Please note that the post below is rife with spoilers from across the entire Legend of Zelda franchise. Enter at your own risk.
One Book, One Fanbase, One Source of Outrage
As it was originally envisioned, the world of The Legend of Zelda had no need for a timeline. For many years, the series was simply an evolving archetypical story of good versus evil with little in the way of game-spanning narrative. There were a few hints here and there, of course, such as The Adventure of Link billing itself as a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda, and Majora’s Mask taking place directly after Ocarina of Time, but there was no canon by which to paste each part into a seamless whole. Said canon was unveiled in 2011 in Japan and 2013 in the US in the form of the Hyrule Historia, a book which explains the in-depth chronology of the Zelda series.
Hyrule Historia changed the Zelda series’ chronology visibly. Whereas the games had before been linked more by tenuous association and common thematic elements, there was now a distinct, canonized thread of plot describing in great detail the history of Hyrule. It completely changed the perception of the series, and as a result found itself garnering a significant amount of discontent from fans who bemoaned changes to the series’ chronology.
As with most official, after-the-fact timelines, the Zelda Timeline is a complicated beast, and one that requires time to fully digest. Prior to discussion of the way in which the timeline splits at Ocarina of Time, it is important to path out the timeline prior to Ocarina of Time and understand how the world of Hyrule came into being.
The Very Beginning: A Goddess Reborn, a Hero Forged, a Villain Sealed
In the chrponbologically first entry of the Zelda story, Skyward Sword, the groundwork is laid for the rest of the Zelda series. The titular Zelda is created when the goddess Hylia decides to reincarnate herself in order to possess the power of the Triforce; the hero, Link, is created as he first assumes the mantle of hero, and the seeds of Ganondorf, the villain, are sown as the Demon King Demise seeks to assume control of Hyrule.
From these bare roots the Zelda series takes shape. After the defeat of Demise and the return to the Surface, Rauru, the Sage of Light, constructed the Temple of Time. Within it lay the Sacred Realm, the Temple of Light, and the Triforce. Rauru would protect his domain for the next few thousand years, watching over the Triforce. In due time, the Kingdom of Hyrule was established, and as time passed, many different princesses were named Zelda and the kingdom’s royalty possessed amazing powers which descended from their direct lineage to the goddess, Hylia.
After a brief skirmish with Vaati, a minor villain unrelated to Demise, the Kingdom of Hyrule found itself engulfed in a terrible civil war. One woman, passing through the Lost Woods and trying to escape the terrible war raging within Hyrule, entrusted her infant to the Great Deku Tree. The Great Deku Tree felt that the child would be extremely important in the future of Hyrule and took him in. Once the mother had passed, the newly orphaned infant, named Link, would begin the first steps toward his great destiny.
The Split: Child Link, Adult Link, A World Without a Link
The critical turning point of the Zelda timeline comes at the end of Ocarina of Time, during the climactic fight between Link and Ganondorf. Following Link defeating Ganondorf, Princess Zelda transports Link back to his original timeline in the so-called “Child Era.” The timeline that Link leaves behind is referred to as the “Adult Era,” and the timeline in which Ganondorf defeats Link is the “Hero is Defeated” timeline.
Each of these timelines branch out into several different Zelda games, with outcomes that vary wildly. However, each timeline keeps constant themes, such as the reincarnation of Zelda and Link, and the corporeal reconstruction of Ganondorf. From here on, each timeline will be discussed in-depth, describing which games constitute each timeline.
A Childhood Regained
After being sent back to his original era by Princess Zelda, Link returned to warn his era’s Zelda about Ganondorf, who would later be captured and imprisoned. Afterwards, he set out on a journey in search of his lost fairy, Navi, unfolding the plot of Majora’s Mask. Given that it takes place in an alternate universe, Majora’s Mask has very little bearing on the overall Zelda timeline, and the Link from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask makes his last appearance as the Hero’s Shade in Twilight Princess.
An unknown amount of time later, Ganondorf was sentenced to death by the sages, and set to be executed at the Arbiter’s Grounds in the Gerudo Desert. The execution failed, however, and the power which flowed through Ganondorf, from the Triforce of Power, proved enough to break his bonds and kill the Sage of Water in the process. In retaliation, the Sages used their collective power and the Mirror of Twilight to send Ganondorf to the Twilight Realm.
