Ganondorf and the Lies We’re Told

The insidious evil behind the sympathetic villain

“I coveted that wind, I suppose.”

If you know of no other line from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, you might still know that one. Spoken by a sombre-looking Ganondorf at the penultimate scene of the game, the line buoys Wind Waker’s antagonist to a high-water mark that no other villain in the series (or no other character period, depending on who you ask) has reached. He just oozes pathos! He’s so sad, so regretful, and oh, how we latch onto this one scene, one speech, one line, as proof that he has always been more than the writers led us to believe. The question is often asked: why does Ganon need to be a monster? Why don’t the writers return to a rendition like this one? Why can’t Ganondorf be sympathetic? Believable? Human?

We often fail to consider that humanity can betray a much deeper monstrosity; or, maybe, we do not want to see it, and give every excuse to explain it away.

For context: Ganondorf is the sorcerous king of the Gerudo, a people that consists almost entirely of women. Their ancestral home is in the Gerudo Desert, which we are introduced to in an earlier Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. Over the course of that game, Ganondorf attempts to drive three separate peoples to extinction, annihilates most of the royal family of Hyrule, infests the land with monsters, and rules as an unchallenged monarch for seven years before the hero returns to do battle with him. Ganondorf, the hero, and the titular princess, Zelda, each have one third of the all-powerful Triforce, and if Ganondorf should bring those pieces together he would rule over the entire cosmos; those are the stakes of the final battle. Ganondorf is nearly immortal, and because he cannot be killed he is instead sealed away behind a magical barrier laid down by the founding gods of the land.

Hundreds of years afterward, Ganondorf breaches the seal and returns to Hyrule. The devastation he brings is so terrible that the people beseech the gods for aid, and the gods respond by sinking the entire land beneath the sea.

Wind Waker takes place some indeterminate amount of time later, when stories of Ganon have become less than myth and life on the Great Sea is all that its inhabitants have ever known. Ganondorf frees himself and begins scouring the ocean for any sign of those who might have inherited the other pieces of the Triforce. His monsters kidnap young women with pointed ears, including a girl named Aryll, whose brother becomes the hero of this era. Eventually the pirate captain Tetra, descendant of the long-ago princess Zelda and possessor of the Triforce of Wisdom, is also taken captive, and the hero obtains the Triforce of Courage, which allows him to face Ganon.

After many adventures and trips through labyrinths that are full of their own keys, we face Ganondorf atop a tower beneath the sea. The unconscious Tetra, who is called Zelda by her patriarchal forebear, lies on the ground nearby. Ganondorf is not facing her, or the hero — he looks out over the sunken kingdom, protected from the sea by a barrier of magic holding back the waters.

Ganondorf meets the hero face-to-face on four occasions over the course of this game, but it is the last that people really remember. He does not boast or bully; he does not preach or prevaricate; he tells us a story. If you know Wind Waker, you know how that story goes: the winds of Hyrule brought life, while the winds of the desert brought pain, and starvation, and death to the Gerudo. He frames it in very personal language, but the message is clear: he fought for his people, seeking to better their lives by countermanding the fate laid on them by the uncaring gods.

What a good story! The hero is confused by it, and the pirate captain is insensate, but we hear it, and suddenly everything changes! Our understanding of Ganondorf and how he moved through the world and how he related to his people has been completely rewritten. To this day, 16 years and change since the original launch of Wind Waker, the conversation around Ganondorf has been shaped by the story he tells here.

A story that is, first and foremost, the portrait of a liar.

The Zelda games have never focused on portraying the details of the different cultures of Hyrule, and the Gerudo are no exception to this. When Wind Waker came out, Ocarina was all we’d had. We never see how the populace of the Gerudo live; we see one fortress on the border of their territory and one ancient temple built to honor the goddess of the desert, itself a structure as enormous and complex as any built by Hylian hands. We never see the Gerudo suffer in the desert, but we never see proof against his claim, either.

So, let’s take his story at face value. In 2017’s Breath of the Wild, the Gerudo are a thriving people standing proud atop thousands of years of history and culture; let’s pretend this was a later development. Let’s ignore the one segment of the Gerudo we do see in Ocarina, soldiers that Ganondorf’s lieutenants perform horrific and transformative experiments on, as being indicative of too narrow a segment of the population. Let’s assume that the Gerudo are a nation of suffering women in need of protection, by and from their king, because that is the story we’re told and that we’ve chosen to believe.

Ganondorf ruled Hyrule for seven years during Ocarina. For seven years he had absolute power. No warrior, no army, could stand against his strength. He controlled the movement of the population and emptied cities. His forces were everywhere. He was, by every meaningful metric, omnipotent.

Not one Gerudo lives in the body of Hyrule when the hero returns. Not one. Returning to a kingdom that has gone through a fundamental upheaval (and, for many of the peoples of Hyrule, an utter cataclysm) the hero still only finds the Gerudo in their border fortress. The people that once occupied the Castle Town have since fled to Kakariko Village; Goron City stands empty, its inhabitants taken prisoner to be fed to a dragon; Zora’s Domain is a tomb of ice, the Zora themselves trapped beneath the frozen surface; the eternally youthful children of the Kokiri Forest hide in their homes as the wood is filled with monsters; the Gerudo remain.

