I missed my chance to get into Legend of Zelda when it first appeared. And—heresy!—I’m more a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies than books. I did have two big Dungeons & Dragons years, when I was 11 and 12, before discovering heavy metal, which in retrospect wasn’t that big a jump. And I’ve reread Peter Pan again and again—JM Barrie’s, not Walt Disney’s, little egomaniac, the one who brags about all the pirates he’s killed and thinks that “to die would be an awfully big adventure”—notions that would be sociopathic coming from an adult but seem naive, even endearing from a child. And I’m really enjoying Adventure Time.
The similarities in description and appearance between Zelda’s Link, LoTR’s Legolas, Peter Pan, and Adventure Time’s Finn are plain enough, even down to recurring greenleaf jammies (with Finn alone feeling blue). Real-life Orlando Bloom stands on one end of the realism spectrum, and Finn—whose head is pretty much a Have a Nice Day button in a pillowcase—seems barely more than a sketch (and his flowing golden locks appear only once, as far as I know, as a kind of punchline). Yet I’m more interested in what they suggest about the intersection between coming of age and morality, to say nothing of coming of age and mortality.
As a videogame character, Link is the least ambiguous. After watching my kids play Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and asking them a battery of increasingly annoying questions, it seems a pretty standard quest narrative. While it looks more interactive than good ol’ Super Mario Bros.—which is culturally where my familiarity with video games ends—the plot, as usual, boils down to: Save the Princess. In fairness, it looks like 25 years of progress has revised the plot a little—Link and Zelda are now looking for each other, rather than the straightup damsel in distress scenario. But there’s still the jumping, the shooting and slashing, the accumulation of life and money toward the possibility of advancing to the next stage. So it’s interesting that for all the seeming fantasy, what the game—most games?—embodies are the very same strictures surrounding American school and work life. Playing the game must be fun, too, I guess, but the real joy seems to be advancing to the next level—only to work toward surpassing that one, ad infinitum. The kids are hooked, but this is surely someone’s version of hell. Yes, the levels advance, but the methods of advancing seem limited to killing monsters. This is not so different from Legolas, whose job in the film is also, it seems, to kill monsters, tally the points, and, like Link, look like a Pantene model in the process.
On Adventure Time’s episode “What Have You Done,” Princess Bubblegum—whom Finn, needless to say, saved in the Pilot but with whom he has since had a more or less egalitarian relationship—tells Finn that he has to make the Ice King—a kind of cartoonish, buffoonish Saruman voiced by SpongeBob—scream and cry. Finn sees the request as cruel and uncharacteristic. In what seems like a throwaway line, Finn says, “I can’t just beat up the Ice King for no reason. That’s against my alignment!” And with that, we see the sly, subversive morality at work that makes Adventure Time the true link—as opposed to Link—and legatee—as opposed to Legolas—to Peter Pan.
As geeks everywhere remember, in Dungeons & Dragons players chose their characters’ moral category, called alignment, as casually as they chose their accessories, another option of many, ethics as capricious option. In the Basic version of the game, there were three alignments—Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. In retrospect, the choices are more interesting than I thought at the time, since they eschew the obvious binary of Good and Evil. Alignment here seems more akin to how well and closely people hew to rules—which, given that D&D was, in fact, a game, seems fair enough. The Advanced version of the game, though, introduced more, and more complex, alignments, and thereby created more trouble. You now had two categories, with one from column A and one from column B, Chinese menu morality. The Category A remained Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic, but now you had to add the B of Good, Neutral, and Evil. This creates the possibility, first, of the redundant Neutral Neutral category, which seems to encompass only Switzerland. But it also creates seemingly contradictory categories like Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil.
But anything was possible—a Chaotic Good character was Machiavellian, capable of breaking rules for the greater good, while a Lawful Evil character was law-abiding but in the service of dark forces. As a kid, I never thought much about Alignment and just had the characters behave as I would, which was, obviously, Lawful Good.
Yet the purpose of the game, as it borrowed from Lord of the Rings and as Legend of Zelda would eventually borrow from it, was to move the quest forward and advance to the next, escalating challenge. And the only ways to do that, as it was for Legolas and would be for Link, were acquiring gold and killing everything in sight. In D&D, nothing you fought could ever be innocent. Only the characters—and the human players hiding behind those avatars—could be. What Finn alone realized is that the world, and its concomitant quagmire of morality, is complex. One obvious good, loyalty—here, following the orders of a trusted friend and Princess—directly contradicted another, equally obvious good, justice—not harming someone without known cause, even if that someone was a total creep like the Ice King. Adventure Time, for all its often satirical, winking references to a post-Peter Jackson/George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg world of stories, nevertheless transcends its cartoon morality.
Carl Jung was pretty thorough in his archetypes, but he left out forest-dwelling towheaded swashbuckling perpetual-adolescents. Taken together, they represent an interesting combination of Jung’s Hero and Innocent, a counterintuitive combination. [UPDATE: see Comments section!] For Jung, the Innocent (or Child) must undergo an Initiation. But unlike the folkloric tradition, these four blondes never move on; like their model Peter Pan, they remain youthful and ready to repeat neverending initiations—adventures. By the end of “What Have You Done,” everything works out for Finn, and the moral universe makes sense again. His Lawful Good remains untarnished. Peter Pan is gleefully Chaotic, but against the unambiguous evil of the pirates, he is positioned as still Good. But can Legolas or Link truly be called Lawful without any sense of legality’s labyrinths? Morality, unlike games and archetypal plots, is rarely linear or sequential. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then its mortar is moral certainly.
No wonder these characters, despite whatever age they may be, all personify youth. No wonder they never age. No wonder there is never a final level, last episode, concluding installment. It was easy for me to be sure I was Lawful Good when I was eleven, too.
Time: 60 minutes. This was a tough one to write, maybe because I don’t know these topics as well as previous ones.
UPDATE 1/31/12: I wrote a followup to this entry, about Link, death, and video games, called Game Over: When Bad Things Happen to Good Video Game Characters.