Koholint Island in Link’s Awakening is unlike any other place we’ve seen in the series. It exists in a dream world, thus in an entirely abstract setting – a fantasy within the broader Hyrule Fantasy, one might say. But more interestingly than that, it takes place in Link’s own dreams, thus inside Link’s mind, giving us a unique perspective into a character that Nintendo traditionally distances from his audience.
It’s not 100% canonical fact that Koholint Island is a manifestation of Link’s psyche by any means, but considering that so many of its characters seem to be twisted representations of familiar faces from previous adventures and its locales carbon copies of places in Hyrule – from Mabe Village to Kanalet Castle to the Tal Tal Mountains – I’m firmly convinced that the theory is true. With this idea as the starting point, how then can we interpret Link’s Awakening as a reflection of Link himself?
Through you fulfilled the Hyrulian prophecy of the Legendary Hero and destroyed the evil tyrant Ganon, the land of Hyrule enjoyed only a precarious peace… Ever vigilant, you decided to journey away from Hyrule on a quest for enlightenment, in search of wisdom that would make you better able to withstand the next threat to your homeland.
Interesting that even though Link has conquered the Embodiment of All Evil, he still recognizes that he requires further training and experience in order to conquer future threats. More intriguing still, this plotline is never fully explored – we know nothing about his training in the foreign lands he visits, and this incarnation of the hero never again confronts any enemy of Hyrule after his journey (that we know of).
As we will see, the “journey of enlightenment” is the crux of the story, and encompasses more than Link’s adventures to these other countries – the true enlightenment arises from his experiences on Koholint Island, and the resultant growth. Whereas before the heroic quest was an epic struggle against an outside evil, Link’s Awakening turns towards the interior.
One might ask, “But what could a hero worthy of the Triforce possibly have to grapple with within himself?” Remember, though, that in A Link to the Past Link was but a child. The deuterocanonical Ancient Stone Tablets posits that by the time of Link’s Awakening six years have passed, and in that time Link would have passed from early childhood into mid-or-late-adolescence. Just as The Adventure of Link presented new challenges for Link as he grew older, so too does Link’s Awakening further temper his mettle as the hero. Instead of serving as a trial of ascendancy within a nation in chaos, however, Koholint Island represents an encounter with the disorder of inmost self.
What a relief! I thought you’d never wake up! You were tossing and turning… What? Zelda? No, my name’s Marin! You must still be feeling a little woozy. You are on Koholint Island!
From the get-go, Link finds himself trapped in a world of similarities. He wakes up from a troubled sleep to the sound of a young woman’s voice – an scene borrowed straight from A Link to the Past. To top things off, the girl in question is a picture-perfect double of Princess Zelda, and her father resembles Link’s uncle in much the same way. We can tell immediately that something significant is at work, here.
As soon as Link tries to leave the house, Tarin stops him, saying:
Well, Link, ya finally snapped out of it… Name’s Tarin… Hope yer feelin’ better… What? How did I know your name? You think it’s weird, eh? Well, I saw it on back of this shield!
In this world of half-familiarities, the first untarnished element we encounter from Link’s waking world is his name, engraved on his trusty shield. That such a clear memory – his shield – manages to surface in the midst of such an uncertain place serves as subtle foreshadowing of the nature of Link’s connection to Koholint. We see that while the island mimics the world he knows, he is somehow a foreigner. He is a reflection of his real self, not a natural denizen of this weird world.
Once he leaves the warmth and hospitality of Marin and Tarin’s house, he finds himself in Mabe Village, the spitting image of his own Kakariko, complete with a Flying Rooster monument in the town’s square. We don’t really get many glimpses into his thoughts over the course of the story, but I imagine him starting to realize that maybe these resemblances are more than just coincidence, and he has walked into a mirror world much like the Dark World of A Link to the Past. Unlike the Dark World, however, which symbolized the darker side of humanity, Koholint represents Link’s own internal state.
