The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Impact of Isolation
The theme of isolation pervades the narrative of Twilight Princess. In both Hyrule and the Twilight Realm, isolation brings out the worst in people. Although the heroes and villains wrestle with its effects equally, it manifests itself differently for each character. On the heroes’ side, Midna is plagued by anger and selfishness, whereas Zelda is wracked with guilt and despair. On the villains’ side, Zant is consumed by his lust for power, and Ganondorf is given an outlet for his opportunistic streak. Whether their isolation was chosen or put upon them, each of these characters is worse off when they are isolated, and it is only through working with others that they can accomplish their goals.
Midna, one of the game’s primary characters, is isolated at the start of her arc. When Zant strips her of her body and her power, she is overcome by shame and flees her people. Once alone, she becomes fixated on restoring her kingdom at any cost. “I only cared about returning our world to normal,” she says after the Sages refer to her as the Twilight Princess. “I didn’t care what happened to the world of light, not at all.” It’s only once she joins forces with Link and Zelda that she learns how to accept help from others. She says this plainly in the same scene as the above quote, stating:
“…[After] witnessing the selfless lengths that Princess Zelda and you have gone to… Your sacrifices… I now know, in the bottom of my heart, that I must save this world, too.”
By working with others, Midna grows as a character and becomes a better version of herself. This lesson is part of what makes her ending so bittersweet, as her desire to isolate herself from newfound allies runs seems counterintuitive at first glance. In reality, Midna does not do this to isolate herself from her allies; she does it to reintegrate herself with her people. By removing the temptation to return to the Light World, she ensures she will focus on the Twili and not isolate herself from them as she did at the start of the game. It’s a difficult decision for her, but it’s the right decision for both her people and her character arc.
Princess Zelda experiences her own bout of isolation once Zant emerges from the Twilight Realm. Her story begins when Zant invades her throne room, demanding that she give up the kingdom to spare her people’s lives. “It is time for you to choose,” he says, “…surrender or die. Oh yes, a question for all the land and people of Hyrule… Life? Or death?” To save her people, Zelda chooses to surrender, and the entire kingdom is plunged into twilight. This amber haze cuts the people off from reality, turning them into spirits incapable of communicating with the outside world. The only person who retains her body is Princess Zelda, as she is protected by the power of the Triforce. This protection is a double-edged sword, however, as she has no one else to communicate with. As a result, she spends her days in a solitary tower, incapable of rebelling against the invading army. Only when she sacrifices her divine protection and joins her people in the Twilight can she fight back. When she was isolated, she could not see a path forward; working with others, she finds a way to fight.
Isolation impacts the antagonists of Twilight Princess as much as it does the protagonists. For Zant, the Twili people’s isolation is the primary reason for his rebellion against Midna’s authority. He confirms this before his final battle with Link, stating:
“The people of our tribe…a tribe that mastered the arts of magic…were locked away in this world like insects in a cage. In the shadows we regressed, so much so that we soon knew neither anger nor hatred…nor even the faintest bloom of desire. And all of it was the fault of a useless, do-nothing royal family that had resigned itself to this miserable half-existence!”
He resents how his people were isolated like ‘insects in a cage’, as he feels that isolation made them the worst versions of themselves. To restore the Twili people to their former glory, Zant seeks to end their isolation by joining the worlds of Shadow and the worlds of Light. If he truly sought to liberate his people, this would be in keeping with the thematic idea that working with others brings out the best in people, but his hypocrisy taints his quest. Not only does he wish harm to everyone in the Light World, but he also uses his magic on his own people to turn them into twisted monsters. This leaves him as the sole Twili in a normal body, isolating him that much further. This isolation spells his downfall, as it gives Midna all the more reason to depose him and take back her crown.
Ganondorf is the last major character to feel the impact of isolation. His exile begins when the Sages seal him away in the Twilight Realm before the game begins. Initially, they sought to execute him, but they are forced to send him to the Twilight Realm when the execution fails, and he kills one of their own. This isolation has the unintended consequence of giving Ganondorf easy access to a world that was ripe for corruption. Naturally, Ganondorf listens to his worst impulses and seeks out a target for his manipulations, which he finds in the equally-isolated Zant. This eventually allows Ganondorf a way back to the Light World, leaving Zant behind to face Link and Midna alone. This decision becomes his undoing when Link defeats a lone Ganondorf in combat and severs his connection to Zant. With no one to support him, Ganondorf dies in total isolation.
The impact of isolation is considered from multiple angles throughout Twilight Princess’s narrative. It affects both individuals and groups, as well as protagonists and antagonists. Those who break free from isolation and ally with others succeed; those who reject others and fight alone fail.
The Role of a Ruler
The role of a ruler is an important theme in Twilight Princess, but it takes some time to come to prominence. Since the First Act is devoted to Link’s relationship with the children of Ordon, there’s little room for the concept of ‘what it means to rule’. It isn’t until Link and Midna meet Princess Zelda for the first time that this theme begins to surface, and it only grows in prominence as the narrative shifts its weight away from the children of Ordon and toward Midna’s character development.
