The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Donald Maass, author of the seminal text ‘Writing the Breakout Novel,’ once said of theme: “If authentic, [it] is not something apart from story but something intrinsic to it. It is not embedded, but rather emerges.“1 The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker‘s theme of generational change is a central component of its story, emerging again and again. It’s about the old world giving way to the new, both literally and metaphorically. This idea is reinforced in every aspect of its design, from its setting to its art style, and its narrative goes out of its way to make the message clear. Starting with the young Link’s birthday, continuing with the growing Sages, and ending with the old King of Hyrule’s departure, the theme is so essential to the narrative that it becomes intrinsic. To strip out the theme would be impossible, as doing so would mean removing the story itself.
At the beginning of The Wind Waker, the player is introduced to the world through a long-forgotten legend told through a series of black and white images. This legend focuses on a hero who once slew an ancient evil, then disappeared when the evil returned. Although the broad strokes of the story have survived with time, no one knows what happened to the kingdom or the hero, and all that’s left is the tradition of giving young boys green clothes on their ninth birthdays. The fact that the story then cuts to the nine-year-old Link is no accident. By juxtaposing the ancient legend in the prologue and the modern reimagining on Link’s birthday, the game demonstrates how the world changes with each generation. Tying the green garments to a birthday celebration only further reinforces this theme, as birthdays are celebrations of growth and change. The birthday celebration acts as the baseline for the story, giving Link a starting point for his growth.
As the narrative continues to the second act, the theme of generational change further reveals itself through the Sages Medli and Makar. Medli, the fledgling attendant to the Great Valoo, is desperate to take on greater responsibility; Makar, seedling Korok, has a special role in a ceremony for Koroks heading out into the world. They both grow into their roles throughout the narrative, taking on the duties of the next generation. Their ultimate duty, awakening as a Sage, occurs when the last generation passes on their knowledge to them. The old gives way to the new, and the young are given the future.
The King of Hyrule emphasizes this theme in his farewell to Link and Zelda after Ganon’s defeat. As the castle floors around them, he says:
“My children… Listen to me. I have lived regretting the past. And I have faced those regrets. If only I could do things over again… Not a day of my life has gone by without my thoughts turning to my kingdom of old. I have lived bound to Hyrule. In that sense, I was the same as Ganondorf. But you… I want you to live for the future.”
The King, a symbol of the old world, wants the next generation to live without the burden of regret. Like Ganondorf, who demanded control of a drowned kingdom, the King spent his life chasing after the past. Ceding the world to the next generation not only frees them to live without regret but also allows the last generation to part with theirs. The King’s final act of refusing Link and Zelda’s help shows his dedication to their growth. With his parting words, he says: “I have scattered the seeds of the future…” As the last member of the last generation, he has given the future to the next.
The Wind Waker contains countless other scenes and subplots that reinforce the concept of generational change. Link’s relationship with his younger sister is an example of the old helping the new; Tetra’s relationship with her late mother is an example of the same. In a vacuum, these stories are simple things, but they add to each other and compound each other to create a pervasive theme that permeates the narrative. Coupled with the cartoonish character designs, the whimsical music, and the earnest animations, the game itself represents a new generation of Zelda. Both as a story and as a game, The Wind Waker could not exist without generational change.
The Wind Waker features two prominent motifs: music and wind. These motifs are linked together through the titular Wind Waker, a conductor’s baton that allows Link to control the winds and move about the world via song. It also allows Link to guide others—sometimes literally, in the case of the Command Melody. Furthermore, it serves to tie the old generations to the new, as members of the older generation teach many of the songs Link learns, which he then passes onto others of his generation.
The wind itself is a pervasive element in The Wind Waker, symbolizing growth and change. Just as it guides Link across the sea, it carries the Korok seeds to new islands and allows the Rito to travel the skies. It also plays an important role in both the King and Ganondorf’s motivations, even though their motivations are at odds. The King wants to use the winds to scatter the seeds of the future; Ganondorf wants Hyrule’s winds for himself. It’s the King’s vision that wins out in the post-credits scene when Tetra proclaims that the wind will guide them as they sail off to find a new world. Whenever there is progress to be made, the wind is there to emphasize it.
The Wind Waker uses both narrative and mechanical symbols to communicate important concepts to the player. Its primary narrative symbol, the Great Sea, serves as the division between the future and the past. The world above the sea is a world ripe for discovery, one that has yet to be explored and mapped; the world below the sea is a forgotten relic, one anchored to the older generation. While the people who live below the sea have memories of that old world, the people above the sea only know of that world through the legends they pass between generations.
Hyrule Castle, one of the surviving relics of the forgotten kingdom of Hyrule, exists in a bubble beneath the sea. Ganon’s Tower exists alongside it, protected from the water. Together, they represent the last pieces of the old world hidden under the waves. When the King of Hyrule asks the gods to pop the bubble, it represents the destruction of the old world’s last pieces.
The Wind Waker also brings back two reoccurring narrative/mechanical symbols: the Triforce and the Master Sword. The Triforce, the sacred relic that can grant one wish for anyone who touches it. In The Wind Waker, the Triforce acts both as a symbol and as a literal object. As a symbol, it’s seen prominently when the Sages restore power to the Master Sword and is also featured in Hyrule Castle’s architecture. The golden triangle also appears when summoning the Tower of the Gods, proving its divine providence. It’s also available as a physical object that the player can collect, although the player never gets the opportunity to wield its full power.
The second prominent series symbol, the Master Sword, returns to serve as a symbol of Link’s heroism. When Link wears the sword, others recognize him as a hero, and its growth parallels his own. Each time he restores some of the sword’s power, it’s after a significant trial. Overcoming these trials proves his heroism, making him worthy of the sword’s power. When the sword reaches its full strength, Link himself is ready to seek out the Triforce of Courage, which can only be wielded by a true hero.
1 Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel (p. 234). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
* Reference Run: SourceSpy91. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker – FULL GAME – No Commentary. YouTube, 2018.
** Reference Script: RPG1377. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Game Script. IGN, 2003.