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Ocarina of Time & Majora’s Mask: Let’s Have it Out

Kylie

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The Nintendo Switch is almost upon it, and with it, a new Zelda game. A new sandbox Zelda game featuring better looking tunics, hang-gliding, and an intense enough story to make our beloved princess do this:

What is happening.

It just looks so damned good, to the point where some of us here think it could be the best in the entire franchise.

Yet which game would it actually be dethroning? Sure there’s plenty of Link to the Past-stans, and who doesn’t have at least fond memories of Wind Waker? (There was an island of Tingles, for crying out loud!) But from what I can tell, the consensus is almost unanimously on Ocarina of Time (OOT). I say “almost” because there is a small, though vociferous group that argues its direct successor, Majora’s Mask (MM), should hold that honor. For full disclosure, the latter is my personal favorite in the franchise, though I’m not sure if I’d consider it “better” than OOT.

So let’s see if there’s an objective way we can hash this out, examining the strengths of the stories and gameplay, and come away with a decisive winner. DECISIVE, I say!

The Hero of Time

In the off-chance someone doesn’t know the first thing about this game, let’s begin with a quick recap of the plot.

In OOT, a 9 or 10-year-old Link is being raised by the Kokiri, a sort of woodland sprite-ish race that all stay as children forever and have guardian fairies (none for Link, how sad). The Kokiri are all watched by the Great Deku Tree, who is feeling green in the gills lately, so he sends Navi the fairy off to get Link, since the guy has a magical destiny. Link defeats a monster inside the tree, but it turns out he was doomed anyway since some schmuck named Ganondorf cursed him. You see, the Great Deku tree held a spiritual stone, and Ganondorf wants that along with two others so he can open the Door of Time in the Temple of Time and enter the Sacred Realm where he can steal the Triforce for power!

Well that’s a buzz-kill

Link learns about this and goes to warn the royal family, succeeding in telling Zelda, who immediately believes him since she’s prophetic and thinks Ganondorf is the worst anyway. She tells Link to get the other two spiritual stones while she protects the Ocarina of Time (this is also needed to open the Door of Time), so that way they can get to the Triforce first and protect it. Unfortunately, they missed the part where Link is too young to be doing any of this shit, so when he gets the stones and opens the door, he ends up getting sealed by the Sage of Light inside the Chamber of Secrets (within the Sacred Realm), while Ganondorf skips on through and grabs the Triforce, casting darkness over the land. The only silver lining is that Ganondorf is such a baddie, he couldn’t take the Triforce whole: it split into thirds, and while he did a lot of damage with one piece, the other two fell safely in possession of Link and Zelda.

The Sage of Light puts Link into a seven year sleep, so he can mature enough to fill his role as the Hero of Time. When Link is pulled out of this stasis, he’s given instructions to go and wake up the other sages so they can all bring down Ganondorf, who has since become King of Hyrule. Link does this with the help of a mysterious Sheikah (a sort of ninja-like people) named…Sheik (clever), who turns out to be Zelda, because she might feel a little responsible for the awfulness in Hyrule.

No seriously, this reveal is awesome and Zelda is awesome.

With the help of now-awake sages and Zelda (who is actually the Goddess of Time and head sage, which means she has some healing and gate-opening powers), Link is able to defeat Ganondorf. Zelda thanks him by sending him back in time to his 9-year-old self so they can just…not do the thing. Just ignore the time paradox it creates, okay?

What’s funny is that before writing that out, I always had thought of OOT’s narrative as a straightforward hero adventure tale. It’s true that there’s the “chosen one” aspect of this, but the importance of Zelda being just as inextricable a piece shouldn’t be understated. OOT took the “defeat the bad guy to save the princess” trope and made it “defeat the bad guy and the princess will help, too.”

There’s also how each geographical area and each sage feels fleshed out and has their own issues. Ruto had to sort of quickly shape up as the sage of water after being rather self-involved and carefree as a kid. Darunia throws himself into the Fire Temple to the point of self-harm as a way of trying to save his people. Nabooru is the second-in-command of the Gerudo who realizes the danger Ganondorf poses and does what she can to subvert his plans even before darkness falls over Hyrule. It’s not Citizen Kane or anything, but these characters, along with Link and Sheik/Zelda, hammer home the theme of responsibility, and does so in a rather compelling way. Even Malon insists on staying in a bad situation for the good of the animals of Lon Lon Ranch helps to support this. There aren’t many pieces that feel extraneous, and this is the game where you spend a fair amount of time running across the map to deliver eye-drops.

Truly, it’s the dramatic irony that’s probably my favorite piece of this: had Link and Zelda not tried to open the Door of Time, none of this would have happened. So then seeing the darkness and how each region turned uniquely to shit (the Zoras getting trapped in ice was probably the most affecting) had more of an underlying tragedy to it besides “evil guy does evil things.”

The ending is rather beautiful in this regard too… Zelda sends Link back in time to subvert this in a different timeline, while she herself has to try and pick up the pieces of the world that has now fallen apart. Her background arc is almost mind-boggling when you think about it, given the way she spent seven years training as a Sheikah, ultimately to sneak into Hyrule and do what she could until Link was ready to take up the mantle of Hero of Time. We’re not talking small things either—Sheik saved Ruto’s life!

All in all, though the story does lead the player from Dungeon A to Dungeon B without much hesitation, the tale it tells to do so is one that creates a sense of urgency, and a deeply felt sense of loss, too. It’s upsetting to see ReDeads wandering through the town market, and I’ll be damned to find a player who didn’t want Kokiri Forest free of monsters as soon as possible.

Hero who’s got no time

Then there’s Majora’s Mask. It’s a bizarre tale, there’s no two ways about it.

