Joseph Campbell was one of the foremost literary critics of his time, and one of the most influential men of the 20th century. In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell outlined his unifying theory of mythology, one that has been referred to by many names – monomyth, cosmogonic cycle, the Hero’s Journey – and applied by many different artists since its publication. We’ve previously discussed how the Hero’s Journey can be seen in The Legend of Zelda. One of the less acknowledged parts of his book, however, is his theory on the evolution of the hero.
Campbell classified heroes of myth into several different heroic archetypes, which can be seen in various mythologies and histories throughout the world. The way that each of these archetypes evolve from a simple man into a legendary hero is referred to as the evolution of the hero, and each archetype has a distinct evolutionary path. Like the Hero’s Journey, these archetypes can be clearly seen in The Legend of Zelda series – and today, we’re going to examine exactly how these archetypes are reflected in five of the most significant titles in the series.
The Primordial Hero and the Human
One of the earliest variants of the hero that appears in mythology is the superhuman hero – Campbell calls this hero the “primordial hero”. In these cases, the tasks and abilities of the hero were superhuman; in fact, many of the heroes themselves were superhuman as well, as several of them took the form of savage beasts. Over time, the hero becomes less and less fabulous, eventually losing all superhuman traits, and beginning the work of a human rather than of a superhuman.
This is the evolution of the hero at work. In Campbell’s words, “With the progress of the cycle, a period came when the work to be done was no longer proto- or super-human; it was the labor specifically of a man.” What marks this first variety of hero is the progression from superhuman deeds to human deeds.
When looking at the Zelda series, there is one incarnation of Link that is particularly suited to this variant – the Link of Twilight Princess. The comparisons are fairly obvious even at a glance – the mere presence of Wolf Link is enough to suggest that this incarnation of Link represents the primordial hero. But the comparison goes much further beyond that as well.
Though the player first starts out as Link, it happens very quickly that Bulblin forces invade Ordon Province, forcing Link into the Twilight that has fallen over neighboring Faron Province, and turning him into Wolf Link. Immediately, Wolf Link is tasked with much greater feats than Hylian Link had been – rather than herding goats or demonstrating sword techniques, Wolf Link must break out of prison and escape the sewers. Rather than search for Ilia and Epona, Wolf Link must search for Shadow Insects to find the Tears of Light needed to restore light to Faron Province and the Light Spirit, Faron. These are tasks well beyond the reach of Hylian Link, as they require Wolf Link’s special talents – sense and digging most specifically. Even if he had maintained his form in the Twilight Realm, Hylian Link would have been powerless to act.
While Hylian Link does accomplish tasks of undeniable importance during his tenure, those tasks pale in comparison to the importance of Wolf Link’s – restoring light to the three provinces was of utmost importance. Unfortunately, to receive the aid of Midna (another non-human), Hylian Link had to acquire the Fused Shadows. Once that task had been done, and once Wolf Link’s quest to restore light to the provinces had been completed, the shift occurs.
Link, by obtaining the Master Sword, is able to alternate between his Hylian and lupine forms. This is an act referred to by Campbell: He stresses the coming of the human hero as the result of gaining control – control of the passions and control of the heart. This passage from the primordial into the human is symbolized by the acquisition of the Master Sword – since Wolf Link was said to be a reflection of the noble spirit within Link, being able to control it with the Master Sword and the Shadow Crystal is symbolic of Link’s mastery of his own spirit. And hence, the primordial hero becomes the human hero.
To strengthen this archetypal transition in the game, the dungeon design of Twilight Princess follows an interesting progression. As the game moves forward, the dungeons become less natural and more man-made. The first dungeon appears to be a large hollowed out tree; vines, branches, and wild growth is abundant in the Forest Temple. The Goron Mines, though somewhat more man-made by virtue of their use as mines, are still very natural due to the high presence of lava and natural rock formations. Lakebed Temple, though clearly constructed, is heavily influenced by the natural flow of water, which Link manipulates throughout. Arbiter’s Grounds, Snowpeak Ruins, Temple of Time, and City in the Sky, on the other hand, are almost wholly constructed, non-natural structures. The dungeons progress from the non-human (in this case, primordial), to the human, just as the hero who traverses their depths does.
The Hero as Warrior
The Hero as Warrior is a very common variant of hero, but, as Campbell is primarily concerned with change and evolution, it is important to consider not only the hero’s time as a warrior, but also the hero’s life leading up to their time as a warrior. Specifically, Campbell is concerned with the hero’s childhood.
