This is the story they used to tell in the lands of Ordon.
A long time ago…
Many generations passed, before these lands were called Hyrule, its spirits sang a different song. The first people to land on these shores were the People of the Art, and thunder and lighting heralded their arrival as they rode their storm-ships down the sky into the barrows and fields. The People were very skilled sorcerers and oracles, and as they wove song-lines across the mythic landscape it was said The Art must have been part of the very fabric of their being. And when they spoke, their voices and those of the spirits were one.
The People were ruled by a well-loved and well-respected Shaman-Queen, who was unmatched in beauty as she was in spiritual power. The Queen ruled from her palace in the hills. She was very wise, consorting and allying with the Wolves and the Birds, whose language she could speak as fluently as her own and with whom she discussed the Mysteries of the Universe. The Queen rarely interacted with her subjects directly, but took questions and answers relayed through a male attendant and companion. Though she was rarely seen, her work was strong and kind and she was said to give very good counsel.
This is how it was for many years and many cycles, until one day the foreigners came to this land. The People of the Golden Goddesses came, and they brought new customs and new ways and new gods, and after a time the old arts and the old gods weren’t welcome anymore. There was a great war between the native people and the settlers, with much great and terrible fighting. The settlers did not like the ways of the land they found, and desired to change them to be more like their own. The natives fought back using all manner of magical weapons and techniques. Some of their warrior-shamans crafted a special mask used for hexing rituals and gave it to the berserker soldiers. It was said those who wore it were possessed by a fiery spirit of vengeance and wrath
The Queen predicted the natives would be see early victories, and this was true: For a time they were successful in repelling the invaders, but eventually their descendants got tired of fighting and stopped. The younger people, who had grown up knowing the ways of the settlers and alongside their own children couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Eventually, it came to pass that the People of the Art would retreat through the mountains and the barrows into the Otherworld, waiting for a time when they would be Remembered once more. In time the younger people even selected one of their generals to be king, but even in those days they loved the Queen very much and did not want to forget her, so the king would have to go to the hills as part of the coronation ritual to ceremonially ask for her counsel and protection.
As the years went on, many new stories came to be told about the land and its history. Some say that in the liminal hours and days of Twilight, when the veil between worlds becomes translucent, you can still see the spirits of those who came before solemnly marching from hill to hill. And in the country provinces tales have been told by the grandmothers of a cheerful yet mischievous imp who wanders the land lurking in the shadows, occasionally jumping forth to play pranks on the hapless humans she meets along the way. But though she was a trickster, if you paid her respect and acted kindly to her, she would repay you in turn with acts of goodness and kindness. Some people say that if you hear a lone Wolf howl during the time of Twilight, that was the sign that she was present and that you should give thanks and good thoughts, else she play a trick on you and yours.
The Heresy of Zelda is the the song of the autonomous woman, and for the Legend to continue, it must hold a wake for her. The dark half of the year is well upon us, and on this day we remember the dead who have left us to join the ancestors in the mountains as Twilight covers the land.
Inescapably, the shade of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before it) hangs over The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess like a funerary shroud. Perhaps…A Hero’s Shade? Not just mere references, serial progression or echoed act structure; this time literally all of Ocarina of Time‘s and A Link to the Past‘s plot is reconstructed and rebuilt wholecloth: Gorons on Death Mountain. Zora’s Domain and its Freezing. A vast Hyrule Field. Sages, princesses and Other Worlds. Shades even of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, itself a shadow of its predecessor: Twin worlds of Light and Darkness, and monsters of shadow declaring war on the Other World. It’s a story the young people have not heard before, but this isn’t a story for the young people, is it? We are well and truly into our Twilight years now, not just for Nintendo and the GameCube but for the Zelda Legend and its fans. Twilight Princess was released on the GameCube in the very final year of its life, nay, on it’s final day, launching the same date as the GameCube’s successor, the extremely populist-oriented Nintendo Wii, and even getting a port on that console as a launch title. And yet even so, it is a game explicitly made for the Hardcore Nintendo and Zelda Fans. And it’s at this point Zelda writes her own future. And her own obituary.
Except this future has always been written. This is the future we have always been prophesied, and it has come to pass.
