In the Legend of Zelda series, the roles of hero and villain are fairly consistent. Link, using the resolve of courage, overcomes Ganon, whose lust for power represents the ultimate in evil. This is the reliable dichotomy that surges throughout each game. However, the 2006 Wii title (and now re-released in HD for the Wii U) The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess complicates this previously steadfast ideological balance. The game introduces Midna, a dark, impish character that raises the question of where a “good” hero who uses “dark” powers would align in Hyrule. We are confronted with the possibility that Midna is either heroic, like Link, or something more akin to an anti-hero.
The idea of such a character—an anti-hero—is commonly found in western pop culture. Look no further than Breaking Bad‘s (2008-2013) Walter White or the titular character in the Jessica Jones (2015-present) TV series for someone that fits the moniker. These are characters that use morally gray—or, at times, outright evil—means to what most people would say are “good” ends. Walter White starts out in Breaking Bad as a traditional family man, only to be slowly drawn into the criminal underworld where he grows a meth empire. It’s gripping drama because we know the man he once was (and pretends to be, at times), and so as his descent continues, we still hope for him to succeed and survive, even as he kills and commits crime after crime.
Similar could be said for Jessica Jones. Unlike a more traditional superhero, Jones’s approach to dealing with both her detective agency’s clients and her antagonist, Killgrave, include tactics that would likely give other heroes the chills. We wouldn’t expect to see Link dangling a townsperson from a railroad track just to get information, for example. It’s this type of behavior that draws us to anti-heroes. Their story arcs often prove more interesting given that the audience can’t predict how they will act. We become fascinated as they struggle with their own internal sense of morality—it’s never a case of simply doing the right thing every step of the way.
Unlike traditional heroes, then, the anti-hero exists to smear the lines that are used to guide and judge the behavior of an individual and the society they belong to. They provoke and challenge the morals we uphold and live by, twisting them in new ways, asking us where we might make exceptions to our rules. A “good” hero is typically held to unrealistic—and potentially unhuman—standards, acting as an almost perfect representation of humanity. They are us, without so many of the flaws. While a villain is the polar opposite, a physical manifestation of an abhorrent part of the human psyche. Anti-heroes, on the other hand, have the potential to be much more human and relatable characters, given that they tend to be broken, make mistakes, and don’t always act in line with a specific code or creed of heroism. They aren’t those distant paragons sitting at the fringes of the good-evil alignment, they fit somewhere in the middle, right alongside us.
Going back to The Legend of Zelda, Link is the series’ poster child for the perfect ideal of heroism: he fits the iconography almost too well, riding in to save the day on the back of a horse, and always unwavering in working against evil. With Link on one side of morality and Ganon on the opposing side, we have the two poles of the good-evil scale. For a long time, the gray area between hero and villain wasn’t acknowledged by the series. Then Midna came along. She’s the ruling princess of the Twilight Realm, which is inhabited by a group of sorcerers who were locked away eons ago for using dark magic that was forbidden by the goddesses; the creators of Hyrule.
However, Zant—a usurper who Midna will not kowtow to—has taken control of the Twilight Realm, turned all of its inhabitants into cursed creatures, and is using the realm to try to break into the world of light. Midna isn’t having any of it and plans to stop Zant. But this doesn’t necessarily shift her to the side of good, as she makes that crystal clear when outlining her motivations to Link early on in the game: “Don’t you think for a second that I care about the world of light, I don’t, I’m helping you because I have to.” Midna sees no other way to save her own world, even though she still holds the light world in contempt for punishing the sins of her ancestors. And so we see here that Midna is more dynamic than Link, who is often single-minded and one-dimensional in his heroic abilities and righteousness.
While, at first, Midna’s purpose seems to solely be to throw off the morality spectrum of Hyrule (and entertain along the way), it proves to be more complicated than that. In the essay “Slave Morality and Master Sword”, from The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am (2008), Kristina Drzaic and Peter Rauch speak of how Hyrule’s morality is defined by when Link is working against Ganon—Link never acts on his own, but instead is a reactionary force against “the machinations of Ganon.” This is an important idea, because it sets up how reflexive Link is as a protagonist and as a character. Link—in Twilight Princess—is pulled into this world-scale conflict not of his own accord, but by the actions of the “evil” in the world. It also shows us the necessity of both characters—Link and Ganon—to any discussions of good and evil in Hyrule. This is the standard for what being a “hero” in Hyrule means. With Link as an ideal hero, we must take a hypothetical look at what being an anti-hero in Hyrule would require to see if Midna fits the bill.
For that, we can turn to the essay, “Anti-Heroism in the Continuum of Good and Evil,” from The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (2008). In it, Michael Spivey and Steven Knowlton examine the space between good and evil where anti-heroes reside, through characters such as The Crow, Batman, Judge Dredd, and the Punisher. Spivey and Knowlton point out that one act often committed by anti-heroes that introduces a sledgehammer of moral ambiguity to a fiction is mass murder. Midna fits in with moral ambiguity this through her willingness to use the Fused Shadows—the very power her tribe was locked away for—as a means to try to save her people from Zant. Interestingly, after already trying to use the Fused Shadows on Zant, Midna spins on a dime and once again shows concern for the abuse of the magic. “My King? You who do nothing but abuse the magic of your tribe? You must be joking,” she says to Zant. Her defiance at this moment can be interpreted as one of moral clarity and it shows her belief that there are correct and incorrect ways to use this banished power. Midna sees no problem in using it if it means saving her subjects from Zant.
