The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (abbreviated BotW) is a game all about the past. You wander the ruins of a fallen kingdom, discovering the history of the people you meet, attempting to fix a past disaster. But, there is one important character that you don’t really learn about: King Rhoam Bosphoramus Hyrule. (Isn’t that a delightful name?)
When we meet Rhoam, he’s already dead, and has been for a century. Yet somehow, he manages to stick around as a ghost long enough to get Link to go off and kill Ganon (or spend 200 hours trying to build a flying machine). Even though he’s the very first character any player meets face to face, and technically the only one you have to meet, we learn very little about him. He’s Zelda’s father, and the King of Hyrule, and he was apparently very strict with her. And… that’s about it.
We need to look closer at Rhoam, because understanding him as a character sheds new light on the responsibilities that drive all of BotW’s quests (including the side quests), culminating in a new conception of Hyrule’s past and future. And that analysis begins with the quest he gives to you, the player.
Let’s look at his actual speech:
Considering that I could not save my own kingdom, I have no right to ask this of you, Link… But I am powerless here… You must save her…my daughter. And do whatever it takes to annihilate Ganon.
Somehow, Ganon has maintained control over all four Divine Beasts, as well as those Guardians swarming around Hyrule Castle. I believe it would be quite reckless for you to head directly to the castle at this point. I suggest…that you make your way east, out to one of the villages in the wilderness.
There are two obligations that drive the main plot here. The first obligation on the player is to save Zelda, which is simply a father’s desire to protect his child. The second one is to annihilate Ganon. This is where things get interesting. This is, after all, the entire point of the game (and almost every game in the series). The prophecy of Calamity Ganon’s return caused Link’s appointment in the first place. However, it reveals something important.
Rhoam’s speech shows that he thinks he failed somehow. However, the game is very vague as to what the failure actually is. The intuitive answer is that he failed by dying, but this doesn’t make sense. There’s a prophecy involved, after all, and the prophecy does not include Rhoam (at least if we trust Kass’s rendition of the tale). Since Rhoam evidently took the prophecy seriously, he had to suspect something like this could happen.
Solving this mystery ends up answering the greatest question of BotW’s story: Why did the Calamity happen? What I will argue is that historical models of kingship provide the answer. I will match the in-game evidence as best I can to historical models, eventually showing that medieval Scandinavian kings offer the best point of comparison to Hyrule. This lens reveals Rhoam’s failing as a loss of reputation, not life. Redeeming his reputation requires someone to perform the duties of a king—duties that Rhoam can no longer execute himself. However, so doing reveals something deeply unintuitive: Link was never the hero of the prophecy.
Why We Need to Look to History to Understand Video-Game Kingship
“But wait!” I’m sure someone, somewhere is thinking. “How can history tell us all that? Wouldn’t other games be more useful to tell us about kingship in this fantasy game?” I wish that were true, but a brief look at the development of the genre of fantasy will prove that comparison useless.
Our story begins with JRR Tolkien (to nobody’s surprise). His ideal king is crystallized in Aragon (the best warrior, hides nobility behind a raggedy/wicked exterior, etc.). We can sum up this model as the Hero-King. It is something with some historical and literary precedent, but it is fundamentally a fiction, and has been dramatically overused. Thanks to the massive success of The Lord of the Rings, many other fantasy stories simply copy that model with only minor tweaks. Edgar from Final Fantasy VI is an excellent example. But, unlike in novels, fantasy in video games hasn’t really moved past that. Instead, more recent works have borrowed from older media, which results in a set of tropes, not a coherent model of ruling.
Just take a look at Regis Lucis Caelum (not a delightful name) from Final Fantasy XV and Kingsglaive. Kings don’t surrender or accept exile; they nobly sacrifice themselves so the intrepid young protagonist can escape (FFXV, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones). Rulers don’t have to deal with internal strife; they are usually utterly respected until just before the start of the game, and even then only rarely have to deal with revolts (FFIX, Bioshock Infinite). The list could continue for a long, long time, but I won’t make anyone suffer through that. While there are historical examples of similar events happening (such as when the Norwegian prince Håkon IV did get hidden away when his father was killed, and later took the throne), these are few and far between.