Following the events of OOT in the “child” branch of the now-split timeline (thanks, Zelda), a 9/10-year-old Link realizes he really misses Navi, so he goes off to look for her in the neighboring land of Termina. Unfortunately he gets mugged on the road, his horse gets stolen, and he gets turned into a Deku scrub. Could happen to anyone. He meets a mask salesman who tells him that the same thief (a Skull Kid) stole his really cool, really evil and dangerous mask (Majora’s Mask). If Link gets it back for him, he’ll make him a human again, so long as Link also gets his ocarina back (he needs it to fix him).

Small problem: the mask, with the help of the Skull Kid, is somehow making it so the moon falls into Termina after three days and everyone’s going to die. And just before they can throw a really fun festival!

Goosebumps. Every time.

Link manages to get the ocarina and remembers Zelda teaching him the Song of Time. He plays it and finds himself back at the “dawn of the first day” (three days remaining until the moon crash). The mask salesman fixes him up, but Link forgot to get Majora’s Mask, so he gets sent back into the world and has to figure out a way to retrieve it and stop the moon crashing, making as much progress in three days as he can, before traveling back in time and resetting the moon fall over and over.

Much like Groundhog’s Day, Link ends up solving the minor problems of everyone in town, while he ultimately figures out that there are four guardian giants of Termina who are trapped in temples being guarded by masked monsters. Link must defeat these monsters and summon the four giants when the moon is falling so they can catch it and hold it up. Once they do, he’s able to warp onto the moon, fight the now-sentient Majora’s Mask that ditched the Skull Kid (it’s got no strings), and save the day.

It’s weird. I’ve heard it described as “dark and creepy” too, and it’s a little hard to argue with that.

For kids!

What’s weirdest of all is how none of this should have worked, and yet it all does.

For Link, it boils down to him fighting an evil mask to avoid the destruction of a town. However, he actually takes a surprising backseat in the context of the narrative, which is instead all about Skull Kid, his former friendship to the giants, and the way his friendship to the two fairies Tatl and Tael started out as sharing fun pranks, but took a dark turn aided by the mask. We learn from a story within a story (thanks, Anju’s Grandmother) that the Skull Kid had been super tight with the four giants, but when they announced they were leaving Clock Town to protect Termina from its four geographic regions, he felt abandoned and “spread darkness” before he was banished. The mask allowed him to return, and it all feels very much like the Ring of Power calling out. In many ways the Skull Kid was primed to take it, and the tragedy that unfolded was in line with his former insecurities and latent dark tendencies.

In a move of poetic justice, the Skull Kid gets scrapped by Majora’s Mask to do its own bidding, leaving him completely alone. The end credits focus on the giants telling the Skull Kid that they do care about him, but they still have to go do their protector thing. He proposes to Link that maybe they could be friends, and the final shot we get is this:

Friendship goals.

Link is, you know, there for these events. But it’s the Skull Kid’s story as he works to understand the concept of friendship while seeing how loneliness manifesting in fear is a dangerous road to walk. “Forgive your friends” is more or less the tagline of the game, and it sure as heck wasn’t Link forgiving Dampe for his formerly terrible tour guide skills.

Still, even if you’re not playing as the story protagonist, does that really matter? Link’s actions certainly make an impact, and the many quests he goes on in Termina play into the central themes anyway. Time and futility stand out the most for the player, but even subplots such as Anju/Kafei or the Gorman Brothers touch on the forgiveness and friendship aspects we see in the A-plot.

Oh, and responsibility strikes again! It’s not Link’s responsibility, oddly, though he’s able to don the forms of those who feel it keenly. The Deku Princess attempts to take on the troubles in her kingdom alone thanks to her ineffectual father (Dutiful Princess alert), both the Goron Elder and Darmani are so determined to stop the endless winter that they fall into near and actual death (respectively), Mikau dies trying to get Lulu’s eggs back, Pamela shields her half-monster father from any potential threat despite the danger he poses to her, Cremia devotes herself to the ranch despite her father’s death and the whole yearly alien abduction of the cows thing… Heck, even Jim, a small child, starts a gang dedicated to helping those in Clock Town because of neighborly duty.

In fact, collective communal responsibility is one of the biggest takeaways given how the Carnival of Time and the potential moon disaster serve as two unifying efforts. We see how the characters of this world relate to one another, often in surprising ways (the receptionist at the mayor’s office has a crush on Kafei, Cremia shelters Anju’s entire family and might be low-key in love with her, and Anju’s grandmother may have been the mayor’s teacher, just to name a few), and Mayor Dotour’s struggle to weigh the risks of staying and the potential losses of fleeing the town in the wake of the carnival only too well frames the way each person’s individual drama influences full picture.

In some ways it’s a masterpiece and in others, it’s completely absurd and downright silly. I have to imagine it is a story that most players find deeply engaging, especially given how self-referential it is, and how far down rabbit holes you can get. For those willing to explore the world in its entirety, the reward is there. Only issue is the willingness to do so without feeling like you’re making the moon crash.

Compared against OOT, I do think MM has the richer tale, though it might be one harder to relate to, especially given Link’s secondary status within it. Zelda’s plotline in OOT will destroy me in a way nothing can in MM, though what is actually on-screen during the game is less compelling than its successor. For these reasons, it’s likely best to call the strength of the stories a draw, and determine the winner of this battle by gameplay merits alone.

What Ocarina of Time did better

Both OOT and MM used very similar mechanics and were released on the same console. However, there are enough differences in game play to set them apart.

1. The superior map

This isn’t just about Termina making no dang sense politically and economically. It’s more that Hyrule feels like a complete world rather than a hodgepodge of disparate zones. Part of that may be the transition areas: you head up Death Mountain Trail before you get to the rocky Goron Village, you’re slowly eased into the Gerudo’s desert setting, little-by-little, there’s the bridge you take to get out of the forest. In MM, Termina Field just has patches of snow randomly existing about twenty feet away from the very temperate-looking beach.

