Skyward Sword as the end of the monomyth


Approaching the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo made a great fuss about the chronology of its sundry Zelda titles, a thing that precisely no one outside of Zelda fan forums cared about. The chronology of The Legend of Zelda is about as important as whether The Iliad or The Labors of Hercules happened first: it does nothing to effect any of the stories, and gives none of them any added weight. Does it matter if A Link to the Past happened in an alternate world future from Ocarina of Time? Doesn’t it take an unhealthy level of obsession to care about this?

Playing Skyward Sword, then, is a feeling of slowly dawning horror: Nintendo has made a game interested in defining the timeline they released for the series last year. But rather than be horrified, I found myself strangely captured by Skyward Sword’s analysis of modern mythology, the place that The Legend of Zelda holds in all of our lives.

My favorite Zelda title is A Link to the Past, the first game I played; I imagine there’s an intense correlation between first Zelda game played and favorite Zelda game. With the curious exception of Majora’s Mask, every Zelda title is pretty much the same: you, as the hero of prophecy, fight through a first tier of dungeons, usually to collect some sort of medals that allow you to acquire the master sword, then through a second tier, most frequently to rescue sages that can help you defeat Ganon. The Zelda stories bear a definite Levi-Straussian similarity: go through them and while the parts are different, the structures are the same. Navi and Midna are nothing but different creators interpretations of the same character.

To the close observer, then, the Zelda games bore similarity to the Final Fantasy titles: iterative rather than consecutive, building themes rather than nested narratives. Your first Zelda is a sentimental favorite, same as a first Final Fantasy: they are nostalgic monomyths, told by Japanese designers to us as impressionable children. They are your story, not the stories of those who precede you or follow you.

While Final Fantasy has embarked on a quest towards the “legitimate” power of narrative, Zelda has always been satisfied with a mythic structure. A Link to the Past wasn’t a world so much as it was a fairy tale kingdom, with an absent king replaced by evil, a deadly mountain, creepy villages, and a mysterious forest containing a magical sword. It’s not a plot so much as a hero’s journey through wondrous places, a compilation of fairy tales creating a mythology. Each subsequent game created its own mythology, contributing an iteration of the monomyth.

Skyward Sword, then, shares space with Majora’s Mask as the most curious of Zeldas. But while Majora’s Mask was a rare science fiction turn for the series, Skyward Sword is equal parts mythic deconstruction and character narrative. It couches its timelines and theory in small stories about familiar characters, and posits itself as the mother from which all the others were born.

Gaepora, for instance, Zelda’s father in Skyward Sword, represents a clear mythic touchstone, a base from which future characters were “born”. His resemblance, Ocarina of Time‘s owl, immediately calls to mind the series’ connections. The same is true with Fi, who verbally resembles Navi and physically Midna—she is reminiscent, instantly, of two of the series’ characters, and she fills the same role as they do.

These two characters, appearing within Skyward Sword’s first hour, portend its deconstructionist bent. Previous Zelda titles have built upward and outward: they were increasingly modern, fantastic tellings of the same tale. Twilight Princess, the most recent console offering before Skyward Sword, represented the apex of this system: it stood as a grittier, modern remake of Ocarina of Time, complete with nearly every trapping, with immediate similarities. It presented something of a clear line for the series, as well, from The Legend of Zelda to A Link to the Past to Ocarina of Time to Twilight Princess, four retellings of, essentially, the same story.

Skyward Sword claims these stories are part of the same cycle, a story that repeats and reiterates. It actually claims this, in its closing hours, rather than imply it, like the previous Zelda games. Here, de jure rather than de facto, is Levi-Strauss writ large, a series of stories passed down through generations like the narratives of early North and South America. Here the tellers are not Native American travelers but instead Japanese game designers, each telling their own version of a classic story.

That said, Skyward Sword presents itself as the first event, the mother myth, enabling the series to take a narrative turn. While other games were wrapped up in mythological obscurity, Skyward Sword is a straight ahead narrative, the way things actually happened, and this gives life to characters like Groose, who’s one of the most interesting in the Zelda mythos. Ironically, he’s one of the few characters who doesn’t have the mythological backing that the series is built on: rather than the previous incarnation of Link, Zelda, Ganondorf, Navi, or anyone, Groose is Groose.