When Link first meets Princess Zelda, he’s still trapped in his wolf form, so Midna is the one to communicate with Zelda. The Hylian princess relates the story of Zant’s attack on the kingdom, where she was asked to choose her people’s fate: either she could surrender the kingdom, or they would all be killed. Zelda chose to surrender, dropping her sword and condemning her people to live as spirits in the Twilight. It’s only later that Midna reveals her true feelings about Zelda’s conversation, saying to Link: “… Don’t fret over Princess Zelda! She chose this state of affairs, after all…” In her eyes, Zelda is the source of Hyrule’s suffering, as she was the one who surrendered to Zant. A ruler who would do that deserves no empathy.
Midna talks more about what it means to rule after Link receives the second Fused Shadow in the Goron mines. She says:
“…Zant will never be my king! I have nothing but scorn for his supposed strength. Not that your Zelda is much better… It still appalls me that this world of light is controlled by that princess. A carefree youth, a life of luxury… How does that teach duty?”
It’s clear from this dialogue that Midna sees duty as an important trait of a ruler and believes that a ruler who lacks a sense of duty is worthless to their people. That sense of duty is developed through hardship, much like the hardship faced in the Twilight Realm. Therefore, a ruler must understand suffering to lead their people properly.
The spirit Lanayru also explores the role of a ruler when cautioning Link and Midna about the Fused Shadow’s power. Their warning: “Those who do not know the danger of wielding power will, before long, be ruled by it.” This introduces the idea that those who seek power are ill-fit to lead, as power itself will come to lead them. To be a proper leader, one must be in control of their own desires. This ties into Midna’s ideas about leadership, as a leader with a strong sense of duty cannot be led by their own impulses.
The introduction of the Mirror of Twilight introduces the concept of a ‘true ruler.’ Although this could be a way of stating that the rulers of the Twilight Realm do so via divine right, Midna’s fixation on being a proper leader suggests that she does not see leadership as a position one inherits. Rather, true leadership should be earned, and it is through effort that one gains the power to shatter the Mirror of Twilight.
Midna’s strong feelings on a ruler’s traits are re-contextualized when the Sages reveal her to be the ousted princess of the Twilight Realm. She’s instantly ashamed, admitting that she has no right to judge them when she fled her own people after being turned into an imp. This gives new meaning to her judgments of both Zelda and Zant, as she deemed them unfit while believing herself to be equally ill-equipped. She expands on this feeling when she and Link return to the Twilight Realm, where she says:
“Regardless of what my reasons may have been, I once abandoned this world… I left behind the Twili. Those who had followed me… Who considered me their ruler… Even now, as they remain here, suffering, they believe that help will come for this world… But if they were to see that the only help for them was a hideous little imp… Don’t you think they’d feel let down? It’s only for a little bit longer…”
The weight of Midna’s role weighs heavily on her shoulders. She sees herself as an improper ruler and wants only the best for the people who followed her. Her guilt only grows when she sees that Zant has placed similar curses on their people, changing their forms in ways she hadn’t anticipated. This proves that he’s an unfit leader, as he lacks the sense of duty to the Twili people that Midna emphasized in the game’s opening act.
When Zant and Midna face off, Zant proclaims his own reasons for believing himself to be the true ruler of the Twili people. He says:
“The people of our tribe…a tribe that mastered the arts of magic…were locked away in this world like insects in a cage. In the shadows we regressed, so much so that we soon knew neither anger nor hatred…nor even the faintest bloom of desire. And all of it was the fault of a useless, do-nothing royal family that had resigned itself to this miserable half-existence! I had served and endured in that depraved household for far too long, my impudent princess. And why, you ask? Because I believed I would be the next to rule our people! THAT is why!”
To Zant, a ruler is not someone with a sense of duty, but someone who actively improves their people’s lives. However, his actions directly contradict his ideals, as he changes the forms of the Twili once he takes control of the realm. Once he has what he wants, he no longer needs the justifications he used to depose Midna. It’s Midna who recognizes this when she says:
“You want to know why none would call you king? It was your eyes, Zant. All saw it, a lust for power burning in your pupils… Did you think we’d forget our ancestors lost their king to such greed?”
While she never argues with him about encouraging their people’s complacency, she knows that his ideals are hollow, and his sense of duty is only to himself.
The last discussion of what it means to rule occurs when Ganondorf and Midna finally meet. As Ganondorf speaks of the Twili people’s power, he states:
“Your people had some skill, to be sure…but they lacked true power. The kind of absolute power that those chosen by the gods wield. He who wields such power would make a suitable king for this world, don’t you think?”
To Ganondorf, authority is purely a product of power. The will of the people and the people’s needs are irrelevant, as are his plans for how he intends to use said authority. In his eyes, all that matters is power.
