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Old 02-02-2009, 08:56 PM
Raian United Kingdom Raian is offline
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An Analysis of Symbolism in Zelda

My second article, focusing on the meanings and morals that make the Zelda universe.

As a fantasy series, The Legend of Zelda is quick to borrow the conventions of myths and legends to build its universe. But a lot of players can’t distinguish the mythology from the real world, and so they discuss a lot of ideas that really don’t apply to the Zelda universe, such as genetics and tectonic plates. What separates mythology from science is symbolism, and this article will explain how and why the Zelda universe is grounded upon symbolism.

First of all, I need to explain what symbolism is. Symbolism is the process of explaining the world through meaning and purpose, as opposed to physical causality. For example, water has always been recognised for its apparent purpose to nourish life, but not the actual process of nourishment. This is because we can only symbolise what we can physically and emotionally sense. The feeling of thirst, and the emotional satisfaction of drinking water when thirsty, defines the symbolism of water having purpose for nourishment. But we cannot see or feel the intake of water into the cells of our body; that is something we know exists only through scientific analysis, and so that aspect of nourishment holds no symbolic meaning to us. The Zelda universe functions on this basis, with the creation of the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and the Triforce possessing the human traits of power, wisdom and courage. Genetics and tectonic plates do not exist in a symbolic universe.

One argument to support the application of modern science into the Zelda mythology is that the authors are contemporary, and thus contemporary scientific knowledge is expected to be carried across in their writing. However, contemporary writers are aware that symbolism is more emotionally powerful to audiences than science is, and symbolism is actually responsible for why we enjoy these stories so much. The writers for Disney's The Lion King make that case in the commentaries, establishing the film’s success as an emotional response to the symbolism present in the story. In particular, the scene in which Simba discovered the spiritual connection with his father was cited as the most emotional part of the film. And so if symbolism is important to the audience, then it is not surprising that the Zelda series has built such an emotional reaction from the general public. It's not a large step to take from "natural king of the Pridelands" to "natural hero of Hyrule", after all. And so I think we would be truer to the writers if we start looking at the symbolism inherent in the Zelda mythology, as opposed to discussing the inclusion of scientific facts.

Since I began my topic with the example of water, let's look at the symbols present within the elements of nature. Like water, the elements of earth, fire and wind are all connected to the preservation of life. Earth makes the plants grow (and thus, plants are symbolically related to the earth element), fire provides warmth, and wind allows seeds to scatter and birds to fly. And with the understanding that all the elements work for the common cause of life preservation, we have an explanation for why we never see signs of conflict between the elements (as depicted by the elemental deities). All the elemental deities are generally benevolent because of their symbolic purpose to preserve life, which puts them at odds with the forces of Darkness who want to destroy life.

Light and Darkness are connected through different symbolism to the elements of nature because the two forces are in direct conflict with each other; existing as exact opposites. Light is the representation of benevolence, which I believe is due to the symbolic relationship between light and existence; the ability to see something is the most immediate sense to tell us that it exists. I also believe that this leads to a symbolic relationship between the sky and heaven; if heaven is up above, then the sun shines from a benevolent source. Darkness is the representation of evil, which I believe is due to the symbolic relationship between darkness and oblivion. If the destruction of all things leads to oblivion, then the reasons for destruction are observed as "dark" and thus evil.

In TP, Princess Zelda referred to Light and Darkness as in a state of balance, but funnily enough, a fan translation revealed that to be an invention by the Nintendo of America translators, and an invention I don't agree with. It suggests that Darkness has a divine purpose alongside Light, and is a necessity to maintaining order in the world. But while we have seen evidence of Light coming from a divine source (the Light Spirits and the Master Sword being the strongest examples), Darkness has always set itself against the divine, just as Ganondorf did in The Wind Waker. Apart from coinciding with the idea that evil is a product of free will (in the Zelda mythology, human greed), this makes me doubt whether the forces of Light and Darkness really are equal in the Zelda universe. It would certainly explain why Hyrule spends most of its time at peace if Light was the dominant force in Hyrule, with the skeletons sometimes emerging at night in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess.