Returning to BotW, the reason this set of stock actions doesn’t help us understand Rhoam any better is that he kind of does all of those. He is universally liked, a great developer of technology, and does die for the kingdom. But, he regrets something about what happened. There just isn’t a precise enough concept of kingship in video games to use them as a source. So, we need to turn to historical models.
Historical kingship was much messier, but only because it was so much more developed. All the mundane and difficult decisions were discussed and debated for hundreds of years, coming up with a host of well-developed ways to interpret a ruler (e.g. The Mirror of Princes, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, among many others). All of these sources, combined with documents throughout history, give a fairly robust sense of the duties of royalty, with very few gaps.
Where in the World is Rhoam Bosphoramus Hyrule?
Kingship of some form is possibly the oldest form of government. It is a global phenomenon, and is practiced in literally thousands of different ways. So, we’re going to need to try to narrow it down a little bit. Here I am going to prioritize evidence in-game, especially visual evidence. This allows us to focus our search in three stages.
- First, we can get a rough geographic idea of where Hyrule is from.
- Then, adding in accounts of Rhoam’s actions before Ganon, we can get a better sense of the timeframe Rhoam’s rule mostly closely corresponds to.
- Finally, adding all of the evidence together, we can roughly settle on a single kingdom to move forward with the analysis.
Firstly, it’s safe, based on the character design and the very title of ‘king’, to claim that Roam is based on European models of kingship, not Japanese (the other region likely to have a lot of influence on the game). Certainly, there are a few things that are particularly Japanese about Rhoam and Hyrule (i.e. Kakariko Village and the seemingly unbroken inheritance line from the ‘goddess,’ the original Zelda in Skyward Sword), but these are not enough proof when compared to the rest of the game. Going even further, the title of ‘king’ instead of ‘emperor’ eliminates the Roman Empire and its descendants, the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.
Rhoam’s character design basically suggests that he is modeled off of a kingship from Western Europe (or Russia), a relatively finite area. But, there have been kings from about the 6th century to today. That’s a long time, and the role of a king has evolved from the local strongman through the concept of a divinely-appointed lord to a mere figurehead. And the visual evidence isn’t really helpful at this point. We’ll return to Hyrule Castle in a little while in more depth, but for right now, it’s enough to say that it does not particularly mark out any of those as more likely than the others.
So, at this point, we’ve hit a roadblock. The variations in this region over time are much more significant than the changes geographically at any one moment. So, let’s narrow down the time period we’re looking at:
Any ruler after about the 18th century is easily discounted, because Rhoam is clearly more than the figurehead that modern monarchs are.
“But,” the historically-minded reader is already typing, “What about Louis XIV? Surely Rhoam is based on him!” Sadly, Louis XIV far outpaces King Rhoam. King Zora proves this. There is a fully-fledged king, ruling semi-independently as a part of Hyrule! The King of France would never have stood for that, eliminating the absolute monarch from consideration.
The 17th century has the opposite problem. There’s no evidence at all that Hyrule has a Parliament, a development in that time. While rulers had a lot of power, they could not rule without a Parliament, and defied that obligation at their peril (Charles I of England comes to mind for losing his head after dismissing Parliament).
We come closer in the 16th century, but I really think that the 15th century is when we hit the realm of possibility. The Hundred Years’ War offers the first really good time for a king to effectively mobilize an entire country for war, which is equivalent to what we can see surrounding Ganon. It also provided rapid technological innovation, something that Hyrule certainly experienced (though on a scale orders of magnitude higher than any real-world kingdom). So, we can set the 15th century as the upper threshold on our search.
