Phantom Hourglass has one of the weirdest endings of any Zelda game to date. After Link restores power to the legendary Ocean King, he gives this cryptic message: “The time for you to return to your world is near. The door to your world is about to open.” There wasn’t really anything in the game prior to this that suggested any kind of crossing between worlds. For example, the beginning of the game had you enter the Ocean King’s sea just as if it were an ordinary region of the ocean.
Players the world over collectively scratched their heads, and as one can imagine, endless debate issued between various interpretations of this quote. Is the world of the Ocean King a dream world like Koholint Island from which Link and Tetra awaken in the ending? Or is it a different world spatially speaking, rather like Termina from Majora’s Mask? Are we even to take this delineation literally at all? This edition of Themes in Motion analyzes Phantom Hourglass in part through the eyes of literary criticism but also from a theorist’s perspective in order to answer this puzzling question once and for all.
The story opens with a recap of The Wind Waker which, rather than focusing on the cataclysmic conclusion of the game, which resulted in Link and Tetra’s search for new lands to inhabit, focused instead on the characters of Link and Tetra themselves and their journeys together. That the intro in a sense leaves the thematic development of Wind Waker behind it should signal to us that Phantom Hourglass as a whole represents a thematic departure from its predecessor. I’ll explore how the themes differ later, but I hope you keep this idea at the center of your mind as you read further.
At any rate, after the opening crawl finishes, we find that Link and Tetra are at sea and that they are about to enter a cursed sea that’s haunted by the mysterious Ghost Ship. The crew is scared, but one of them pipes up with the comforting remark that the region is supposed to be ruled by the Ocean King, the guardian of the sea, and that he should offer his protection to any passing ships. The tension here is between the unknown, represented by the Ghost Ship, and the safety of the known world, represented by the Ocean King. The Ghost Ship’s association with darkness and foggy seas, in contrast with the Ocean King’s relationship to light and the sun, further underlines the symbolism.
When Tetra goes to investigate the Ghost Ship, she lets out a scream, and Link attempts to climb onboard to rescue her, only to slip into the ocean. Even after washing ashore later, his only goal is to track down the Ghost Ship and save Tetra. We see that trope that we so commonly find in Zelda stories: Link needs to track down his lost friend. Of course, he’s also been torn away from the ship, its crew, and his purpose of finding a new land, set adrift in an unknown sea. Meanwhile, Tetra exists in stony stasis aboard the Ghost Ship, unable to interact with the physical world. These central ideas of “separation” and “displacement” form the foundation for the story of Phantom Hourglass.
Many of the other characters aside from Link and Tetra find themselves in similar states. The most prominent examples are Ciela and Grandpa Oshus, both of whom we later learn have split off from half of their souls in order to escape imprisonment and in the process lost their identities and their full powers as the Spirit of Courage and the Ocean King, respectively. Their displacement is even more profound than Link’s in that they exist as disembodied shades of their former selves.
When we meet Linebeck, he has apparently been trapped in the Temple of the Ocean King for some time, away from his ship and from the safety of the port village on Mercay. Astrid on the Isle of Fire has been sealed away in a cave beneath her house, and her assistant Kayo has left the world of the living. We discover that Romanos’s father has abandoned his wife and child, and later we journey across the Isle of Frost to rescue the kidnapped Aroo. It’s a bit more subtle with these characters than with Link, Ciela, and Oshus, but all of them reflect this state of separation to some extent, either with regard to their loved ones or to a place of safety.
For each of these characters, separation is a negative state that Link must work to reverse (when possible). He needs to free Linebeck, Astrid, and Aroo from their imprisonment, Romanos’s needs to step up and take responsibility for his family, Ciela and Oshus need to reunite with their other halves, as does Link need to reunite with and restore Tetra to her former self.
You might have noticed that Phantom Hourglass begins in much the same way as The Wind Waker – Link initially set out to rescue his captured sister, Aryll; now he’s off to find Tetra. However, midway through his journey his adventure became less about reuniting with his sister and more about dealing with the past as represented by the sunken Hyrule.
Here’s where Phantom Hourglass starts to show a shift from the themes established by Wind Waker. Instead of presenting the world of the Ocean King as a remnant of the past that must be discarded, Phantom Hourglass focuses instead on the fact that Link and Tetra must return to where they began. The end result is inevitably the same – they are sent back to the world from which they came – but the reasons are much different.
Whereas Ganon represented the temptation to obsess about the past and the all-consuming desire to keep things suspended in perpetual familiarity, Bellum represents more of a pressing distraction from a current task. Bellum does not kidnap Zelda with any particular goal in mind aside from the assimilation of her life force in order to curb its appetite for power. His threat to the characters is precisely that he has displaced them from where they belong. So, while Wind Waker‘s message was that we should move on from states that have passed away, Phantom Hourglass turns that theme on its head and instead proposes that sometimes we need to put things back the way they were.
The use of the word “world” has often been cited as absolute proof that there’s some kind of interdimensional travel going on here, but it doesn’t have to be so. Wind Waker described the Great Sea in relation to the sunken Hyrule as the “world above the waves.” The Curtain of Twilight, though they were just areas of Hyrule covered in darkness, were described as a “world of shadows.” When Link shrank in size during The Minish Cap, Ezlo declares that he has entered “the world of the Minish.” It seems that in the Zelda series, “worlds” refer to states of being as often as they refer to literal planes of existence.
I think the debate about what we’re supposed to understand about the ending of Phantom Hourglass and its implications of separate worlds kind of misses the point. Sure, Link and Tetra have been spatially displaced by the arrival of the Ghost Ship, but more importantly they’ve been removed from their quest to find a new land. Instead of referring to a literal “other world,” the ending could instead refer to a metaphorical division between the troubles of the Ocean King’s sea and Link and Zelda’s original task of finding a new land. The Ocean King is not sending them back to their home dimension, but instead back to the place where they started. And we see that when they return, it’s to exactly the same spot where they began, both spatially and temporally.
Their journey has left them with a sense of coming back to themselves. The Ghost Ship whisked them away to the deepest reaches of the Ocean King’s sea, but now they’re back where they started, with only their experiences and the exhausted Phantom Hourglass to show for what they’ve gone through. It’s very much like our own lives – sometimes distractions can cause us to stray from our main path through life, but when we find our way back we’ve often gained much from those distractions. And when that happens, we know we’re more prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead.
Themes in Motion is a regular article series that plans to cover the major story themes of every game in the Zelda series. As you read, please consider your own reactions to the games’ stories and feel free to reply in the comment sections with any thoughts you may have that differ from or go beyond what is explained in the article. Entries in the series will release every other Tuesday, each covering a different theme.