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The Philosophy of the Triforce

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In Nintendo's "Legend of Zelda" video game series, the young hero, Link, must rescue Princess Zelda from the magic-wielding villain, Ganon. Link must also protect the kingdom of Hyrule from Ganon's clutches, and doing so usually involves employing the mystical powers of the triforce.

The triforce, also known as the golden power, is a set of three golden triangles, made at the creation of the world of Hyrule. They were originally sealed in the Golden Land, a kind of "alternate dimension," but they have been accessed at various times in the history of Hyrule by different people, good and bad. Holding one or more of the three segments of the triforce usually means a person gets the upper hand in battle. Oft times, obtaining the triforce means victory in Link's various quests.

Having introduced the subject as found in the games, let's look at the philosophy behind the triforce. This seemingly simple idea appears at first to just be a convention that gives game players a goal while they soak up their 64-bit enjoyment. However, there are actually some principles involved that can apply to real life.

The Three Elements of Human Action
Each segment of the triforce is named after a virtue: Wisdom, Courage, and Power. These are not just arbitrary titles. They actually describe the fundamental principles of human action. In order for a person to do anything, three important conditions must first be present: he must know how to do it, he must be able to do it, and he must want to do it.

For example, if I am going to bake a cake, I must (1) have a recipe that tells me how to make it, (2) have the ingredients and an oven available, and (3) want to make it. If I have the ingredients and the appetite, but don't know the first step, I won't bake it. If I have the recipe and the appetite, but none of the ingredients, I won't bake it. If I have the recipe and the ingredients, but have no desire for cake, I won't bake it. In other words, to bake the cake, I must have the Wisdom (know-how), Power (ability), and Courage (desire, will). (Another example: If I am to drive somewhere, I must know how to drive, have access to a working car, and desire to drive.)

Let me take the time here to note that Courage, or desire, can be manifested in variying degrees; we often have conflicting desires. If you are being robbed, deep inside you don't want to give the burglar your wallet, but his 9mm Beretta convinces you to do it anyway. Among your conflicting desires (money v. life), one of your desires surfaced as the most important. Human motivation is an interesting thing. No matter how badly we did not want to do something, the fact that we did it indicates that there was some overruling desire that vetoed the other conflicting desires (think of that candy bar you snitched from your sister). Of course, no desire can rule us without our consent. We are at the helm, and we can learn to control and direct our desires with practice (especially with the help of people like Richard Simmons and Billy Blake!).

It is important to recognize that these three conditions of human action frequently overlap. We can't maintain artificial distinctions. Here are a few examples.

  • (W»P) Everyone's heard the saying "Knowledge is power."
  • (C»P) And then there's the Spanish proverb "Querer es poder," or, "To want to is to be able to."
  • (P»C) There's also the "as-if" principle: "If you ought to do something you know is good, but you don't really want to do it, do it anyway (e.g., being nice to your little brother, or exercising regularly). Eventually you will want it and do it out of your own wishes."
  • (W»C) And we can't forget that principle that overcomes prejudice: "If you don't like someone, it's only because you don't know him. You can never hate someone you truly know."
  • (P»W) Also, "Never judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes."
While it's true that one condition often produces or affects another, looking at them as separate elements helps us understand how people work.

Holistic Health
An interesting recent trend in medicine is the recognition that we are multi-constituted beings. That is, scientists have begun to acknowledge that our state of mind or emotional well-being can directly affect, and be affected by, our physical health or status. In fact, there's a word used to describe physical conditions that are affected by mental conditions: psychosomatic. This philosophy of addressing not only the physical needs of a patient but also the spiritual, mental, and emotional needs, is called holistic health (relating to the word 'whole').

Many people believe that we are tripartite beings: body, mind, and spirit. Latter-day Saints sometimes refer to them as physical body, intelligence, and spiritual body. As you are probably beginning to see, these three parts of the unified soul correspond to the three fragments of the triforce: Wisdom—Mind, Power—Body, and Courage—Spirit (that last one kind of by default rather than intuition, I admit).