Hyrule also feels less constrained in travel, likely because so much of the map stays closed off to you for so much longer in MM. OOT gives a grander “free roaming” feel, while MM makes you sit around wondering when you’ll come across the item to get you to the next zone. It’s true this can be mitigated by getting out of Woodfall with only the Hero’s Bow, and then damage boosting yourself over the Great Bay fence after getting the Goron mask, but it doesn’t exactly compare to being able to get your Gerudo Membership Card without even having to beat a single temple as an adult.

2. A better warping system

Friendship goals #2

In OOT, you can warp across the map by learning a location-specific song at some point in the game.

In MM, a random owl statue has a song transcribed on it, and if you play that you can travel to anywhere another owl statue exists, as long as you’ve opened it already. They’re both fine. Fine.

This might seem like an odd point to give to OOT, since I was just kvetching about the limits in MM’s travel, and there are some songs you don’t learn until frustratingly late in the game (looking at you, “Nocturne of Shadows”). In MM, you more or less can immediately revisit any area you’ve been to. However, OOT’s travel system felt integrated into the story, and there was a genuine delight in learning the next warp song, especially given how they were composed to evoke the area you were heading. In MM, while Kaepora Gaebora, is a familiar sight for those who played OOT, it’s still just a random owl with random statues in random locations, randomly. Give me a duet with Sheik any day.

3. Better sword upgrade & Epona quests

It might be unfair to lump these in together, but I tend to associate freeing Epona from Lon Lon Ranch with the mad dash across Hyrule to get Biggoron’s Sword, likely because that would be the first thing I’d do after becoming an adult. Both quests were incredibly fun, and actually felt like there were stakes to them, given the countdown clock for most stages of the sword, and what felt like personal stakes in helping Malon.

In MM, you pay a blacksmith for a better sword, and if you happen to have gold dust, he can upgrade it one more time so that it will never break. That’s it. Just…go into a shop twice. Sure, you have to figure out where to get the gold dust from, and you go two full days without a sword while he works but it’s not exactly engaging.

Epona, however, is nothing but frustrating. You can find her pretty quickly once you visit Milk Road, but until you defeat the second dungeon, there’s no getting to her on the first day, when you actually need to be there for Romani to help you. Once you manage that, there’s a small minigame, but it’s nowhere nearly as satisfying as defeating Ingo.

4. Better dungeon design

Speaking of those dungeons, OOT definitely has the edge here, for the simple reason that you can actually figure them out. Yeah, I know the reputation the Water Temple has and that you can get stuck without small keys, but here’s a hint: just move through the rooms counterclockwise, lowest level to highest. It doesn’t require the goddamned civil engineering degree that makes Great Bay comprehensible, and don’t even get me started on Stone Tower Temple. I refuse to believe people were actually able to find all fifteen stray fairies in that one without outside help.

5. The save button

I don’t know why MM didn’t allow for a save and quit whenever the player wanted. I’m guessing it has something to do with the function of the three-day cycle, but truly, it’s a mystery. In OOT, if you wanted to stop playing, you could save wherever you were and it would be fine. Sure, you’d start back in Link’s house, or at the beginning of a dungeon, but it was never a big problem, truly. This was also very nice if you wanted to try something risky out.

In MM, playing the Song of Time and going back to the first day was an automatic save. Otherwise, you’d have to find a dang owl statue. However, the worst part was that if you saved at an owl statue, played for a little, then stopped playing without saving (maybe you messed something up, even), you would be taken back to the last time you played the Song of Time. As a kid who’d only be able to play for a limited amount of time, this was highly stressful.

6. Gold skulltula quest

I am a completionist. Why would I fight Ganondorf with anything less than 20 fortified hearts and the biggest possible quiver? For that reason, the little scritch-scrtich-scritch of the skulltulas was both the bane of my existence, and the delight when playing these games. I lived to get that spider icon on my mini-map in OOT, and there was something immensely satisfying about figuring out all the areas they could hide.

In MM there’s two hellish spider houses, and woe betide you if you defeat one on the wrong day. Learning the speedrunning routes through them are kind of fun, but it’s more or less twenty minutes of the spider noise driving you bananas while you curse yourself for not bottling more bugs.

What Majora’s Mask did better

It’s very important to say something first: MM is a sequel to OOT. For that reason the game could address common complaints. Yes, Tatl is less annoying in her noises than Navi (though she’s also less useful). The text speed is also much faster and you can skip more of it. Sure, these fixes produce a “better” game, but it does seem unfair to hold against OOT all the same.

1. The Great Fairy rewards system

Perfection.

I’m sure this is going to be divisive, but to me there was nothing more delightful than having Link don the Great Fairy mask and plunging into the dungeons. The rewards were more or less the same in both games, at least for three of the fairies, but rather than finding random rocks to blow up or stumbling across the fountains, MM’s integration of them into the dungeon system felt much more organic, and gave the dungeons replay value they might not have otherwise had.

Also, I’m pretty sure the only spell I used in OOT was Din’s Fire in the two cases where I had to. I may have used Farore’s Wind once when I ran out of time to finish a dungeon. But thanks for nothing, half of you Great Fairies. Meanwhile MM has the Great Fairy’s sword, which is ridiculously overpowered. Try the Wart fight using just quick-spins of it…trust me.

2. Masks & movement

It’s really hard to tell if this was a “fix” to OOT’s system, but getting around the world in MM is just a delight. A lot of that is due to the transformation masks, especially given the ridiculous speed the Goron Mask allows you. In fact, it’s almost to the point where Epona feels a little useless. And I’d be remiss not to mention the Bunny Hood, even though you’re unlikely to see it much in speedruns.

In OOT, there’s Epona and back-walking.

The thing is, the masks and the way they affect gameplay are just fun, no other way about it. It’s delightful to get a new mask and try and see where you can use it in some way. Sure, there’s a few lemons, but for every Circus Leader’s Mask, there’s a Bremen mask.