Midna is something new. And something old. Older than Twilight Princess, being one of the first things revealed of that game before it had that name. Older, perhaps, than time itself. Certainly older than Link and those who identify with him can comprehend or are comfortable with accepting. And like any elder, she entreats us to Remember: As was famously talked up in previews and demonstrations, she (and the pixelated effects of her Realm) is the only remnant of the cel shaded graphical art style that defined The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to be seen in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Even in defeat-especially in defeat-The paths not taken and forsaken continue to haunt. Midna’s appearance and demeanour suggest a darker, hardened and more cynical Tetra, though sprightly still (Tetra’s model from The Wind Waker was even used as a placeholder for Midna to test Wolf Link’s animations in early builds of Twilight Princess). And she is not the first Imp to upend The Legend of Zelda with mischief.
Midna’s story is also diegetically marginal and heretical. Everyone knows how Zant’s villain story was co-opted by the return of Ganondorf. Less known, though clearly deliberate, is how Midna’s hero story was co-opted by the return of Link and Zelda. A Queen deposed, this is clearly her quest for redemption, and while Link has a stake in things, his role is to be an Ally, not a Hero. The Twilight Realm itself exists because the ancestors of the Twili, ancient sorcerers and magicians, supposedly worked magick that went against the Golden Goddesses. In other words, they were heretics and blasphemers, Pagans by any other name. Indeed, why is the Twilight Realm such a threat to Hyrule? Because Midna is a Queen in Exile (note how Twilight Princess returns to The Legend of Zelda the “princess regnant” of Zelda no Densetsu: The only reason Midna and Zelda cannot be called the Queens they plainly are is because of the conventions of children’s fantasy, specifically children’s fantasy for boys), and her domain is all that is abandoned, unwanted and taboo. The unseemly marginalia discarded by polite society and the Master Narrative of history.
And this is why the story ends the way it does. But that’s a story for another time.
Midna has more to tell, but, for the moment, what of Link? In the wake of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and the forebears it created, Link’s quest can no longer be a rite of passage and, sure enough, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is not. It is the first Legend of Zelda valued primarily because it is The Legend of Zelda: Zelda done as ritual because its iconography is valued in and of itself. What it means to be Hero has changed, is changing. Link’s initial motivation is to rescue Ilia, much like the Link of The Wind Waker‘s initial motivation was to rescue Aryll (though this connection is, obviously, not spoken of in loud voices). As befitting Link’s (re)new(ed) masculine sexuality (the fans demanded it), the damsel has become an implied love interest instead of a sister. There is perhaps the ghost of the coming of age ritual here: Link’s supposed recklessness early in the game’s tutorial alienated him from Ilia, and he apparently must redeem himself by maturing. But this doesn’t really go anywhere, and soon thereafter Midna appears and recruits Link to help her in her own quest.
If there is a quest in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, it is a quest to discover there is heroism in not being a hero. There is goodness in helping and supporting others on their own journey. Things are framed in terms of the epic, but the residual echoes of the mythic-mundane of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask can be heard still, reverberating through the inky Twilight. There’s even a Skull Kid. There is, of course, a Missing Third princess here, after Midna and Zelda: Agitha, Princess of Insects. She is evidently based on the late Heian poem of “The Princess Who Loved Insects”, a court lady who shunned etiquette and decorum, much preferring to spend her days in the field studying insects. There is a famous line in this poem about respecting the usefulness of the caterpillar as well as the beauty of the butterfly it transforms into (and Agitha has a butterfly motif), but this poem would likely not have been interpreted in its day the way we might like to interpret it. But there have been redemptive tellings before; Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind being merely the best.
Like Midna, Agitha is a self-proclaimed princess, and Link only has her word to go by. But while Midna eventually does get a form of validation, Agitha remains marginal and uncertain. Also like Midna, Agitha gets Link to help her, in this case asking him to round up 12 mated pairs of her Golden Bug subjects whom she had invited to an Insect Ball in her castle-house (fittingly, in Hyrule Castle Town). Agitha’s quest appears random and irrelevant, and most people would probably dismiss her without a second thought as being irredeemably odd and eccentric. But Link takes time out of his important mission to make a little girl happy, and he is rewarded for doing so. “By doing one good deed, a child becomes an adult”. The Gothic Lolita influence in Agitha’s outfit, the design of her castle-house and her general demeanour also evoke Alice in Wonderland; further echoes of Zelda’s forgotten autonomous feminine.