I hasten to add that I distinguish between our emotions and our spirit. If I had to fit emotion into all this, I might describe it as the delicate interplay between our three parts, the wiring that connects them all together. Perhaps emotional health could be described as balancing what we know to be true with what we feel is right with what we do about it. The Boy Scout Oath, for any of you scouters out there, reflects the goal of holistic progress when it urges us to remain "physically strong [body-Power], mentally awake [mind-Wisdom], and morally straight [spirit-Courage]."

The famous nineteenth-century psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, also hypothesized about three parts to the human psyche: the id, the ego, and the superego. In his theory, the id consists of our natural urges and appetites. The ego consists of the rules and standards of society. The superego consists of our conscious efforts to reconcile the two. While I do see many truths in Freud's theory, I do not hold to some aspects as I understand them. I believe that most of the feelings of right and wrong we feel come from our conscience, our inherent knowledge of good and bad, rather than societal conditioning. But let's look at the similarities between Freud, holisticism, and the triforce.

The id corresponds to the input we get from our body, our physical appetites and instincts ("Love chocolate! Must eat donut!"). The ego corresponds to the input we get from our spirit, our inborn knowledge of good and not-so-good ("That donut belongs to Jason. I shouldn't eat it without his permission.") The superego corresponds to our mind, our conscious self that chooses what to do when confronted by conflicting input ("I'll ask his permission after I eat it!"). As you can see, the results can be either positive or negative.

Color Symbolism
While the triforce itself is golden (yellow), the three individual virtues are frequently represented by three colors: red, green, and blue. Admittedly, the color assignments are not always consistent throughout the games (the three pendants of virtue in Zelda III exchanged the colors of Power and Wisdom), but they have become more regular as time goes on. In Zelda V, the Ocarina of Time, a character relates the Hyrulian creation myth, which explains the assignment of colors to the three triforce virtues. (It's interesting that the game designers should choose the primary colors of light for the virtues, and the leftover primary color of pigmentation for the triforce itself.)

Red is the color of fire and lava (and the color of blood, which pertains to the body, thus Power). The Hylian creation myth speaks of the goddess of Power, Din, using her flaming arms to gather red earth together to mold the world. Blue is the color of water, and of the sky, or higher things (such as how intelligence gives humans sentience, consciousness, and conscience, thus Wisdom). The creation myth speaks of the goddess of Wisdom, Nayru, pouring her wisdom, like rain, onto the raw material to bring order through laws. Green is the color of plants, of life (which is what a spirit brings to a living person, thus Courage). The creation myth speaks of the goddess of Courage, Farore, creating lifeforms to uphold law.

Throughout the games, especially the more recent ones, this color symbolism is evident in several places. Keeping your eyes out for is makes playing the games more fun.

The Four Elements
Classical lore, in several cultures, breaks down the material world into four basic elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Even in modern science, we see a bit of truth in this view in the four phases of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Of course not every culture does it this way (Taoism refers to five elements: earth, water, fire, wood, and metal), but for fun let's go with the basic four we're familiar with.

There are several ways to pair off elements. We can group earth and water as the tangibles, and air and fire as the ethereals. Or we can pair fire with water, and earth with air, as opposites or counterparts. We can also link earth and fire as direct agents, and water and air as indirect agents (that is, it's easy to see the powerful effects of an landslide or a wild fire, but harder to notice the cleverly slow erosion of water and wind . . . ignoring for the moment Hurricane Andrew). For our purposes here, let's use the last pairing system.

As people say, "knowledge is power," but the former is more subtle and indirect than the latter. Likewise water and air can move and break things down, but less apparently than can earth and fire. Thus, air and water are akin to Wisdom, while earth and fire relate to Power. (Incidentally, I learned that this idea is elaborated upon by a character in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.)

People sometimes refer to life as a fifth element (think Captain Planet, when that little Brazilian dude squeaks "Heart!"). It's kind of a combination of the other four, with some added bang. After all, our bodies consist of earth (tissues), water (blood, etc), air (air . . .), and fire (metabolism, neurons). But without that extra punch of life, you just have a vegetable. That's where Courage comes in. Once again, you may have the ability to do something, and the know-how, but if you don't have the desire, you won't do it.