At first this reflection seems paradisaical – Mabe Village is at peace, Marin a carefree maid not waylaid by evil, and the island itself full of beauty and a strong sense of home. There are children playing in the streets, and barricades keep the monsters away from the townspeople. It is in many ways an ideal existence: a world constructed after his memories of Hyrule, but that doesn’t need saving, that doesn’t need Link to be the hero. Isn’t that what he’s always wanted? Isn’t this the perfection he has fought so hard to build?
If there’s anything we know about Link, however, it’s that he can’t sit still for long, and indeed, curiosity soon drives Link to recover his sword, which lies on the beach at Toronbo Shores. From the moment he finds it, washed up along with the tide, the tone of the story begins to shift. The musical score takes off into an arrangement of the series’ most beloved theme and the passive sea urchins that lie dormant along the beachhead fade away in favor of more dangerous beasts.
It is in this moment that the mysterious Owl appears, leaving Link with some cryptic words:
Hoot! Hoot! So you are the lad who owns the sword…Now I understand why the monsters are starting to act so violently… A courageous lad has come to wake the Wind Fish… It is said that you cannot leave the island unless you wake the Wind Fish…
Here the illusion begins to fall apart, and Link begins to realize that Koholint is not merely a sheltered version of Hyrule. The monsters are a real threat, and the barriers that surround the village, as well as those that enclose the island itself, are not protective but entrapping. The only way to break out of the cage is to battle through the demons and awaken the Wind Fish – whatever that means. To complete this task, Link must take up the mantle of the hero once more – his discovery of his sword on the beach is the symbol for this moment of realization.
The Owl eventually guides Link to the Eastern Shrine, where he finds a curious inscription on the wall. Though the darkness in the room initially renders the text unreadable, after lightning a nearby torch the words are illuminated for him:
To the Finder:
The Isle of Koholint is but an illusion.
Human, monster, sea, sky;
A scene on the lid of a sleeper’s eye.
Awake the dreamer, and Koholint will vanish
Much like the bubble on a needle.
Cast-away, you should know the truth!
It’s no accident that the musical instruments capable of opening the way to the Wind Fish are connected to the Sirens of ancient lore, who were known for enchanting and seducing sailors to their deaths. This time, Link’s journey is more than just a battle against evil monsters – it’s a battle within himself, against the enchantments and illusions offered by his experiences with the islanders.
In this way, Koholint works as a reflection of his outlook on the world, while the Wind Fish, that ancient sleeping god, trapped within an unbreachable egg, represents the potential of awakening – not only literal waking as from sleep, but also waking to the realities of the world.
As he wanders through the forest early on in his adventure, Link encounters a mischievous raccoon who by some trick is able to scramble the passageways of the forest, blocking his passage. Only by bringing a mushroom cocktail to Syrup the Witch can he finally thwart the raccoon’s trouble-making, but in the process he discovers that the raccoon is actually Tarin:
The last thing I kin remember was bitin’ into a big juicy toadstool… Then, I had the darndest dream… I was a raccoon! Yeah, sounds strange, but it sure was fun!
Interestingly, Tarin relates his wacky mushroom trip to a “dream,” inviting comparison to Link’s dream state. Drug references aside, we can see that while under the influence of the toadstool, Tarin existed in a false reality which, while “fun” was ultimately a mere distraction. His raccoon form proved to be empty facade, and the maze-like distortions to the forest paths kept Link from reaching the key he needed to unearth the first of the eight instruments.
This scenario reflects what we can imagine Link must be facing: Koholint Island may seem like a fun place to be, but ultimately he must find a way to leave the island in order to return to Hyrule, where he belongs. We see in the background a conflict between the innocence of a childlike state of play versus a more adult world of responsibility, reminiscent of the six years through which Link journeys towards his own maturity.
