“Could you tell me the story of the princess and the hero? Please, oh please, oh pretty pleeeeaaase?!” your daughter begs as you tuck her into bed.
You know she’s stalling, but you just can’t help it when she gives you those puppy-dog eyes, so you begin:
Everything about this screams that I shouldn’t.
“In the land of Hyrule, there echoes a legend. A legend held dearly by the royal family that tells of a boy who became a man. He embarked on a great journey to the deepest, darkest corners of the earth, battling forces of evil, testing the limits of his will. All to fulfill his destiny…” Her eyelids start to get heavy and your sentence begins to trail off. “…Which was, above all else… to save… us.”
Cue exciting theme music!
I want to tackle something about my favorite series that I don’t see anyone discuss very often, and that is that the Legend of Zelda is… a legend. I know, mind blowing, hard hitting journalism, right? But wait, before you hit that back button, hear me out!
Most legends begin life as a sort of oral history— story passed on verbally from generation to generation and committed to memory. The Oral History Association defines this field of study as “[…] a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word.” And DoHistory.org says that “Oral history is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences. Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor.”
That last part, “oral history is not folklore…” is specific and draws a definite line in the sand. You might remember from elementary school when your class briefly covered folklore with the likes of Paul Bunyan and his buddy Babe the Big Blue Ox, Johnny Appleseed, or even Robin Hood. If not, this definition might jog your memory:
Folklore (n)—the traditional beliefs, legends, customs, etc., of a people; lore of a people.
Somewhere in the middle of these depictions of oral tradition is where we find our story of the courageous boy in green, the wise princess, and the power-hungry force of darkness—The Legend of Zelda. Whenever we talk about the game series, we always shorten it to just “Zelda” and leave off the important part of the title, “Legend.” What is a legend, anyway? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines legend as “a story coming down from the past; especiallyone popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable,” and “a popular myth of recent origin.”
Therefore dear reader, I submit to you that the Legend of Zelda happened, but also didn’t. There is a history—common threads that are weaved throughout the series that do not change, such as the main trio of characters, yes, but also more than that. In several of the games, all Links push through hard times to gather three McGuffins in order prove their worth and free the Master Sword from it pedestal. The Master Sword is the only thing that can slay the Big Bad. When the Links come up against the Big Bad, they are thrown off kilter and usually have to return the power back to the Master Sword. Along the way, some of them end up freeing sages, maidens, or some magical items, culminating in the attempted rescue of Princess Zelda. For the most part, the names of places are the same: the Lost Woods, Lake Hylia, Death Mountain, Kakariko Village, and so on. Several of the items and bosses make return appearances. Heck, there’s even a theme of the hero freely traveling between alternate realities! A neat gimmick for one game, sure, but when that theme spreads out to be at least six different hidden realms, there’s something going on.
As a story gets told over and over again, certain things are bound to change. From people to people, depending on who’s telling the story and what their culture is, the non-important things are bound to either be expounded upon or diminished. We can see how this happens from our very own history in Greek and the Roman mythology. The Greeks told stories of when the lives of mortals were interrupted with the meddling of immortals. They would share these stories and built a culture around them. Then at some point, the Romans began telling these same stories, but with enough tweaks that the stories became theirs. They sounded almost the same, but one is told with more detail while the other looks paraphrased. We even see this happen today with Hans Christian Andersen’s stories of love-struck princesses getting Disney’d. It’s like a game of telephone, but instead of words or phrases, it’s an entire epic!
And if none of that could persuade you, take a look at how most of the recent games chose to frame themselves.
The water color/ink blot story telling from the opening of Skyward Sword.
The tapestry story as sung in pros by Kass. I love that wandering minstrel and that this tapestry is the only back story we get.
The stained glass story, as told in Spirit Tracks.
In each of these story screen captures, it seems like they’re all telling the same story; that’s not a coincidence. It’s a “tale that [we] humans have passed down through uncounted generations.” But why would we keep telling the same story over and over again? We can only hear about George Washington chopping down cherry trees for so long until it gets to be too much! Perhaps the last few lines of The Wind Waker can help shed some light on that:
The illuminated manuscript story, as told in The Wind Waker.
The only way the tales of our green-clad hero remain is because of the people who repeat them: “elders wished only for the youths to know courage like the hero of legend…” That’s it, case closed! The story of good and evil is, really, something that resonates in all of humanity! In the fallen world we live in, we as humans desire to see good conquer over evil.
You’re about to leave, your hand pulling the door shut behind you when, from the darkness you hear:
“Does the boy get any… toys…?” your daughter sleepily asks.
“To play with… an’ fight th’ monsters…”
“Oh, yes. He was taught to be a warrior knight like the rest of his family and just about everything he picked up was a weapon for him. Boomerangs, slingshots, wooden swords and shield, and—“
“Magic wands?!” her eyes shot open.
“Fire, ice, water, sand, one that shot out lightning, and there was even one that made glowing blocks out of nothing!”
You walk back into the room, tuck her in snugly, and peck a kiss her on the forehead. “I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow night. You’ve got a big day when you wake up!”
“G’night,” she sighs.
You begin to close the door behind as you leave once again. As the last sliver of golden light squeezes around her you whisper, “Good night, princess.”
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