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The Philosophy of The Wind Waker - Part Four

Part Four of a series exploring The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's deeper meaning, communicated through the story, the characters, the setting, and the gameplay mechanics.

Dan Merrill, Blogger

March 28, 2010

26 Min Read

 The Philosophy of The Wind Waker

The Philosophy of The Wind Waker

This is the fourth article of a five-part series devoted to exploring the philosophical meaning and creative integrity of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (released in 2003 for the GameCube). My intent in posting this series here is to help people view this title from a more thoughtful perspective in terms of its underlying significance and how it is achieved. I believe that The Wind Waker is not just a quality game in a popular franchise, but a pioneering work of artistic merit in an industry searching for ways to craft more meaningful experiences for players.


  1. PART FOUR: Planting Seeds

    1. Introduction

    2. The Cracks of Time

    3. How Not to Regret

    4. Spreading Joy

    5. The Passing of Generations

 Part Four: Planting Seeds

Part Four: Planting Seeds


I don’t think I have the power to aid you much, Link…

But I can at least plant a tree here in this soft soil…


As Ganondorf and the King of Hyrule confront each other in the submerged land of Hyrule, one is consumed by the past while the other embraces the future. The game uses symbolic language and imagery to identify the true natures of these two men. One is a stone, and the other is a tree.

Memory of the past weighs on Ganondorf’s mind, cursing him with hopelessness, regret, and homesickness. Upon dying, his body turns to stone, symbolizing the dead weight in his soul and the fruitlessness of his existence. Ganondorf is a forsaken fortress.

Ganondorf becomes a stone statue.

Ganondorf becomes a stone statue.

 The King of Hyrule spends his last moments with Link and Tetra, sharing with them what he has learned from life. The king passes his memory on to the children and asks them to learn from it. Like the Great Deku Tree, who casts his seeds to the wind in the hope that new forests will grow, the king sends Link and Tetra back to their world knowing that they will build a better future for it.

Ganondorf and his memory sink to the bottom of the ocean, but the wisdom of the king rises to the surface and is given new life.

To the world around us we may exist as either a Forsaken Fortress or a Great Deku Tree. We can mourn our own losses and shut out everything else, or we can draw strength from within and then spread that strength to those around us. We can share our power, wisdom, and courage, so that in the end we will be able to say what the King of Hyrule utters at his death: “I have scattered the seeds of the future…”


The Cracks of Time

I must apologize. I was in error.

I saw your clothing, and suddenly I felt a longing for an age gone by…

—The Great Deku Tree

The Wind Waker begins as Link celebrates his birthday – he has become the same age as the young hero spoken of in legend. As Link dons the ceremonial clothes, the adults on the island share the same amazement: how has Link grown so old so quickly? “Time just flies right by,” they say.

Link is a child, and the vibrant cel-shaded graphics of The Wind Waker reflect the way he sees the world: it is young and vibrant, and none of its glory has yet faded. But other characters perceive the world differently. They have seen it change, and they remember how it used to be:

You see this place? There used to be a spring here, surrounded by a beautiful pond… It was peaceful and lovely…

Around the Forest Haven there were once many lush islands that were home to throngs of forest fairies…
When did this place become so barren and sad?
—The King of Red Lions

Before the Fairy Fountain was plugged by that rock, you could always find fairies there. In fact, long ago, I used to put them in empty bottles and play with them.
I don’t see many fairies these days, though.
It’s sad, how life’s little pleasures have a way of slipping through the cracks of time, isn’t it? Ah, well.

To the young, all of life may be like a treasure chest waiting to be opened, a familiar sight in the Zelda games. But those who have grown old may not share this perception. They have already discovered life’s great treasures, and now their land is riddled with emptied chests and memories of past wonder. The world that remains may appear rather bleak, compared to what used to be.

Thus the Great Sea is beautiful and alluring through Link's eyes, but to someone as old as Ganondorf it is empty and desolate:

Oceans… Oceans… Oceans… Oceans…
Oceans as far as the eye can see.
They are vast seas… None can swim across them… They yield no fish to catch…

The Hero of Time's statue might summon nostalgia.

The Hero of Time's statue might summon nostalgia.

