Happy 11th Birthday, Majora’s Mask! As many of you know, this game is a staff favorite here at Zelda Informer, and while all the Skyward Sword news of late has been keeping us busy we couldn’t go without giving this one some special fanfare in celebration of the series’ 25th anniversary! Here’s to Operation Moonfall!
Majora’s Mask begins as a story of loss. Link has parted ways with Navi, his dear friend, and in his grief sets out to find her. As if to emphasize the depth of his feeling of loss, his trip takes him deep into the Lost Woods at the very fringes of Hyrule, where he encounters the Skull Kid, a character whose friends scorned him and cast him away. This chance meeting drags Link into Termina, a land wracked by death and grief, where Link is forced to face his own emotions.
The first stage of grief is denial, a defensive mechanism against ill circumstance typified by an inability to rationally acknowledge that something has happened or is happening.
Link arrives in Termina through the Clock Tower, which ticks ever onward in its countdown to the Carnival of Time, the great festival that comes each harvest time. As the people live out their everyday lives, running errands, making appointments, and setting up for the carnival, an ominous Moon looms overhead, threatening to crush the whole land.
Because of his Deku Scrub form, Link is confined in terms of where he can go and what people are willing to tell him, but a visit to the Mayor’s office reveals an important struggle brewing just beneath the surface of all the goings-on:
You cowards! Do you actually believe the moon will fall? The confused townsfolk simply caused a panic by believing this ridiculous, groundless theory. The soldiers couldn’t prevent the panic, but outside the town walls is where the danger is! You want answers? The answer is that the carnival should not be canceled!
If the soldiers wish to run, then run, Viscen! We councilmen will stick to tradition. This carnival will be a success! I’ve never heard of a defense unit abandoning its town! -- Mutoh the Carpenter
What seems like a petty squabble between bureaucrats we can actually interpret as a metaphor for denial. The Carnival Committee, unwilling to acknowledge and account for the looming danger, choose to ignore it rather than deal with it. They laugh openly at the idea that the moon will fall, and refuse to allow it to interfere with the Carnival. Similarly, the master at the sword training center entertains the idea that if the Moon comes too close, he can simply cut it to pieces with his blade. In both cases, we see an inability to grasp the reality at hand and foolish fantasies arising to take its place.
The denial can only ever be temporary, however. Eventually most of the Carnival Committee is forced to face the music as the Moon, drawing ever closer with each passing hour, gradually becomes more and more difficult to ignore. By the night of the third day all of the carpenters and merchants have evacuated, leaving only Mutoh and all his stubbornness behind. The sword-master has retreated to a back room, where he lies trembling in fear and despair.
In contrast, Link spends his every waking hour in pursuit of the Skull Kid in the hope that he can retrieve his Ocarina of Time before it’s too late. By midnight on the third day, his efforts have brought him to the top of the Clock Tower, where he stands face-to-face with the giant Moon. But, armed as he currently is, he has no way of stopping it, and in the end he too is forced to enact a sort of denial by using the Song of Time to reverse the flow of time, undoing the events leading up to the great fall and giving himself a second chance to set things right.
The second stage of grief is anger. When denial is no longer possible, it is replaced by misdirected feelings of despair and envy.
When Link arrives at the Deku Palace at the heart of the Southern Swamp, he discovers another case of grief: the Deku Tribe’s princess has gone missing. As he inquires about the situation he meets the leader of the tribe, the Deku King, a rather ridiculous despot hell-bent on punishing a young monkey, whom he believes has made off with his daughter and fed her to monsters in Woodfall Temple.
We’re about to punish the foolish monkey who kidnapped the Deku princess! He has insulted the Royal Family. I’ll show him what happens when you do that! That foolish monkey is up in that cage. Take a good look at his face! -- Deku King
There’s one glaring problem with the proceedings, however - the monkey is completely innocent. In fact, when the princess went missing he was working together with her to investigate the source of the vile swampwater flowing forth from the temple. Rather than putting his energies at work in search of the princess, he instead takes his anger out on the poor monkey. The real villain at work is anger - the evil sown by the Skull Kid, manifesting in the cursed swamp, the toxic rifts that divide us in moments of rage, and the fury and might of the Deku King himself.
Link tasks himself with diving deep into the temple in order to purify the swamp and rescue the princess. To get inside, however, he needs to learn the Sonata of Awakening, which has the power to lift the temple from its resting place beneath the bog. The image of the temple rising out of the infested waters exemplifies the casting off of ill emotions, and the mad warrior demon Link defeats at the core of the temple signifies the inner struggle between controlled and uncontrollable moods.
In the end Link manages to pacify that anger, snapping the Deku King back to his senses and freeing both the region and the monkey from what would otherwise have been torturous fates.
The third stage of grief is bargaining, typified by desperate hopes or efforts to postpone or reverse suffering and loss.
Link’s next trip takes him north, into the high, snowy mountains of Snowhead. There he encounters the Gorons, another tribe in mourning due to the recent loss of their patriarch, Darmani. After some careful investigation, Link meets Darmani’s ghost, who beckons for him to give pursuit. Above Darmani’s grave, the deceased Goron hero delivers his last request:
As I am, I can only watch as Goron Village is slowly buried in ice…I may have died, but I cannot rest. So, you can use magic? The soaring one also told me that you are able to use it… I beg you! Bring me back to life with your magic! -- Darmani's Ghost
Darmani’s futile hope to be brought back to life is a textbook example of bargaining. Unable to face his failure or his people in order to find closure, he turns to magic as a means of undoing his death in order to finish his battle with the demon. In a way, we can see bargaining as a sort of second denial, no longer fueled by anger but instead by foregone hope in the face of fear.
