The Legend of Zelda, Link and the Mythos of Milk
1998's 'Ocarina of Time' is an amazing game that only gets better the deeper you analyse it. Case in point: the role of Lon Lon Milk.
Here's an uncontroversial gauntlet to throw down: Ocarina of Time is definitively the greatest video game ever created. Beyond mechanics, beyond design, beyond entertainment, Ocarina is one of the best storytelling experiences you can have. It's a fractal of greatness; the deeper down you go into the game's details, the more it expands into brighter and bigger brilliance. Case in point: let's look at Lon Lon Milk.
Most (but not all) of the games in the Zelda franchise are pretty straightforward Hero's Journeys, or monomyths, but Ocarina of Time stands apart from its predecessors. The power of the N64 enabled it to be broader and more ambitious in the scope of its plot and character development, giving co-director Shigeru Miyamoto et al the opportunity to flesh out both the famous protagonist Link and the game's non-player characters.
The story goes: Link's mother fled from Hyrule proper into the Lost Woods during the Hylian Civil War, gravely injured, and entrusted her baby to the Great Deku Tree. Link, now in his youngest-ever iteration, is tasked at the age of nine with coming to grips with the fact that not only is he not a Kokiri, as he had been led to believe, but that he's the Child of Destiny. He then watches his arboreal adoptive father die, being sent out into the world with nothing but a wood sword, a Deku shield and a fairy to vanquish some unnamed evil. In the process, he's frozen in time for seven years, making him essentially a nine year old in a 16 year old's body and robbing him of whatever's left of his childhood.
It's a tremendously lonely game. Link has no family: his place isn't with the Kokiri, the children of the forest, and most of the friends he makes become sages and leave the earthly realm. We know what happens after the Ocarina of Time story ends, because the opening credits to the subsequent Majora's Mask tell us that nine-year-old Link goes off alone into the Forbidden Forest to search for Navi, his fairy friend who had accompanied him through his time travels, but who had flown off into the ether during the credits of Ocarina. As far as we know, he never finds her. The game invites questions about the nature of the Hero's Journey: if you are a truly unique individual, preternaturally heroic and destined to save the world, where and with whom do you find a sense of belonging?
If you're of the opinion right now that it's just a game and that maybe I'm over-thinking it, I invite you to consider the game's preoccupation with milk. Lon Lon Milk is the first food item Link ever consumes in the franchise, if you make the (I think fair) assumption that potions are alchemical or medicinal rather than culinary. Its introduction coincides, again, with the youngest-ever version of Link, a child who has never had a mother.
In terms of the game mechanics, Lon Lon Milk was a clever addition to the Zelda story. The visual design of milk as an item was only a little bit different from the design of a bottle of potion, and consuming both uses the same animation, making it a pretty easy item to introduce. Unlike red and blue potions, which heal Link completely, milk only heals five hearts, meaning it's useful mainly at the beginning of the game, when the player is still getting their grounding. Milk collection requires that you play "Epona's Song" on your ocarina to a cow, who then speaks to you (which, by the way, is a delightful sequence) and gifts you the milk, similar to the way that other songs prompt actions in the game.
"What a nice song... Have some of my refreshing and nutritious milk!"
But milk also lends the texture of real life to Ocarina of Time. Remember the first time you saw the animations of Link yawning or shuffling his feet, and how cute and novel it seemed that your protagonist could get tired, sore or bored? The action of actually eating food is novel in the same way. Calls for realism in games so often revolve around complaints about visual design, movement, the boundaries of maps, and so on; but Ocarina of Time doesn't receive enough credit for being one of the first games to acknowledge the fact that, realistically, a hero couldn't go without eating.
But the realism that milk lends doesn't stop there. Elements of the game reflect real-life dairy industry practices. Take, for instance, the fact that you play a song for the cows in order to extract milk from them: in dairy farms, this has been proven to help cows produce more milk. Malon, the little Hylian girl at Lon Lon Ranch, is in charge of taking care of the animals, while her father (and eventually Ingo, the stable boy) runs the business side. Likewise, dairying in Medieval-through-Enlightenment-Era Europe (on which the game is modelled) was handled almost exclusively by women as a part of their household duties. It is, or at least was, quintessentially "women's work", and Malon becomes the centrepiece of Link's interactions with milk.
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And those realistic references to dairying become a conduit through which real mythological and religious associations with milk are added to Ocarina of Time. There is no other food in the world that is more laden with meaning. It's the first food of all mammals, intimately connected to childhood, motherhood and nursing. And because of that connection, every milk-drinking culture has milk symbology of some kind.
Isis, the heavy-breasted Egyptian goddess, is the ideal mother, the "giver of life", frequently depicted nursing Horus – and there's also her counterpart Hathor, depicted with a headdress of bullhorns. We see the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus in the Lactatio, borrowing from Roman Isaic imagery. There's the Fountain of Diana at Villa d'Este, spouting liquid from several breasts. The legendary origins of the Milky Way's formation tell of Jupiter setting an infant Hercules to nurse at Juno's breast while she was sleeping; when she awoke, startled, she pulled her breast away from the baby, and her breast milk sprayed into the heavens.
In the Hindu samudra manthan, the gods churned sap and ocean water to form milk, from which Surabhi, the Cow of Plenty, emerged. In the Norse creation story, Ymir nurses from the cow Auðumbla, is killed by Odin, and his corpse is used to construct the universe. In Fulani theology, the world is formed from a single drop of milk. Saint Brigid was nursed on a magical cow's milk, produced an endless supply of butter, gave butter to the poor, and traded an offer of cattle for her mother's freedom. All down the line, milk is associated with abundance, nurturing, the creation of life, and most of all, motherhood.
Related, on Munchies: Add Some Marijuana to Your Milk
These are the associations with milk that have been hard-wired into our brains and cultures over the course of millennia, and they're the associations that we bring with us when we play Ocarina of Time. Were it not for milk and the Lon Lon Ranch storyline that surrounds it, the story of Hero of Time-era Link would be a tragedy. Instead, he goes to Lon Lon Ranch and finds Malon, another Hylian child whose mother died, whose father is mostly absent, and who's had to figure out how to be responsible at a young age.
Malon gives Link arguably the two most important and beloved gifts he receives in the game: his horse Epona and "Epona's Song", which her mother composed, and which Link uses to befriend Epona and to get milk from cows, allowing him to eat, to gain nourishment, for the first time in the franchise. Malon acts as peer, surrogate, and helpmeet, and it's at Lon Lon Ranch that this boy finds belonging. And so, Ocarina of Time raises, explores and resolves the question of whether or not a Hero is destined to be alone.
It's worth noting that Link is not an inherently magical character. He's not in a divine bloodline, like Zelda herself; he hasn't harnessed demonic power, like Ganon. He's not a sage, he's not a Kokiri, he's just a kid. After the story ends, he has to reintegrate himself into normal, day-to-day Hylian life. It's the life that real-world players share with Link, our entree into our ability to empathize with him and the reason that Ocarina of Time is so engaging and beloved. It's a life that by fantasy genre standards doesn't include a whole lot of magic. Except, that is, for the magic of meaning that's transmitted through symbols, stories and art; magic that rests in legends, songs, or food or drink.
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