Forgotten and remembered, perhaps, but never embraced. There is only one way this story could ever end.
If there is goodness in playing the supporting role, then this is where Midna’s true power lies. It’s her story, but it’s a story forever destined to only lurk the shadows of The Legend of Zelda. And here, Midna is Goddess: As confident and sexually intimidating as a character in a Nintendo-developed children’s game is allowed to be, Midna channels the Shaman-Queens of old, her true nature only fully revealed in the game’s closing moments as she wields the Mirror of Twilight-An unmistakable and sacred tool of her people. Since ancient times, shamans and spirit-workers in the Siberian tradition have used bronze mirrors as tools of the craft, as agents of divination, personal talismans or holy shields. Himiko, Shaman-Queen of Yamatai in Wa (in what is now Japan) was said to have used Magic Mirrors gifted to her by Emperor Cao Rui of Wei in China. And to this day Imperial State Shinto venerates the Mirror as one of the Three Sacred Treasures gifted to the Imperial Dynasty by Amaterasu-ōmikami-sama.
It is said mirrors are sacred because they represent honesty. They reflect that which is in front of them and show a person’s true self. But this cannot be entirely true: It is only glass mirrors that present a clear reflection of the observer, and glass mirrors are a relatively recent invention. The mirrors used by Siberian shamans and Queens like Himiko were made of bronze, and their reflective surfaces were far more opaque. Though they would reflect light, their primary purpose seems to have been to project rather than reflect: Small inscriptions on the back end cast scaled up images when light hit them at a certain angle, and it is probable these displays were part of the rituals the mirrors were used in. And even a glass mirror reflects a distorted image-The reflection of you is not the way others see you, it is a reversed optical illusion.
Indeed, there are many mirror motifs in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess apart from just Midna’s Twilight Mirror. Link is traditionally left-handed, but since more people are right-handed when the time came to create the Nintendo Wii version of the game, which employed motion control technology for the first time, the decision was made to simply flip, or mirror, the entire game world at the last minute so that Link would appear to be right-handed in an attempt to appeal to more players. And it would be mirrored once more for the WiiU re-release The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, returning it to its “pure” GameCube state. Twilight Princess HD also abandoned the Wii version’s motion control (and the populism associated with it) and, like its predecessor The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, once again ramped up the difficulty. For if an HD re-release of a GameCube Zelda game on the WiiU in 2013 smacked of giving in to the series’ Hardcore fanbase, it’s impossible to read an HD re-release of the GameCube Zelda game literally designed to explicitly do exactly that on the WiiU in 2016 any other way.
The neoplatonists use mirrors as a metaphor for their belief the material world is an inaccurate, flawed image of the perfect immaterial realm. By contrast Shinto, like other Japanese and Asian traditions, claim that mirrors are the dwelling places of someone’s soul or essence, a person’s pure spiritual side, and can also be used to ward off evil. Ancient mirrors were circular like the stars, and circular in the way The Power of the World works. And any mirror, glass, bronze or obsidian, has a polished surface: Mirrors can shine when light hits them, and any mirror gives the impression of containing an Other World invisible to us under normal circumstances: An Other World that we are a part of, or at least a version of ourselves. For when we look into a mirror, it’s hard not to see a semblance of ourselves looking back. Which world do you see when you look into the mirror? Which side of the Looking-Glass are you on?
Behold the Shaman-Queen, her True Self revealed. She is the Autonomous Woman. She is Midna, Zelda, Tetra, Marin and the Hero of Time. She is the fairies, the elves, the oracles, the Sacred Priestesses, the kami and the Goddess. And she is You. And she has no place in The Legend of Zelda. Not in a world of Heroes and Princesses and Epic Fantasies. “Light and shadow can’t mix, as we all know. But… Never forget that there’s another world bound to this one”. In order for this story to end, Midna has to be made supporting and subordinate to Link and Zelda (the English localization, made for the benefit of Zelda’s overwhelmingly Western fanbase, even changes some of the dialog and plot points to imply Midna might have a crush on Link, implications that are nowhere to be found in the original Japanese text). For Midna is everything Zelda could be abandoned and rejected in favour of the one thing it used to be, and so she must be in the wrong somehow. And when she leaves to retreat into the Otherworld, she leaves for good and we can never see her again. The woman of the sídhe weeps, and the mirror shatters. This is what we have made, and this is the choice we must now live with.