Why Ganondorf Was Wrong in ‘The Wind Waker’

The Wind Waker

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is that, as the player, it’s not your job to prevent the end the world. Rather, your goal is to ensure an apocalypse that has already occurred is not reversed. In an ironic role-reversal, it’s the villain of the game, Ganondorf, who wants to save the world by correcting a cataclysmic ecological disaster. He is not wrong to do so. Why, then, is he the villain?

The Wind Waker encourages the player to understand that the natural world must be allowed to transform itself at its own pace without drastic human intervention. Ganondorf is not wrong for wanting to save the world, but the deeper message of The Wind Waker is that the world does not, in fact, need to be saved.

The Wind Waker has a backstory that is surprisingly dark and complicated for a game with such cute graphics. It’s difficult to explain how the apocalypse that proceeds the game happened, but suffice it to say that, because of an environmental apocalypse, the once-flourishing land of Hyrule lies beneath a seemingly endless body of water referred to only as “the Great Sea.” No one remembers the ancient kingdom, and people live on small islands rising from the waves.

Link’s journey begins on one such island, appropriately named Outset Island. A giant bird suddenly appears and kidnaps his sister Aryll, so he hitches a ride with a passing gang of pirates who deliver him to another island called “the Forsaken Fortress,” which is rumored to serve as the base of operations of someone searching for girls with pointed ears — a marker of the ethnic heritage of the royal Hylian race.

The master of the Forsaken Fortress is Ganondorf, and he is in fact searching for the descendent of Princess Zelda. Before Hyrule was flooded, the Hylian kings and queens guarded a magical artifact called the Triforce, which was said to have the power to grant the wishes of anyone who touched it. Knowing that Zelda’s descendent will be able to lead him to the Triforce, Ganondorf scours the Great Sea for her, hoping to use the Triforce to make the waters of the Great Sea vanish. Link’s sister turns out to not be Zelda’s descendent, but this has nothing to do with the boy’s desire to rescue her, and so his quest begins.

The Wind Waker

In The Wind Waker, the player’s main goal is to defeat Ganondorf. This goal is established through various methods of exposition, which are strongly reinforced by the gameplay. Link confronts Ganondorf at several points in the game, but Ganondorf never makes any move to harm him — even going so far as to say that he does not wish to kill the boy, despite the fact that Link has attempted to attack him. Nevertheless, every step the player takes to progress the story involves finding the means to harm Ganondorf, and the player cannot successfully complete the game unless Ganondorf is violently vanquished.

In other words: the game offers no other option to resolve its battles save for physical force. Link cannot, for example, talk to Ganondorf or try to reason with him. Various characters in the game justify this murder by describing Ganondorf as the mythical demon Ganon, the supposed “emperor of the dark realm,” and Link is never given any cause to question this demonization.

The player, however, is offered multiple indications that Ganondorf is not a monster. On the occasions when Link confronts him, he speaks in strikingly lyrical language, both in the original Japanese version of the game and in the English-language localization. At the end of The Wind Waker, immediately before the final boss battle, Ganondorf delivers a monologue explaining why he once attacked Hyrule, thus beginning the war that ultimately resulted in the apocalypse. In the era before the flood, Ganondorf was the leader of a minority ethnicity living on the inhospitable fringes of the prosperous kingdom of Hyrule. He says:

“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing … Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.”

In the English translation, Ganondorf engages in rhetorical flights of fancy, which are intended to convey the highly poetic nature of his speech in Japanese. The original Japanese for his iconic statement “I coveted that wind, I suppose” is Washi wa, kono kaze ga hoshikatta no kamo shirenu, a sentence that serves as a good example of his tone. For “I suppose,” he uses the premodern verbal conjugation shiranu instead of the contemporary shiranai, and he also uses the first-person pronoun washi, which was much more common in the late nineteenth century than it is in the present.

Ganondorf’s word choices — many of which are drawn from classical poetry — could constitute an entirely separate essay, but what even a young Japanese player would pick up from his pronouns and verbal conjugation is that he uses the language of a statesman from the late nineteenth century, when Japan was establishing itself as a modern industrialized nation. The archaic touches of Ganondorf’s language therefore mark him as standing outside of the flow of time in a world that has already moved on without him.

