The Legend of Zelda has used the fairytale formula to create memorable settings and characters that will stick in our memories for ages to come, but it has also added a new layer of complexity to the method in the form of interactivity, the game mechanics.
The Legend of Zelda is one of the most well known video game franchises across the globe. It truly is a legend in many respects, having sold millions of copies over the last several decades. Generations of gamers have explored the world of Hyrule, tediously turning over every stone and rudely smashing handmade pottery from the depths Lake Hylia to the heights of Death Mountain.
Link, The Hero of Time, has been our window into this world of master swords and fairy magic. Befitting of one called the Hero of Time, we have experienced the many lives of Link, reliving the franchise’s cyclical storytelling with each new addition to the series.
Though hugely successful, the Legend of Zelda has been criticized for its repetitive nature. The story is more or less the same each time around. Link discovers that he was born the Hero of Time and heads off onto another adventure to save the princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. Link follows the path laid out in front of him just like all of the in-game historic scriptures and cave paintings and divine sages all say he will do, like all of the past iterations of himself had done throughout Hyrule’s history.
But cyclical storytelling isn’t new, and it hardly ever results in a failure. If we look into the roots of the Zelda world, we will find that they are drawing their water from the ancient well of fairytales.
In this episode we will explore how the Legend of Zelda became a modern fairytale and find out why saving the princess will never get old. I am Arthur McMahon, and this is Paracosms.
I will not attempt to define Faërie, nor to describe it directly.
It cannot be done.
So yeah, there are literal fairies in Zelda’s world. There are petite pestering fairies that get captured in jars and their are scantily clad Great Fairies which can grant amazing powers. That’s all well and good, but those winged magical creatures aren’t what make The Legend of Zelda a fairy tale.
The actual definition of a fairy tale is rather broad and under debate by whoever decides those kinds of things, but you generally know one when you come upon it because its elements are easily recognizable. Fairy tales are magical. Within them are magical powers and magical creatures. Often, but not always, these tales contain fairies themselves, or other magical characters like elves, mermaids, or unicorns.
It’s difficult to put into words. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote an essay On Fairy Stories and even he could not accurately describe what a fairy tale was. Here’s a quote from Tolkien:
“Fairy-stories are not stories about fairies or elves, but stories about the realm in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.
“I will not attempt to define Faërie, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.”
In a generic sense you might first think of a fairy tale beginning with ‘Once upon a time…’ and ending with ‘they lived happily ever after’. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it isn’t always right, either. The reason those stock phrases stick to our brains like Navi’s ‘Hey! Listen!’ is because of an element to fairytales that helped them survive the oral tradition, and this is repetition, repetition, repetition.
According to tor.com, there are over 300 renditions of Snow White. Without me having to tell you the whole thing, I know you’ll remember a great many things about Snow White off the top of your head. Go on. What popped up in your mind first? The Seven Dwarves? I bet you also remember that there was a poison apple and an evil witch. Oh mirror mirror on the wall, are you the most repetitive of all?
In this brief example you can already see many of the ways which repetition is widely used in fairy tales. It makes them easy to remember. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair! This porridge is too hot, this porridge is too cold, this porridge is just right.
There is repetition in individual stories and also repetition of themes and languages throughout all fairytales. It adds to the poetry of the story, the magical disbelief of the world, but it also emphasizes the plot points that the authors want to highlight.
The repetition of story and gameplay reinforces our understanding of the legend, making it almost sacred to some.
Link lives in a fairy world. A magical world cursed to repeat its tragedies and its triumphs time and time again. But because of this we know the characters well, and we know the landscape of Hyrule. The Legend grows with each new game, expanding its scope each time we live through a new adventure with a new Link, and it also exists in our minds outside of the gameplay.
The general plot repeats itself, but each time we go through the story we are given a bit more depth, a better look at the narrative timeline. The actual legend of Zelda expands in our minds with each new addition, even when the story’s surface is coated with familiarity.
Contrasting results occur from this narrative strategy. On one hand the audience maintains a sense of security in regards to Hyrule. Memories of adventures from the past bring warmth to the heart. The expectation of seeing familiar faces again in new editions gives a sense of reuniting with old friends, returning home to a world we know and love. On the other hand the audience has learned to expect more of the same, another adventure where we climb the same mountain and battle the same monsters. For some it has become tedious, a bore.
But the unique element which video games bring to the fairy tale formula is interactivity, the game mechanics. Zelda sticks with the repetitive rhythm by leading us to the Master Sword in every game, by offering us bombs and grappling hooks to complete our quests, but new items and interactions are introduced in each edition, offering different strategies and puzzles than have existed in games past.
The music in the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a perfect example of gameplay mixing with fairy tale. What better tool than a musical, mystical ocarina to inspire melody and memory? I’d be willing to bet that most people who played the game never even heard of an ocarina before Zelda introduced it to us. I sure hadn’t. To my young, unlearned eyes it looked like blue football-shaped flute. All I understood was that it played songs that could change the day to night and summon the rain on command. It was fantastic. Magical. And it brought about a way for the game to introduce more melodious repetition in the form of music.
A few simple notes played a dozen times was all it took to mark the spirit of the world in my memory, to bestow the qualities of Hyrule upon my soul. It only takes the sound of a couple of the notes in any one of those classic tunes to bring back all of the emotions I felt in that game as I experienced the world.
The repetition of story and gameplay reinforces our understanding of the legend, making it almost sacred to some. Novelty is of little importance because it is through the act of telling and re-telling, of playing and re-playing, that we derive meaning from these simple tales.
