For 37 years, the Legend of Zelda franchise has allowed millions to ‘live out’ a mythical story. Why is this series so universally popular? What desires is it tapping into? Learn the ways Link and Princess Zelda can unveil the call of the spiritual journey!
~~~ Adapted Transcript of episode ~~~
Introduction: The Legacy of The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda franchise is probably the most beloved video game franchise to date, and certainly one of the longest running, spanning a whopping 37 years (right up there with Super Mario bros!). In the gaming halls of fame, Zelda is certainly considered mythical. Yet despite over 29 titles, the basic formula of each game has hardly changed. Whether you’re playing the original 1986 Legend of Zelda, or The Tears of the Kingdom in 2023, you know what you’re getting into when you awaken as Link and step out into the world of Hyrule. And our culture has since revelled in being plunged into this storyline. Why? What instinct or desire has the Zelda series tapped into that makes this game so timeless? Hopefully we can answer these questions by the end of the episode. But as way of prologue for now, I want to quote an article on the Word on Fire website entitled “Video Games and Culture”, written by Fr Blake Britton. In it he says:
“In the end, what we millennials and post-millennials want is the real world, not the artificial world. Our wanderings in the lands of Minecraft and the mountains of Skyrim are a crying out for reality, not a rejection of it. We long to witness the breath-taking beauty of creation, soar into the heights of authentic heroism and experience the life-giving dynamism of true freedom. “We want reality!” This is the rallying cry of our generation.”
So, this episode will be divided into three features of the Zelda games worthy of spiritual commentary.
- The significance of the enchanted worlds within Zelda.
- The consistent hero’s journey storyline, found in every Zelda game.
- The notion that Zelda games rewards those who wander off the well beaten track.
1. Zelda’s enchanted worlds & Celtic Christian spirituality
We start with the actual geographical lands of Zelda, which for most games is set in the kingdom of Hyrule. If you know anything about Zelda, you’ll know that this world is incredibly beautiful, charming and mysterious, rich with its own history. It’s the type of world you’d happily escape into… which sadly, is a word that is largely frowned upon today. After all isn’t escapism always a flight from reality in the end, shirking the world of responsibility and chores and taxes and suffering? It can be, and certainly if a game or sport or anything is not enjoyed in moderation, it can lead to unhealthy escapism. But there is another type of escapism, which is always a good thing to yearn for. Example – when someone who has been kidnapped, and yearns to escape from their kidnappers and return home, you’d agree this is escape in a positive desire right? For this type of escapism leads one back into reality, the fulness of reality, rather than away from it. And I’m going to suggest that Zelda’s gorgeous worlds, can inspire its players to do just that. Let me explain:
Have you ever wondered why the landscapes that populate any of our fairytales are particularly satisfying to dream about and to recreate? Why are taverns, cobblestone streets, castles with flags, royal princesses, dark forests, windmills, horse drawn carriages and majestic sailing ships so satisfying? I’ve pondered on this for a long time… and I think I have an inkling of the following answer: Fairytale lands help us reminisce about the worldview of our medieval ancestors, when (a) our machines and buildings were maximally in harmony with the natural world and (b) part of that harmony was the recognition that the world was a spiritual place, enchanted, imbued with unseen realities. Worlds like those in Zelda capture the harmonious dance between human agents and spiritual agents. Such an ‘enchanted’ view of the world is of course consistent with our theology, for we believe that our world is enchanted, charged with the holy spirit, populated with beings like angels and demons. We believe that there does exist what the Celtic people call ‘thin places’, particular locations in the world that were more open to the divine presence, like the great fairy fountains in Zelda, the Springs of Power, Wisdom, Courage, and of course the Temple of Time. Hence, the worlds we love in Zelda are not just charming, they actually reflect back to us the actual reality of the spiritual realm, a realm that can often be suffocated by city living and our technological monopoly.
This is why Zelda encourages positive escapism… because its worlds reflect more about Reality than the flat, grey, city life of office cubicles, text books, screens and commercialism. It stirs up desire for more, precisely because our souls, even in a fallen world, intuitively know there is more. What’s particularly striking about Zelda, is that even though the worlds Link sets out to save are fallen—some quite dramatically as in Marjora’s Mask where there is a Moon hurtling towards Termina—they never lose their original goodness. The Zelda series is in the end, an optimistic series, with landscapes that still retain their original glory, trustworthy characters, a hopeful storyline, and a divine princess that remains beyond the corruption of even the darkest spells.