Groose, your rival turned staunch ally, represents the part of mythology that Twilight Princess, the least successful Zelda title, missed: it represents the individual spin of the narrative-maker. Twilight Princess lacked any sort of individuality, despite its attempts to be visually noteworthy: there’s no noteworthy character in that game that exists outside the mythic tradition. Even Gant, its attempt at uniqueness, finds a home in the monomyth, Agahnim or Ghirahim in different clothing. Its own characters, the children kidnapped in the beginning, limply roll through the narrative, neither interesting or compelling the same way Groose does.

To some, this is why Twilight Princess works so well: it is atmosphere and monomyth alone, without its own agenda. Skyward Sword, meanwhile, has an agenda. It’s a bildungsroman, emphasizing Link’s growing up, using Groose as the yardstick to explore your progress. When he’s grown up, so have you. Skyward Sword adds other pieces to the monomyth to deepen its point: Pipit and Karane explore young love, the dragons mentorship, the other characters around Skyloft, and Link’s growing respect from the community. The main figures are twisted, as well, to emphasize its themes: Ghirahim is effectively a sexual predator, Zelda is less chaste than in other incarnations, and Fi is more an equal companion through the throes of adolecense than a chattering nightmare.

This is what makes Skyward Sword work so well, paradoxically: in embracing its identity as a monomyth, it enabled the game to stretch out into different directions. Once it is accepted that you are telling The Same Story Again, there’s a certain freedom to twist and angle so that your interests and ideas are highlighted over those of the previous incarnations. It’s what sets Skyward Sword, the one game to explicitly identify as monomyth, apart from its fellow fables.

9 Comments

  1. Brendan Hurst

    I like that the most recent article on overthinkingit.com is also an analysis of something from contemporary culture in the context of Levi-Strauss.

  2. Alan Williamson

    Well, considering most games criticism involves serious underthinking, maybe it’s time someone compensated for that 😛

  3. TrueAxiom

    @LineHollis I was pretty burned out on Zelda, too, but Skyward Sword changed my mind!

  4. Nintendo_Legend

    @LineHollis @TrueAxiom An excellent reminder for me to start the Master Quest sometime. Thank you. This was great. :)

  5. Alois Wittwer

    Overthinkingit.com can go rot.

  6. I disagree with the conclusion. I found this to be the most engaging Zelda regarding gameplay mechanics, and with perhaps the most engaging set of “actors” in any Zelda game, but the plot to be incredibly bare – and exactly because it embraced the monomyth, but didn’t know what to do with it.
     
    Because once we accept it’s the original cycle we have… what? The optimal answer would be a story whose plot devices – the steps of the monomyth – all seems natural (i.e. perfectly justified since this is the first time they took place). That’s not what happens. Apart from the “call to action” (which was something that mesmerized me) the narrative in Skyward Sword actually enhances the feeling artificiality of the plot. If we were to think pragmatically, there was no need for the whole middle part of the game to exist: we really did not need the Master Sword – only to play the song of the hero at Skyloft, get the Triforce and watch the credits (in fact, I can never understand why the Goddess haven’t made that request for the Triforce herself, in her own age).
     
    The rest is filler: test are test to see if you are “really the hero” as if the surface was filled with Hylians hoping for that position (we have only Groose and I bet Groose would pass those tests just as well as Link). Made me wish for the time everybody simply assumed Link was the Choosen Hero because “of course that Village Idiot is the child of destiny! Let’s ask him for favors!”
     
    In the end, this first cycle was designed step-by-step by a very unimaginative Goddess during the actual first cycle, which took place when the Demon King first invaded. Perhaps in that Zelda game we will find out how the sword before the Master Sword was made, who build all those impractical temples, how the sheikah came to be and if there ever a time in Hyrule things looked like new. 
     

  7. JacobDangerGermain

    I want to shake you very hard until you learn to distinguish levi-strauss’ mythemes and binary oppositions from Campbell’s monomyth. This article should be tagged “Campbell” as you discussed very little Levi-straussian theory and instead emphasized conformance to Campbell’s monomyth.
     
    I appreciate analysis like this, but you’re clearly not the person for it.

  8. Pingback: Looking past the structure | Nightmare Mode

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