The Wind Waker provokes these feelings of nostalgia in older players, those who fondly recall their days spent with Ocarina of Time (released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64). Halfway through the game players enter the world of Hyrule, which is frozen in the past. Inside the castle there is a great stone statue of the player’s former avatar, Link the Hero of Time. Stained glass windows depict each of Ocarina of Time's Six Sages. Newcomers to The Legend of Zelda probably do not think much of these images, but experienced players may take a break from adventuring to stare longingly at the monuments.

Atthe beginning of life, the world may appear similar to the colorful setting of The Wind Waker. But as one grows older and more experienced, the world changes. Simple pleasures are swallowed by time, places of beauty cease to be, and loved ones disappear. Home is lost, and nostalgia can become a dead weight within one's soul.


How Not to Regret

Before Link leaves Outset Island, Tetra delivers this word of caution:

Oh, and one more thing: once we leave, you won’t be coming back here for a while, so you’d better go say good-bye to your family while you have the chance. I don’t want you getting all weepy-eyed and homesick on me!


Linkis preparing to let go of a beautiful home and his loving community. Tetra recognizes the danger of this act: if Link does not find the strength to go on without his island, he will fail his quest. Feelings of regret and homesickness could doom his mission.

As Link prepares to leave, the elderly Sturgeon decides to pass some of his wisdom down to the youngster. Sturgeon shows Link a series of notes hanging on his wall, serving as a sort of instruction manual for The Wind Waker. The notes juxtapose explanations of basic game mechanics with summaries of the life lessons to be learned throughout the game:

Sturgeon’s One-Point Lessons
Lesson Seven: Knowing One’s Own Abilities
To improve one’s life, it is wise to watch (A) and (R) calmly whenever one comes across a person or an object. By doing so, (A) and (R) will pass along wisdom regarding how one can best interact with that person or object. To know one’s own abilities is to know one’s limits.

The presentation of this tutorial not only sets up the symbolic nature of the gameplay, it also foreshadows the speech the King of Hyrule gives at his death:

Sturgeon’s One-Point Lessons
Lesson Five: How Not to Regret the Things One Fails to Do in Life. A VERY IMPORTANT LESSON!
There are many things one longs to do in the limited time one has in this world.
The easiest way not to regret things one wanted, but failed, to do is to save.
While one may feel invincible and wish to continue one’s quest, one never knows when disaster or calamity may strike.
If one’s life energy is extinguished before one has had a chance to save, then one’s life will have been lived in vain.
It is a shame to regret the deeds one has failed to accomplish in life. Press START/PAUSE and choose Save on either the Items screen or the Quest Status screen.

When the king speaks with Link and Tetra, he begins by saying, “My children…Listen to me. I have lived regretting the past. And I have faced those regrets.” He then shares The Wind Waker's very important lesson with the children.

Like Sturgeon, the king realizes that he must pass his wisdom down before it disappears. “If only I could do things over again…” he says. By teaching Link and Tetra what he has learned in life, it is as if he has been granted a second chance.

The king explains his regrets to Link and Tetra.

The king explains his regrets to Link and Tetra.

Before he dies, the King of Hyrule finds the save mechanic Sturgeon refers to in his lesson. He saves the sum of his progress through life by passing it on to another. Because of this, he is able to face death without fear or regret.

Before Link leaves Outset Island, Tetra reminds Link to use that same mechanic. Link runs to the people he loves and tells them good-bye, so that as he goes forward in life he will not suffer regret.

If one plays a game for too long without saving, that player may lose courage when confronted with danger, knowing what stands to be lost. But if the player saves, there is no need to worry.

As Sturgeon’s lesson implies, life comes with its own save mechanic, though it is not as apparent as the save mechanic of The Wind Waker. Saving in a video game means that an accomplishment will be retained, no matter what happens to the player. To save one’s progress in life means the same. The king makes sure his wisdom will outlive his death, and Link makes sure his love for his family will outlast his departure.


Spreading Joy

Upon dying, Ganondorf turns to stone. His life bears no fruit and his death is in vain. The opposite of the stone is the tree, whose value lies in the seeds that it scatters.

