Twilight Princess continues the tradition laid down by the original Legend of Zelda title as the story of a historic battle between light and darkness, but beneath the samey epic framework is a much deeper narrative: a tale of redemption. In a more direct way than ever before, we follow its world and its characters as they experience their own Fall from Grace, both in an allegorical sense as well as a literal one. If you expected the Grandest Tale Ever back before the game’s release and found yourself disappointed, please read this article. Hopefully it will shed some redeeming light.
Enter the Twilight
My brethren in Hyrule have already had their light stolen by these fell beasts. The entire kingdom has been reduced to a netherworld ruled by the cursed powers of darkness.
The blight will not stop with Hyrule. Before long, the entire world of light will fall into the hands of the king who rules the twilight.
To save this land from the king of twilight, the lost light must be recovered. The three light spirits who have lost their light must be revived.
There is but one who can revive them and redeem this land…
Right from the get-go, Link faces a world in need of redemption – we even see the word “redeem” here – not because Hyrule is full of people who have evil in their hearts and minds, but because it suffers beneath a pallor of darkness. On the surface, it seems like nothing new really, as pretty much every game has him fighting against the threat of the Dark World. Where Twilight Princess differs is that it goes further – it frames the Twilight as the consequence of the land losing its light. The world of darkness is more than just a magical evil that takes form as a twisted reflection of the world of light; this time, it’s the world of light itself, cast beneath a far-reaching shadow.
That the game calls this shadowy power the “Twilight” is significant. The Twilight represents a void of absolutes: though the world is ruled by darkness, it is not composed of evil. Those affected by the Twilight’s influence exist merely as spiritual shades of their former selves. They can still interact normally with the material world, but to Link, who manages to retain a physical form, they are invisible without the aid of his honed wolf senses. Symbolically we can think of this sort of limbo state as evidence that even darkness does not totally destroy – in other words that just because the light has been lost, the people are not beyond saving.
Link isn’t just “rescuing” the land by fighting back the darkness, as he has in the stories previous. He, too, suffers from darkness’s taint, but in a different way than most. It has stripped away his human shape, leaving him with a form befitting of his courage and determination: that of the blue-eyed beast. Though in the Zelda world animals often demonstrate rationality on par with human characters, cast that aside for a moment and consider what an animal transformation might mean. It means that Link has in a sense lost his humanity. He of course retains his inner identity as the hero, but outwardly he has become something entirely different.
Redemption for Hyrule and for Link means the restoration of the light to its rightful place. Though the people can carry on more or less normal (albeit monster-filled) lives, they cannot neglect the importance of the light – representative of the pure, the good, the sacred, and the just. It exists in scattered fragments, which Link must seek out and use to fill the Vessel of Light, just as we must search for glimmers of light in a world that often seems bleak. When we fill our own Vessels – our own spirits – with this purity, we can come to a fullness of life not possible otherwise. In this sense Twilight Princess appeals more than any other Zelda title to religious sensibilities regarding holiness and the spiritual good.
Descent Into Darkness
Twilight Princess‘s message of seeking out the good comes with its share of firm warnings against turning to the evil. I previously discussed the conflicts over the Sacred Realm as the moment of humanity’s fall in the Zelda world, culminating with Ganon, the King of Darkness. This story expands in Twilight Princess in order to fit it into the framework of a redemptive tale.
Lanayru’s story is infamous in the gaming world for a reason – it’s full of complex symbolism and allegory beyond what the text alone can show. Watch the video below for the full cutscene.
The scene begins with a quick recap of the creation story from A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, which while it’s a fun reference to the series’ history doesn’t really give us anything useful from a thematic perspective. Only when the story makes its first mention of “light” does it begin to take a symbolic turn.
They granted power equally to all who dwelt in the light, and then returned to the heavens. The lands where the goddesses descended came to be known as the Sacred Realm.
That the goddesses favor those who “dwell in the light” strikes a chord with Western creation mythology, which evokes an omni-benevolent deity responsible for an inherently good universe. Some may contest this interpretation, since the original Japanese text does not draw this particular connection, but the goddesses’ interventions throughout the Zelda series’ history more or less suggest their preference regardless. Moreover, we see that the world they created is known as “sacred,” yet another such indicator.
Looking back at our interpretation of the Twilight, Lanayru’s story offers further evidence in favor of the religiosity of the game’s themes with regard to this notion of the state of the world. The world is intended to be a place of light, not of shadow. Only when in this original deliberate state can it be said to be truly sacred.