After making so much sense of this, I am at a loss to explain why, in Zelda V, The Ocarina of Time, they assigned the wind spell to Farore, goddess of Courage, and the love spell (of protection) to Nayru, goddess of Wisdom, especially when Nayru is associated with the sky in the creation story, and Farore, with life. Maybe they just didn't think it all the way through, or maybe they had a different rationale.

A practical use for the triforce philosophy is in public speaking. There are basically three types of speeches or presentations: informative, motivational, and instructional. Informative speeches tell what something is. Motivational speeches tell why something matters. Instructional speeches tell how to do something. Stephen R. Covey, when assessing the needs of an audience, delineates between a value problem (the audience doesn't understand the issue well enough), a motivational problem (the audience doesn't feel much desire to act), and a competency problem (the audience doesn't know how to fix the situation). This is just one example of how one can assess what type of speech he should give.

For example, if you had to write a report on bonobos, you'd probably focus on information (they're relatives of chimpanzees) and not try to motivate people to buy one or instruct them on how to care for one. If you had to give a presentation on seatbelts, you'd probably focus on motivation ("Buckle up—it can save your life.") and not try to inform people what a seatbelt is or instruct them on how to fasten it. If you were teaching a skydiving class, the students would probably know what skydiving was and already want to learn it, so you'd focus on instruction ("Count to ten and pull."). As you can see, these three focuses correspond to the triforce: speeches that give Wisdom (information), that give Courage (motivation), and that give Power (instruction).

Most speeches, however, include elements of all three purposes (information, motivation, instruction). I've found that a good way to organize a speech is to go in the triforce order. First, explain what the topic is ("Investing means using your money in ways that will bring you more money later"). Then, explain why it matters to your audience ("You need to invest now so your family will be economically secure in the future"). Finally, explain how to go about implementing the topic in their lives ("A few places to start are . . ."). That good ol' triforce can come in handy when trying to organize your thoughts.

As a side note, in classical Greek rhetoric, public speakers referred to three types of appeal: logos (appeal to logic), ethos (appeal to the speaker's credibility), and pathos (appeal to emotions or sentiments). I think you could make a case for these three appeals having a correlation to the three triforce virtues, but it is admittedly a bit fuzzy.

Teamwork and leadership seminars and workshops often focus on improving results by working together more smoothly, be it at a job, on a Boy Scout council, or on a church committee. Team members have different strengths that can complement the others'. I once heard team member types broken down into three categories: process-centered, result-centered, and relationship-centered.

Process people focus on doing the job right, and according to procedure. Results people focus on getting the job finished, on time. Relationship people focus on making sure everyone is getting along. Everyone has a mix of the three traits. I'm mostly a combination of process-centered and relationship-centered, which means I often lose sight of the goal if I don't remind myself. (I bet you could even relate this to the four personality types: red, yellow, blue, and white).

These team member types also correspond to the triforce virtues: process (Wisdom-mind: Knowledge of procedures), relationships (Courage-spirit: Everyone works well with each other), and results (Power-body: The job gets done). Naturally, a good team needs a balance of each type of person. To paraphrase Princess Zelda in the Ocarina of Time, only a balanced group can fully utilize the triforce.

For a team to work well together, there has to be a degree of cohesion. In the BYU Student Leadership Seminar, they often spoke of three steps to unity: understand, esteem, and embrace. First you have to try to understand someone, where he comes from and his situation (Wisdom). Then you will be able to appreciate his inherent value (Courage). Once you do so, you will be able to accept him and work together with him to accomplish good (Power). As you can see, the triforce virtues relate to human interaction, too.

Human Relationships
While the English word "love" is used to describe many kinds of relationships, the Greeks had three different terms: eros, philia, and agape. Eros is physical, romantic love, the kind you feel towards members of the opposite sex. Philia is brotherly affection, the bonds that grow when you've known an old friend for a long time. Agape is pure spiritual love, charity, the kind C. S. Lewis called "Godly love."