Within the Twilight Realm, Ganondorf slowly began to poison the mind of a noble, Zant, granting him power enough to conquer the Light Realm. Midna, the princess of the Twili, attempted to fight Zant’s control but was banished from the realm. Zant’s power gradually began to transform the Twili into demons who flooded the Light Realm, filling the Hylians with a terrible fear, and twilight began to fall over Hyrule.
After obtaining the Master Sword from the ruins of the Temple of Time and learning the method needed to defeat Ganondorf from his ancestor, the Hero of Time, Link headed toward a final showdown with Zant, who he defeated with Midna’s help. In his waning moments, Zant revealed that without the destruction of Ganondorf, he would continue to exist, as their fates were inextricably bound. In pursuit of Ganondorf, Midna and Link arrived at Hyrule Castle and confronted the Demon King, and after a long and arduous battle culminating in a sword match between Ganondorf and Link, Link slayed Ganondorf. Afterwards, Midna, departing from the Light Realm, shattered the Mirror of Twilight and sealed the portal between two worlds, wishing Link goodbye as she resumed her true form.
His hatred and anger transcending the ages, Ganondorf was eventually born back into the world. It was there that his attempt at the submersion of Hyrule into Darkness and his subsequent resurrection of Vaati was foiled by not one, but four Links. Peace descended on Hyrule, for a time.
Darkness Without a Hero
After sending Link back to his original time, Princess Zelda sealed the Sacred Realm, and returned the Master Sword to its pedestal. However, many years later, Ganondorf would return to once again bring evil down upon the world, plunging it once more into a deep darkness. The people prayed to the gods to return the Hero of Time to save them, but he never returned.
Out of options and out of time, King Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule asked the gods to take control of the kingdom. The Princess of Hyrule and a select few were selected to journey to the tallest mountains, and the gods flooded the land, sealing the King of Hyrule and Ganondorf deep within the bottom of a great sea. Time passed, and memory of the incident began to wane.
After a time, the seal weakened, and Ganondorf emerged to attack the new land above the sea. He ordered that the Sages of Earth and Wind be slayed, as their prayers gave the Master Sword the power to defeat him. He then promptly set about the task of conquering Hyrule. Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule, on the other hand, was given the divine task of stopping Ganondorf. In the process, his spirit took up residence in a small, red boat, the King of Red Lions.
On Outset Island, Link’s sister was kidnapped, leading Link on an expedition into the Forsaken Fortress. Seeing an opportunity to defeat Ganondorf, the King of Red Lions bet the future of Hyrule on Link, granting him the legendary Wind Waker and giving him the task of recovering the three items necessary to open up the Tower of the Gods. Once within the tower, Link was transported to the ancient land of Hyrule deep beneath the seas. There, he received the Master Sword, whose blade was still impotent against the evil of Ganondorf.
Link tried to subdue Ganondorf once more, but was easily brushed aside by the King of Darkness. After escaping, Tetra, a pirate with whom Link had been traveling, was revealed to be Princess Zelda, and the Triforce of Wisdom was reunited. Link was then given the task of replacing the two slain sages, which he soon completed, restoring power to the Master Sword. As his final mission, Link recovered all eight pieces of the Triforce of Courage from across the ocean. Owning up to the mantle of Hero, Link was granted enough power by the newly restored Triforce and the Master Sword to finish Ganondorf. Before he could, however, the Great King of Evil kidnapped Zelda, forcing Link to journey underneath the waves, into the sealed land of Hyrule to rescue her and her piece of the Triforce.
When Link arrived, the pieces of the Triforce, together at last, coalesced. Ganondorf, believing this to be his moment of victory, stretched out his hand to touch the Triforce and wish for the return of the land of Hyrule. Beaten by mere seconds, it was the King of Hyrule instead who touched the Triforce. He wished for the gods to wash away all of old Hyrule and to start anew. With hundreds of years of planning gone in an instant, Ganondorf fought like a madman until he was finally subdued by the combined power of Link and Zelda. As old Hyrule was washed away, the King of Hyrule refused to return to the surface, choosing instead to perish with his kingdom.
As one Hyrule disappeared, another was born. After business with the Ocean King, Tetra (now returned to her previous self) and Link discovered a new continent, which they named New Hyrule. In a mere one hundred years, the land was covered with the tracks of steam engines and the services of a new Link and new Zelda were called upon, as the land faced danger once again.