For ages, the people lived at ease, content in mind and body. But soon, word of the Sacred Realm spread through Hyrule, and a great battle ensued. Among those living in the light, interlopers who excelled at magic appeared. Wielding powerful sorcery, they tried to establish dominion over the Sacred Realm.
Here evil comes into the world, and just as in Western mythology it does not descend specifically from the hand of the divine but instead from creation itself. Mankind’s great sin, not surprisingly, is pride – the desire to exert dominion. Some might call it “greed” – certainly A Link to the Past depicted this same scenario as such – but even greed ultimately stems from the prideful notion that one is above the limits of his rights.
To show just how terrible this fall from grace was, the scene shows Ilia raise a dagger treacherously against Link – and Link presumably replies by striking back with like ruthlessness. The original goodness of humanity has spoilt as friend has turned against friend in selfishness. Their whited-out eyes indicate how they have been blinded by their greed – a common trope in the Zelda series.
The “interlopers” are represented by Shadow Links to demonstrate that the temptations of power can reach anyone – even someone as supposedly “pure” as Link. In the background, the Fused Shadow rises up to swallow the Triforce to indicate just how near they came to accomplishing their goals. By the end of the tale the light wins out – although it’s clear from the absence of the Triforce in the scene to follow that things don’t just go back to normal.
O hero chosen by the goddesses, beware… Those who do not know the danger of wielding power will, before long, be ruled by it. Never forget that…
No, the temptation of darkness lingers and carries on. The falling Ilias in the background of Lanayru’s warning against the dangers of using power represent our instinctual covetousness, our basest of human desires, against which we must constantly grapple.
Come Into the Light
The game’s focus on Twilight of course brings its “fallen” characters into the forefront, the most prevalent of these being Midna, the titular Twilight Princess. Midna’s in need of redemption in every sense of the word: she’s been deposed from her royal station and transformed into a mere imp. But when we first meet her, her motivations for helping Link regain his human form, though perhaps driven somewhat by her sense of duty to her people, are hardly selfless.
In our world, we’ve long believed that the Hero would appear as a divine beast. That’s why when I found you, I thought I could use you, Link. And I only cared about returning our world to normal… I didn’t care what happened to the world of light, not at all.
Midna too succumbs to selfish temptations – but they’re not “bad” in the usual sense. She hopes to restore her world and her people to their original state. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with that? But her careless attitude towards the world of light shows that she purposely refrains from doing that which she knows to be right. Midna serves as a keen example of someone who has only good intentions but who puts herself before the greatest good and as a result almost becomes an accomplice to evil. Her imp-like form represents her fallen state; as a mere “shadow” of her former self she cannot bear to face her people.
Her experiences with Link and Zelda, however, bring her back to the light:
But after witnessing the selfless lengths that Princess Zelda and you have gone to… Your sacrifices… I now know, in the bottom of my heart, that I must save this world, too. There is no other way.
As it turns out, by embracing Link’s needs she is better able to accomplish her own goals than she ever would have been otherwise. Together they are able to extinguish the burning power of darkness that threatens to swallow both their worlds. Midna’s act of embracing the safety of the world of light, culminating in her self-sacrifice in order to save Link and Zelda, leads to her restoration to her true form in the game’s conclusion. This is the kind of redemption we encounter on a daily basis – the discovery that we have the power and the responsibility to work for the well-being of others.
Along the way, Link and Midna confront the wicked Zant. The usurper king, too, is a fallen figure, twisted by his lust for power and tempted by the dark offers Ganondorf promises him. He has foregone all sense of loyalty to the light, believing it to have betrayed him, and so instead he turns to darkness. Even Zant has his moment of redemption in the game’s final scene, however, where we see what appears to be Zant severing Ganondorf’s life-threads in order to put an end to him once and for all. Zant serves as a more extreme example of redemption in order to show us that no matter how fall someone falls they always have the potential for good.
Thus, in the end, Zelda is able to reconcile the relationship between light and darkness as follows:
Shadow and light are two sides of the same coin… One cannot exist without the other.
Without evil, where would we find the opportunity to do good? Without falling, how can we know what it is like to rise up? Twilight Princess presents the path to redemption as an essential part of the human experience, but one that would not be possible without our imperfect earthly state. The story serves to remind us that we sometimes have to make mistakes in order to learn valuable life lessons. Rather than growing discouraged and desperate and sinking into darkness, however, we must hold our heads high and stand up for the light.
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.