The contrast between innocent bliss and learned understanding appears in spades over the course of the game. In particular, the Wind Fish’s Egg, perched atop Mount Tamaranch, looms over everything as the central image of this conflict. Not only is it an symbol of youth and latency, it is a physical partition keeping the Wind Fish sealed away from the outside world.
We see another example, however, in the island children:
Dude! You’re asking me when we started to live on this island? What do you mean by ‘when?’ Whoa! The concept just makes my head hurt!
These children have no concept of life before Koholint, probably due to the fact that as denizens of a dream world there really is no such thing, but the problems run deeper than that – the notion of time itself escapes them. They are a reflection of the static fantasy existence represented by Koholint, a life lived in a bubble, where such grown-up concerns have no place. Why inquire about life outside of paradise, outside of that perpetual state of play?
Link himself faces the same question, only as an outsider, and as the one who is capable of waking the Wind Fish and ending the dream, he is actually in a position to answer it. The answer doesn’t come easily, though, for after he discovers Koholint’s true nature the Nightmares begin to raise the troubling moral dilemmas that come with the prospect of extinguishing the dream world.
Okay, listen up! If the Wind Fish wakes up, everything on this island will be gone forever! And I do mean EVERYTHING! But you will be lost too, if the Wind Fish wakes! Same as me, you are in his dream…
Is the necessity of waking worth the price? Can Link condemn this paradise to oblivion simply to assure his restoration to reality? Can he risk losing himself in the process? We can imagine what must be going through Link’s mind as he faces what must seem an impossible choice between his freedom and Koholint’s continued existence.
Link’s not alone in the journey. Just as Zelda serves as a powerful virtuous influence in the Hyrule games, Marin encapsulates the image of a child reaching beyond innocence for that mysterious transcendence that is adulthood:
I wonder where these coconut trees come from? …Tarin says there is nothing beyond the sea, but I believe there must be something there… When I discovered you, Link, my heart skipped a beat! I thought, this person has come to give us a message…
Marin is not like the other residents of Koholint in that she dares to dream of what lies beyond the sea, and recognizes Link’s appearance as a fulfillment of those dreams. She can comprehend the notion of time, of the past, but also of the future, as we see in her deepest wish:
If I was a sea gull, I would fly as far as I could! I would fly to far away places and sing for many people! If I wish to the Wind Fish, I wonder if my dream will come true.
Link, some day you will leave this island… I just know it in my heart… …Don’t ever forget me… If you do, I’ll never forgive you!
To her, Link is a symbol of hope, a sign that she has not foolishly misplaced her faith. For Link, her desire for awakening, for escape from the island, assures him that pursuing his own ambition to free the Wind Fish from his slumber will not in fact bring about the tragic end of the island but instead lead its inhabitants to freedom along with him. As long as he doesn’t forget them, they will live on in his memories.
The cracking of the Wind Fish’s Egg, a symbol for birth and enlightenment, symbolizes the final step in the journey, the essential moment where Link leaves behind the carefree existence of Koholint in favor of the real world. When he defeats DethI, the leader of the Nightmares, he encounters the Wind Fish, who commends him for his fortitude:
Young lad, I mean… Link, the hero! You have defeated the Nightmares! You have proven your wisdom, courage and power!
Note here the evocation of the Triforce’s three virtues: Power, Wisdom, and Courage. The Wind Fish recognizes Link as having accepted his maturity and crossed the gap between a “young lad” and his newfound state as a fully-realized “hero.” He has conquered the darkness – this time, the darkness within himself, the shadow of his own doubts, manifested through DethI’s various incarnations: Agahnim and Ganon chiefly among them, previously his enemies in Hyrule, now figures in a more personal battle.
The Wind Fish affirms Marin’s insistence that Link hold tight to his memories of the island, of the innocent fantasy state he has managed to grow beyond, leaving us with the central message of Link’s Awakening:
When I awaken, Koholint will be gone. Only the memory of this dream land will exist in the waking world. Someday, thou may recall this island. That memory must be the real dream world.
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.