarily homosexual, but I am certain that joke was tossed around at Nintendo HQ). The other races fear them and shun them. The fact that they set aside leadership duties to one male offspring every hundred years seems contrary to their social structure, and I suspect it was put in place to imply that the Gerudo are animalistic (The females act as the “harem” of the one male patriarch).

From this challenging culture came Ganondorf, the heir apparent who would eventually seize the Triforce of Power, returning time and time again to sack Hyrule. But why? Ganondorf tells us at the close of another game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. In Wind Waker, implied to take place many centuries after Ocarina of Time, the world has flooded (ala the Biblical deluge and Noah’s ark), and mankind lives on the remaining mountaintops, now islands in a massive sea.

Ganondorf has returned to savage the remnants of Hyrule, and the Link of this title must go on an epic sea voyage to stop him. After battling Ganondorf yet again, he gives up on piece of critical information while his lifeblood ebbs away: “My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.” All of Ganondorf’s actions can be understood as an extension of this jealousy he felt towards Hyrule, which had deemed his own culture as “Other.” That is why he tried to possess the Triforce, and that is why Link has been called upon, time and time again, to defeat him. See where cultural misunderstandings get us?


VII: The Lady

To this point I have made little mention of Zelda, surprising since the series is named after her. The series would be more appropriately referred to as The Legend of Link, but Zelda was first used, so named after the novelist Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald (the creative director for the first Zelda game liked the name for the female lead). And it stuck. Zelda’s function in the series has often been as an aid to Link, helping him during his quest and often coming into some danger near the end of the game, usually captured or incapacitated by Ganondorf or his forces, and Link must save her, the damsel in distress, in the nick of time.

We never hear any reference to her prowess as a government leader, and in the recent Twilight Princess she is referred to as Princess Zelda yet again, when she is clearly the only remaining heir to the throne and would logically be queen. The one clear exception to this is the final battle against Ganondorf in The Wind Waker, where Zelda is actually a computer-controlled character who aids you in the duel against Ganondorf, firing arrows to force him to drop his guard. More of this kind of thing is needed if Zelda is to be able to live up to her Legend.

VIII: Is He Still Talking?

This has been a cursory(!) look at culture and mythology in The Legend of Zelda series, perhaps with a little bit of game reviewing thrown in here and there. After all, I wouldn’t be taking time out of my life to write this article if there wasn’t any game behind all the backstory to hold it up. If your still interested, or have found renewed interest in The Legend of Zelda series, I would suggest starting with Ocarina of Time and moving outward.  There is much more to the Zelda series than I could ever hope to cover here, so the rest is up to you.

Bryce Mainville
Pierce Arrow Blogger

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