This may not come as a surprise to pretty much anyone, but I spend what most might consider an inordinate amount of time thinking about The Legend of Zelda. In fact, since Wind Waker I don’t think I’ve let even a single day pass without calling the series to mind at least once. (And I think my obsession is only getting worse over the years.)
Of course, what first drew me in was the prospect of kicking monster ass with a sword, but it’s the storyline that has left a lasting and deeply personal impact. I may frequently criticize such things as plot delivery and balance with the primary gameplay, both in my articles and on the forums, but no matter how I feel about it the story somehow always manages to reign me in.
Until recently most of my articles about the storyline treated it from a theorist’s perspective. I would write detailed exposés explaining how certain events in the series’ mythos interrelate, what we are to make of these relationships, and so on. Now that I’ve sort of shifted away from timelines, continuity, and canonical disputes, I’ve become more able to examine the story as art, as a medium designed to speak to an audience at the core rather than just to convey a sequence of events. It’s strange, but just focusing on experiencing the games has wound up opening these stories much much more than my three-and-a-half dedicated years of theory construction ever did. Not to mention it’s lifted a rather hefty burden off my shoulders.
Why am I bothering to tell you all this? I mean, you came here to read articles about Zelda, for crissakes, not the musings of some idealistic young college kid. I suppose it’s because the subject matter is very personal – not just in that it’s something that has had a profound effect on me specifically, but something that I think is supposed to put us, the fans, in conversation with each other. And what is that subject? Well, as the title implies, it’s the driving themes that characterize each individual Zelda title and set it apart from the rest.
Now, I think it’s important not to confuse “themes” with the “gimmicks” that spice up the gameplay experience, though of course the two often overlap in a meaningful way. Switching back and forth between a child and an adult in Ocarina of Time is not itself a theme, but it is one of the vehicles by which the game conveys its theme. We also have to remember that since the Zelda series is first and foremost a series of video games, the gameplay is responsible for setting the theme, not the other way around. Wind Waker‘s ocean was designed as a new and open world for players to explore, and the thematic relevance to the story came later.
I touched on the thematic inspiration for the original Legend of Zelda in one of my recent articles – the feeling of stepping into an epic adventure where you can find wonder and danger around every corner. That first Zelda story really captured the age-old myth of a sword-wielding hero fighting to rescue a princess from an evil king and made it relevant to us, in our modern industrialized age. Link is very much the Odysseus, the Beowulf, the Aragorn archetype made incarnate in the video game world; Ganon is similarly the Satanic figure, the Grendel, the Sauron of Hyrule’s universe. It’s a healthy blend of classic epic and modern high fantasy.
Looking at the instruction manual story for The Legend of Zelda, it even resembles the narrative structure of the old epic tales. It begins with a description of some great land where the protagonists live, and of an evil that has begun to make things difficult for the people there. Then it explains how the hero came to be involved with the goings-on:
The world entered an Age of Chaos. Among this chaos, in a tranquil little kingdom in the Hyrule region, the legend of the Triforce—golden artifacts holding untold mystical powers—was handed down over generations.
One day, a dark army attacked the peaceful kingdom and seized the Triforce of Power. This army was led by Ganon, a powerful warlock bent on reigning over a dynasty of fear and darkness. Fearing his nefarious designs on the throne, Zelda, the princess of Hyrule, split the Triforce of Wisdom into eight fragments and scattered them throughout the realm to keep them out of Ganon’s reach. She then commanded her trustworthy nursemaid, Impa, to flee the castle and seek a champion with the courage to battle Ganon. Ganon, infuriated by the news of Impa’s escape, imprisoned the princess, and ordered a horde of henchmen to hunt down the elderly nursemaid.
Desperately running through forests and mountains, Impa fled for her life. Just as her strength began to fail, Impa found herself surrounded by Ganon’s underlings. She was certain all hope was lost, but a young lad appeared and drove off the wicked attackers, saving her from a fate worse than death. The boy explained that his name was Link, and that he had stumbled across Impa and her attackers as she traveled through the area. Grateful for his assistance, Impa told young Link the story of Princess Zelda’s predicament and Ganon’s vile grip on the kingdom.
