Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Video Games and Myth: The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess

A chosen hero to beat back the tides of darkness. A courageous knight who rises to rebuild a kingdom. The Legend of Zelda series tells the tales of young Link, a boy literally marked by destiny. Within each story lies ample evidence of myth, from the naming of Link's horse "Epona" (Gaulish word for "Sacred Horse and a Celtic Deity) to Link's recent transformation into a wolf (canines are seen as guardians of the underworld in many cultures). Given the series' title, however, it's not surprising that a great deal of the games' source material would come from popular legends - namely Arthurian Romances. Installments A Link to the Past, The Ocarina of Time, and The Twilight Princess provide strong evidences of the use of these beloved legends.

1. A Sword in the Stone
Perhaps one of the most popular Arthurian tales, the Sword in the Stone tells how Arthur comes to learn of his lineage. A sword only  released by the hand of the one true king. Arthur happens upon the sword almost haphazardly, removing the sword at a whim, taking a significant step toward his destiny of unifying England and purging it of corruption. Whether the sword represents
 Excalibur is a matter of debate, as popular criticism recognizes that the actual Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady in the Lake. However, The Legend of Zelda pays homage to either theory by unifying them into a single symbol - The Master Sword.

The Master Sword rests within its own pedestal, awaiting the arrival of the chosen hero to release it from its earthen bond. As the Sword in the Stone, the Master Sword represents a mile-stone in Link's journey towards manhood and guardianship. Like Excalibur, it's Link's primary weapon against evil, being the bane of darkness and the only weapon able to effectively wound primary antagonist Ganondorf (or Ganon, if you prefer). Link obtains the Master Sword at the turning point in his journey - either just before or just after the world is enveloped by darkness. Releasing the Master Sword from its pedestal often serves to reaffirm Link's chosen destiny during this time. And, much like Arthur's Excalibur, Link would never be able to beat back the black without it.

2. The Otherworld
A critical element of the Arthurian Romances is the presence of the Otherworld, a realm at the very edge of our own.  To enter, often times the hero must pass through a forest away from typical human civilization. As one slips deeper and deeper into Otherworld, the natural rules of the universe slowly begin to change. The magic there is very obscure, often resulting in what appears to be psychological tricks or hallucinations, putting the hero at a distinct disadvantage over local residents. The Legend of Zelda employs its own dualistic world in nearly every installment.

Be it the Dark World, the Twilight Realm, or simply a timeline seven years in the future, an Otherworld is just as present here as it is in Arthurian Romance. Although there are plenty of examples, the Ocarina of Time provides some of the strongest evidence. The "Otherworld" 
is featured by a future timeline, accessible only after pulling out the Master Sword from its pedestal. Link is essentially "Rip van Winkled," falling asleep until he's of age to properly use the sword. In the new world, Ganondorf has succeeded in usurping the throne and the kingdom's races are either forced into hiding, captured, or frozen forever. Link's goal is to put the pieces back together, often traveling back to the present to change the grim future ahead. Link is forced to deal with the suddenness of adulthood and the effects of a seven-year tyrannical rule he could potentially prevent. It's notable that at the game's end, Link is sent back before the game's events and Ganondorf is effectively stopped by Zelda (Princess of Hyrule) before the grim future can occur - making the future timeline not just gone, but seemingly illusory, and memorable only to Link and Zelda.

3. Ganon the Boar
Boar imagery is very subtle in Arthurian Romances, but it's there all the same. Boars are often associated with Arthur and his line, particularly to highlight the link between himself and Mordred, who seeks to usurp the throne. Malory highlights this particular concept when Mordred is speared by Arthur, but continues to charge forward in a boar-like rage, killing him. This element manifests in Ganon's appearance on the right. 