Narrowing our options from the other end, before the early 13th century, no king other than perhaps Charlemagne himself had the authority needed to do what Rhoam did. The areas of influence of most post-Roman and early medieval kings were almost limited to their physical location. That’s why those kings had to move around all the time (something that Rhoam doesn’t do). Rhoam evidently had more royal power than that, since he could order a large part of Hyrule excavated to find the Guardians.
Visual evidence lets us push our earliest date up a little more. The Soldier’s Armor is dominantly made up of pieces of plate, notably with pauldrons and demi-gauntlets (notice that you can still see Link’s fingers). These were only developed in the 14th century at the earliest. Being a little generous to the game, let’s set there or a little earlier as the bottom threshold.
In other words, that leaves Rhoam as closest to a European king in the later Middle Ages. Conveniently, this time was a moment of great technological upheaval, with the introduction of gunpowder in the later 13th century. As a result, there was a great increase in the power of kings and the development of a recognizable central government at exactly this time.
So, we’ll set our dates somewhere between about 1300 and 1500 (plus or minus a couple decades). That’s a limited enough time span to finish our geographic search. We are looking for a monarchy that is strong enough to set policy, but still has a functionally independent nobility (remember, the various villages of Hyrule were basically autonomous even before Ganon arrived).
There are really only three serious options: England, France, and Scandinavia after the Swedish and Norwegian thrones unified in 1300. Italy was largely part of the HRE (and therefore already eliminated), and Spain was still dealing with the fighting of Castile-Leon, Aragon, and the Nasrids. Russia can also be eliminated, as it was still under Mongol rule for basically this entire period.
England is the easiest of those three options to reject, for two reasons.
- There is nothing to suggest that Hyrule had some kind of Parliament. The other rulers (the leaders of the races, plus Impa) exist, but they don’t seem to meet with each other (based on the fact that Zelda and Link are traveling around to check in on the Champions and the villages, instead of everyone coming to Hyrule Castle).
- No evidence in-game suggests the kind of administrative organization that defined English kingship since the 10th century. England had the most robust administrative system in Europe since the Viking Age (including sheriffs and marshals). But, Hyrule’s system of regions, each ruled by a chieftain, without oversight, simply doesn’t fit. The towers can’t have been used as administrative markers since they emerge at Link’s revival, a century after Hyrule was destroyed.
So, that leaves French and Scandinavian kingship. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two, since large parts of the Norwegian and Swedish nobility were educated in France, and much of the same culture appears in both countries. But, it’s not entirely hopeless. There are a few key pieces of evidence here:
- Hyrule Castle
- the prophecy that starts the events of the game
- the geography of Hyrule in general
These three pieces of evidence are particularly significant because they are the ones that I could confirm with real-world evidence. There are other clues (like how the barbarian set includes a monster skull, something stereotypically something a Berserker would wear), but those are pretty obviously based on Fantasy’s tropes, not historical evidence.
The castle is a mixed bag. The physical design is very much not medieval; it looks most like Neuschwanstein, which is to say, an 18th- or 19th-century ‘fantasy’ castle. Insofar as it is the singular central seat of government in Hyrule, it is more akin to medieval France.
However, to quote Uma in the game: “Hyrule Castle was the governing center of Hyrule, home to the king and the beautiful princess. Brave souls from nearby villages would all set their sights there, do great deeds, and return home draped in glory.” This belief (admittedly common in fantasy) suggests a Scandinavian model for Hyrule. The Norwegian court was regarded in the period as a great place for an intrepid Icelander to earn renown and respect, both home and abroad.
Rhoam, and indeed all of Hyrule, also believe in prophecy (otherwise, why would they dig up much of Hyrule field to find the Guardians?). This isn’t the case in France, but the numerous copies of the Edda (which includes the prophecy Völuspá) in the 14th century prove fairly definitively that Scandinavians were obsessed with the prophetic.