As he describes it, the hero must face a “long period of obscurity” beginning in childhood. In most cases, this obscurity stems from a childhood of exile. Though exile may seem harsh and the result of perceived wrongdoings, it is a much broader term in this use. Campbell cites the lives of four very real historical figures – King Sargon of Akkad, Chandragupta, Pope Gregory the Great, and Charlemagne – as evidence of the recurring theme of childhood exile and return. All of the four figures were exiled as children, but for various different reasons. In any case, once their period of exile (obscurity) had ended, they returned to society and proved to be great men.
The Hero as Warrior, then, emerging from a childhood of obscurity, is set to face off against the tyrant, who is the exact opposite of the hero. Whereas the hero has been humbled due to his years of obscurity in exile, the tyrant – in a conspicuous seat of power – has become prideful. This is ultimately what allows the hero to defeat the tyrant.
In summation: The hero, humbled by years of obscurity as a child, returns to society to overthrow the prideful tyrant. The version of Link that most matches this variant of hero is also a fairly simple match: The Link of Ocarina of Time. What’s interesting about this match is that the Link of Ocarina of Time goes through two distinct phases of obscurity. The first is Link’s natural childhood in Kokiri Forest.
While living amongst the Kokiri in Kokiri Forest, though he is protected by the Great Deku Tree and befriended by Saria, it is clear that Link is very different. Having no fairy until the fateful arrival of Navi, it’s relatively clear that Link was not one of them. As the Great Deku Sprout reveals at the conclusion of the Forest Temple, Link is an orphaned Hylian child, left with the Great Deku Tree during the fierce war that occurs before the events of the game. As Campbell puts it, “folktales commonly support or supplant this theme of the exile with that of the despised one, or […] the orphan”. Here, Link is not only “exiled” from Hylian society, but he is also made to live amongst the Kokiri, where it is obvious that he is an outsider – a fact that several of the Kokiri, Mido in particular, point out to him. This added adversity to the hero’s childhood supports the cultivation of humility within our young hero – through a childhood of adversity and obscurity, he becomes the humble, worldly hero predestined to defeat the tyrant.
The second period of obscurity takes place after Link retrieves the three Spiritual Stones. He takes them to the Temple of Time, draws the Master Sword out of the Pedestal of Time, and then sleeps for seven years. During this time, the tyrant – Ganondorf – runs free, taking the Triforce of Power for his own and establishing his dominion over Hyrule. Interestingly, during this second period of obscurity, Link does not evolve further as he did in the first period, since he is not obscure by virtue of his removal from Hylian society but rather by virtue of a seven-year sleep. Instead, this second period of obscurity is a time of the tyrant’s growth – in the absence of a challenger, Ganondorf becomes the tyrant that Campbell describes, destined to be defeated by the warrior hero.
In a previous article, I discussed the ways in which Ganondorf is overly prideful, even before he takes the Triforce of Power for his own. This false pride is precisely what Campbell describes as the downfall of the tyrant. However, during Link’s seven year absence, Ganondorf develops a new sense of pride, one that Campbell mentions very specifically: “He is proud because he thinks of his strength as his own; thus he is in the clown role, as a mistaker of shadow for substance; it is his destiny to be tricked.” Ganondorf, so confident in his abilities granted him by the Triforce of Power, is doomed to be tricked by Link, the humble bearer of the Triforce of Courage, who understands that his strength is not his own.
The Hero as Lover
This variant of the hero is a much simpler one to explain: in this variant, the object of the hero’s destiny is personified as a woman. (Let’s not get into a sexism debate here; Campbell’s examples, drawn from histories and mythologies across many cultures, feature near universally male heroes. Hence, the object of destiny, more accurately a person of the opposite sex of the hero in question, will be referred to as a woman for the sake of simplicity.) In addition to this, there exists an obstacle to achieving that destiny in the form of a father-figure, the approval of whom the hero must win in order to reach the woman, referred to as the bride. Campbell insists that the tasks the hero performs in this incarnation are an extension of that parental conflict.
Identifying the incarnation of Link that best fits this description is just as simple as the description itself: the Link of Skyward Sword.
The Link and Zelda of Skyward Sword have rightfully been identified as the incarnations of the two iconic characters that most resembles a romantic pairing – particularly in the early game, their relationship is much more intimate than any previous versions of the two. When Zelda is sucked into a vortex and down into the world below, Link’s quest is laid out before him in very simple terms: find Zelda and bring her home. Throughout the early portion of the game, the story is consumed by Link’s search across the three provinces for Zelda. At the conclusion of that search, Zelda escapes Ghirahim’s reach through a Gate of Time, and the story becomes consumed by Link’s efforts to activate a new Gate of Time and reach Zelda there. When he does, Zelda reveals that she is the reincarnation of the goddess, Hylia. Link, as Hylia’s chosen hero, is thus destined to defeat Demise.
