In order to understand the function that the Lost Woods present, and why it’s so important that they are in fact, ‘woods’, we need to understand the role that forests and the like typically represent in fiction. These environments have been used in a number of ways throughout the years, but some common themes found in storytellers’ use of forests are the concepts of an ‘alien’ world, ‘alien’ in the sense that it exists as a separate entity from human civilisation, forests as a harbinger of trials and growth that the hero must overcome, or as a place of safety in which outcasts can find solace. Folktales and fairy tales often support the second of these tropes, wherein the hero can only re-emerge from the forest via their perseverance, strength or cunning, often emerging stronger, wiser or better off than before. Take stories such as Hansel and Gretel, which sees the two titular characters abandoned in the woods, then captured by a cannibalistic witch, only having their keen wits to help them survive. Once they overcome their predicament, they are able to return home, the witch’s treasure in tow. This types of story is commonplace among Western folklore, and, while The Legend of Zelda is a game created and developed in Japan, it is clearly heavily influenced by Western fantasy – knights, castles, princesses, elf-like creatures abound – and so I believe that it’s valuable to look at the worlds present in the series through this Western lens. Let’s look then at how Ocarina of Time presents its forest, and what it represents in Link’s hero’s journey.
Both the Lost Woods and the Kokiri Forest support the trope of the forest as a trial which offers the hero a chance to grow and develop. The first encounter with the forest sees the player delving inside the Great Deku Tree, guardian and deity of the forest, to cure him of a blighted curse set upon him by a mysterious dark figure. This is the first of the game’s many dungeons – gauntlets which act as obstacles in the player’s path as they try to progress through the story. As the first, the Great Deku Tree is both the player’s and Link’s first taste of the challenges to come. For Link, this also serves as the first time he has to leave the childhood innocence of his home behind. Link, a small boy who has spent his youth playing with the other Kokiri in his forest home has had an innocent, sheltered upbringing – thanks in large part to the protection offered by the Great Deku Tree as it watched over him. Exploring the dungeon inside what is essentially the closest thing Link has to a parent only to re-emerge and find out that his efforts were in vain brings a sudden end to that innocence. Link, having been told that he doesn’t belong in the forest, is essentially kicked out of his home as he begins his quest. Here, we see the first transformation that Link will go through, as truths about his identity (he is not actually of the forest people) are revealed to him and he starts to become the hero he is destined to be.
After Link’s adventure comes to a head and he is sealed in slumber for seven long years, he re-emerges as an adult. The first stop that he, and the gamer, make on their journey to lift the curse laid on Hyrule is a return to the forest, this time working through the Lost Woods and clearing the Forest Temple of Ganondorf’s evil. The Lost Woods are a fascinating staple of the Zelda series, having appeared in the first game of the series. Typically, the Lost Woods are designed so that the player has to take a certain path in order to progress – make a mistake and you’ll end up back at the beginning in an eternal loop. In Ocarina of Time, it is said that travelers who wander into the woods get lost and turn into skeletal undead creatures known as ‘stalfos’. The woods are an unforgiving place, not made for humans. Yet we have to muster the courage to venture inside to rescue our childhood friend and rid the area of its curse. The Forest Temple is a fantastically creepy space, all twisting corridors and ghost-like enemies. Here, Link faces off for the first time against one of the facets of Ganondorf – here known as Phantom Ganondorf. Upon victory, he is able to free his childhood friend Saria, who, as a member of the Kokiri tribe, hasn’t aged a day since we last saw her at the beginning of our adventure. Link now towers over her. We are confronted by how much things have changed since we began the game, and how far we have come on our journey. It’s another commonly storytelling device – on the road it’s easy to lose sight of how the characters are evolving, but bring them back to their starting point and they suddenly feel out of place in a world that has continued without them.
While there are plenty of other dungeons in a variety of different terrains throughout the Zelda series, even Ocarina of Time itself visits deserts, mountains, gravesites, and giant fish, there is definite significance in putting the Great Deku Tree and the Forest Temple first in their respective sections of the game. Both time, Link and the player have to prove themselves, adjusting to new controls, to new weapons, to a new way of seeing the world around them, and as such, both of these dungeons stand out as the most transformational on Link’s journey. The forest is a clear symbol that Nintendo have put to great use in their game – this is where change happens, this is where the boy Link first becomes a man, and then, a hero.
The significance of the forest in Ocarina of Time doesn’t end at being a place wherein challenges and trials await. At the beginning of this article, we looked at three different ways in which the forest is commonly represented in fiction – the trial, the escape, and the embodiment of the other. This final one, the idea of the forest as a place juxtaposed with civilisation, its world alien to humans and its inhabitants scary and dangerous is put to particularly interesting use when we consider the player’s experience with the game. As mentioned above, the game begins with us in the forest – this is our home, the place in which we feel safe. But this doesn’t quite fit the trope of the forest as safe haven for the outlaw – this is not somewhere we escape to, but somewhere we have always been. We are the alien in this world. As you venture out of the forest and into the world at large, the idea of the forest as the ‘alien’ and civilisation as the ‘known’ is flipped on its head. Neither Link, nor the player have seen these lands before, these people, these cultures, which creates a wonderful harmony wherein both player and character are able to see the world with wonder in their eyes and adventure in their hearts. Ocarina of Time was the first Zelda title to make use of a 3D world, an the Kokiri Forest and the Lost Woods will have been amazing for first time players back in the day – it’s easy to imagine how astounded they would be as they leave the relatively safe confines of their home and venture out into this expansive world that stretched out before them.