Finally, the sheer variety of landscapes and peoples in Hyrule suggests a Scandinavian parallel. France was particularly singular demographically by the middle of the 14th century. There still were (and are) many different groups of people (Normans, Bretons, Basque, Andorrans, Burgundians, and more), but these are not so easily distinguished in the sources (with the Hundred Years’ War, the ‘French’ identity began to be more powerful than regional markers). In contrast, Scandinavia had Icelanders, Norwegians, Swedes, Saami, and Finns all marked as unique groups, who had, at various points, needed to be unified.
The Reputation’s the Thing.
These three pieces of evidence all suggest that Hyrule is roughly analogous to mainland Scandinavia during the 14th century. So, what does all that have to do with Rhoam? Well, once we analyze him as a Scandinavian king, his failure becomes visible.
The fact remains the Rhoam’s actions in his life … aren’t a failure. He heeds the prophecy, builds a defense, dramatically improves the technology of Hyrule, and generally is an excellent king. Ganon simply was more clever, and attacked the castle while the defenses were away at the Shrine of Wisdom. However, this isn’t a failure on Rhoam’s part. Even his death isn’t a failure in and of itself. The patron saint of Norway, Olaf the Holy, was killed in battle after being kicked out of his own kingdom! But, he was still regarded as the best king of Norway. He performed very similar actions in tales such as Sverris saga as Rhoam does in BotW, goading the person who will ‘save’ the kingdom into action. Rhoam’s only black mark against him in life, then, is being too strict a father to Zelda, which is regrettable, but not “send an amnesiac off to save the world” regrettable.
So, if the failure was not in Rhoam’s actions in life, what was it? Well, to understand that, we need to understand the concept of honor in Scandinavia. Honor was the primary currency of medieval Scandinavia. It isn’t something with set value, but rather negotiated meaning (William Ian Miller, Blooktaking and Peacemaking in the Icelandic Family Sagas, 1990), intended to result in influence and reputation in life and death. A person’s entire family was influenced by the reputation of the individual (and therefore every outlaw in Iceland was related to the most famous member, Grettir Asmundarson).
Here we see the failure of Rhoam. While his actions in life were all well done, the weakening of Zelda’s imprisonment of Ganon puts his reputation in jeopardy. His century-old successes have already been mostly destroyed in the Calamity; Ganon’s escape would completely erase all good Rhoam had done. Rhoam wants to prevent that, and so sends Link out on his mission. Proof of Rhoam’s obsession with reputation comes from his discussion of ‘gossip-mongers’ in Memory 12.
Rhoam and Link: Passing the Torch
Now, finally (a mere 3000 words later), we can talk about the narrative implications that emerge from Rhoam being modeled on Scandinavian kingship. Everything that Rhoam asks Link to do is self-interested, to redeem his reputation. Obviously, the most significant task Rhoam provides is defeating Ganon. That remains the most important goal in the game, and is always the top item in the quest log. However, Rhoam doesn’t simply recommend running straight at Hyrule Castle: he refers you, the player, to Kakariko village to learn more from Impa.
On that initial pass, you have to see the condition of the world: monster camps running around the ruins of Hyrule, Blood Moons making sure that nothing stays dead, and generally bad news all around. Going around clearing these groups fulfills a role of any king: the defense of the people (that is actually a part of pre-Machiavellian treatises of kingship!). You can rescue travelers around Hyrule in the exploration, which helps you mechanically with new merchants and quests opening up, but also serves a narrative function: you are stepping into Link’s old shoes as a Royal Guard.
In addition, you repeat the itinerary that Link and Zelda traced in the Memories, but this time alone. This is hugely significant. According to Anders Winroth, one of the roles of the early Scandinavian kings is the solving of local disasters, like famine or flooding (Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia). Link does that in Breath of the Wild, from stopping the rains in Zora’s Domain to stopping a freaking volcanic eruption! Simultaneously, he defeats gigantic monsters and solves these disasters that have re-emerged. In doing so, he reinforces the loyalty of each of the different peoples of Hyrule to the kingdom as a whole.