The fact that Zelda is the mortal reincarnation of the goddess Hylia is a very strong connection to Campbell’s description. Zelda is not only the object of Link’s destiny in that it is his duty to protect her, but also in that – indirectly – she is the one who shaped Link’s destiny in the first place.
It would appear that this analogy is weakened by the lack of an obstacle from the father-figure. Gaepora, from very early in the game, gives Link his approval and actively encourages him to go find Zelda – there is no significant conflict with Zelda’s father, and thus no direct obstacle to reaching Zelda from Gaepora. However, if we interpret Campbell’s father figure not as a literal father but as any character in the role of the father, Impa steps in to fill the role nicely. During Link’s initial search for Zelda in the world below, he travels to springs located at the end of the Skyview and Earth Temples. At the spring in the Earth Temple, he encounters Impa, who tells him that he was too late. She chastises him, admonishing him for his failure to reach and protect Zelda in time, and questioning his ability to face the trials ahead of him: “I fear the goddess is mistaken in her choice of agents.”
Impa’s disapproval translates into Link’s inability to meaningfully communicate with Zelda. As the primary obstacle to Link reaching Zelda, Impa takes Gaepora’s place as the father-figure blocking Link’s path to the bride. As Link continues on his quest, he encounters Impa once again at the Temple of Time, where she and Zelda are being pursued by Ghirahim. For once, Link had managed to reach Zelda in time to protect her, and the player may have him ask, “Am I late?” Impa’s response, “…No. You’re right on time,” conveys the approval that Link had sought from the father-figure. Link’s destiny is in saving Zelda, and along the way to fulfilling that destiny he earns the approval of Impa, the surrogate father-figure whose initial disapproval forms a significant obstacle to be overcome.
The Hero as Emperor
The Hero as Emperor is marked by the acquisition of knowledge of the unknown father. The unknown father is not necessarily the hero’s literal father – though in many cases, particularly religious mythologies, that is the case – but rather a revered figure of whom the hero seeks to know more. Above all else, the function of the unknown father is to provide knowledge to the hero. The knowledge that the father holds will utterly transform the hero, allowing him to return from his quest as a representation of the father. In this form, Campbell argues that the hero achieves a sort of “worldly perfection”, with his knowledge enabling him to aid the world as a whole. In a chiefly metaphorical role as emperor, the hero ushers in a peaceful age.
This fit is a bit more difficult to see, but it still lines up rather nicely once you look at the game the right way. The incarnation of Link most fitting this depiction of the hero is the Link of The Wind Waker.
The Great Sea, formed after the flooding of Hyrule by the gods, has seen its many inhabitants gradually forget the histories and legends of their ancestors. By the time the game begins in earnest, little of the goddesses, the Triforce, or Hyrule remains in common knowledge – the Triforce legend had even been mutated into vague references to “Triumph Forks”.
Outset Island, however, has held onto one tradition in particular. When boys on Outset Island come of age, they are given a set of green clothes to wear for the day, styled on those said to have been worn by the ancient hero. This ancient hero, the Hero of Time, represents the unknown father. Though the Hero of Time had vanished from the adult timeline at the end of Ocarina of Time, and thus the Link of The Wind Waker could not possibly be a direct descendant of his, the fact that this unknown figure has persisted through the myths of Outset Island grants him the status of the unknown father; he has informed the cultural traditions of Outset and has become an object of great reverence.
Link sets off on his quest, aided by the King of Red Lions, and ultimately travels beneath the sea into the fallen kingdom of Hyrule. There, he draws the Master Sword. He returns to the surface and awakens two new sages, restoring the power of the sacred blade. He then reassembles the Triforce of Courage, enabling him to return beneath the waves to vanquish Ganon.
The bulk of Link’s quest throughout The Wind Waker is to obtain and then empower the Master Sword, the instrument of the Hero of Time. Though he never directly contacts or finds the unknown father, he is endowed with his strengths and becomes a representative of the ancient hero in the current world. The knowledge that traditionally is granted by communing with or gaining understanding of the unknown father is instead conveyed by the King of Red Lions; what ultimately secures the Hero of Time’s position as the unknown father is the nature of Link’s quest; most everything that Link does is done in an effort to emulate the Hero of Time. He is what drives Link’s quest, as Link seeks to restore power to his sword and assemble the Triforce of Courage he once possessed. The Hero of Time is not the direct source of the knowledge, but he is the figure that motivates Link’s quest and is ultimately the figure that Link comes to represent.
