Majora’s Mask and Nietzsche’s Madman Parable

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is usually considered to be one of the darker, more adult entries in the series. Even though you play as young Link the game itself is permeated by feelings of angst, dread, and repression. A Cursed Moon with a despairing scowl hurdles slowly towards Clock Town. Termina’s destruction is forecast to occur in just 72 hours; the inhabitants of Termina (mostly) continue on with their day-to-day schedule in spite of the coming apocalypse. Though the game’s obvious thematic emphasis on time’s continuous progression evokes a sense of existential agency within the player, the game itself deals with some heavier existential themes — notably, the game has a number of interesting parallels to Nietzsche’s infamous Parable of the Madman found in The Gay Science.

The Parable of the Madman in short could be summarized as a scathing critique of both Christian theism and atheism in the wake of modernity. Modernity brought with it a rise of human-centric scientific reasoning which seeks to understand events in-themselves, without inherent values or meaning, rather than further explain everything through a divinity narrative. This is basically Nietzsche means when he writes that “we have killed [God] — you and I;” and it isn’t necessarily a celebratory event. To the madman, who readers can assume Nietzsche used as a representative figure for himself, the death of God begets confusion, chaos, and indeterminate meaning in the world.

South_Clock_Town

Clock Town itself sits at the center of Termina and also serves as a functional symbol of modernity. As such it also is an edifice of God’s death. The Clock Tower itself appears to be made by the villagers of Clock Town, and would’ve been made using modern engineering concepts which rely upon human-centric reasoning. Since it is a mechanical clock and not a sundial it is entirely self-sufficient. A sundial would defer to the cycle of the Sun in order to tell the time, but a mechanical clock only relies upon its man-made mechanical design. Should the sun and moon cease to function as they have, and the world be covered in eternal darkness, the clock tower will continue to tell time and give structure for the inhabitants of Clock Town and Termina. However liberating the Clock Tower might seem to be, it necessarily thrusts us into a bit of nihilistic uncertainty — at least Nietzsche’s madman would seem to think so.

Pre-modern thought was kind of into believing that God was the source of determining meaning, purpose, and values in the entire universe. By delegitimizing an Absolute Authority which gives metaphysical and ethical structure to the universe you must also bring into question the validity of the established order. This is why the madman considers what has been done an almost impossible act (“How could we drink up the sea? … What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? … Whither are we moving?”) — and yet, in spite of how cosmically impossible it seems, it has been done without us realizing the reach of our actions.

The inhabitants of Termina annually celebrate the Festival of Time. Though it is in some respects a “new year’s” holiday according to Anju’s Grandmother it serves as a ceremony to the gods and the sun/moon. Interestingly, the Clock Tower is designed to only open once a year in homage to this service. This gives Clock Tower a double meaning. It serves as a powerful symbol of the death of God, but also of our reliance upon the pre-modern structures we’ve still inherited. This draws a parallel between the Clock Town villagers and the market atheists Nietzsche mainly addresses — the villagers have shown their ability to give rise to their own philosophical structure and meaning but still accept certain customs and inheritances which are antithetical toward their potential to find new structure. This cognitive dissonance is, largely, what results in the strange cosmic events with the Cursed Moon.

For Nietzsche this philosophical ignorance is dangerous and will eventually lead to a necessary and fast-approaching nihilistic state of anomie. It is from the necessary point where humankind must then depart to construct new values or sail along a sea of despairing normlessness. Nietzsche’s madman laments the market atheists’ deaf ears in the parable’s penultimate passage:

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners… At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.”

In a twist of surreal magical realism Majora’s Mask, acting through Skull Kid, knocks the moon itself out of orbit so it will destroy Termina itself. Majora’s Mask, seemingly driven only by urges to destroy and suppress life, is a representative figure of the nihilism which Nietzsche feared yet felt was necessary. The Cursed Moon plummeting towards Termina is, too, a “tremendous event still on its way, still wandering…” and requires “time to be seen and heard.” Though the player spends the majority of the game awakening the giant, god-like protector of Termina it turns out that the power of Majora’s nihilistic will is too great for them. They quiver under the weight of the cursed moon, and it is Link — as an autonomous figure not relying upon divine authority — makes a life-affirming decision to destroy both the Cursed Moon and Majora’s Mask. Link, who first deferred to the gods to save Termina, finds it is his Will alone that can overcome nihilistic destruction.

moon

Unfortunately, as soon as Link does manage to defeat Majora the people of Termina continue to worship the gods with the Festival of Time. This serves as an analogue to the madman smashing his lantern — an icon of his perspectivist salvation — and recognizing that he still has come to the village too early. Link shows the people of Termina the folly of deferring belief toward something other than the self, but the message has fallen on deaf ears. Even though the Cursed Moon has been obliterated its essence will still haunt Termina. It will continue to haunt Termina as a sign of a creeping nihilism that, hopefully, will eventually bring about the ultimate transvaluation of values — the moment when Terminans will shed themselves of their false faith, and recognize that it will be their self-belief that will carry them forward.

And so it goes that Termina ultimately is left unchanged in the face of the apocalypse; that Link wanders, again, into the forest after leaving another faerie companion; and that the Legend of Zelda universe will be reshuffled and repurposed to another title. Though our story of Nietzsche, the madman, and the boy from the forest doesn’t reach a satisfying conclusion we can rest easy — nostalgia will still be here, be it an exercise of deferral or active projection of perspectivist Will.

willharlan

willharlan

willharlan

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  • Wonderful article. I only have a superficial knowledge of Nietzche’s work but it is very refreshing to read something about TLoZ that doesn’t devolve into pure notalgic idolotry. Link’s defining attribute, the triforce of courage, is certainly about making the player feel empowered, but often power-fantasies are written off as being overly self-indulgent which I do not think the case is here. I wonder how many people struggling with modernity, be it working a job they have no love for, struggling to find direction in school, or any number of situations have found solace if no inspiration in a title like this. Majora’s Mask is a title that uses the reflexive power of games, to both provide an escape and also to reflect back on the player, in a way that few games do.

  • David Vincent Mruz

    This is absolutely fascinating and well written.

  • suckeffect

    Interesting take. Well done.