Now, appointing a hero is one of the oldest roles of a king. Using the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf as an example, King Hrothgar’s role is not to kill the monster Grendel: that’s the young Beowulf’s department. It’s Hrothgar’s role to accept the hero’s aid, and to reward him for a job well done. If a king does try to fight the monster himself, as Beowulf (at this point the king of the Geats for 50 years) does with the dragon in the final third of the poem, tragedy results. Beowulf fights the dragon himself, and dies in the process. However, in so doing, he damns his people to being killed by the Swedes, as told by the Widow’s Lament (put in Old English below; translation by Seamus Heaney).
swylce giomor-gyd Geatisc meowle
song sorg-cearig sæðe geneahhe
þæt hio hyre here-geongas hearde ondrede,
wæl-fylla worn, werudes egesan,
hynðo ond hæft-nyd. Heofon rece swealg
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke
However, Link’s actions ultimately merge the roles of hero and king into a singular role. Defeating the monster is fulfilling the societal responsibilities of the king. The extent of the conflation is entirely determined by the player, reflecting Link’s freedom to reject Rhoam’s plan.
But this is problematic. Link is not related to the royal family, and Rhoam already has an heir: Zelda. But, Zelda doesn’t seem to want to be Queen, nor does she seem to be well-equipped for the job. She’s a scientist at heart, who hates the requirements set upon her by her rank and role in the prophecy, according to Memory 12. She’s also not very well prepared for the role of monarch, since Rhoam forced her to be “single-minded in unlocking the power that will seal Calamity Ganon away.” Link, on the other hand, has exactly proven himself worthy of solving those problems.
Between Zelda’s status and Link’s work throughout the game, Hyrule could theoretically be recovered.
But this is strange. The moment where Hyrule could see a new king is the exact moment that the player loses control of Link. If the player, embodied in Link, was truly filling both roles, then the ending of the game would be disastrous for Hyrule: a hero-king eventually has to die, and leaves too large a vacuum for their kingdom to survive. That, however, is not the direction in which the game seems to be pointing. The true ending of the game shows Link and Zelda discussing their plans, apparently on a path to renewal. There is a resolution, though. Link is not actually a Hero-King; he is merely doing the actions of a king. It is the player, not Link, who is the hero, defeating monsters great and small.
Let me explain. Every NPC in the game, including the leaders of the various kingdoms, interact with Link in their own words. Most of the major interactions, such as Link and Prince Sidon, occur during cutscenes. These are cases where the player does not have control over Link’s actions. Therefore, Link is filling the diplomatic role.
Approaching it from the other end, the traveling hero is a very old motif in almost all literature, including Scandinavian epic. Beowulf appears from across the sea, kills Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and then vanishes again to go on another adventure. Similarly, the player boots up the game, plays through the adventure, then leaves to go be the hero of some other story.
Therefore, it is entirely reasonable to describe Link as the king half of the Hero-king, while the player is the hero. This separation also explains why, despite everyone in game claiming that the Master Sword is the mark of the Goddess’s chosen, the sword is actually entirely unnecessary to defeat Ganon: the true hero needs no marker.
So, we have averted a future calamity. By dividing the roles of the hero and the king between the player and Link, respectively, the inevitable tragedy that the union causes is averted. However, this reveals something important. If the player, not Link, is the hero told by the prophecy that Rhoam and Kass relate, then the Calamity was inevitable. The conditions of the prophecy were not met 100 years before the game.
Intrepid reader, you might notice that I came very close to full circle. By analyzing King Rhoam through the light of historical Scandinavian kingship, we discovered that the ‘regret’ he feels is the loss of his reputation, not of his life. However, the actions performed by Link and the player during the game also fit Scandinavian kingship. The combination of Link and player form the Hero-King trope of fantasy. This may feel pointless; after all, it is very close to the intuitive explanation of the Calamity. However, explaining this intuition serves as a suggestion for the world’s fate in the aftermath of the game: A new ruler has been proven and trained, so that the kingdom of Hyrule can be restored.