Despite having been magically sealed away by the flood that was summoned by the people of Hyrule to douse the flames of war, Ganondorf is acutely aware of the harsh conditions of the present world. In another monologue addressed to Link, he claims that life on the Great Sea is slowly fading away, and that the waters of the post-apocalyptic ocean do not nourish life, but destroy it. By this point in the game, an astute player will have already suspected this, as Link cannot swim in the Great Sea for more than a few seconds, nor are there representations of fish or other aquatic life anywhere in The Wind Waker. Even as Ganondorf nostalgically yearns for the greener world of the past, he despairs for the slow decline of humanity in the present.

Ganondorf’s poetic language and his desire to restore Hyrule to its former glory hardly characterizes him as a mindless, rampaging brute of a villain. When he laments the loss of beauty and culture caused by the apocalypse, he is not wrong. When he attacked Hyrule as the leader of an oppressed minority, he was not wrong. Although the gameplay forces the player to confront, attack, and eventually impale Ganondorf with the legendary Master Sword, many fans of the Zelda series have expressed sympathy for the character in the fifteen years since the game’s initial release.

So why does the player have to kill Ganondorf at the end of The Wind Waker? Why not allow him to use the magic of the Triforce to resurrect the lost kingdom of Hyrule, with its green fields and gentle wind? This is where ecocriticism — specifically ecological feminism — can serve as a useful a critical lens.

The Wind Waker

In their 1993 co-authored essay collection Ecofeminism, sociologist Maria Mies and physicist Vandana Shiva argue for a view of “the world as an active subject, not merely as a resource to be manipulated and appropriated.” Furthermore, the authors encourage the reader to problematize state-driven concepts such as scientific progress and efficient resource management “by exposing the destruction inherent in much of what capitalistic patriarchy has defined as productive.”

Essentially, Mies and Shiva entreat us to question the media discourses and political policies that encourage the forceful reshaping of environments that are not “productive” to large-scale human interests. Although an ecological feminist approach to the environment is not antihuman by any means, it advocates for a less anthropocentric viewpoint. Humans can precipitate and mitigate ecological disasters, but we cannot prevent or control them.

The legacy of ecological feminism has continued to the present day, with popular audience books such as Annalee Newitz’s 2013 speculative thought experiment Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction becoming a bestseller and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2014. As we have come to see the dangers and flaws inherent in a modernist understanding of the environment in which the state regulates the natural world, we have begun to imagine what the peaceful end of human society as we know it would look like.

The embrace of the apocalypse has been a recurrent theme in many works of Japanese popular culture as well. Writing on animator Hayao Miyazaki’s epic seven-volume graphic novel Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — whose heroine chooses to allow the people of her world to die so that the environment might take its own course — literary scholar Peter Paik points out that the process of halting or reversing an ecological disaster is rarely portrayed as a just or moral action in Japanese science fiction, especially when there is no real difference between the means of salvation and nature of the initial destruction.

What Ganondorf does not seem to understand is that the magical wish-granting Triforce, which was used to trigger the watery demise of Hyrule, cannot be used to suddenly force the Great Sea to vanish without incurring the same environmental shock as the initial apocalypse. Furthermore, Ganondorf only views the environment in its relation to humanity. He privileges the gentle wind of Hyrule over the harsh winds of the desert and the Great Sea, and he will do anything in his power to claim this resource for himself. He does not consider the effect of his actions regarding the natural world on individual lives, but only on the greater scale of nation, progress, and productivity.

This is why — according to the value system of The Wind Waker — Ganondorf is indeed wrong, and this is why he plays the role of the villain of the game. As indicated by his poetic yet archaic language, he represents a mode of thought that belongs to the past and must be dispatched in order for humanity to begin to reevaluate its place in the natural world.

The Wind Waker is a post-apocalyptic narrative through which elegiac stories play out against a setting in which human civilization is already in decline. Far from presenting the gradual downfall of humanity and our political power structures as a fate to be avoided, however, The Wind Waker encourages its audience to consider the apocalypse in a positive light. By allowing the player to experience the thrill of exploring a beautiful world largely devoid of people, The Wind Waker reconfigures ethical valuations of villainy and heroism through a fantasy in which humanity is not privileged over the environment and its natural processes.

