Zelda & Aristotle: The Triforce as Virtue
“…the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Bk. I
The Legend of Zelda is a video game series that revolves around the protagonist Link and his many adventures to defeat the evil sorcerer Ganondorf and save the titular princess Zelda and the land of Hyrule.
Central to the narrative of most main series games is the Triforce—a sacred artifact consisting of three golden triangles that contain the power of the gods. Each of the three pieces of the Triforce represents a specific character trait: courage, wisdom, and power. Only when a person has a mastery of each part of the Triforce can they unlock and wield the full power of the Triforce.
This description of the Triforce bears many similarities to Aristotle’s conception of virtue ethics. According to Aristotle, human good consists of acting in accordance with virtue. The virtues—character traits like honesty, courage, temperance, and wisdom—are the key to living a happy life and being a good human being. Further, one can only be said to be truly virtuous when they have all the virtues working together.
Aristotle and Virtue
Aristotle believed that everything has a natural function that is defined by the kind of thing that it is. When a thing performs this natural function well, then we call it good. For instance, a good knife is one that is sharp, reliable, and cuts well. Knives that do not have these properties are bad knives and knives that do are good knives. What it means to be a “good” knife is determined by what the function of a knife is; i.e. cutting things. Similarly, good watches perform their function well; they are accurate and keep time. Bad watches are inaccurate and lose synchronization easily.
So what is the natural “function” of human beings? What sorts of features do good human beings have and in what ways do they act? Aristotle believed that human good consists of acting in accordance with virtues. Aristotle defines virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner in the right circumstances. A courageous person, for example, is courageous because they have the disposition to act in a courageous manner when the situation calls for it.
Aristotle argued that every virtue rests in the middle of a scale between excess and deficiency, which are called vices. For example, an excess of courage is considered rashness and a deficiency of courage is cowardice. Each virtue lies at some golden mean between two vices. Similarly, temperance (moderation) lies on the spectrum between intemperance and asceticism.
Aristotle also believed that the virtues were interconnected and reciprocal. Each virtue feeds into and reinforces one another. Further, a person is only truly virtuous when they have all the virtues acting harmoniously to direct their actions in life. If a person does not possess all of the virtues, their soul is in a state of imbalance and disharmony.
The ability to harmoniously coordinate the various virtues is what Aristotle called phrónēsis, which is usually translated as “practical wisdom.” For Aristotle, practical wisdom is a kind of “master virtue” that directs the other virtues to their proper ends.
So we have the basic building blocks of Aristotle’s theory of ethics: Human good consists of acting virtuously, and a virtue is a specific dispositional character trait that lies between an excess and a deficiency. The ability to coordinate the various virtues harmoniously is called practical wisdom. Aristotle believed that the harmonious functioning of the virtues would lead a person to a state of eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness” or “flourishing.”
The Triforce and Virtues
Each of the 3 main characters in The Legend of Zelda holds a piece of the Triforce, one that corresponds to a particular virtuous character trait. Link holds the Triforce of Courage, Zelda has the Triforce of Wisdom, and Ganondorf holds the Triforce of Power. Each of these characters holds a piece of the Triforce that represents a fundamental attribute of their personality.
Link represents courage, and it is easy to see why. Link exemplifies courage in every action that he does. He is steadfast in his duty, he does not shy away from danger, and he does not let fear control his actions. Even when the chips are down, Link does not give up and he always strives to do the right thing, even at great risk to himself.
Ganondorf represents the virtue of power. To our modern sensibilities, being physically powerful might not seem like a virtue, but in Aristotle’s day, physical prowess and martial skill were considered virtuous traits of the noble warrior caste. In any case, the character of Ganondorf represents what an excess of virtue looks like. Ganondorf has taken the virtue of power too far and it controls his actions to the exclusion of other virtues. Ganondorf shows great vice as he has an excess of the virtue of power.
Lastly, Zelda represents the character trait of wisdom. Zelda is wise and intelligent beyond her years. She has knowledge of powerful magics and has the keen sensibilities and practical knowledge you would want in a monarch. In most of her appearances in the main series games, Zelda plays the role of the typical damsel in distress, however, she is known in-universe as a capable and just ruler.
The Unity of the Triforce and The Unity of the Virtues
Just as in Aristotle’s account one must have all of the virtues to ensure they function harmoniously, one must have a balance of the three pieces of the Triforce in order to unlock its full potential. This is the main reason why in A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf corrupted the sacred realm when he tried to claim Triforce. Ganondorf has an excess of power, and so the Triforce reflected the internal nature of his soul; discordant and unharmonious. Without a proper balance of the virtues, a person’s soul is out of balance and they cannot achieve a state of eudaimonia.
The inherent reciprocal nature of the virtues and their inability to function properly without one another reflects another significant piece of Aristotle’s thought. Aristotle did not believe that people were born virtuous. He believed that people must become virtuous through practice and habituation, similar to how a golfer perfects their drive over countless hours of practice. In other words, the path to virtue is like a journey—a journey in which one must cultivate their virtues through practice and reflection.
The epic journey of each Zelda game can be interpreted as a metaphor for this kind of character development. At the beginning of each Zelda game, Link begins as relatively aloof and carefree. In fact, most games open with Link sleeping, which is meant to signify his relatively undeveloped nature at that point in the story.
Throughout his adventures, Link cultivates the virtues through the various tasks he accomplishes. He cultivates wisdom by solving the complex puzzles in each dungeon and figuring out the next path on his journey. He cultivates power by growing stronger, learning new techniques to meet his enemies in sword combat, and mastering the various tools he has at his disposal. Most importantly, he develops courage through the act of facing ever more dangerous foes and fighting for the side of good, no matter the risk to his own well-being.
At the end of the journey when Link encounters the Triforce, he has the proper balance of the character traits to effectively wield it. The Triforce reflects the nature of Link’s soul; a soul that is characterized by the harmonious functioning of the virtues. Anytime a character who has a properly balanced soul touches the Triforce, they are able to use it to its fullest power.
This development of Link is experienced vicariously through the player. One thing I love about the series is how you develop as a player along with Link. You learn when he learns and it is through your efforts that he becomes powerful and able to take down the greatest of evils. The Zelda series is so successful because of how it transmits this experience to the player. When I play as Link, I feel as if I am the one who is developing as a person. I am developing my virtues with the goal of the harmonious functioning of all. The Legend of Zelda series lets the player experience the development of the quintessential Hero archetype, which is why the series as a whole has remained so relevant over the years.