Growing Up with The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda series has been criticized for its formulaic writing, but one of the strengths of its archetypal characters is that they allow room for multiple interpretations. I was born in the same year as the Zelda series, and my perspective on these characters and their stories has shifted as I’ve grown older.

When I was a kid, I loved Link. I had no innate skill as a gamer, but I enjoyed the thrill of running wild in Hyrule. I may not have fully understood the game mechanics, but this meant I was always discovering new things. Despite my many deaths, I reveled in the certainty that I was a force of good fighting for justice, and it was comforting to know that all I had to do in order to succeed was to follow the marks on my map.  

In my late teens, I began to identify more with Princess Zelda. As my view of the world became wider, I realized that it wasn’t always the best course of action to charge forward with an unsheathed sword. I also came to understand that it was impossible for me to be a lone hero. There were times when I would be at the mercy of forces beyond my control, and sometimes I would need to rely on the strength of other people to achieve my goals.  

Now that I’m an adult, I can’t help but sympathize with Ganondorf. The world is infinitely complicated and filled with impossible decisions. Even though you may have the best of intentions, it’s inevitable that some people will see you as a villain when you challenge the status quo. If you want the power to change the world, you have to forge your own path, and no one will give you a map marked with signposted quests to complete. Still, as long as you’re making your own rules, you might as well be stylish and have gorgeous hair.

The Legend of Zelda series has become a type of modern mythology. The games continue to be relevant not just because of the strength of their gameplay, but also because of the resonance of their archetypes in the lives of the people who grow up with their stories. Instead of growing out of the Zelda series, I’ve found that I’ve grown to appreciate it more now that I can relate to the characters through multiple levels of lived experience.

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This essay and its accompanying illustration were originally published in Coin-Operated Press’s Nerd! Zine anthology. You can check out the zine on the press’s website (here).

The Coming Storm

This is a tribute to the iconic Zac Gorman comic, but with a twist.

I sometimes think about how Ganondorf more than likely didn’t start out as evil. I imagine that he probably went on a journey that paralleled Link’s, but his reaction to the secrets he found in hidden caves and forgotten temples was substantially different due to the circumstances of his life and destiny. While the Legend of Zelda games contain subtle elements of melancholy from Link’s perspective, Ganondorf’s story is more like a full-on Greek tragedy.

Hero


This comic was drawn by Valeria M. (@lunaartgallery on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

Listen, I’m not saying Ganondorf is a good person, I’m just saying that the Legend of Zelda games suddenly become a whole lot more interesting as soon as you stop thinking of him as being mindlessly evil. The way I see it, Ganondorf is an intelligent man who may have started out with good intentions, but he was twisted by his experience with the horrors lurking underneath the bucolic surface of Hyrule. To me at least, this interpretation makes the stories of the games much richer and more nuanced.

Ganondorf, Villainy, Race, and Fandom

Despite a few occasional bouts of drama, I love the Legend of Zelda fandom, and the only real unpleasantness I’ve encountered has had to do with Ganondorf. I want to talk about this briefly, because I think it’s representative of an alarming tendency in fandom as a whole.

The United States is in a strange and difficult place right now. It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember, but the current presidential administration has brought some very ugly sentiments right out in the open. It was never particularly easy to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country, but since 2015 or so the violence of the rhetoric of prejudice has been omnipresent and overwhelming. We now have, for example, black women whose children were effectively lynched being subjected to all manner of humiliation and abuse for speaking out against police violence even as a mainstream presidential candidate won voters by belittling the Muslim family of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.

This is just one of the myriad reasons why many of us are very sensitive to expressions of hatred against ethnic and racial minorities. Some people may feel confident in saying that ethnic stereotypes exist for a reason and that they don’t understand why people get upset over certain depictions of fictional characters, and I think it’s important to point out that not everyone who feels this way is (or identifies as) white. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all, and no one wants to feel as if they’re being given a lecture when all they want to do is talk about video games.

I completely understand the desire to make fandom a politics-free zone, but I also think fandom should be large enough to accommodate multiple views and approaches. When it comes to Ganondorf specifically, I think there should be room for both silly jokes and serious analysis. On one hand, how ridiculous is the fact that Ganondorf built himself a giant murder castle in Ocarina of Time? On the other hand, how is Ganondorf’s intense love/hate relationship with Hyrule representative of the legacy of colonial ideologies both within the game and in the real world?

Ganondorf is clearly a villain in the Legend of Zelda universe. There are people in the Zelda fandom who love Ganondorf because he’s a charismatic and fascinating character, and there are also people in the Zelda fandom who hate Ganondorf because he’s just not a very nice person, to put it mildly. Both receptions of the character are totally understandable and valid.