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6 Comments on “Why Ganondorf Was Wrong in ‘The Wind Waker’

  1. While not entirely relevant to the perspective this text analyzes The Wind Waker from, I think it’s also worth acknowledging that… Ganondorf lies.

    “When he attacked Hyrule as the leader of an oppressed minority, he was not wrong.”

    The thing here is that we saw the consequences of Ganondorf attacking Hyrule, since this is referring back to the events of Ocarina of Time (and the years that followed, after Link’s disappearance).

    The man leveled the royal castle, built himself a tower, oppressed the good people of the nation as best he could, but left his own people — the Gerudo — in the very desert he thought so poorly of. Ganondorf is well-spoken and manipulative, which is how he got in the good grazes of the king of Hyrule to begin with, but ultimately he’s a selfish man who doesn’t even care about his own people. Even as a man, he is still the Demon King, Demise.

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  2. One of the major goals of intersectional feminism is to create a space for voices that have been silenced by imperialistic and patriarchal social and political systems. From a third-wave feminist perspective, it is easy to argue that we attempt to empower “damsels” by learning their stories from their own subjective perspectives, which may not fit neatly into traditional heroic narratives. It is more difficult to argue that we should try to understand “villains” who act in ways we do not immediately understand – but it is still important, especially when what is coded as “villainous” and “other” in these characters reflects real-world systems of prejudice and discrimination.

    When you write that “Ganondorf lies,” I think you may want to reconsider the limitations of your unwillingness to look beyond the surface narrative of the games. In The Wind Waker in particular, it is not Ganondorf who lies to Link (and, by association, to the player), but the King of Red Lions, who is of course the former King of Hyrule, Daphnes. I have a great deal of sympathy for Daphnes (and he deserves his own essay, although not in the comments section of this one), but he withholds the full truth about what’s going on and what he wants Link to do until relatively late in the game. Link just wants to save his sister, yet from their first conversation Daphnes uses strong language to persuade the boy that the only way he can do so is by killing Ganondorf. He does this by demonizing Ganondorf: “He is the very same Ganon… The emperor of the dark realm the ancient legends speak of…” In other words, he lies to Link in order to literally demonize his enemy.

    What’s so interesting about Ganondorf’s monologues in The Wind Waker is that he tries to explain himself by telling the truth. The hero of this era is still a child, and perhaps he can be reasoned with. Link interrupts Ganondorf on all three occasions by drawing his sword, fully intending to fight to the death, but still Ganondorf attempts to speak with him. In the first monologue (at the Forsaken Fortress), he introduces himself – he is Ganondorf, not the demon Ganon. In the second monologue (at Tetra’s bedside), he explains that life on the Great Sea is fading away. In the third monologue (at the top of Ganon’s Tower), he delivers a highly lyrical elegy for the beauty of the lost kingdom he wishes to “expose once more to the rays of the sun.”

    Unfortunately, no one is willing to listen to him. Everyone has told Link that Ganondorf is evil, and there’s no need to care about his side of the story. Does it matter if he’s right about the magical waters of the Great Sea being hostile to life? Does it matter if he wants to reestablish a homeland not just for his people, but for everyone who has been denied the gentle winds of Hyrule? Does it matter whether he’s pursuing the Triforce because he sincerely regrets his past actions (whatever they may have been) and seeks redemption?

    Of course it doesn’t matter. Drive a sword through his skull! After all, killing Ganondorf is much easier than trying to understand him.

    I’m not saying that Ganondorf is blameless. Rather, I think it’s just as problematic to slot him into an “evil villain” role as it is to try to fit Zelda into a “helpless damsel” role. Once we start to consider that he might have his own set of legitimate motivations, the world of the Zelda games becomes much deeper and more interesting. For example, Ganondorf is accused of ruining Hyrule in Ocarina of Time, but Hyrule was already a very scary place – decimated by war and haunted by the restless undead – before he ever set foot there. To give another example, in Twilight Princess we are told that it is Ganondorf who is evil and not the Sages who sentenced him to execution without a trial, but it’s strange that there are no people called the “Gerudo” in the wasteland to which they’ve lent their name, only the empty ruins of a prison bearing Hyrule’s imperial crest. At the end of Twilight Princess, when Ganondorf says that “the history of light and shadow will be written in blood,” he is not wrong. Hyrule is indeed a bloody place with a long history of divinely sanctioned genocide, which is one of the reasons why I’ve argued that perhaps it’s better that the kingdom remains under the Great Sea.