An argument is occasionally made that Ganondorf as presented in Wind Waker is not the same character as the one in Ocarina of Time; the continuity between different games in the series has always been foggy, at best, and different takes on the same character — like the titular princess — are usually read as separate individuals. There’s something to that line of thinking, and the idea of rejecting the idea of continuity, even when it comes to reading characters between games, is consistent.

Despite how tempting it is to let that guide how we read Ganondorf’s story, this argument misses one of the fundamental underpinnings of how Wind Waker relates to the rest of the series and how we relate to it: Wind Waker is an actual sequel to Ocarina. Its backstory describes a hazy version of the events of and following the prior game, and references to it are sprinkled throughout the narrative. Ganondorf himself points to the hero of the game and says “Yes, surely you are the Hero of Time, reborn,” referring to the protagonist of Ocarina and identifying himself as the man defeated by the player in 1998.

Ganondorf, the same man who put nations to the torch and lifted not a finger to facilitate the movement of his own people, tells his story to a pair of children born of a society that has long since forgotten him. He beats the hero senseless, promising that he will not kill him or the pirate — only take the power that rests inside of them. With this, he will restore the world that the gods twice denied him.

That Ganondorf bothers to tell this lie to the hero and Tetra is interesting — neither of them has any context to understand what he’s saying. He’s not really talking to them; neither hear his promise that he will not harm them. Ganondorf is talking to himself. He is the first person he has to convince.

Ganondorf in that moment is a man who is rewriting his past, holding up his people as justification for atrocity because there is no one left to gainsay him. He broke a nation, waged a war that flooded a world, but it was all for a cause, wasn’t it?

The most intriguing thing about Ganondorf in this sequence isn’t that he’s lying; his characterization in every game hinges more or less on falsehoods and how he follows through on them. The most intriguing thing about Ganondorf in this sequence is that he is speaking to himself, convincing himself, lying to himself. He thinks, “I must have had a reason.” And he invents one.

And he believes it.

And we believe him.

We forget how fragile that lie is. For all his talk, for how regal and reflective he looks staring off into the distance while his robe billows in the wind, Ganondorf is not a sad man given over to melancholy. He hungers, and to sate that hunger he would swallow the world. The story of Wind Waker is one where he very nearly succeeds.

“Give Hyrule to me!” is the demand he lays before the gods who have denied him over and over. There is no artifice here; still, we want to believe him, don’t we? After sailing across the ocean for the length of the game’s many adventures, perhaps we’ve formed an attachment to the Great Sea, but who doesn’t want the waters to recede? Who doesn’t want Hyrule to come back? Going along with his lie, we hold our breath, and we wait.

But Ganondorf’s wish is never granted. As he moves to set the engine of creation to churning, another hand is laid on the Triforce and another wish spoken. Daphnes, the ghost-king who ruled Hyrule in that age when the gods flooded the land, wishes for Hyrule to be washed away.

Daphnes wishes for hope for the hero and for Tetra, for the people of what was once his kingdom. Daphnes, ancient patriarch who forces Tetra into a role she doesn’t want and calls her Zelda, is here who Ganondorf purports to be: flawed, cruel, even vengeful, but struggling on behalf of his people. He wishes for them to live on without the shadow of this blood-soaked past. He wishes for a future for these children.

“Ganondorf! May you drown with Hyrule!”

Something falls away then, as the waters breach the barrier and the Triforce disappears and Ganondorf begins to laugh. Perhaps he doesn’t stop lying, even to himself, but he stops pretending to be anything other than what he is. He still hungers, and now he will have to sate it by other means.

He can no longer pretend; or, perhaps, he no longer sees fit to hide himself.

We do not see Ganondorf’s face for a while; only his back, as he talks to the recovering hero and Tetra. How ridiculous, he tells those children, the idea that they might have a future. He does not covet the wind, now; he sought the world, and he cannot have it, so its successors should not have it either. It is not rage, or sorrow, or thoughts of his people that drive him. Why should he be unhappy? He is free to be himself, as he was centuries ago.

In that place, with the waters pouring down, facing the children who will lead a future that is free of him, he has only one thought: to ruin the part of the world he can still touch. He draws his swords, to cut through his promise. He turns to face the hero and the pirate captain. He shows us his real face, and he is smiling.

And still — still! — we believe him.

We remember him for his moment of melancholy, instead of the blood he has bathed in. For the lie he told about himself and his people, instead of the truth of the children he would have butchered for the satisfaction of ruining the world.

In believing him, we extend to Ganondorf the same credulity we extend to real men in power, make the same excuses for him that we make for people who do actual harm. He must have had a reason, mustn’t he? He was sad! He was deprived! He was justified! We believe Ganondorf because people can’t simply be evil, even murderous sorcerer-kings.

What a good lie he told! How believable. How real. A lie that real men like him would tell, and perhaps believe.

For the best part of two decades we have gone on believing him. Among Zelda fans who create fanart or fan fiction, Ganondorf as a tragic, sad figure is one of the most consistent motifs. To this day, people will occasionally lament that the writers of the Zelda series have never produced another version of the character who was not merely wicked. The corollary to belief in Ganondorf’s lie is simple: in being the most sympathetic and tragic version of the character, he must also be the least evil.

Ganon in Breath of the Wild is an environmental cataclysm.

Ganondorf in Twilight Princess thinks himself a god.

Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time is a wizard who wants to rule the world.

Wind Waker’s Ganondorf tells himself that he was justified in burning the world, and believes it, and gets us to nod along with him.

What could be worse than that?