(Continued from Part 1)
It has become increasingly popular in discussions of pop culture to throw around phrases like “mythic” and “mythos” in a rather loose fashion (I myself did so in the previous post). But for the sake of this post it’s worth attempting to define just what we mean by a myth. Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism provides a helpful approach to literary classification:
In literary fictions, the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero, and the something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates made about him by the other and the consequent expectations of the audience. Fictions, therefore, may be classified, not morally, but by the hero’s power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same. Thus:
1.If superior in kind to both other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god. Such stories have an important place in literature, but are as a rule found outside the normal literary categories.
2.If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, märchen and their literary affiliates and derivatives.
Frye goes on to list other classifications, but for our purposes these are the two salient ones. If we take this approach seriously, then it is clear that The Legend of Zelda (and, indeed, most of what we would consider to be fantasy) belongs to the second category of romance.
But fantasy, owing largely to the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien, has often sought to utilize the first category as a backdrop. The Lord of the Rings is a romance which takes place in a universe that arose from Tolkien’s attempt at creating a facsimile of myth. Before the War of the Ring is the mythical first age which is framed by the drama of the Ainur (although the Ainur are, theologically speaking, angels, they function in the literary sense described above as divine beings).
So it is with Zelda. Within the universe is a fairly standard mythic background, to the point that the world of Zelda in any given game doesn’t really have a history: the past is purely a mish-mash of legends and myths that have an archetypal application to the present. And, if we even give a slight nod to the idea that the games can be organized into a timeline, we find this playing out even more literally. The world of Zelda is not linear but rather cyclical, with endless permutations of the same archetypes of the hero Link, the villain Ganon, the Princess Zelda and the Triforce that provides the hinge of the drama. The ending of Ocarina is rather self aware of this.
Majora’s Mask shifts the action to an alternate reality where these archetypes are not extant, but its three day cycle literalizes and speeds up the Zelda cycle. Each of the four quests Link undergoes to reach the four temples has the basic structure of a hero’s quest – the one for Woodfall Temple even throws in a kidnapped princess.
In three of these quests, Link inhabits the persona of another hero who has fallen, and who would have been the appropriate hero for the quest (since the fourth quest involves all three personas, we could imagine it would have been a group effort). In Termina, Link is an outsider with no particular role equivalent to what he had in Ocarina; these quests are the domain of Termina natives. But in a legend, historical or biographical concerns are of tangential importance. The differing Links in the franchise may technically be different individuals, but their biographies are subsumed under the fact that they are the same character being retold endlessly; the mask is more important than the individual underneath. Majora’s Mask again literalizes this by having Link become these fallen heroes.
Placing these heroic cycles back-to-back in the three day cycle robs them of their triumphant qualities: after the cycle is complete, the player resets the clock and repeats the process, returning the world to its initial state. Even if the ending of Ocarina implied that Ganondorf would arise again and again, the player could at least take refuge in the fact that, here and now, peace could be established. But in Majora, the player is confronted with a series of cycles that have no culmination. This is fitting, given the game’s antagonist: in Ocarina, Ganondorf was a power hungry man with intelligible motives. But the Skull Kid is a puckish, socially ostracized child who has been granted too much power by Majora’s Mask; and beyond that, the mask itself is revealed to be a childlike entity that sees itself as playing games. The shaggy dog nature of the game’s quests reflect the antagonists understanding of the central conflict as a game.
But, of course, it is a game; Majora’s Mask is just a video game. You’ve always been approaching these Zelda quests like a game. And just as the mask works its agency through the Skull Kid, so do you, the player, act upon the world by using Link as your puppet. This achieves its ultimate expression if you meet the requirements to receive the Fierce Deity Mask, which the game suggests is equivalent in power to that of Majora’s. The game’s entire arc can be seen as a gradual hollowing out of the Zelda story and archetypes until all that is left is the naked fact that it is a game. And it cleverly does this without violating the fictional integrity of its universe.
Is Majora’s Mask an ultimately meaningless experience, then? Not necessarily. Rather, this process means that you, the player, are left to form your own arc. What you do in between the beginning and the end leaves no external mark on Termina, but it does impact you – and by extension, Link. By the end of the game, Link has become the sort of person who can challenge Majora’s Mask. Link hasn’t been demoralized by his Sisyphean task. He has a reason for persisting to the end, and that reason is supplied by you. Perhaps it is merely a naked desire to win, to not be beaten by Majora’s Mask; perhaps it is because you are genuinely attached to the people of Termina; perhaps some other reason, or some mixture of them.
To Be Continued…