    What I really want to say with this essay is that video games deserve the same level of critical attention that many of us are taught to apply to other forms of narrative media, such as films and novels. It’s a significantly trickier to “read” games, as different play styles may result in the player picking up different bits of information, different story threads, different points of view, and so on, but many of these texts are rich enough to give rise multiple interpretations if only the player is willing to dive beneath the surface of their narratives and see their characters as complex individuals instead of mere tropes. The critical lens of intersectional feminism, which encourages us to see stories from marginalized perspectives, is absolutely crucial to this project. Instead of blithely grouping certain types of NPCs into the category of “monsters,” it can be productive to analysis to ask where this designation comes from in the first place and to seriously question whether (or why) it is valid.

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    • Yeah, like I said, my comment wasn’t entirely to the perspective of your text. Which I liked a lot and thought was really interesting. The way my mind works, though, I have a hard time setting aside the established lore of the series and analyzing a game as a standalone story.

      Anyway, I also think it’s a shame that the Gerudo (who are obviously inspired in part by both Arabs and the Amazons/Scythian women) haven’t been treated better by the Zelda team. Exploring the ancient past of the Hylian people in Skyward Sword was interesting, but I’d love to see a game with the Gerudo people cast as the primary protagonist faction.

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  3. A note- There are absolutely fish in the Great Sea, such as the ones you get the Sea Charts from, and Link can’t swim in the Great Sea for extended periods of time simply due to stamina.

    I feel that this article extaggerates how hostile the Great Sea is- it’s just an ocean.

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    • Ganondorf had a whole speech about how the Great Sea produced no fish and seemed to drain the life out of those who tried to swim across. Hence the Zoras learning to fly above the waves instead of swim through them, counter-intuitive as it may be.

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    • To be fair, there’s a lot about the world of The Wind Waker that we simply don’t know. What we do know is that Ganondorf says there are no fish, as the commenter above has observed. The exact quote (which occurs during Ganondorf’s monologue at Tetra’s bedside) is as follows: “They are vast seas… None can swim across them… They yield no fish to catch…”

      Whether Ganondorf is right or wrong is anyone’s guess, but there are scattered bits of evidence in the game that may be used to support his statement. For example…

      – No one ever gives Link a fishing rod, and he never attempts to fish on his own.
      – There is a surprising lack of artistic fish motifs on buildings, interior decoration, and clothing.
      – Link has lived on an island his entire life but can’t swim for more than twenty seconds.
      – Link is unable to dive, even for short periods.
      – Aside from Tetra floating beside Link at the end of the game, no other characters are shown swimming.
      – Just off the coast of Pawprint Isle, Link encounters a boat full of professional divers. They all wear heavy helmets, and their leader tells Link that nothing lives in the water.
      – No one else in the game – including Link – attempts undersea exploration. There are a few submarines scattered about, but they are abandoned and filled with monsters.
      – Aside from the divers, the merchant Beedle, and Tetra’s pirate crew, Link does not encounter anyone other than Bokoblins on the Great Sea.
      – Other than the semi-divine Jabun and the Fishmen, the only creatures Link finds on the water are three species of monsters: Big Octos (the giant squid), Gyorg (the jumping sharks), and Seahats (the flying purple plant things with teeth) .

      There are a few other minor details, but I want to reiterate that the point of this essay is not to debate the notoriously tricky lore of the Zelda series, nor is it to argue that Ganondorf is blameless. Rather, the point I’m trying to make is that The Wind Waker encourages the player to understand that environment should be respected regardless of how hospitable or profitable it is in relation to human needs and desires.

      Essentially, I agree with you that life on the Great Sea is perhaps not as harsh as Ganondorf has come to believe.

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