Every year after the Koroks perform this ceremony, they fly off to the distant islands on the sea and plant my seeds in the hopes that new forests will grow. Forests hold great power—they can change one tiny island into a much larger land.
Soon, a day will come when all the islands are one, connected by earth and grove. And the people who live on that great island will be able to join hands and, together, create a better world. Such is my dream.
—The Great Deku Tree

The act of planting a seed is equivalent to the act of saving. It creates the hope that the tree's influence will survive, regardless of what befalls the tree itself. The king hopes his words will take root in Link and Tetra and guide their growth. As Link waves good-bye to his grandma, he hopes the memory of his affection will take root and comfort her.

Link's Grandma falls into depression.

Link's Grandma falls into depression.

Sadly, this does not turn out to be the case. When Link returns to Outset, he finds his grandmother crippled by illness and depression:

Ohhh… Uhnnn… Link… Aryll…
Don’t go… Don’t leave… Uhhnnn…
Don’t leave your poor old grandma…
…all alone… Uhnnn… Uhhhnnn…
—Link’s Grandma

A seed needs proper soil and nourishment to grow, and Link’s grandma is too devastated to provide this. She needs to see her children again. When Link does appear at last, his grandma feels rather foolish:

You and your sister, Aryll, are trying so hard to be strong, and I’ve just been sitting here, moaning and worrying…
I’m your grandmother… I’m the one who should be taking care of you…
I’m so sorry, Link. I haven’t even considered what you must be going through. I’m a terrible grandma…
Grandma’s going to try to be strong, so you try to be strong, too!
—Link’s Grandma

In her despair, Link's grandma behaves as a stone, failing to nourish the comforting memory Link left her with. When Link returns, she changes her ways and behaves as a tree again. She begins mailing letters and preparing soup whenever Link comes to visit. She gives her grandson all the support she can so that he will remain strong while he is away.

The merchant Zunari

The merchant Zunari

The difference between a stone and a tree is the difference between selfishness and selflessness, which is demonstrated as the merchant Zunari explains his business aspirations to Link:

I would make plenty of money! Not just plenty of money…it would be like taking candy from many rich babies…
No, no, not even that!
By running a prosperous business, I can play my part to help this town develop and become a happy place… Yes, yes, that is the proper perspective!

As Zunari develops his business and gets to know the people of Windfall, he finds ways to leave his mark on the town. With the help of Miss Marie the schoolteacher he creates the Joyous Volunteer Association, which strives to make Windfall Island a more beautiful place.

Miss Marie the teacher

Miss Marie the teacher

If you must know, the society came into being when the shop master Zunari arrived here. He heard about my efforts to spread joy, and it moved him deeply. He asked himself, “Is there nothing a poor, worthless merchant such as myself might do to make this a better place?” And then, suddenly, his eyes were opened!
That’s when I gave him a little advice: “Do something that only YOU can do!”
…Yes, that’s what I told him, dear!
It was after that that he began to show an interest in volunteer activities…
—Miss Marie

Players can work with Zunari to get a variety of decorative items and foreign trinkets shipped to Windfall. By planting these flags, flowers, totem poles and statues across the island, players can bring the place some new vivacity and lift people's spirits.

A message posted in Miss Marie's classroom

A message posted in Miss Marie's classroom

Those who have played The Wind Waker will likely recall the message that appears whenever Link finds a Joy Pendant: “These pendants are said to flock to those who spread joy, like butterflies to nectar-filled blossoms.” The symbolism of these pendants is quite clear: joy comes to those who spread it.

It is vain to keep one’s joy all to oneself. Like the seeds the Great Deku Tree casts to the wind, joy that is shared allows for the creation of a better world.


The Passing of Generations

This is the only world that your ancestors were able to leave you.
Please…forgive us.
—The King of Hyrule

The king bids Link farewell, handing the world to a new generation.

The king bids Link farewell, handing the world to a new generation.

The world of today will fade away as the future overtakes it. All of its present inhabitants will eventually disappear. But if they remember to save, their influence may survive and continue to grow.

How are things in the world, Link?
As you can see, I am slowly growing older and feebler. It seems only my wisdom is full of vigor lately. But that is just the way of life, child, and not cause for sadness.
—The Great Deku Tree

The sages Laruto and Fado died while praying in the temples for the Master Sword. Because they left no one behind to take their places, the Master Sword lost its potency. Filled with regret, the sages ask Link to find their descendants and teach them the songs of prayer. When Link plays these songs for Medli and Makar, the ghosts of Laruto and Fado appear and share their knowledge with the children.