3. Challenging mini-games

Okay, in fairness, Bombchu Bowling is a goddamn nightmare that you can get stuck at for a long time in OOT. But otherwise the mini-games are not the most difficult. Stand and shoot your slingshot at these slowly moving rupees. Fish for ten hours until that really fat one by the log bites. The Horseback Archery presents the biggest challenge, but even there it doesn’t take long to master.

Compare that to MM where you’re racing beavers, playing basketball with bombs, and shooting octorocts faster than you knew was even possible. These are incredibly fun games, and yeah, can trip you up. But boy do those pieces of heart feel well-earned.

4. A less aggravating Dampe quest

OOT fans should give out a collective groan when Dampe is mentioned, because the Heart-Pounding Gravedigging Tour is anything but. It’s more like the tour where you have to turn your damn brightness up all the way, listen for the sound of dirt or stones, and wait for a guy moving slower than the speed of death to charge you money that might eventually lead to a piece of heart.

In MM he’s not faring much better, by the way. In fact, he can’t even see anymore, so you have to use Tatl’s light to guide him. But there’s only six possible dig locations, they’re all very obvious, and you get a bottle at the end rather than just a piece of heart. It’s also a very fun way to close out your first cycle as a human, if you play your cards right.

5. One pair of boots

I’m not sure if this is a result of MM needing a full menu pane for the masks, but goodbye are the days of futzing around with tunic and boot selections. It was kind of fun for a little in OOT, but once the choice was taken away from me in MM, my quality of life was better. This goes for Link getting a functional and non-flammable shield to use at all times. Just…why Deku Shield, why?

I think the biggest source of my frustration with this system in OOT was how awful the hover boots felt for movement, and how dang slow the iron boots were. I realize that was the point so that the Kokiri Boots would remain the default, but it just made me dread the moment I had to put the other ones on. Just give me Link and let me run around without burning up.

And the winner is…

Well, technically I gave OOT one more positive than MM, though I should point out that “mask mechanics and movement” were so fundamental to the game that they should count for a bit more.

The thing is, while I thought I’d end this arguing passionately for MM and being willing to die on that hill, I’m really not sure that either one comes out on top. MM took OOT’s formula and added mechanics on top of it with a focus on fun and difficulty, but none of that would have been possible without OOT’s formula in the first place. Conversely, OOT was a near-perfect game out of the box, though it’s impossible to ignore the ways it was improved.

As much as I’d love to give the crown to one or the other, I can’t. They’re both phenomenal games that have earned a place of affection in Zelda fans’ hearts for a reason. Breath of the Wild has its work cut out for it.


Images courtesy of Nintendo

Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.

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Analysis

The Antagonists Are Back in Sorceress of Darshiva

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Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House Books

In my last article I said that there weren’t concrete antagonists in Demon Lord of Karanda. Well, this book solves that problem, providing antagonists in spades. Sorceress of Darshiva, published in 1989, is the penultimate book of the Mallorean. It also brings a sense of danger and threat from our actual antagonists rather than secondary ones. Yes, Zandramas actually shows up in this novel. And as more than just a shadow at that, and it’s everything the series needed. Eddings also does some fascinating stuff with un-rooting the Angarak people from the systems introduced by Torak. Overall, Sorceress of Darshiva is one of my favorite novels in the whole series, and for good reason.

Spoilers for all of Sorceress of Darshiva, and all of David Eddings’s previous books.

What Happened?

Sorceress of Darshiva starts with our protagonists following Zandramas to Melcene. Melcene is a series of islands that house the commercial trading center of the east, and Silk is very at home there. Belgarath, Garion, and Beldin meet Senji, a clubfoot alchemist. He accidentally discovered sorcery in an attempt to turn lead to gold. Senji has one of the three original copies of the Ashabine Oracles. It’s a McGuffin that they’ve been chasing for two books now, and the payoff is excellent, and will be discussed in depth below. Senji also tells them that Cthrag Sardius was kept at the University for a number of decades.

After the meeting with Senji, the company finds out that Zandramas brought Baron Otrath with her when she left Melcena. He’s a cousin of Zakath’s, and Zandramas plans to use him as the Angarak king for the prophecy. We also see several POV changes in this period. Queen Porenn calls a meeting of the Alorn council upon receiving news of what happened in Mallorea. The Council decides to fake an alliance with Urgit to bring some of Zakath’s attention off of Darshiva and his attempt to location Garion and company.

Eventually, Zakath recaptures Garion and company traveling through Darshiva, on their way to Kell. Cyradis persuades him to join them, and they continue on their way to Kell. Zandramas fights with the ghost of Poledra, Belgarath’s wife. Durnik smashes two demon lords and is officially a disciple of Aldur. At the very end of the book, Garion picks up she-wolf and her cub. Belgarath and Beldin remember that Grolim’s can’t enter Kell and that the location of the Place Which Is No More is in Kell. They deduce that they are finally ahead of Zandramas, and the book ends.

Three Antagonists

Torak, the Dragon God of Angarak

The novel begins with a prologue from a Melcene history book. It details the foundation of the Melcene nation and how it fused with the Mallorean Empire. Considering that it provides a summary of those nations since the beginning of the world, it obviously mentions the now dead god. It’s been discussed before about how it’s the systems that Torak set up that are evil, not the people in those systems. This prologue shows that in effect. The historians describe Mallorea and Melcena as almost a utopia before Torak shows up before Vo Mimbre.

“A reign of terror descended upon Mallorea. … In one stroke, Torak’s disciples overturned millennia of military and bureaucratic rule and returned absolute dominion to the Grolims.” (p. 6).

This moment shows most clearly how it’s the systems that Torak set up that Garion and company despise. The forced conversion, which parallels a Western view of the totalitarian communism of the USSR. Generational indoctrination is a powerful thing, and it happened at Torak’s behest. The god who wears a mask made of iron and cracked the world.

