Epic Adulthood: The chance to be a hero in Breath of the Wild and Middlemarch

[Saint] Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

I listened to much of George Eliot’s Middlemarch while playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BOTW). The quiet expanses of BOTW make it well suited for knocking off big, hefty tomes off one’s reading list. While playing BOTW and listening to Middlemarch I came to notice, though, that this 1872 novel about provincial England might provide more insight into the heroic exploits of BOTW than one might expect. Specifically, I began to think about how Middlemarch puts into relief the ways in which BOTW deals with adulthood. The book helped me realize that while BOTW has many mature themes (especially for a Zelda game) it does not explore to any great depth the complex messiness of adulthood.

In fact, BOTW instead embodies the spirit of the quote often mis-attributed to George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” (Quote Investigator, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/11/24/never-too-late/) Starting the narrative from a point of failure, BOTW is about being the hero you might have been 100 years ago. Link and Zelda failed. Ganon won. While a theme for much of the Zelda franchise is the triumph of immortal childhood over evil, the power of youth here falters. 

The story of BOTW begins from this point of failure after Link (and arguably Zelda) have been in suspended animation for 100 years. It might be a bit of a stretch, but there is an argument to be made that this introduction is much like an abrupt transition from childhood to adulthood. Over 100 years, the idyllic world of Link and Zelda’s youth has been twisted into something dark, sinister, and apocalyptic. Much like one finds that the the locations, people, and activities you knew as a child have suddenly become darker or more difficult as an adult.

In terms of gameplay, Link’s reaction to a new, harsh world is what we all wish we could do — he masters it. He relearns how to fight, becomes an accomplished cook, explores and maps the world, meets new people, helps to establish a village, and even buys a house. In terms of narrative, however, much of the game focuses on Zelda’s failure to acquire the sacred power of the triforce (see Kylie’s Breath of the Wild was Zelda’s Legend at Fandomentals for a description of why BOTW’s story is, at its heart all about Zelda). This story is told in small cinematic sequences which play as flashbacks at specific locations around the game world. In these the player discovers more about Zelda’s struggle to unlock her sacred power and the anxiety she feels.

The sequence in which these memories are revealed is also worth noting. Most players will unlock Zelda’s memories in an arc which becomes increasingly tragic throughout the game. Link, by comparison, become more powerful. For example, when the player discovers Zelda’s last memory – the one in which she breaks down over the death of the Champions, the defeat of Link, and her failure to prevent Ganon from overtaking Hyrule (see below) –  Link, in contrast is likely at his most powerful. The player probably has a full complement of heart containers, the most powerful weapons, several sets of armour, and access to a veritable pantry of food items. The implication is that at the lowest point BOTW’s narrative, Link has the power to make things right again.

For Zelda, it is possible to read her arc as a failed coming-of-age story. It is not insignificant, for instance, that Calamity Ganon appears on Zelda’s 17th birthday while she makes her pilgrimage to the Shrine of Wisdom.

In order to examine how Middlemarch and BOTW treat adulthood, consider the difference between Link and one of Middlemarch’s main characters, Tertius Lydgate. He is an intelligent, proud, and promising young doctor with grand ambitions. At the beginning of the novel he moves into the fictitious 1830s English provincial county of Middlemarch with hopes of transforming medical practice in the area from “unregulated quackery” into something more rigorous and scientific. Through the course of the novel, though, the realities of life in Middlemarch wear down Lydgate’s best intentions and ambitions. He falls in love with local beauty, Rosamond Vincy, who turns out to be vapid and manipulative. She drives the young doctor into personal debt, the servicing of which leads him to treat wealthy clients. This prevents him from conducting the research necessary to make the medical breakthroughs he dreams of. His hopes to reform local medical care are likewise stymied by petty local petty politics and benefactors who dictate how his hospital should be run. Lydgate, like Link, comes to a new land full of promise and potential, yet Lydgate must find a compromise with his environment. He, unfortunately, cannot bend Middlemarch to his will the same way Link does with Hyrule.

This is not to say that Lydgate is a tragic character. At the end of Middlemarch Eliot excplains that at the end of the novel that Lydgate:

Had gained an excellent practice, alternating, according to the season, between London and a Continental bathing-place; having written a treatise on Gout, a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side. His skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do. His acquaintances thought him enviable to have so charming a wife, and nothing happened to shake their opinion… In brief, Lydgate was what is called a successful man.

Lydgate, both a failure and a success, lives a nuanced version of adulthood that appears impossible in BOTW where little middle ground exists between the tragic and heroic.

Nor does BOTW allow for the type of quiet, subtle heroism one is more likely to find in adult life. The type shown in Middlemarch, for example, by Camden Farebrother. Farebrother is a sensible, good-natured Vicar who cares for his mother, sister, and aunt on a modest salary. He has feelings for Mary Garth ⁠— who is a young, smart, and likeable character. Although Farebrother is approaching middle-age he and Mary would very likely make a good match. And yet, Farebrother often intercedes with Mary on behalf of Fred Vincy, a well-meaning, if reckless, young man from a wealthy family who is hopelessly in love with Ms. Garth. Farebrother even goes so far as to stop Fred from falling back into his gambling habits even though it hurts his own chances of marrying Mary. In the end, Mary marries Fred and the two, to a reasonable extent, live happily ever after. Farebrother, unfortunately, remains unmarried, never revealing his feelings for Mary.

Such complexity simply doesn’t exist in BOTW’s characters. I understand that when comparing BOTW’s character development against that of a 800-plus page Victorian novel is unrealistic. And yet, considering these two texts together helps articulate what I found somewhat disappointing about BOTW’s narrative. Like Saint Theresa (who was stopped by her uncle as she ran away from home at age seven to find martyrdom) Link and Zelda have another chance to live an epic life, but they do not changed much as characters. If BOTW represents a symbolic move from childhood to adulthood then there is, unfortunately, little difference between the child and adult versions of Link and Zelda at the beginning and at the end of the story.

Both, mind you, have both grown more powerful. Link has acquired better weapons, skills, and stamina; and Zelda has the sacred power she had previously tried so hard to attain. Yet, this appears as a shallow version of adulthood where one becomes simply a more powerful version of what one was before – especially compared to what adulthood means in Middlemarch. In adulthood for Link and Zelda do not have compromise their dreams as Lydgate and Farebrother did. This fact might be comforting for players who might be deep into the messy complexities of adulthood themselves. It is nice to think that it is possible to try again and live an epic life, that it is “never to late to be who you might have been”. However, it is helpful to keep in mind a quote at the Middlemarch. “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” We, who must face compromised, un-epic adult lives, can do good in the world, too.

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