Designers have historically presented Ganondorf as a powerful wizard interested in usurping the throne and bending the world to his will. Immediately, one should think about Mordred and his sinister aspirations. However, Lancelot's King Maleagant (a King in the Otherworld) seems present as well. Note Ganondorf's affinity for magic and kidnapping Princess Zelda - both common motifs repeated in Arthurian Romance with Maleagant's abduction of Guinevere. Conjoined with his transformation into the boar "Ganon" at endgame (often right before he dies), players can easily conclude that Ganondorf represents another artful fusion of Arthurian motifs. This assertion can be immediately strenghtened by the fact that Maleagant's influence in the legends diminshes as Mordred became a more prominent character. Conveniently, this draws the inevitable comparison between Link and Lancelot, as opposed to Arthur.

4. Link du Lac (a.k.a. "Link gets Ladies")
Lancelot was first introduced as a primary protagonist in Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot the Knight in the Cart, depicting the valiant knight's attempt to rescue Queen Guinevere from Otherworld-King Maleagant's abduction. The famous romance begins during this story, as Lancelot charges head first in pursuit of the object of his courtly affections. What's noteable about Lancelot are his origins (he's originally from the Otherworld), his representation as the (near comic) epitome of chivalric love, and that Lancelot is told in installments of each maiden he's come across on his journey. Link's adventures share some striking similarities to Lancelot's tale.
Note that Link's journey begins in the forest within both installments Ocarina of
 Time and Twilight Princess - a place we've already established to denote "otherworldliness." Link leaving the forest for the rest of the world is usually portrayed as a big deal, marking the start of a momentous journey to fulfill a duty of sorts. This is usually followed by some interaction with Princess Zelda which leads to Link somehow becoming her "personal knight." Although the love between Lancelot and Guinevere is often (but not always) explicit, Link and Zelda's relationship remains up to debate. Depending on which tradition of courtly love you're following, this could still fit the model - particularly since romantic undertones between the couple are usually present. However, the strongest evidence comes from the number of "maidens" Link comes across. Above is a picture of most of the women from the Legend of Zelda series, most of whom have a significant role in Ocarina of Time. Not to mention, of course, the main similarity - their apparent sexual attraction to the protagonist. Link, like Lancelot, has to deal with the droves of women who just want a piece. Some comical, some tragic, each marks a necessary spot in their respective hero's journeys.

The final scene in Twilight Princess portrays the most iconic Lancelot reference in the Legend of Zelda series. In Lancelot, our hero is released from a prison by a woman riding an animal (one of my favorite characters in Arthurian Legend) and proceeds on horseback to chase down Maleagant once and for all. Lancelot finds Maleagant in a field and, after a short sword fight, Lancelot decapitates the Evil King with ease and rides away with Guinevere in tow. Although Link isn't released from a prison by a woman per se, he requires feminine aid (i.e. Zelda and her light arrows) to help him chase down and stop Ganondorf in the game's final minutes. In epic stride, Link and Zelda succeed, and Link is forced to fight Ganondorf in an ultimate battle to the death. Ganondorf and Link undergo a sword fight in a field, surrounded by fire, until Link beats him down and stabs him through the heart. Although not a complete copy, the themes are definitely present to recognize Link as a distinct Lancelot reference.

(property of Emmanuel Diaz)

Arthurian Romances are everywhere. Arthur and his representations often arise during times when a nation needs a hero. A leader to help rebuild or a knight to lead by example. Lancelot represented the ultimate knight with a solitary chink in his armor - his reciprocal love for his best friend's wife. A love (at least in Malory's works) heavily implied that Arthur knew about. I'm curious if that will ever be worked into the series. A penitent Link would be, at the very least, interesting and different. Well, Gentle Reader, I hope you enjoyed this epic installment. It'll probably be the last one for a long, long time. As always, feel free to post below.


David Pratt said...

I love this series of entries. What will we see next? I recommend the Suikoden series.

Ozkirbas said...

Much appreciated! I'm actually drawing a blank as to what game I should do next. Needless to say, recommendations are welcome.Unfortunately, Suikoden is something I never got into. However, if I can get my hands on a copy and a decent emulator it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

David Pratt said...

There are two game series, one marketed by Koei, the other by Konami, steeped in Chinese myth. Suikoden is the first, based on the Chinese novel "The Water Margin," and the second is "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," based on the book by the same name. I know a lot about it already, but I love the style you're approaching this with and think you could provide a very good take on them.