In the beginning, Zelda was rather, well, one-dimensional. She was a princess that needed rescued, very much like the Mario games. And that is really almost all we have to say about her at the dawn of the Zelda franchise, despite the very title of that franchise. True, Zelda was brave to stand up to the prince, but there isn’t much more to go on (especially since the comics aren’t a valid source at all). It shouldn’t be a big surprise, however, because the story simply wasn’t as important then as it is now. In the beginning of Link to the Past, she gets to show a bit more character, as she and Link travel through Hyrule Castle. And Link to the Past is an indicator of the general trend in gaming-the greater emphasis on plot. However, the characters are usually there to be props for the plot or the gameplay. When we get to Link’s Awakening, we find the characters starting to take a greater importance in the story. But it isn’t until the advent of Ocarina of Time that characterization became fully integrated into the story.
Zelda the Child
I’m talking about the person commonly referred to as “Zelda I,” here. As a child, Zelda I has a kind of ethereal quality to her, and she apparently desires wisdom above all else. And yet despite these qualities, she certainly has many of the qualities we might expect to find in a portrayal of a child. She is full of innocence, looking at the world with bright eyed wonder. Perhaps as a result, she is very trusting. She is especially confident in herself and in the supernatural. When she receives the dream, she is sure she knows that it was meaningful, and not merely an ordinary dream. And she is sure she knows what it precisely means, despite the somewhat ambiguous imagery of the dream (of course, the fact that she has psychic powers helps). She doesn’t stop to question her conclusions, but stubbornly insists that she’s correct, no matter what others say. And if Link (the player) responds negatively to her pleas, she responds in shock before she swiftly recovers an expectant facial expression (yes, I do realize that on another, more critical level, it’s because the game must progress). Such is the great faith she puts into her insight. And unfortunately, that insight may be flawed. True, her interpretation of the dream turned out to be quite correct. But at the most basic level her “solution” ended up being the very tool for evil to gain its stranglehold on the land. Her understanding of the solution is simplistic. “We will do this and that, and viola! A snap of the fingers, and we’ve defeated evil! Smashing!”
There are two more defining characteristics of Zelda as a child-and that is her melodramatic and lofty view of the world. If a rose in her garden died, you might imagine her saying, “Alack! This was a small green sprig of life, a flower of radiance, bearing its bright petals into the face of the dawn! And now darkness has risen, and smote it! But, I, the Princess of Destiny will bring it back!” That’s certainly an exaggerated characterization, and the events in the game itself are much more serious than a rose dying, but I think you get the idea. She has the imagination of a child, but when that is coupled with the fact that she is royalty, it creates something new. She’s been raised as a dignitary, a royal person pampered and placed on a high, cushioned seat, isolated from the world below her. So on the one hand, she’s a typical royal princess, in that she’s pampered. And on the other hand she’s a typical royal princess in that she’s isolated from society (the security forces marshaled around her as but one hint of that). What would sustain her but a powerful imagination and the notion that she is the queen of the world and that she alone can truly save it? “Down to earth” she ain’t!
These characteristics are what define her relationships with other people. We never get a glimpse of her father, and yet we get the idea that he certainly loves her and wants to protect her, but that he’s so used to her confidence and melodrama that he doesn’t pay attention to her omens. Impa seems to be her sole confident, and even then, we don’t get much of an insight into their relationship beyond the professional level.
It’s her relationship with Link, then, that we know the most about, which should come as no surprise given that our meeting with her comes through the eyes of Link. The whole style of the scene in the castle, especially the music, shows us just how Link views her. It’s all very surreal, like a dream. Here he is, a boy who has only known the woods all his life, and is suddenly swept away into a high society, a mystical, lofty world far, far above him-a world that, at the same time, he can never really be part of. And hence, he ends up, at the beginning of Majora’s Mask, wandering into the forest on his horse, alone. But I digress-after all, this isn’t a character analysis of Link. The gist of the relationship between Zelda and Link is that it’s a friendship, but a very unique one. The encounter with Zelda is sort of mystical and ethereal, rather like an encounter with some alien being. Or to use Lord of the Rings as an analogy, it’s like Frodo meeting Galadriel. There’s definitely a bond there, a bond formed by destiny, through being fellow chess pieces in a grander, cosmic drama. And yet despite that bond, there is a kind of distance between them, like the distance between a pawn and a queen. In the end, they must part. In the case of Link and Zelda, they know it will essentially be the end of their contact as friends, with only the ocarina as to keep that bond of friendship, a memory of their shared part in that cosmic drama.
Zelda the Adult
And that brings us to Zelda as an adult. While Link slumbered those 7 years, untouched by the terrible things happening to the world, Zelda had to endure it all. She had to endure the separation from her once cushioned life in the castle, and had to lurk in the shadows under a new identity. She’s suffered much pain, and so she has lost her innocent view of life. She looks on things with almost a kind of bitterness, a kind of sadness at the change of the world. She now understands things much better, and tells Link with regret, “All the tragedy that has befallen Hyrule was my doing . . . I was so young . . . I could not comprehend the consequences of trying to control the Sacred Realm. I dragged you into it, too. Now it is time for me to make up for my mistakes.” Her new outlook on life, of course, is also visible before that in her dialogue as Sheik.
And yet despite that new, sadder outlook on life, she still retains characteristics that she had as a child. Most obviously, her apparently tomboyish tendencies as a child (as told by the gossip stone, anyway) truly manifested themselves in the persona of Sheik. But even as Sheik, she speaks in melodrama, and not entirely because of the need for secrecy.
She is much wiser and much more well connected with the world. But on the other hand, there is that moment when she reveals herself as Zelda, only to be whisked away in a crystal. That act certainly wasn’t consistent with the Triforce of Wisdom, but it certainly fitted with Zelda’s personality!
She apparently has many more relationships now, but again, we only really know very much about her relationship with Link. Indeed, she’s been waiting for all her life for his return, for the part that the Hero of Time must play in the cosmic drama. Zelda and Link are friends as adults, and yet she is still above Link. It is a bond through destiny, and is therefore somewhat stilted. It is little surprise then that when all has been won, they must part, probably for the last time, and go back to their own worlds.
P.S. What about Tetra?
As everyone is aware, The Wind Waker invokes a new change in the characterization of Zelda. This time she’s not some high and lofty mystical princess that will never be part of Link’s world, but is actually more grounded in reality than Link is. Of course in part, this is because Link himself is much more naïve than his Hero of Time counterpart. But Tetra is radically different from any of the other incarnations of Zelda, and certainly deserves her own discussion. Her personality is much more interesting than that of her predecessors, and much more obvious. She’s sassy, smart, and witty, if a bit crass at times. We get to see her relationship with many people, not only with Link. And speaking of Link, Tetra and Link develop such an interesting chemistry that even if it wasn’t for certain specific hints in the game, we’d suspect that they were a little more than just friends. In any event, Tetra has such a complex character, has so many relationships with so many different characters, and has such a different relationship with Link than the previous Zelda, that a character study of Tetra really deserves its own article.