After assembling the Triforce of Courage and restoring power to the Master Sword, Link becomes, in Campbell’s words, “the perfect microcosm of the macrocosm” – in other words, he is a representation of the world as a whole in a single entity. He is representative of both the world above the waves where he was born, and the world beneath it, where his unknown father endowed him with the strength needed to succeed (the Master Sword). In this form, Link has become the metaphorical emperor, and his contributions to the world through the use of this knowledge are the defeat of Ganon and the return of the kidnapped girls to their homes. That he ultimately goes on to establish a new kingdom (New Hyrule, as revealed in Spirit Tracks) is further indicative of this role.
As an added, humorously coincidental connection, one of the last things Campbell says in defining this variant of hero is this: “His word is the wind of life.”
The Hero as World Redeemer
The Hero as World Redeemer is a personification of the law, a force of pure order. The tyrant that opposes him, on the other hand, is chaos. The personality of the tyrant is limited, typically seeking only one thing, and ignoring the consequences of their actions to obtain it. The world redeemer, then, must take it upon himself to restore light to the world darkened by the tyrant’s deeds.
Tales of the hero as world redeemer are marked by an additional aspect: the period of desolation that the hero redeems is brought about by the fault of man. As such, there is an “alternation of fair and foul” – in simpler terms, a sense of moral ambiguity – in the tale that stems from this moral lapse and leads to the desolation, and then there are attempts by those who committed the moral lapse to undo their own mistakes. As the hero sets out to redeem the world as a force of order, those whose lapses gave rise to the tyrant also seek to repair said order.
The Link that most embodies this hero variant is the Link of Majora’s Mask – even if he’s technically the same Link from Ocarina of Time.
What makes Majora’s Mask so different from the average Zelda title is that its villain, Majora, has little else on his mind other than simple mischief. Destroying the world of Termina, which by all accounts appears to be his ultimate goal, yields no apparent benefit to the strange being. All of his actions throughout Termina seem to be of the same type – acts of pure mischief that don’t accomplish anything for Majora other than sowing chaos and discord, seemingly for his own amusement.
When Link stumbles into Termina, he begins to slowly undo the many injustices caused by Majora. Most every action that Link takes in the main plot of the game is focused on restoring order. Whether it’s restoring the natural order by bringing spring to the Mountain Village, clearing the waters of Great Bay or Woodfall, or restoring the social order by soothing the Goron Elder’s son, returning the Deku Princess, or healing Lulu, Link’s actions reestablish the order disrupted by Majora’s intervention.
The story of the Skull Kid and the Four Giants is where we see the issue of man causing the desolation. Regardless of whether the Skull Kid or the Giants were at fault for the distance that formed in their friendship, the Skull Kid’s ultimate decision to steal Majora’s Mask from the Happy Mask Salesman is what dooms Termina to the mischief that the Mask unleashes. The fairy Tael seeks to stop Majora’s attempts to bring the moon down when he instructs Link to call “the four who are there” in the four regions of Termina; this indicates that Tael is attempting to preserve order. The Four Giants clearly feel somewhat responsible for the apocalyptic events as well, and are willing to do what is necessary to help Link, the acting force of order, to stop the moonfall. Naturally, the song they teach him further supports Link’s role as world redeemer – they teach him the Oath to Order.
Link’s eventual victory does save the world of Termina, but more significantly restores order to the world. The Mask Salesman receives the Mask that was stolen from him; the Giants and the Skull Kid mend their frayed friendship; Tatl and Tael are reunited, as are Anju and Kafei; all of those whose lives were adversely affected by Majora are compensated and made whole; and, most importantly, Link is able to continue on his way, back to his initial quest.
There’s a sixth variant of hero that Campbell discussed – the Hero as Saint. This hero is marked by great penance and self-admonishment for perceived impurities; it is the goal of the hero as saint to acquire a pure understanding by atoning for sins, leaving behind wordly attachment in the process. Whereas the previous hero is the world redeemer, the hero as saint is the world renouncer.
Of all six, the hero as saint is the one that truly didn’t fit with any of the incarnations of Link that we’ve yet seen in the Zelda series. Given Nintendo’s propensity to continue providing engaging stories and unique worlds, I’d wager we’re going to see Zelda Wii U explore this variant of hero.
But there’s a more pressing question that this discussion raises: does Nintendo do this intentionally? Are they actively exploring the different styles of hero, placing us into his shoes so we can experience their various trials and growth? In the end, it doesn’t matter. The hero is a figure in world history and mythology that evolves organically; whether or not Nintendo actively makes their games based on different stages of that evolution is inconsequential. There exists a universality to the hero that crosses cultural and social barriers. Regardless of what Nintendo intends, Link will always be a lover or a warrior, an emperor or a redeemer, a saint or a beast.
Because no matter where you are, that’s what makes a hero.