But Torak also shows up outside ancient history. When Garion finally finds a copy of the Ashabine Oracles, he discovers that Torak directly addresses him. Belgarath calls it Torak’s one moment of sanity. It tells Garion that “what is foretold in these pages is an abomination. Do not let it come to pass.” (p. 95). Torak admits that his side winning is an abomination and tells his would-be killer to stop it. Then, later, he destroys it. It’s the willful self delusion that forms the central critique of the Soviet Union. That it broadcast the idea of the communist ideal while being otherwise.

Zandramas, the Child of Dark

In addition to the dead Child of Dark, we see the current Child of Dark as well. They’re both antagonists, and they both have the same place in the prophecy, but this book makes them distinct. It does this by exploring Zandramas’s history and by actually giving us two glimpses into her point of view.

In Zandramas’s point of view, we see constellations rise beneath her skin. Zandramas attributes this to the Dark Prophecy exerting more of it’s power over her. We can see that she’s terrified. These moments also allow us to see Geran, the emotional center of this, for the first time since the first book. We see that Zandramas makes sure he’s taken care of, but doesn’t want him inconveniencing her. She leaves his care to Naradas and another priestess.

Zandramas’s terror and her overall plan, as discovered by her history, make her distinct from Torak. She began life as a priestess of Torak, working under Naradas. Then, after Torak died, the Dark Spirit took control of her, and she ran wild for years. When she returned to the temple, she charmed everyone into working for her. She preached that a New God would come and she would be his bride.

Torak always wanted to be the center of everything. Kal Torak literally means king and god. He dominated Angarak and demanded human sacrifice, but he wasn’t ever loved. Garion won because of that. Zandramas learned from the Dark Prophecy’s mistakes. She doesn’t want to be a god, she just wants to be the power behind the throne, both secular and spiritual. This corresponds to the transitional period of communism, where the USSR traded with capitalist countries before it collapsed.

Cthrag Sardius, the Sardion

Juxtaposed against the human motivations of our other antagonists, we see the Sardion. This book solidifies what the Sardion is. In essence, it’s the evil counterpart of the Orb of Aldur. The two stones were originally one stone, but they were divided and now they war against each other.

But, unlike the Orb of Aldur, a band of ‘savages’ found the Sardion and their generations polished it, like Aldur polished the Orb. Eventually the Melcene Empire collected it for their library, and it stayed there for millennia. Then, when the Battle of Vo Mimbre happened on the other side of the world, a historian stole it. His ship sank, and the Sardion with it. Cyradis told everyone that the Sardion is in the Place Which Is No More, where the final meeting will take place.

But the real horror of Cthrag Sardius lies in what it will do to Geran. One of the requirements for the final meeting is a sacrifice. In this case, it’s a person who will hold both the Orb of Aldur and the Sardion in their hands. With the both of them they’ll have unlimited power to reshape the world. The new god of Angarak will either heal the world, or destroy it utterly. Zandramas wants Geran to destroy the world and make it in the image of the Dark Prophecy.

It is that image, Geran with both stones in his hands, that so terrified Torak. That is why Garion might have to kill his only son. The idea of the world falling to communism routinely terrified people during the Cold War. They taught their children to glorify America, as the anti-communist utopia instead. Geran’s eventual fate takes that and twists it in a way that horrifies the characters and the readers.

The Final Un-Rooting of Systemic Evil

Secular

One of the subplots in Sorceress of Darshiva is how Urgit manages to finally reject and exile Agachak. He lays down the law, and Cthol Murgos transitions to one where the church’s, and Torak’s, lingering influence diminishes. Previously, Urgit’s advisors, including Agachak and his father’s generals, ruled his behavior. Now, after some advice from Garion, he’s managed to root them out. Agachak goes to the absolutely stupid Gethel of Thull, and convinces him to join him in Mallorea. But it’s still a victory for Urgit and for the light. It’s the proactive nature of someone who won’t be controlled again, and who won’t allow his country to be controlled either.

Urgit also has a victory in his pseudo-alliance with the Alorns. While on the Alorn side, it is purely a diversion for Zakath, on Urgit’s side it’s something more genuine. He wants peace with his ancestral enemies, and he’s taking steps to secure it and to step further away from the dark.

Zakath’s transition to the light also takes place in this book as well. Once he recaptures Garion and the rest, Zakath originally wants to send them to Mal Zeth. With Cyradis’s command, that changes. Cyradis reveals that Zakath is the Empty One, another figure of prophecy on the side of the light. After a few moments of internal conflict, Zakath agrees to go with them. Immediately afterwards, it’s like a personality transplant. Zakath, Emperor of Mallorea, had been grim and shied away from doing violence himself. Zakath, friend of Garion, can only be described as Arendish. Laughing at everything, getting into every possible fight, and with some other indefinable Arendish quality to him. He’s acting like someone from the ‘civilized West’ rather than someone from Angarak, and that speaks to this unrooting.

Sacred

The un-rooting of Torak’s influence also plays out on sacred grounds as well. While Garion and company travel through Peldane and Darshiva, they see many different temples. All the masks above the temples, that once showed Torak’s face, are now blank. Urvon and Zandramas fight all through Peldane and Darshiva over who the new god will be, but this change says more than that. It’s a preparation for a new god, either Urvon, Geran, or whoever Garion chooses.

It’s not only the people preparing for a new god, the possibility of the new gods are also preparing. Before their capture by Zakath, the company winds up in an abandoned farmhouse for shelter. An old Grolim comes to them, and offers them food and hospitality. He talks about how he heard the voice of the new god, and now he decorates the altar with flowers and repents everything he did for Torak. He believes that the Light god prepared him to be its first disciple. A Grolim, someone inside the power structure determined as evil, repenting and being a driving force for good is new, and excellent for the philosophy of the work.

The current existing Prophecy makes an appearance shortly after the Grolim disappears and says all of this. He then goes on to say, “when Destiny is reunited, there should be a new voice. … Millions of years of enmity between us have warped our perceptions a bit … I’m not suited to deal with a united universe. I’ve got too many old grudges. The new voice can start out fresh without any preconceptions.” (p. 146). Those grudges and preconceptions are exactly why Eddings is being so careful to change the perception of the Angaraks by characters and readers alike. To accept the fictional and actual antagonists as people.

