Spoilers for The Legend of Zelda (game series), The Godfather (film) and Bambi (inescapable childhood trauma-machine).

Some years ago, a friend persuaded me to watch the original Hellsing anime. Japanese cartoons were new to me, and there was something very appealing about the fantastical action which Hellsing, Full Metal Alchemist and the rest brought to the screen. In retrospect, however, an even more interesting aspect of anime is how they show a fascination with representations of Western culture without necessarily understanding (or caring to understand) their context, just as we in the West are prone to doing to our East Asian counterparts.

In Hellsing, what struck me most of all (although not exclusively) was a moment early in the series in which one soldier invokes the blessing of Queen Elizabeth II, because in this universe of eldritch abominations, apparently only Her Majesty has the metaphysical authority to keep law and order.

This is what Britons actually believe.
(From Newshub)

Now, this greatly appealed to me for some reason, and although the specifics of the line I have long forgotten, the fact of it remains.

It comes to mind as I write this because Hellsing, like The Legend of Zelda, taps into an unusual experience: the experience of being entertained by another culture’s portrayal of one’s own culture.

Pleasant Pastiches

The Legend of Zelda is a sort of mixture of Arthurian and Tolkeinian fantasy mixed up with a lot of Japanese cultural tropes, including a not insignificant dose of both Buddhism and Shinto, and a great big serving of Wandering Geography Syndrome.

No matter how many compasses Link finds, they still won’t explain how the Lost Woods migrated to the other side of the map between games.
(Compass, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

Link carries the arms of a knight or other para-military personage, wears the pointed hat of a pixie, lives in the woods like a Silvan elf, and wears tights like a king.

Few people realize that the original iron boots were high-heeled.
(Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud)

Despite this, however, the world which his various incarnations inhabit is largely Japanese in its conception, ranging from Link himself and the way he resolutely and honorably forges his way to his goal, but also the supporting cast and the various tropes and Japanese ideals which they embody. However, for our purposes, these are all secondary to the cosmology and the world-building.

Mythological Canon

Let me be clear when I say that I do not think that TLoZ was conceived with the story which it now carries, but developed into a cosmology after several (many?) games. Some fans love to theorize how it all fits together, but that is not so much theorizing as it is collective storytelling in its own right, barely a step removed from trying to work out how The Godfather and Bambi can exist in the same narrative universe.

‘Nyah, see? Let this be a lesson to you, son: your mother squeaked to John Law. Make the same mistakes and you’ll be over the fence and Flower-food before you know it’.
(From ‘Bambi‘)

This is not to say that Nintendo has not bothered to make the games cohere at all, but rather that this is more a thematic concern than a world-building concern. The geography and population of Hyrule change almost arbitrarily between games, albeit less so since the N64 era. Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword both essentially cemented the cosmology, such as it is, as something of a karmic wheel, in which the same characters are reborn to play out their part in a cosmic drama over and over again, only – because nothing is likely to hurt the prospect of yet another sequel quite as much as a happy-ever-after – without the prospect of Nirvana.

The threat of Hyrulian Hell, though, is very real.
(Link: The Faces of Evil)

Because there is very little in terms of a persistent world between games (Skyward Sword’s valiant attempts at retcon notwithstanding), the world-building rests upon the individual games themselves, as well as the themes and inter-game continuity-nods instead. So, throw away any hopes of looking at the “deeper” level of world-building now, because there is no such level. Instead, the world-building of TLoZ should be understood as multiple ways of telling or re-telling a set of related stories, as we shall see over the next few posts.

Special Mentions

The idea for this short series came from my friend Adrian over at Wizardal Technicry. Go and see his Arduboy Adventures and Coding Crusade! And do not be shy to let me know what you would like me to cover in future posts.

One thought on “Writing The Legend of Zelda, part 1

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