Posted on September 07 2012 by Djinn
The land of Hyrule has long been divided into various themed regions, originally with common themes such as mountains, deserts, and lakes. However, as the series developed, more distinct and fantastic regions were added, giving players a larger amount of variety. In particular, there was the relatively recent addition of a sky realm, which has brought this region of Hyrule into the mythology of Zelda. In the early games, the land of Hyrule only consisted of the overworld and the more dangerous underworld (the dungeons), but with the release of Ocarina of Time came more distinct individual regions of the normal overworld with their own themes. The sky was a region that started like this, but over time became a larger aspect of the series, and is now just as common a part of the setting as Hyrule Field or Lake Hylia.
The very concept of a sky realm is not at all new to the fantasy genre. In fact, having some form of city or island floating above the clouds has become something of a fantasy staple. Floating societies seem to portray a very magical or advanced people that are far greater than the people who live beneath them on the surface. This was evident in Chrono Trigger, when the player reached the forgotten past when the most magical society in the history of the planet lived on floating islands suspended above the clouds during the ice age. In this society, only those gifted with magic were allowed to live in the floating cities, while the ordinary people lived down on the surface. In the Lunar series, the city of Vain was both a city of magicians and a magic school that also only allowed those of magical capability within. Even when the city of Laputa appeared in Johnathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, it was largely inhabited by scientists and scholars who used their advanced knowledge to keep the city floating. In all of these appearances, only the greatest and most advanced of people would ever have the chance to rise above the surface world of the common man. In other instances, the denizens of these places were a chosen people beloved by the gods and raised to live in their own divine realm.
The concept of a society or advanced group living above the clouds is not at all unique to fiction, and actually can be seen far earlier; there are many mythological origins to this theme, found in many systems across the world. In most cases the sky is the realm of the heavens, a home of deities, who might look down upon the ordinary, mundane world of mortals below. Examples of this include Heaven, which oftentimes sits atop a kingdom of clouds; Asgard from Norse mythology, located at the top of the world; and the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish mythology, a race who traveled in ships that sailed in the sky. The sky was the last place that humans learned to travel to, and that only came in the modern era, and therefore — because only the greatest of people could reach it — often the sky was looked at as an unreachable realm that only deities could inhabit. The gods live above in the heavens and watch over the world from above.
So there is an extremely prevalent association of sky dwellers being advanced, superior, or even divine in both fiction and mythology. And why not? Even today in our modern world of technology and advancement, the very idea of living in the sky is still completely within the world of fiction. Our advancements have yet to make this possible.
As I said earlier, in Ocarina of Time, the land of Hyrule was first split for the first time into several elemental themed regions. This started out with the division between the Kokiri who lived in the forest, the Gorons who lived in the mountains, the Gerudo living in the desert, the Zora living within the water, and the Hylians who inhabited the field. Each race living within Hyrule was given an elemental theme and a corresponding dungeon that maintained that theme. This concept was later expanded to include more regions such as ocean and tundra. But later on in the series, the realm of the sky was added for a wind theme. The sky, being the most difficult region to access for a people who were not technologically or magically advanced, was initially reserved for very special places normally only seen near the end of a game, when Link had advanced enough or uncovered enough secrets to be capable of surviving or even visiting such an area. Again, reaching the heavens was something that had to be aspired to, something that was otherwise unobtainable by ordinary people.
The first game to introduce a sky region was Four Swords, with the floating Vaati’s Palace. This was a wind themed dungeon that served as the final area of the game. Vaati’s Palace appeared again as the Palace of Winds in Four Swords Adventures, serving as the final stage in the final realm the player reaches.
The Minish Cap expanded upon the sky dungeon concept by including a sky-dwelling people and village as well as an overworld area set above the clouds. Along with this new Wind Tribe and their tower home, the Cloud Tops was also implemented for Link to explore. This went with the now commonplace Zelda tradition of elemental themed races such as the Gorons or Zora, and would be the first time a sky area in Zelda was an actual separate region and not simply a dungeon to be conquered. The Wind Tribe was said to be a very magical people who elevated themselves into the sky by way of their own magical capabilities. They were the advanced people who were responsible for the creation of both the Wind Ruins and the Fortress of Winds found earlier in the game, in keeping with the common theme in fiction and mythology of only advanced or important people living in the sky. The Cloud Tops and its dungeon, the Palace of Winds, serve as the final area before the game’s climax.
The same concept of a sky realm with its own inhabitants was present in Twilight Princess as well, in the late-game dungeon called the City in the Sky. The City in the Sky brought back the same sense of wonder and mystery by taking a different form than that which was seen in previous games. No longer appearing as a temple or floating version of an ancient Earth structure, the City in the Sky resembled a highly advanced technological innovation, though still very old and rundown. The look of the dungeon hinted at a very technologically advanced past far in the history of Hyrule that had since been lost to antiquity. The only information on this lost era were a few rumors and legends told by various NPCs later in the game. The inhabitants of the City in the Sky were even more mysterious, a strange small birdlike race called the Oocca. Their origin and purpose remain a total mystery that has never been elaborated upon.
Unlocking the way to the futuristic-looking and technologically advanced city was the culmination of a series of quests involving a mechanical Temple of Time, deciphering an ancient language, and strange magical devices. According to a scholar named Shad, the city was a well-known location that used to maintain contact with the Royal Family, but had fallen into decline and out of contact in recent years. Only a special messenger from the heavens carrying a certain magical device called the Dominion Rod had the authority and ability to travel between the two realms. Furthermore, it seemed the very existence of the city was important to the founding of Hyrule itself.
Each time it appeared in the Zelda series, the sky realm was a very advanced location that could only be entered near the end of the game, serving as an important and late location.
The realm of the sky was greatly expanded in Skyward Sword, made into a major part of the setting and story, and with its own gameplay. No longer a specific elemental realm to visit or a dungeon to complete, the entire game revolved around using the sky as a means of transportation across the land, much like the Great Sea of The Wind Waker. The map was divided into the land below and the open sky above, which contained many floating islands and secrets. The starting village, several minigames, and even a boss fight, were also found in the sky. In this game, Link came from a village built upon a floating island high in the sky. Now the entire sky region was an integral aspect of the gameplay, requiring the player to constantly move between the sky and surface to travel through and around Hyrule.
Interestingly enough, the portrayal of Skyloft within Skyward Sword presents an inversion of the typical floating civilizations often seen within fantasy storytelling. In almost every other appearance of the idea, the floating civilization contains all the mysteries and wonders, and is advanced and mythical compared to the mundane world below. However, in Skyward Sword the floating islands of Skyloft are the ordinary and calm lands of typical villagers and a peaceful lifestyle, while the land below the clouds is a wondrous land containing all the fragments of an ancient mythical civilization with knowledge and capabilities far beyond that of the people that live above.
Overall the realm of the sky is not a new idea within the fantasy genre, nor was it particularly original even in its first few appearances. However, the amount of themes borrowed from not only conventional fantasy storytelling but real world mythology cannot be ignored. Dreaming of reaching the sky has been a goal in the imaginations of many authors and storytellers for thousands of years and it is no surprise that the Zelda series would include such elements, although later on the series definitely managed to achieve a unique spin on the sky area by completely reversing the entire concept, creating the very non-advanced Skyloft. Clearly, the sky realm of Zelda has evolved from just another of many themed regions and dungeons to an advanced concept involving the history of the establishment of Hyrule. From that point it has been solidified as an important aspect of the landscape of Hyrule, and it will no doubt remain as such for future games in the series.