A fairytale in its truest form is a story that needs no explanation, will tolerate no method, and eschews any kind of logic, except perhaps its own.
Fairy stories have always struggled with the notion that they were for children because of their whimsical settings and simplistic, repetitive nature. The same can be said of Zelda and similar games, but such accusations are wholly incorrect. Hidden behind the bright colors and characters with silly dispositions are dark themes and hard lessons. Death. Disease. Deprivation. Deception. All of the bad ‘D’ words. They are masked by the vibrant fairy world to make them approachable. But fairies themselves are known to play tricks, to lie. Such is the nature of a fairy tale. When all things appear to be well, that is often when they are sure to take a turn for the worst.
Usually in Zelda games Link starts off in an enchanted forest or a happy farming village, only to find that evil has come to destroy everything that he has ever known and loved. Towns burn to the ground. Neighbors turn into nightmarish monsters. It’s Hell in Hyrule. The fanciful fairy mask is peeled off of the world, revealing the darkness within it.
Think of Hans and Gretel and the gingerbread house they stumble upon. They’re so happy to find such a treasure during their forest frolic that they let their innocence get the best of them. Underneath the frosting and candy cane surface is the true nature of the home. A wicked witch dwells within who tries to boil the children alive and eat them. Fairy tales are fraught with such situations. Some glaringly obvious and some subtle. The themes and morals present in the fairy world fit the Zelda motif to a capital Z.
So someone may say that they’ve done it all before, but have they really? Do naysayers truly feel that each experience in the Legend of Zelda is identical to the last? Though themes and landscapes may be similar, each addition to the Zelda collection contains a unique story and style. Generations of home console graphic improvements have influenced the look of each game. Cultural elements from our world seep over into Hyrule.
Medieval European architecture is usually used for Zelda’s castle and the surrounding town, but each individual game draws from the other unique cultures from around the world. The Gerudo Tribe in Ocarina of Time resembles our own fantastic imaginations of the Middle East. The bird-like Rito Tribe from Wind Waker exude of South American influence. The Cobble Kingdom of Phantom Hourglass is unquestionably inspired by Ancient Egypt. The list goes on.
In seeing how The Legend of Zelda adjusts to the times and how it pulls in bits and pieces of our world’s various cultures, we can again relate to fairy tales. No one game in the Legend of Zelda series is identical to another just as no one version of Snow White or Cinderella or King Arthur are either. Many versions of each of these tales exists. There are the Disney versions of many fairy tales that most of us are accustomed too, like how Cinderella had a fairy godmother who gifted her with everything she ever wanted, helping little miss Cinderelli become the princess she was destined to be. But there are other versions of Cinderella where she decapitates people, versions where magical fish help to keep the neglected girl well fed, versions that represent African, Chinese, Indian, and every other culture’s lower-class misfortunes.
Like Arthur and Excalibur, there will always be Link and his Master Sword.
There’s an interesting article over at tor.com called Been There Done That, Why We Keep Retelling Fairytales. I’ll share the link to it on my blog and show notes, but there is one paragraph which sums up the article’s headline question perfectly, and it also applies to the Legend of Zelda. Let me read it to you.
“A fairytale in its truest form is a story that needs no explanation, will tolerate no method, and eschews any kind of logic, except perhaps its own. It is a narrative dreamland in which anything is possible, and in which the why’s and when’s and where’s are left to the imagination of the reader. And, perhaps it is these very gaps in narrative that are drawing authors and audiences alike back to fairytales today. The very incompleteness of the stories can serve as a vivid backdrop for staging new stories, for exploring characters from new angles, and for prodding into the cracks and holes to run down those why’s and when’s and where’s.”
That’s why so many fairy stories have survived millennia, living since long before the written word. The fantasy worlds these tales create draw our interest while their repetitious nature drills them into our memory, storing rhymes and morals and songs into our brains to be passed on to the next person. Those main points get remembered, leaving the fluffy stuff to be reshaped by modern influences, to be reinterpreted by different cultures and retold with new ideas.
Following the same narrative strategy, the Legend of Zelda can go on to survive forever. Link, the Hero of Time, can be reborn into any era, into any culture and still be seen as a familiar character in a familiar land. Link is an ordinary person who discovers that he is capable of extraordinary feats. That’s a premise that any person can relate to.
The way we digitally record everything these days, be it ebooks, blu-rays, or YouTube videos, it seems like no story will ever be able to completely disappear again, but that doesn’t mean that it will be remembered. The Legend of Zelda will be remembered. And it will be retold. Reborn. It might be a little different a hundred years from now, more so in a thousand, but it’s core elements will still be there. Like Arthur and Excalibur, there will always be Link and his Master Sword. The Triforce will endure the ages like a divine emblem. And The Legend would not be complete without the ever-changing Princess Zelda.
This has been an episode of Paracosms. The Legend of Zelda has been one of my favorite gaming franchises since the good old NES days. I haven’t beaten all of the games, and some of them took me years to get through, but the legend resides within my mind, as it does yours if you’ve ever played the games. Maybe those of you who have never even touched a video game know a bit of it. The repetitive elements of the story will be remembered long after we’re gone.
That’s an amazing thing about stories, about the imaginary worlds we create. They’ll continue to entertain and inspire for generations to come. It’s why I’m so fascinated by these Paracosms. If you ever want to chime in on these worlds and give your own take on them, leave a comment on my blog, or find me on social media. The links are all available on my website at arthurmcmahon.com.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this world and I look forward to seeing you at the next.
- Fairytale by Kai Engel
- Cloud 9 by Podington Bear
- The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time Soundtrack by Koji Kondo