Another piece of symbolism that would be worth looking at is the manipulation of magic. The Zelda mythology conforms perfectly to the symbolism of magic in general mythology; namely control over the things which are outside our control in real-life. The wind cannot be controlled in real-life, so controlling the wind thus becomes an act of magic. When the King of Red Lions gave Link the Wind Waker, he said that Link could "borrow the power of the gods". I see this language relating to the symbolic perception that the elements are powers that only the gods (and the divine deities) are allowed to control, and the wind waker is an item that the goddesses blessed with their power to allow humans this ability as well. According to Christianity, it is believed that the manipulation of nature is sacred to God alone, and thus its movement by humans is perceived to be black magic or witchcraft. But in other mythologies, if communication with the gods (or deities who are deigned to wield the elements) can be established by a human (like a priest or witch doctor), then that person could be allowed that sacred power to wield. Sometimes the elements themselves are suggested to be alive and obey the sorceror, as if the magic creates a pact between them. Anyway, the wind waker was said to be possessed by the King of Hyrule, so it perhaps signifies that the king had some form of magical communication with the gods (as the leader of the Hylians, the chosen people of the gods).

Next, we come to the nature of the goddesses; Din, Nayru and Farore. Given that they are responsible for a peaceful state of order for the world, as well as consistently associated with the power of Light throughout the series, it's quite clear that they are benevolent deities. Even when the goddesses were presumed to have given Ganondorf the power to conquer Hyrule, Zelda believed that some good had come from the following events. We just have to accept that, for the purposes of the story, the goddesses allow suffering to send a moral message.

As the Triforce is made from the essences of the three goddesses, the Triforce is a symbolic reflection of the goddesses. Each of the three Triforce pieces represents a goddess, and they work in unison to maintain the natural state of order in Hyrule, just as the three goddesses are also unified in their endeavours. Just as the power of the gods created the world, that same power maintains the world. The Triforce also symbolises government. A Link to the Past’s original manual established that the Triforce governs the world from the Sacred Realm, and whoever possesses it shall themselves govern the world according to their own desires. For the wielder, this has been phrased as both the granting of a wish and a reflection of the heart. The Sacred Realm is a visual reflection of the Triforce’s power and thus it transformed into the Dark World in accordance with Ganondorf’s evil heart. The Triforce also represents Order, in that it keeps the nature of the world constant. It is up to people to create a new state of Order, and the Triforce is said to hold a particular character type as “worthy” of governing with its power. This character must have a heart free of evil, a resolute character and a mastery of the three virtues of Power, Wisdom and Courage. Essentially, it must represent the hearts of the people and keep them in peace.

Ocarina of Time introduced a new mechanic; the Triforce would split at the touch of a heart that does not balance the virtues of Power, Wisdom and Courage. This has raised questions about the nature of a balanced heart, and in order to understand it, we need to understand why people believe that power, wisdom and courage are important in life.

Let’s first look at Power. A powerful character commands both fear and respect from weaker characters, and can protect the weak. So a character can believe in power to be used for benevolent purposes. However, power is said to be a corruptive force in the Zelda series. With power comes the ability to force others against their will, and thus the tendency to do evil outweighs the tendency to do good. A man corrupted, like Ganondorf, would believe in power solely to have his own selfish desires made real.

Next, let’s look at Wisdom. Understanding how the world works gives a character the ability to solve the problems that they encounter and improve upon existing magic and technology. Understanding how people work can allow a character to bring people together and end feuds. So the belief in wisdom is essentially about bettering one’s position in the world and, as an extension of that, the positions of those around them. However, since wisdom is a means to attain power, wise men can also be corrupted, thus using their knowledge to better their own positions at the expense of others.

And finally, let’s look at Courage. The belief in Courage means it is important to fight for one’s ideals. In Eastern philosophy, courage is defined by one character recognising the authority of the wider world and contesting it. In Western philosophy, courage is more simply defined as facing one’s fears. Ganondorf was not a courageous character because he did not recognise and fear the authority of others as a counter to his own ideals for world domination. Heroism, on the other hand, derives from Courage because a character must be able to recognise threats from the wider world in order to protect others.
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