In Conclusion

In 1989, Eddings published Sorceress of Darshiva and the Berlin Wall fell. That symbolic fall prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There’s no mistake in the fact that he combines the final moments of un-rooting with preparations for a future afterwards. This book focuses heavily on the antagonists, yes, but it also finalizes that change in the people previously stigmatized by their association with them. That Torak’s moment of sanity, Zandramas’s fear, Zakath’s acceptance, and Agachak’s banishment all occur in the same book is important.

It signals all of that preparation for the future. By showing the quasi-human nature of our antagonists, except the Sardion, it makes the readers more likely to accept their followers as people with hearts and souls. By un-rooting the enemies turned allies from the systems that made them enemies, it does the same thing. That this all happens the year the Berlin Wall fell is hyper significant. It’s a symbolic gesture, yes, but symbols and stories mean things. Who better to know that than an English teacher with a predisposition for archetypes? Eddings may not have realized that he was writing a metaphor for the Cold War, but it’s there in his symbols and his philosophy nonetheless, especially here, and especially now.


Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books

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Analysis

Dr. Strange May Be A Truly Cult Movie

Angelina

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dr strange cult

Watching Dr Strange was a truly strange experience for me. I sat before the screen expecting two hours of mindless fun as I watch a self-absorbed jerk become something like a decent guy. You know, this ever-present and ever-satisfying “break the haughty” narrative. A safe bet, not too harsh on the haughty (it’s MCU, after all), but harsh enough we cheer him getting his comeuppance. What it turned into, was two hours of flashbacks as I watched a haughty jerk being broken and brainwashed into a cult.

Probably I wouldn’t react that badly if this experience was not something from my personal past. Things I saw at the screen were excruciatingly familiar. I couldn’t help rooting for the jerk, because I knew all too well what it is, feeling that you are nobody, that the world is crumbling around you—and then being handed something like a power over it.

And while I am sure that it was nowhere near authorial intent, I couldn’t help wondering how many people—impressionable, vulnerable people—would buy into the narrative and turn to some secret knowledge to cope with their illnesses or insecurities. After all, Kamar Taj, both in appearance and in teaching, is very far from fantasyland. You can find dozens of wannabe Ancient Ones just around the corner, waiting for easy prey.

Yeah, sounds very purple, but let me show you why am I so agitated.

What Is a Cult?

A cult—also a totalitarian cult, toxic cult or destructive cult—is a religious or posing as a religious organisation which teachings and practice are designed to achieve and execute total control over its members’ life and death. Not quite a lucid definition, and that’s why the thin line between a cult and a new religious movement is so thin. The subject is controversial, the “cult” word is thrown around as a slur and generally only time we can safely use the definition is, while talking fiction or the cults that 100% exposed themselves as such via some drastic action. Mass suicide or terrorist attack, usually, and sometimes both.

But still there is a list (several lists, but they mostly talk the same things in different wording) of traits that may alarm you that the group is most probably toxic. Let me show how astonishingly well Kamar Taj fits the criteria. Then I’ll try to demonstrate how typical dr Strange’s situation actually is and what usual manipulative tactics were employed to guarantee his loyalty. I’ll use the list provided by M. Kuzmin in his thesis.

1. A Teaching that Rationalises and Encourages Control and Manipulation

They don’t just brainwash—they do it for the greater good and to prevent lesser ones from slipping on the path to salvation. Or something like that. It is prime trait of a toxic cult; a pity it is not easy to see it through, as the real teaching is not revealed until a person is considered “ready” (read: is totally broken).

Through the movie we hear Mordu describing his own path into Kamar Taj. He tells how he went there to get weapons and training sufficient to fight his foes and was promised to get those. Then he was made to go through usual training routine until he understood that his past—name included—was nothing and Kamar Taj was everything and he is destined to be its adherent. Though he recognises manipulation, he not only completely justifies it, but also expresses hope such would be dr Strange’s fate, too.

dr strange cult

I have some questions why non-White people comprise the blindly devoted part of Kamar Taj, but that’s a different matter

And indeed, no one in the Kamar Taj is anywhere near ashamed of stringing along a desperate disabled person with promises of healing all the while basically training him as a cannon fodder for future battles.

2. The Leader, Regarded as an Absolute Unquestionable Authority

While there are some cults that have group leadership, this figure is almost inevitable when we talk about the cult, as they are built around them. The guru may proclaim themselves a literal god (or God), as Shoko Asahara or Maria Devi Christ did, or a prophet, as Jim Jones. They can even settle for indefinite “possessor of the knowledge”, as Marshall Applewhite. No matter what they chose, entire existence of the cult depends on their very person and something only they know or can do.

Does Kamar Taj have such a person? Oh, certainly. The Ancient One is just that; an absolute, infallible guru who is right even when she is actually wrong, and whose actions are not for the lesser minds to judge. She wields absolute authority over her acolytes and can make them fight using real weapons or even leave for dead on a whim. All the while the very idea that she may be wrong is a heresy for the loyal Kamar Taj members, and a sign something is “unwell” with the person in question.

3. The Teaching Changes When Situation Changes, But It Is Never Acknowledged

They promised us the world’s end and it didn’t come? Oh, you see, it was not the real end. It was never about something like that. Or better: yesterday they taught absolute monogamy, but now the guru is caught cheating. So, as the guru is never wrong…

Well, we have an entire plot point, no less, dedicated to this exact rule of cult. So, the entire Kamar Taj had existed for ages on a premise that Dark Energy is bad and corrupting and everything Dark Dimension is vile. But lo! The guru used dark energy to sustain her all those innumerable years! She must be a crank, then? A liar, who forbid her loyal acolytes the thing she had been doing all along?