You know, what I’ve been sharing so far is as much testimony as it is theology. To illustrate, when I was playing Breath of the Wild three years ago over my summer break, my appreciation of Mother Mary in my life deepened significantly, especially regarding spiritual warfare. For me, Mary was beautifully captured in the princess Zelda character, who for like most of the game was literally holding back the devil from breaking out onto Hyrule, while I the chief hero was just waking up and picking mushrooms and finding my place in the salvation story! Through her protection and intercessions, princess Zelda, like the Our Lady of Fatima, encourages us to wake up, turn around and fight the good fight! Similarly, Breath of the Wild connected me profoundly to the reality of the Catholic teaching on the communion of the saints. there are these four ancient spirits you meet along the quest, heroes named Daruk, Mipha, Revali and Urbosa, who not only guide you practically, but spiritually journey alongside you in the form of unique abilities, such as healing and defence. These four heroes also aid you in the final fight against the devil, I mean Gannon, lowering his hit points dramatically and pretty much rewarding you for befriending them. Like the character of princess Zelda, these saintly heroes are ‘given’ to assist your quest, rather than replace it, in the same way that Mary and the saints are given by Christ to aid us in our quest to sanctity. And all of this theology become so much more real, and felt, in my very bones, while playing a game, permanently altering my relationship with the saints in real life Fun Fact 1: my real life equivalent of the four saintly heroes are Mary, St Joseph, St John Paul II and Therese of Lisieux – each offering a unique spiritual charism for my holiness. Fun fact 2: Much of the inspiration of the episode 13, on Moana and the Communion of Saints, finds it origins in playing Zelda over my summer holiday!
2. Link’s Hero’s Journey & the Spiritual Journey
In earlier Myth Pilgrim episodes, you may remember me referring to something called the Hero’s Journey – a particular storyline that pretty much every great myth across every culture conformed to. Joseph Campbell, the sociologist who discovered this mythical storyline, summarises the Hero’s Journey as follows: “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day, into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won. The hero returns from his adventure with the power to bestow treasures on his fellow men.” Sounds familiar right, and rightly so, for our era’s greatest stories like Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Gladiator and The Lion King all conform to this pattern… and as you’d agree, these stories are particularly satisfying.
Those of you who’ve played Zelda will recognise that for 37 years, this game pretty much follows the Hero’s Journey formula. In the Zelda world, it would be expressed as something like this: our hero, Link, is awakened from some variation of sleep or unconsciousness, where he is called out of his comfortable home onto a mysterious quest. He is told his kingdom is in peril and that he alone was destined to save it, through the defeating of some iteration of Ganon, the series chief baddie. Ably armed with an array of weapons, skills, hearts and the magical princess Zelda, he defeats Ganon, recovers whatever he’s stolen and restores peace back to his kingdom, the end. That’s the basic storyline of Zelda, and it hasn’t really changed, despite tremendous leaps in graphics, music and game mechanics. And as far as I know, Nintendo sees no reason at all to change this formula because it is the most satisfying storyline of all time. Why? Because the Hero’s Journey perfectly parallels the spiritual journey. We too, start our spiritual journey somewhat asleep, half awake, comfortable, but unconscious. But then, there is an awakening of sorts. Like God did with Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Mary and Paul, he himself calls us out of our place of comfort, onto a spiritual quest. Like in Zelda, our own world has fallen into peril, for the Kingdom of Darkness has overtaken it! We too, must wage war against the monsters and corruptions of sin, vice and selfishness. How do we do this?
Weapons, boomerangs and bombs help, wise teachers help, and a map certainly helps. But this is where the imagery of Zelda gives us a real kicker. Link’s ‘spiritual growth’, if you like, is measured by him slowly increasing his hearts, which in the game acts as his hit points. There is simply no way he can survive the increasing challenges in the story unless his heart count also increases. I particularly love this imagery because the Hero’s Journey for us Christians is somewhat measured in the same way, our heart count. While our progress can be partially measured by how much we overcome sin, how faithfully we pray, the scriptures remind us that progress is ultimately measured by our capacity to love. Love of God and neighbour is the only true measure of holiness, St Teresa of Avila makes that clear. Love determines what obstacles we can tackle, what circumstances we can navigate and how resilient we are before we are KO-ed by the enemy.