The complication that arises with Ganondorf is that he is demonized according to real-world patterns of white supremacy, one of which is the common narrative that holds that “the Evil Barbaric Dark-Skinned Oriental Other” must be defeated by the virtuous heroes of a holy empire. Accordingly, the trouble I’ve experienced with fandom is that it can be easy for people to inadvertently slip into projecting negative racial and ethnic stereotypes onto the fictional world of the games.

Like men of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent in the real world, Ganondorf is portrayed in a number of fanworks as unintelligent, bestial, violent, and incapable of human emotion. This is a gross oversimplification of how Ganondorf is canonically characterized in the games, but there are powerful cultural forces in our own societies that attempt to ensure that many of us become invested in the narrative of “the Brutal Evil Dark Man” to such an extent that we replicate it without intending to. Because of the nature of the narratives of the Zelda games themselves, in which Ganondorf is portrayed with very little sympathy, dealing with the character is always going to be tricky. This is why there needs to be a multiplicity of voices addressing these issues. For example, what does it mean that Ganondorf is imprisoned without a trial in Twilight Princess? Meanwhile, it’s equally worthwhile to make silly jokes and shitposts about the character; because let’s be real, you can bounce a quarter off that man’s leotard-clad ass. In other words, there needs to be room in fandom for humor and smut and serious analytical meta essays and silliness.

Unfortunately, Tumblr-based fandom has become so polarized that this sort of exchange is almost impossible. On one side of Tumblr are people who insist on ideological purity, and on the other side are people with good intentions who nevertheless feel alienated by “The Discourse,” an expression that refers to an incendiary argument that something or someone is “problematic.” What this means in practical terms is that, while one side of Tumblr is quick to attack anyone who engages with a “problematic” character like Ganondorf, the other side of Tumblr has come to ostracize anyone who’s interested in a more nuanced critique of popular media.

What’s happened within the specific context of Zelda fandom, then, is that many people will only draw and write about and reblog work featuring the light-skinned protagonists, while many of the people who are interested in the darker-skinned antagonists are surprisingly tolerant of what would generally be considered borderline racist representations in any other context. It’s not that any one approach to a character like Ganondorf is upsetting in and of itself, as it’s only natural that different people participate in fandom for different reasons, but rather that the aggressive refusal to consider or even acknowledge the validity of alternative opinions and perspectives can make the Zelda fandom a very weird and uncomfortable place to be sometimes.

To minimize potential confusion, I’d like to clarify the points I’m making about race and villainy:

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are not good people.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who do bad things and make mistakes and gradually grow and change.

IT IS OKAY to have dark-skinned characters who are irredeemably evil.

Let racial and ethnic minorities be villains! While you’re at it, let women and LGBTQ+ people and neuordivergent people and differently abled people be villains! Villains are great!

However:

IT IS NOT OKAY for a large multinational corporation to tell stories about how everything that is or has ever been bad in the world is the fault of one person whom we are supposed to know is evil because he is the only person in the story with dark skin.

Likewise, IT IS NOT OKAY for fans to tell stories that purposefully reproduce overt white supremacy in their portrayal of dark-skinned characters. For example, it’s not okay for fans to tell stories about how a dark-skinned character is “saved” by light-skinned people who teach him that his cultural heritage is bad so that he can be fully integrated into the “good” culture of the light-skinned majority ethnicity, or for a dark-skinned character to redeem himself by learning to apologize to representatives of the light-skinned ethnicity for his anger regarding the slavery and genocide of his people.

In other words, it’s totally normal to have a character who is a villain with dark skin, because expecting characters with dark skin to be perfect while denying them the full range of human experience and emotion is a ridiculous and counterproductive way to approach representations of racial and ethnic difference. That being said, it’s weird and gross to have a character who is a villain BECAUSE he has dark skin.

I’m excited that the recent Breath of the Wild sequel trailer has inspired a renewed appreciation for Ganondorf. It’s my hope that, while fans are enjoying the design and storytelling potential of a fun and interesting character, they’re also able to engage in critical discussions of the politics and ideology of the Zelda series without the conversation devolving into an exclusionary black-and-white mentality. The real-world implications of video game ideologies are multifaceted and complicated, and it’s important for these issues to be discussed outside of academia. Transnational fandom cultures are a perfect place for a wealth of diverse perspectives to come together, which is why I’d like to advocate for a better tolerance of a multiplicity of fanworks and opinions, as well as gentle and nuanced pushback that doesn’t take the form of death threats, bullying, or other forms of harassment.