Midna, a believer in duty and protector of her people, laughs at Ganondorf’s conceit. Their views are in direct opposition, so their conflict is inevitable. In the end, it is Midna who triumphs, as do her ideals. Those ideals are tested a final time when she uses the Mirror of Twilight to return to her people as their reformed leader. As long as the Mirror of Twilight remains, she would be free to visit Link and Zelda as often as she likes, but instead, she chooses to shatter it to close off the two realms. There are many reasons she could have done this, but her rules on a leader’s role doubtlessly impacted her decision. Although she bonded with Link and Zelda, those bonds would only distract her from the hard work of rebuilding the Twilight Realm after Zant’s coup. If her duty is to her people, and a ruler must be willing to suffer hardship, then she had no choice but to get rid of the Mirror and all the temptations that came with it. It’s the same self-sacrifice she learned from Princess Zelda: the sacrifice that makes a true ruler.
The twilight motif is a pervasive force in Twilight Princess, reinforcing the game’s theme of isolation. The twilight hour also acts as a visual cue for anything related to the Midna, Zant, and the Twili people. As the Twili people are so tied to their past sins against Hyrule, the twilight comes to represent regret, as well. This concept is driven home in the game’s very first line, delivered by Rusl when he speaks with Link by the pond. He says:
“Tell me…Do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls? They say it’s the only time when our world intersects with theirs… …The only time we can feel the lingering regrets of spirits who have left our world. That is why loneliness always pervades the hour of twilight…
Although the twilight has a negative connotation to the people of Hyrule, to Midna and her people, its presence in their home makes it a source of comfort. When speaking to Princess Zelda about the Twilight Realm, she remarks: “We actually find it to be quite livable! I mean, is perpetual twilight really all that bad?” Its differing meanings to different characters work well with the concept of twilight itself, as the twilight hour is the connection between daylight and darkness. Just as dusk represents both the end of day and the beginning of night, it can represent both regret and comfort to the different characters in the game.
Another motif that appears throughout Twilight Princess is the monarchy motif, which creates opportunities to explore the role of a ruler. Zelda and Midna are both princesses; Zant and Ganondorf both call themselves king. Hyrule is also peppered with lesser monarchs, both established and self-declared. On the protagonist’s side, the Zora have a legitimate queen and a prince, both of whom feature prominently in an Act II subplot that illustrates the best qualities a ruler can have. The antagonists also have a minor king: the Bulbin King, who proves himself to be a poor leader when he is defeated after pursuing strength. Even the side quests have a monarch of their own: Agitha, self-proclaimed princess of the bugs. She cares deeply for every bug in her kingdom, which makes her as strong a ruler as the princesses who drive the narrative.
Twilight Princess sets itself apart from other entries in the Zelda series by adding narrative symbolism to the mechanical collectibles that drive the plot. Both the Fused Shadows and the Mirror of Twilight have narrative and mechanical value, tying them to the game’s predominant themes.
The Fused Shadows incorporate both of the game’s themes as part of their symbolic meaning. They symbolize the right to rule over the Twili, as they contain the dark magic that once defined the race. Zant and Midna, both rulers of the realm by their own standards, fight to gain control of these artifacts as proof of their authority. Ganondorf, uninterested in the Twilight Realm or its magic, crushes the Fused Shadows with his fist in the game’s climax. He believes his right to rule comes from a greater source: the power of the Triforce. The Fused Shadows also have a connection to the theme of isolation, as they were split apart by the same people who isolated the Twili.
The Mirror of Twilight, the game’s second major collectable, is both a symbolic and literal bridge between the Twilight and the Light realms. As only the true ruler of the Twili can break it, it also reinforces the game’s theme of the role of a ruler. It’s the ruler’s job to decide if the bridge should remain open, or if it should be closed for eternity. At the end of the game, Midna makes the difficult decision to close that bridge by shattering the mirror, permanently separating the two peoples. This both isolates the Twili from the Light World and reconnects Midna with her people, which makes the ending bittersweet.
Twilight Princess also features several symbols shared throughout the Zelda titles, such as the Triforce and the Master Sword. The divine relic known as the Triforce plays a prominent role, but Twilight Princess uses this symbol of divinity and royalty sparingly. It appears on the back of its wielders hands and in the architecture of holy sites (the Temple of Time, Hyrule Castle, Arbiter’s Grounds), but the completed Triforce is never formed in the game and none of the characters directly acknowledge it. It’s only spoken of in indirect terms, as a power that Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf can tap into as needed.
The Master Sword continues to act as a prominent symbol of Link’s growth as a hero in Twilight Princess. As with previous entries in the series, Link receives the Master Sword at the midpoint of the game, after he’s overcome enough trials to prove himself worthy. Once he wields it, he holds the power to cut through any evil force, even the all-powerful Ganondorf.
* Reference Run: SourceSpy91. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – MAIN QUEST – FULL GAME Walkthrough. YouTube, 2019.
** Reference Script: Ashley Bakaitus, Eleanor Bennett, and Daniel Brabander. Twilight Princess Project. http://zelda.obdurodon.org, 2008.