Laruto teaches Medli a forgotten song.

Laruto teaches Medli a forgotten song.

Hmm… What a mysterious song… It sounds so…familiar.
It’s almost as if something I’ve forgotten is trying to be remembered…

I know myself now!
It is my fate to return the power to repel evil to your Master Sword.
…And to ease the regrets of my ancestors.

The sages pass their memory down to the children, and through this memory the children recognize what they must do to help the world.

Orca teaches Link the art of swordplay.

Orca teaches Link the art of swordplay.

When Link shows a Knight’s Crest to his neighbor Orca, the old swordsman explains that a person who gathers ten of them may learn a powerful sword technique.

Both my brother and I dreamt of learning this technique in our youth. We worked so hard to collect the crests…

But it took many long years and adventures beyond count before we even approached finding ten of them, and we both grew old…


Link, however, collects the ten crests and learns the secret technique. As Orca witnesses this, he realizes that his dream has been fulfilled and weeps with joy. He failed to reach his goal in his own life, but the child he teaches accomplishes it in very little time.

Player's can fail The Wind Waker's optional figurine quest by missing key moments of opportunity, when they must pictograph characters or enemies that appear only once. Like Orca, they might reach the end of the game with missing figurines and a broken dream. But TheWind Waker gives players the option of creating an enhanced save file after they finish the main quest, so they can begin the game again. In this new file, the figurine gallery from the previous play-through remains intact, and players are able to seize the opportunities they once missed.

Lenzo the pictographer mentors Link.

Lenzo the pictographer mentors Link.

The renowned pictographer Lenzo has learned much about pictography and life, and he uses his experience to help others lead better lives. He watches as Anton and Linda miss opportunity, as Garrickson wastes his days, and he tries to intervene. He mentors Link as well, passing on his knowledge of pictography to a youngster just beginning to explore this field.

Kreeb, another resident of Windfall, describes the lighthouse that used to send a beacon in the night. His words are like those of other characters in the game who long for the past, but there is a different nuance here:

This tower was originally used as a lighthouse for Windfall Island, you know.
Yeah, it used to send a bright shaft of light onto the night sea—sort of a safety beacon.
…But that was quite some time ago.
Even now, what’s left of that lighthouse’s illumination device still spins around up top, all night, every night.
…But its fire remains extinguished.
Isn’t that a sad story? And it doesn’t have to be. I bet that thing would light up again if someone could just get a spark of fire inside it.

Link restores the lighthouse's extinguished fire.

Link restores the lighthouse's extinguished fire.

His words have a particular subtext set against the backdrop of The Wind Waker's story. As Kreeb speaks of the extinguished fire and the dormant illumination device, the imagery recalls the fate of the legendary hero of long ago. The Hero of Time was once a beacon of light in the midst of Ganondorf's darkness, but this light has gone out. The Master Sword, the illumination device, remains, its power lost but its potential alive. The lighthouse waits for a new hero to restore the flame.


Yes, surely you are the Hero of Time, reborn…

The crest of Hyrule takes the form of a phoenix. As one of the game's prominent symbols, it represents the theme of rebirth. When a phoenix dies, a new one rises from its ashes. This is the nature of life. Hyrule was lost, but Link's generation will find new land. The young revitalize the aging world.

The crest of Hyrule is a phoenix.

The crest of Hyrule is a phoenix.

Nothing can stop the flow of time or the passing of generations…but the fate carried within my bloodline endures the ravages of all the years. It survives.

As we grow old, life’s little pleasures become extinguished. Sources of strength, comfort, and beauty fall into the cracks of time. But this is not cause for sadness. External beauty transforms into internal beauty as it becomes memory. Whether this memory is a seed or a stone depends on the nature of the one who carries it.

We choose whether to live as a Forsaken Fortress or a Great Deku Tree. As a tree we leave behind seeds filled with potential. If they are nurtured and given soft soil, they grow into new trees and bring comfort, strength, and joy to others. As time passes a forest will grow, and a better world will be left for the generations that are to come.

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