I'm sure you see it already: each type of love corresponds to one of our three parts (body, mind, and spirit), and therefore to the three parts of the triforce (Power, Wisdom, and Courage). Kind of makes you wish English had a more specific vocabulary, doesn't it?

So what does all this mean? Well, I don't think I have a grand, unifying thesis statement to end with. I just wanted to point out that there are patterns that stretch into a lot of areas of living, and that the triforce is a good label to give this three-fold pattern. If you've gained nothing else by reading this essay, at least you know now why the Legend of Zelda story has such appeal. Good luck rescuing the princesses in your life.

Copyright © 2002 by Nathan Richardson. All rights reserved.
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to read The Triforce and the Gospel, which approaches this subject from a Latter-day Saint perspective.
Comments and Feedback
I eagerly welcome comments and feedback ( The following are comments made by people who have read this article on the triforce. Special thanks to the members of the Legends Alliance Forum for taking the time to read my article.

Hey, I just took a quick glance at your site. I must say, I really like it! (Okay, maybe it's because it's so similar to my site's design and theme. Birds of a feather flock together.)

I plan to read through that article when I've got free time. It looks quite compelling. I've been planning for a long time to write a long article on the Triforce. Maybe this will help me get more ideas. From my *very* quick glance, I saw that you were showing how the Triforce can be applied to everyday human action. This is a valuable philosophical point, and I look forward to reading how you argue it.

Good luck with the site. I hope you expand on it!

–David Butler
  18 Aug 2002
  The Legends of Zelda
  AKA 'Davogones,' moderator of the Zelda Storyline forum

Guilty as charged. Since this was my first time making a website, I decided to use a layout that was simple, familiar, and within my ability to program. I like Dave's, so I mimicked it.

I guess it is sort of interesting [how these patterns pop up all over]. But actually it is because every myth, tale, or legend is archetypal. Every one of them has the force of intellect (wisdom), bravery (courage), and strength (power). No one sole person can withhold all of these forces because there has to be a balance of them. If one seeks all of these forces, USUALLY, they must perform a great quest for them. Zelda is a little different in the sense that the bad guy is performing the quest, and you play the character stopping him.

As for the website, I have yet to see it, but if it is anything like Davogones' (like I've heard) then I'll love it. I'll check it out right now and tell you what I think later. :D . . .

It seems to me it was a very well-thought-out essay. I must admit I didn't agree with it (completely). To see my rebuttal to your essay, just carefully read "What Would You Do with the Triforce?". I mean read it CAREFULLY. It may get a bit confuzzling; that is why I stress: read it carefully. You will see how I agree and disagree.

–'Hylian Diety'
  17 Sep 2002

I read the post. He makes his point well. His interpretation focuses on the exact meaning of the three terms in English. That's one way to go about it. I guess I would reconcile that to my interpretation by saying that they must be loose translations from the original Hylian terms. :)

I didn't read the whole thing, but what I did read was very good and inspired. You would have been a valuable addition to me and Hylian Diety's debate about the Triforce.

–'Lord of Shadow'
  16 Sep 2002
  Moderator of the Zelda Legends and Gaming Help forums

I just read the essay and LOVED it! Very nice work.

  17 Sep 2002

I read your entire essay during school and I must say it was fantastic. Excellent writing, and I must say you have me convinced. Nice work with the site. Keep it up!

  17 Sep 2002

Very interesting essay, Nate, but I do have some arguments. Personally, I think you have philia and agape mixed up. Agape is not so much a symptom of courage, as it is not a personal sense of love. It is a sense of general love for your fellow man, and the actions one takes to placate agape are out a sense duty taught to you, rather then a true, intimate love. . . .

  12 Oct 2002

I confess that my knowledge of the Greek terms is anecdotal and minimal. However, I was trying to connect agape with spirit more than with courage. I do admit that all these connections are loose and do not have one-to-one correlations.

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