Nah. No way, You see, the rules exist to break them and cheat, and if you think the rules that you were manipulated to accept as a final truth matter, you are our next bad guy.

Or was it an instance of the next cult rule?

4. Each Subsequent Hierarchical Level Is Granted a Different Version of “Truth”

Basically this is the most glaring distinction between a religion, whatever new, and a cult. You join a religion, and you know what does it teach and what do you subscribe to. If it was one god, three goddesses and a ritual cup of tea every three hours when not asleep, that’s it all along. With a cult, you join for a god, three goddesses and a cup of tea, but then learn that it’s not tea but actually vodka, and when you progress in the ranks you may learn that there is one goddess and no god at all, and then – that gods are nothing, only guru matters. And then something.

The teaching of Kamar Taj does change from rank to rank, too. You come to them because they are healers and martial artists. If you are fit for them, you learn about astral and the source code of the Universe. Next level, and you learn the purpose of Kamar Taj is to protect Earth from a certain other dimension and you have to obey strict rules unless you would harm our world. Even next level, and the rules matter nothing and result is all. And then something.

And Others

To save time and space let me not delve into other very fitting criteria—like having a teaching that combines syncretic religion with pseudo-science, that justifies and even encourages violence towards critics and ex-members of the cult, that encourages active service in “do whatever you are told” way… Kamar Taj is already cult-like enough.

But nothing proves it as well as main character’s story. Just look for yourself.

Cult Brainwashing 101

So, we have a man in his late thirties/mid-forties, the age of crisis. This man suffers an accident and is now disabled. As his only profession requires the very ability he’s lost, he searches for rehabilitation and encounters a rumour of miraculous healer. Desperate, he goes for it and gradually becomes an active member of a group that presents itself as Earth’s only hope and secret guardians. He never heals and is never able to go back to work. Also, he leaves the world forever, going on to live on the group’s premises.

Huh, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But it can get worse.

dr strange cult

A visual metaphor for severing all ties with your past life—a “must do” for any cultist

Our hero roams the world in search of the healer, until he encounters a group of thugs. Those thugs beat him violently and destroy the last memento of his previous life: his wristwatch. Only then a member of the group intervenes and quickly saves the day. He waits, because he was told to wait. Because apparently our hero needs…something. Do you know what? He needs to lose everything and to be on his utmost vulnerable when presented with the cult teaching—and to be thankful for help. While not too common, the tactic is widely employed irl. It ensures bigger susceptibility of the adherent-to-be through combination of humiliation and gratitude.

Also, the very exhaustion he suffers because Kamar Taj remains hidden from him is quite helpful, too. Exhausted people are not quite able to think critically, as analysis and logic require much energy and all energy they have goes to sustaining them alive and upright.

And Then Some

dr strange cult

The least acid moment

Moving on, our hero is presented with some mumbo-jumbo and then graced with a very, VERY acid vision. While here it’s magical in nature, it would be literal acid irl. Secretly feeding newcomers with hallucinogens is a very, very common tactic of those cults that emphasise and promise secret knowledge and spiritual experience. Bright, wild hallucinations make people believe that they were granted visions and have some supernatural power in them.

So, our hero’s weakened mind is bombarded with mumbo-jumbo, followed by acid visions “proving” the mumbo-jumbo is actually true. Nice. But not perfect. To add a final touch, our hero is cast away and left on the street with nothing but his clothes, broken watch and a promise of miraculous healing. He has nowhere to go but to the c… Kamar Taj. But the Ancient One knows her manipulation 101 and makes him yell, beg, despair. He has to wish for acceptance with all his heart, to see no other way. He must beg, because nothing is as effective as humiliation.

Except for a death threat, of course. Being humiliated AND left in a mortal peril is much better. Do I need to remind our hero is subjected to it?

Conclusion (Or Lack Thereof)

My goal was not to imply the authors of the movie did all that on purpose. Never would I even dream of such a thing.

What I actually think is, that the authors used the same tropes the real-life cults use in recruiting new members and promoting their teaching. Those tropes are widely popular in popular culture—which is actually the very reason the cults use them. Familiarity is quite important when encountering something new. Things already at least seemingly familiar attract much more trust and attention than completely new ones.

Combined with several instances of what I consider authorial tone-deafness, this lead to a load of unfortunate implications. As with Thanos, the end result is horrifying idea no author would’ve supported as it is, but accidentally promoted.

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Analysis

DC Elevates Batwoman to Live Action, Cancels Her Book

Griffin

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[~Hello Darkness, My Old Friend~]

In the span of less than a week, Kate Kane has reached the absolute height of her cultural awareness…and then had her entire foundation smashed into teeny-tiny pieces. To say that this is mixed messaging is quite the understatement. And also gross and infuriating, and why couldn’t people just buy this fucking book, why does ever queer story have to have explicit romance to get anyone to care—what is wrong with everyone!?

Ugh. Before anyone asks, no, there’s no way to save Batwoman from cancellation. Again. Volume 3 is dead. If you’re one of the ~25,000 people who bought and read Batwoman during the New52 era, in which her book reached a total of 45 issues (including two annuals, two #0s, and a crappy tie-in), but then just noped out reading Batwoman Rebirth…welp. Fuck you. 

Because yes, that’s how frustrated I am.

The comics world didn’t get less diverse between the first cancellation and the relaunch. Sure, we’re sort of living in a Darkest Timeline scenario but that doesn’t mean socio-cultural progress evaporates overnight! Especially when the kind of people that Kate’s original ongoing managed to reach are only more numerous now. Which just begs the question: why did nobody read this book?

Unfortunately I suspect that I already know the reason. It’s kind of the same reason people seem to be sleeping on Black Lightning despite it being streets ahead of every other DCTV production. The lesbian wasn’t shtupping anyone (well, not in present day). Of course, in Black Lightning’s case, there’s also racism involved, but the more explicit and assertive Jewishness Bennett wrote in for Kate probably set off quite a few antisemite alarms. This attitude is unfortunately disturbingly common within queer spaces, because of course it is. Which means, yes, one can technically blame Nazis for Batwoman’s cancellation. I know I am!