I’m making a point of this love-heart thing, because personally, it’s one of the most profound reminders when I play a Zelda game: what is Lawrence’s heart count? As someone who is naturally gifted in a few areas, it’s so tempting to treat my achievements like some sort of badge of holiness when in reality, without love, I’m just a noisy gong and clanging cymbal. Without love, I’m only Link bogged down by heavy shields and gear and cooking pots, but with like 3 hearts … knocked out by the first bokoblin I see. Yet, when I look at Christ on the cross, he had nothing on him. Literally. But he did have rows and rows of hearts, love in abundance. May we follow the model of Christ then, love incarnate, whose sacred heart proved to withstand the Gannon of all Gannons—the cross—to win for us the greatest victory of all
3. Zelda rewards going off the well trodden path
Zelda is never a game you want to play quickly or speed run. I always marvel at the fact that in Breath of the Wild you can technically go straight for the final boss fight in Hyrule Castle from the start. While the odds of surviving the castle and beating Gannon are pretty much zero, the fact of the matter is no serious Zelda player would want to go straight for the endgame, because the real charm of the game lies elsewhere: in the discovery of all that lies hidden in the world. See, there’s the surface world that you explore … then there’s the hidden world that you discover … room, shrines, items and parrots that play accordions. It was arguably the original Zelda, all the way back in 1986, that made hidden rooms such an iconic part of adventure gaming ever since. Treasure is much more valuable when it’s obtained by slowing down, noticing and going off the main road.
This truth is paralleled in the spiritual journey. The greatest spiritual treasures are unearthed by us slowing down, diverting ourselves away from the rat race of the world and taking the path less travelled. Heroism is to go via the untrodden path … the one that no one dares to venture upon. St John of the Cross puts it this way “to become what you are not, you must travel via a way that you are not.” In other words, to actually grow in the spiritual life, you must travel a path you are not currently on, to go via a way we are not. Zelda, encourages this discipline for its players, slowing down their pace significantly, but also rewarding them richly. Some of the greatest finds in Zelda—heart containers, Korok seed, maps, keys, the Master Sword, the Hylian shield—can only be found by those who patiently look for them. Seek, and you shall find, our Lord says. And significantly, this dynamic doesn’t change in the midst of even the most dangerous lairs and dungeons. For in fact, it becomes even more true. The game particularly rewards the brave, those who are willing to stay within the zone of peril, and to seek after the treasure that can only be found there.
Again, the parallels with the spiritual journey are tantamount. For “that which we most need to find, is always found in the place we least desire to look.” That’s Carl Jung. It takes a brave soul to explore the dungeons of their own brokenness, the lairs of their own shame and the dungeon bosses of their fears. And yet, that is precisely where the greatest treasures are to be found: treasures like healing, truth and freedom! While our fast paced world offers self-help books, numbing noise and pop psychology, the Christian quietly diverts and goes Another Way, the way of the cross. It’s the way we dare not tread, except by following the one who has first travelled there himself.
Conclusion: Zelda’s storyline that awakens
So at the end of this special episode, what spiritual yearning has The Legend of Zelda tapped into? What has it been heralding to a culture so depleted of Christian spirituality? Perhaps its the call to awaken from the fog of mediocrity, and to set out on the journey of sanctity, the real hero’s journey. To heed the call of God to fight the good fight, to rescue his kingdom from the shroud of darkness. To ally oneself with the weapons of love, for only love can withstand and conquer the powers of hell. Behind the thin veil of Link and princess Zelda lies the real spiritual journey, and while this journey remains untold within our churches and culture, The Legend of Zelda may very well be the storyline that many in our culture need. Is it an orthodox way of telling our story, probably not. Is it necessary to rediscover our story? Absolutely!
Just remember that sometimes, the great treasures lie waiting, only found via the way less travelled.
For those of you who are interested, I have transcribed my academic paper on A Pastoral Response to Video Game Addiction in Teenagers here.