Just as Clock Town’s denial was represented by the elephant in the room that was the falling Moon, and the divisive anger of Woodfall was thematically shown in the toxic sludge infesting the Southern Swamp, the bitter, paralyzing cold of Snowhead exists as a mirror of Darmani’s inability to move on. Only once doused with the refreshing heat of Hot Spring Water and pacified from his desperate desire to see his dying wishes through is he able to find his resting peace - a peace symbolized by the Gorons’ Lullaby.
In Darmani’s guise, Link conquers Goht, a mechanical bull of sorts that moves constantly in a circuit around his arena, unstoppable except by the strength of a Goron hero. Goht for us represents a futile, circular effort to claw one’s way back to a reality that is already lost. By defeating him, Link puts an end to the demon’s seemingly-endless romp, just as Darmani is able to rest in peace only by bringing his hopeless desire to keep on living to a grinding halt.
The fourth stage of grief is depression. With the realization that there is no escaping fate comes the desire to disconnect and retreat inward.
Link meets the dying Mikau on the coastline of Great Bay, where he learns about the guitarist’s girlfriend, Lulu, and her missing eggs. Though Mikau’s passing would by itself be plenty of cause for grief, with the Zora Mask Link is able to assume the part-time musician, part-time hero’s life seamlessly, as though he has never left. This nonetheless leaves Lulu in isolation, gazing out to the Great Bay Temple from the outside of Zora Hall. Her isolation reflects depression, the fourth stage of grief.
Because Mikau’s death is more or less irrelevant thanks to Link’s ability to take on his form, we know that Lulu’s seclusion must have something to do with her missing eggs. We can infer that her maternal relationship to the eggs probably only serves to heighten her low emotional state. That she seems to have only recently laid the eggs also suggests a possible postpartum dimension to her depression. And, just as the other regions served as apt images of their corresponding grief stages, we can see the Great Bay as a collection of Lulu’s spilled tears.
Only by singing the tune born from her offspring, by reestablishing a connection to what was lost through vocal expression, can Lulu come out of her slump. In a way we can make yet another comparison to a type of maternal depression - that experienced by young mothers who have miscarried. The act of naming the lost child can lead to a sense of closure. Here, the act of singing - each note representing one of the eggs - accomplishes the same.
Inside the Great Bay Temple, Link also works to reconnect - though for him this is about redirecting water flow through the various pipes twisting throughout the dungeon. Inevitably, getting all the water flowing again restores life to the place, leading him to the final confrontation with Gyorg, during which he dives headfirst into that pool of tears and emerges victorious. His success is celebrated by a musical performance in the Zora Hall - a mirror to Lulu’s own performance of the New Wave Bossa Nova.
The fifth and last stage of grief is acceptance. After passing through the other stages, all that is left is to examine one’s own self and reality and face the future.
Ikana Valley, the land of the dead - what a fitting place for Link to resolve his own grief. Other regions had him encounter a plethora of characters, each dealing with their own losses, but apart from a young girl and her mummified father, everyone else in Ikana is basically already dead. In much the same way, Link finds no new transformation masks here - no new identities to assume. This leaves Link free to reflect on the one element he’s been distracted from during the rest of his journey: himself.
In order to fulfill this process of examination, he climbs a tower leading into the heavens, which requires that he create twin images of himself to progress. These images, one for each of his four forms, lifeless and devoid of true personhood, represent the empty shells of the previous four stages of grief. By leaving them behind, he can transcend and attain enlightenment - the Light Arrows - at the pinnacle of Stone Tower. The act of flipping the tower puts the heavens at his feet, assuring us of his ascendance.
Within the Stone Tower Temple, he battles the Garo Masters. Since the Garo are, according to their official description, "emptiness cloaked in darkness," Link's duels with them as he climbs towards the light signifies the internal battle between Light and Darkness, as well as the triumph over the same emptiness associated with his twin selves. By accepting and overcoming the grief associated with that emptiness, Link demonstrates that he is no longer troubled by the loss of his dear friend. He has found himself, his true self, and that is enough.
Link’s antithesis throughout these proceedings is the Skull Kid. We hear from one of Grandma’s stories that Skull Kid, as the "imp," was once the friend of the Four Giants, but when faced with the prospect of losing them to their slumber in the four corners of the world, he fell into deep despair. In his grief, he tormented the peoples of the four lands, and as a result lost his friends. That same grief gets absorbed by Majora’s Mask as it feeds off of Skull Kid’s emotions. As a result, when Link faces Skull Kid at the top of the Clock Tower, it manages to take on a life and personality of its own, creating a psychological dimension in which Link must face it in one final showdown.
By surrendering the masks he's collected on his journey - in essence providing proof of his battles against grief - Link earns the Fierce Deity's Mask, which is described as "containing the merits of all the masks." That this mask transforms Link into an adult form in contrast to Majora’s Mask’s own child-like form signifies the maturity he has gained by overcoming grief. That maturity gives him great power, with which he can easily vanquish the comparative weakness of grief and despair.
Taken out of the shadow of grief, we see that Skull Kid is able to reconcile with his old friends and find peace in their departure. But we also see that this parting is not the end. As the story closes, we note that he has returned to the Lost Woods together with Link, his new friend.
Themes in Motion was an article project I started up a little over a year ago, aimed at exploring the thematic elements packed into each story in The Legend of Zelda series. I’ve already carved my way through all of the games, but for Majora’s Mask‘s birthday I wanted to give it a special second look. The idea that Majora’s Mask is a trip through the five stages of grief is not my own original conception, but it’s one that I find tremendously profound and I hope I’ve done it some justice.