Upon hearing this heart-wrenching tale, Link vowed to save Zelda…
Notice here how Link isn’t some country farmboy who unwittingly gets dragged into a quest to save his friends and homeland. He’s a traveler, one who obviously has some experience with monsters, and who has decided to intervene on behalf of Impa to save the princess. He has no defined motivation, and doesn’t really need any – he’s a hero, after all. The monsters range from your typical mythological dragons to giant spiders to whatever the heck Digdogger is. There’s even an army of wise old men living throughout the land who range from helpful to not-so-much.
Other central qualities to the “epic adventure” include:
- The story begins in media res (or “in the middle of things”);
- The hero faces trials and struggles in the course of his journey;
- The hero must face a final and ultimate task, alone;
- The hero represents the values of his nation, race, or historical era;
- The hero’s birth or childhood occurs under some unusual circumstance;
- The hero is or becomes a leader among his people.
It’s pretty easy to see how Legend of Zelda starts off in the middle of the action, without a lengthy introductory exposition. The way in which Link becomes involved in the struggle is explained in a single paragraph in the instruction manual. The trials he faces in the labyrinths and in Death Mountain are trials for him alone, proving that this is not a typical war against evil, but a battle between the greatest of good, epitomized by the hero, and the darkest of darkness, embodied in the Evil One. And while The Legend of Zelda isn’t a particularly moral tale, it’s easy to see how Link is supposed to represent the virtues of our society: exhibiting charity in his assistance rendered to Impa, integrity in his dedication to the task he undertakes, and courage in his unrelenting endurance as he approaches the final fight.
Another element that’s quite common in epic literature – but not so common to be considered one of its central traits – is magical weaponry. Beowulf, King Arthur, and many of the heroes of Celtic, Norse, and Eastern mythology all wielded swords gifted with power, and Link is no exception. In Link’s case, the Master Sword is another representation of the power of human virtues, as when a hero wields it it can smite evil. Most epic swords have long extended backstories behind them, perhaps the most famous being the Arthurian swords – one of which was to mark Arthur’s kingship by his ability to withdraw it from the stone (another motif reused in Zelda), and another which is given to him by a spiritual figure (Skyward Sword?). It’ll be interesting to see how the story of the Master Sword is handled in the upcoming Wii prequel.
The first of the series’ sequels, The Adventure of Link, despite its departure from the gameplay style of the original, sought in terms of story to add to the epic mystique surrounding the legend’s major players. It explained Link’s significance as the chosen one who would reunite the Triforce, and supposedly become king of the realm – completing our list of “epic elements.” At the same time, it fleshed out the history of Princess Zelda, explaining that every princess born in Hyrule will bear that name, thus setting the precedent for future stories. If that wasn’t fanservice enough, it also hinted at a complicated history involving the Triforce and the royal family – one that even now has yet to be fully explained. All the while, whispers echoed that Ganon might someday be revived…
This enduring quality of the series, this never-ending potential for new tales, is part of what makes The Legend of Zelda come alive much like Olympian and Arthurian myth did for our ancestors in yesteryears. For my part, I think this is a very good thing, and probably the reason why Nintendo tries to keep mum about the overarching series timeline. If they reveal too much, perhaps they might trap themselves in a set story and stifle the potential for an unending string of tales that has driven the series for so many long years.
Here’s hoping the epic lives on for many more years to come.
“What? That’s it?” Well, sort of.
Themes in Motion is a new article series that plans to cover the story themes of every game in the Zelda series. Articles will release every other Tuesday, each covering a different theme. This particular article dealt with the first two games, and given their blatant lack of in-game narrative, there’s not a lot of content to work with. As the games have progressed over the years their stories have grown steadily denser, so expect the same trend with each new article.