However, it turns out that Zant is not being powered by this old magic, but by Ganon, the ultimate evil on our scale of morality for Hyrule. Midna’s opposition to Zant would—at least ideologically—place her on the heroic side of Hyrule’s morality. After this encounter with Zant, Midna is left mortally wounded, but she still decides to act for the light world. It’s a key moment, and a significant moment in her shift away from her anti-heroic role towards the “good” side of the hero continuum.
Going back to the ideas presented earlier, it’s also worth noting that Midna, even with her dark origins, is a reactive character. In this light, she might be seens as more akin to Link: she is simply acting out of the will to save her own people from the new “machinations” of Ganon, through Zant. By this morality, she’s aligned squarely with the same “good” that Link comprises. Therefore, even by using the dark powers forbade by the goddesses, Midna is still, in some regard, acting in the same way that Link would, given the circumstances.
After defeating Blizzeta, a boss monster that resulted from evil possessing an innocent character, Midna starts to show remorse, but also a care for not just her world, the Twilight Realm, but also for Link’s world, the world of light:
“Still… I feel bad about the way we treated that girl. To think the Mirror of Twilight has the power to change people like that…This world…ALL worlds…can be cruel…Let’s hurry and collect the rest of those pieces, Link! We have to, before more innocent creatures have to endure the suffering this poor girl did…”
This is a drastic change from the character that, at the start of the game, was in it only to save her own world. Her change of heart is further illumined, and fully realized, in another scene:
“I didn’t care what happened to the world of light, not at all. But after witnessing the selfless lengths that Princess Zelda and you have gone to… Your sacrifices…I now know, in the bottom of my heart, that I must save this world, too.”
Here, Midna has fully transformed, her anti-heroic qualities that she started the game with having disintegrated by interacting with Link and Zelda. As it turns out, Midna does decide to use the power of the Fused Shadows at the end of the game—but hesitates, and is unable to use them at the risk of hurting Princess Zelda. Only after Link defeats the Puppet Zelda does Midna use her powers to cleanse the Ganon-possessed Zelda, afterwards unleashing them to try to ultimately suppress Ganon and save, not just her own life, but Link and Zelda’s too. She proves to be unwilling to risk the world of light, and its citizens, at this point, which is something that she would have done without issue at the start of the game.
Twilight Princess, then, depicts Midna’s journey as she shifts closer to Link and that side of heroism, and away from the dark side she was born into. It’s a character arc that only she’s able to traverse in The Legend of Zelda and it’s one that serves this specific entry in the series on multiple levels. As Ganon says right before the final battle, “Shadow has been moved by light”—the “shadow,” of course, being Midna. This is a journey that Link could never take, one that demanded the designers at Nintendo to create a whole new character for, to embody something more fluid than the rest of the series’ personalities. Midna is the representation of an evolving struggle between darkness and light, and illuminates how this struggle may look within the scope of Hyrule.
The complications that Midna throws into the ingrained set-up of Hyrule may be why Twilight Princess remains compelling 10 years on. It’s especially prescient this year, which will see more superhero movies than ever turn towards their darker side. However, while western ideas identify Midna as an anti-hero, which specifically aligns her with ideas of morality, her Japanese origins consider her differently. In a 2007 Game Informer interview, The Legend of Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma touched on some of the development of Midna’s personality and her Japanese-anime roots. “In Japanese, there’s a phrase called ‘tsundere,’ which means in the beginning you’re kind of snobby and cruel, but towards the end your shell kind of breaks off and you become sort of sappy,” Aonuma said. “Women with that kind of personality, I think guys are really attracted to. Both Miyamoto-san and myself are quite fond of characters like that.”
The tsundere character has appeared throughout Japanese manga since at least the 1970s. But the term itself wasn’t popularized until around 2005 (the year before Twilight Princess came out) as it became more prevalent and recognizable in Japanese media—some speculate this is due to the recent rise of individualism in Japan, which may led to more self-assured and independent women becoming more desirable. It’s fair to say that Aonuma and Miyamoto-san are far from the only ones who find female characters with that personality type interesting. There has been some research into why the tsundere is appealing, and it showed that due to the gain-loss effect, having a character treat someone coldly, then slowly warm up, actually makes people feel, psychologically, that they have advanced the relationship. There’s a rewarding sense of progression.
The same goes for the relationship between Midna, Link, and even the player. Midna is, at first, cold, and very much seems to fit the idea of an anti-hero as popularized in the modern era through American comic books. But over the course of the game she starts to warp that western label and, by the end, seems to escape the archetype completely. And so while a valid reading is to see Midna serving as an anti-hero—as western eyes are trained to—that acts to upset the moral balance of the series, she is instead informed by a character type deeply ingrained in Japanese, not American, culture.