(Or DC suits mumbling about ROI.)

So where do we go from here? Apparently, we sit on our hands and wait for December to roll around and watch the CW likely take a giant dump all over Kate Kane. I’m not going into this hopeful, and it’s not because I think it’s impossible to do it right. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s that difficult to pull off. You just need to actually know who she is. Here’s a list of people who have demonstrated that they fit that description:

  • James Tynion IV
  • Marguerite Bennett
  • Tom Taylor
  • Gail Simone
  • J.H. Williams III
  • Haden Blackman

Notice someone missing? It’s Greg Rucka! Because apparently “his” Kate is entirely unrecognizable from the Kate we have now (and have always had), which means he’s either pissed he didn’t get to write this stuff and is being a jerk about it…or his original intent was absolute shit. Either way, not a great look for Greg.

Obviously, none of those people will be writing/advising/consulting for the DCTV yearly crossover event. Maybe there’s someone on one of those four writing staffs that does get her, but the odds of that are exceedingly low. And even if someone does, the odds of them being able to adapt her right are basically zilch.

Why? It’s not because I suspect they’re only doing this as a palate cleanser/apology after the nazi-tastic crossover last year. It’s also not because Kate’s maybe being brought in to show off their stunning “progressivism”. It’s because the folks over at DCTV clearly lack one of the most fundamental understandings of how Kate can even be Batwoman: there needs to be a Batman.

For anyone who knows the story well, this should not be a surprise even if it does sound like a fanboy’s wet dream. There will always be a Batman, regardless of who happens to be under the cowl, but there are so many ways that there wouldn’t be a Batwoman. So many, in fact, that the entire running theme of Bennett’s Batwoman run was about that explicit choice she made, and the one she continues to make every time she operates as Batwoman. Kate chose this. She was not compelled by a bat flying through the window, or the hands of fate. The Batwoman is not a universal constant.

Kate Kane wanted to protect innocent lives, and her country. Following in her family’s long history of military service, she enlisted and attended West Point. Near the end of her second semester, she was dishonorably discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (watch them cut this and never elaborate on why she was kicked out aka the Andreyko Origin) because she refused to lie about who she was. The flag she wanted to serve tossed her into the dumpster, and that’s where she forced herself to stay in a drunken stupor for years and years.

The Kanes are a very prominent family, so this made headlines. Kate was basically outed globally. She had money, and her father had no earthly idea how to help her find a new purpose in life since she’d dedicated her entire existence towards serving others and fixing the world from literally her twelfth birthday. That is, until she found a new flag.

She’s the same Kate, Greg. Just stop it.

If not for that one night in the alley—in which she was not saved by Batman, but rather offered a helping hand out of the rain—Kate would never, not in a million years, have considered vigilantism as an actual option for her. Because that’s completely insane. The only way Kate becomes Batwoman is by meeting Batman. Thus, there cannot be a Batwoman without the Batman.

So, does that mean there is a Batman in the Arrowverse now? Is he dead? If Bruce is dead, why isn’t Dick the new Batman? If Dick is dead too, why not Tim? Or a resurrected Jason? Or, shit, Damian? Jean-Paul Valley? There has to be a goddamn Batman, and ultimately it doesn’t matter who it is, there just has to be somebody in the costume to inspire Kate and legions of others.

Tynion’s run has been very explicitly about what the Bat means to different people. How it can manifest, and how people interpret the symbol. It’s no accident that The Colony, Kate’s father’s black-ops group designed to operate like a literal army of Batmen in terms of effectiveness, exists in indirect opposition to Bruce’s ideology…yet more or less consistent with Kate’s. Because Kate doesn’t wear a costume; it’s a uniform.

So why the hell would Batwoman of all people be the focus of a DCTV four-part crossover? What possible plot contrivance could there be to remove every other vigilante from Gotham, because literally all of them are more inclined to interact with “tourists” than Kate? The answer is going to be stupid or shallow.

Whoever shows up on screen won’t be Kate Kane. She may have the name, and the colors, and the look, and the mentality of a Navy SEAL/Green Beret/Marine, but it won’t be her. Because at the end of the day, as far as DCTV is concerned, Kate is a lesbian and they got lots of good press from that Alex stuff, and hey Kate once dated Floriana Lima’s “Maggie Sawyer” (who totally isn’t a watered down Renee Montoya) so this all makes perfect sense!

Well, all of that stuff, but also a lack of emphasis on her Jewishness kind of breaks her character. Intentional or otherwise (great job, Greg!), Kate needing to scream for her own right to exist is kind of integral to how she operates and lives and you know…exists. Kinda speaks for itself considering what she had to do to find some sort of grounding in her life after the military shat her out.

All of that being said, the optics here are just…really bad. DC shoves Kate on the silver screen and then axes her book? Look, we’ve all seen Marvel do that over and over and over and over and over again with their movies, but this is just a new level of stupid. Considering how the only other queer lead book DC has in their primary line is the abysmal Wonder Woman by James Robinson (that is somehow getting a spin-off featuring the somehow not copyright infringing Wonder Man?!), this is a Bad Look.

Which makes me suspect that DC isn’t so much as cancelling the book, as they are retooling for a relaunch around December with a new #1 and creative team. Probably with Kate Perkins because she’s written two Batwoman stories for DC already, despite them being just…comically insincere.

Or maybe they’ll give it to Gail. God, I hope they do. I mean, I’m heartbroken that Bennett lost her literal dream job because people won’t consume queer media unless there’s shipping, but I’m also terrified of Kate just…going up on the shelf. For a very, very long time. At least the solicitation for the series finale has Kate clearly getting back together with Renee. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Back in February of last year, I told you folks that this was likely going to be Kate’s last chance at a solo book. Let’s pray I’m not right.


Images courtesy of DC Comics 

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