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In the previous installment of Great Women in Games, I highlighted Aqua, one of three playable characters from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. I chose Aqua because of her excellent portrayal as a motherly figure who essentially throws herself into an endless purgatory to save her two male companions.
In this installment, I'll be showcasing a similarly motherly character, but this time, one whose unique powers lie in her abilities as a caregiver, a diplomat, and as someone willing to traverse dangerous areas avoided by other traditionally "strong" characters.
Medli, a member of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's Rito tribe, begins the game as the caretaker of the great dragon god, Valoo, and as the friend and mother-figure of the Rito chieftain's socially-anxious son, Komali. Medli is both young and inexperienced, and so, when Link arrives on Dragon Roost Island to investigate the source of the dragon god's anger (or, rather, when he is roped into helping, as Link so often is), Medli doesn't seem like she's a character who will be of much help. She isn't yet fluent in Valoo's ancient Hylian language, and thus can't interpret the usually benevolent deity's cries of pain. To make matters worse, without Valoo's help, the Rito's young prince Komali is stuck grounded, unable to receive the gift of flight. Medli blames herself for the prince's predicament, implying that if only she were as good as Valoo's previous attendant, everything would have already been sorted out.
Despite her lack of confidence in her ability to converse with the great Valoo, Medli asks Link to help her reach the entrance of Dragon Roost Cavern, a dangerous dungeon. Medli's wings are still weak, so Link is forced to fling her to the other side of a small valley in order to reach the entrance to the cavern. Once inside the entrance, however, Medli unexpectedly yells:
"Oh, thank you! I think now I'll be able to climb Dragon Roost and meet with the great Valoo! Don't worry, I'll be fine! I may just be an apprentice attendant, but I can understand some of the great Valoo's language. I'm not exactly bursting with confidence, but...Look, if anything happens to me...Please look after Prince Komali!"
Medli appears to be one of, if not the only female Rito alive in the game, and, juxtaposed against the outsider, Link (who doesn't understand what's going on), the rest of the Rito (who are all male, and who know something bad is going on but don't seem concerned with trying anything) and Prince Komali (who knows there is a serious issue but is too overcome with emotion to care to do anything about it), her act of entering the dungeon and climbing the monster-infested mountain by herself to save her tribe is a unique moment in The Wind Waker, and in game narratives more generally.
Typically, in action-adventure games, the willingness and ability to traverse dangerous areas is afforded only to the main character, the hero. This ability gives the hero a type of power over other characters – if other characters are unwilling or unable to, for example, enter a dungeon (or any other dangerous area), they are afforded much fewer opportunities to be shown committing acts of heroism. Of course, this can be explained using narrative game development as an excuse: If everyone could enter a dungeon and become the hero, then there would be no reason for the player to play the game. There has to be one hero, or a unified team of heroes, in order for there to be an identifiable storyline.
Medli's character is a challenge to that narrative model. Her act of bravery, made even more heroic by the fact that Medli is an insecure character who is, at times, very doubtful of her own abilities, forces her character from the passive periphery to the active forefront.
In addition to her unique ability to enter spaces other NPCs and even the game's main hero are unable to traverse for a time, Medli also exhibits characteristics and skills typically undervalued in game characters: Motherliness and diplomacy. For example, after the death of Prince Komali's grandmother, Medli appears to take over the duties of caring for the prince while his father rules the Rito tribe. Additionally, as the great Valoo's attendant, she is the only Rito capable of interpreting the will of the tribe's deity. Rather than this meaning Medli is relegated to a subservient and secondary position compared with her fellow Rito people, Medli is depicted as the only Rito to consistently command a clear kind of power – a kind that was traditionally a feminine "non-power" – in the narrative.
Later on in the game, she becomes the Sage of Earth and assists Link in his quest to return sacred power to the Master Sword, literally carrying him through the portions of the Earth Temple Link is unable to traverse. To complete her duties as a sage, however, she has to commit to leaving the tribe and abandoning Prince Komali, who has since become a winged, mature Rito, and a possible love interest for Medli. In the end, Medli sacrifices both her safety and a continued relationship (platonic and otherwise) with Komali to help save Hyrule.
Medli's uniqueness as a character comes not only from her ability to enter dangerous spaces unfit for other, more traditionally "strong" NPCs (such as chieftains and princes), but also from her active narrative influence despite the fact that she is cast in traditionally feminine roles like the mother-figure, caretaker, and diplomat. Medli is one of many excellent women in The Legend of Zelda series and thus, is often forgotten in lists of favorite series characters. But, because of her unique depiction as a traditionally feminine but brave character, willing to risk her life for the rest of her passive, seemingly all-male tribe, Medli deserves a spot in Great Women in Games.
If you liked this article and are interested in hearing more about female characters in The Legend of Zelda, be on the lookout for my spring/summer 2013 podcast series, where I'll discuss my research on archetypes of femininity in three LoZ games.
Ali is a former Game Informer editorial intern and is currently a
master's student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies
games, virtual communities, manga, and other nerdy crap. Follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, or her personal blog.
Medli! I saw her at the first part and immediately agreed with her as a strong women in gaming. Good choice.
Another interesting and fun blog. Look forward to the next one.
It's nice seeing some lesser known females being mentioned.
Hmm... Well chosen.
This was a great piece. Thank you for writing it. Wind Waker is an under appreciated title, and you're right Medli is an under appreciated character. I never thought of her this way, but this was a fantastic analysis.
Awesome! Really enjoyed teh insight. I am convinced to explore more Zelda games after reading this!