The Demon King Triumphs
The third timeline approximates a defeat of Link by Ganondorf. In this era, Ganondorf obtained all three pieces of the Triforce and was able to transform into the Demon King, Ganon. As a last resort, the Seven Sages, led by Princess Zelda, sealed away Ganon and the Triforce in the Sacred Realm, seemingly ending the conflict. As tales began to spread regarding the Triforce, however, various factions sought after the Triforce in the Sacred Realm, none returned.
The King of Hyrule, sensing the danger of the Sacred Realm, ordered that the entrance be sealed from intrusion. The Knights of Hyrule defended the Seven Sages as they offered their prayers to seal the gate, but demons poured out of the gate, killing many of the knights. After much bloodshed, the Sacred Realm was sealed, seemingly forever. After a loss of so many Hylians, however, the bloodline of Hyrule began to wane, and soon Hylians and Hyrule itself became nothing more than a legend.
Eventually, an evil priest known as Agahnim plotted to reopen the Sacred Realm, kidnapped seven maidens who were related to the seven sages, and sent six of them to the Dark World. Only one remained to be sent, Princess Zelda. In desperation, she sent forth a telepathic signal, heard by only Link and his uncle, the last two remaining descendants of the Knights of Hyrule. Taking up his defeated Uncle’s sword, Link rescued Zelda and was assigned the task by the sage Sahasrahla of obtaining three pendants to prove that he was worthy of the Master Sword.
After obtaining the pendants and removing the Master Sword from its pedestal in the Lost Woods, Link was ready to challenge Agahnim. However, Princess Zelda was kidnapped and sent to the Dark World by Agahnim before Link’s very eyes. Link managed to confront Agahnim, but was sent to the Dark World before he could defeat him. There, his first task was to rescue all seven maidens in order to prevent Ganon from returning to the Light World.
Succeeding in his task, Link was finally met by Agahnim in battle, where he emerged victorious. After a fierce battle with Ganon, Link defeated the demon and placed his hand upon the Triforce. There, he wished for peace. All of those who had been slain, either by Ganon or Agahnim, were returned to life, including the King of Hyrule and Link’s uncle.
Centuries passed, and there emerged a King of Hyrule who did not trust his son’s potential to wield the Triforce, so he hid the Triforce of Courage and cast a spell which chose who would wield the Triforce by placing a crest upon the hand of those that were worthy. He passed the Triforce of Wisdom to Princess Zelda in secret. When the king eventually died, his son became king and, demanding to know where the Triforce was hidden, had his wizard interrogate Zelda. When she refused to divulge the whereabouts of the Triforce, the wizard lost his temper, and he cast a spell which caused Zelda to sleep for all of eternity, destroying him in the process. Grieved, the King laid Zelda on an altar in the North Castle, praying that she one day be revived. He decreed thereafter that all girls born into the Royal Family would be named Zelda.
Hyrule shrank in power and authority in the following years, eventually becoming a shell of itself. In this time of weakness, Ganon invaded and stole the Triforce of Power. The reigning Princess Zelda took the Triforce of Wisdom and divided it into eight pieces in order to hide it from Ganon. She sent her nursemaid, Impa, on a journey to find someone who could defeat Ganon. When a boy saved Impa from a horde of Ganon’s marauding forces, she explained herself, and the boy, Link, agreed to help them. He journeyed through the eight dungeons and recovered all eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom. In the process, Zelda was imprisoned by Ganon. However, journeying to Death Mountain itself, Link defeated Ganon and emerged with the Triforce of Power in hand.
Six years later, Ganon’s forces would return again, this time seeking to revive him. With the crest of the Triforce of Courage guiding them, Link and Impa would discover Princess Zelda I, who was still in slumber within the North Castle. With the signs proving that he was the hero, Impa entrusted Link with six crystals and a map. He set off, setting the six crystals deep within six palaces across Hyrule and the two adjacent continents, destroying a barrier created by the ancient King which had sealed the entrance to the Triforce of Courage within the Great Palace. There, deep within the heart of the palace, Link defeated the guardian deity, the Thunderbird, and his own shadow, recovering the Triforce of Courage. With the entire Triforce in hand, Link used its power to awaken Princess Zelda I and to bring an end to centuries of war and conflict.
Many Timelines, the Same Story
Despite the many twists and turns that the Zelda series takes throughout its timeline, the story stays rather simplistic, and each game can serve as an entry point into the series. In a way, the timeline’s main purpose is to give lore-related context as to why certain characters, names, and places keep recurring throughout the series, while also helping each game fit despite differing art styles. Although the timeline may reinterpret and sometimes outright retcon events from previous games, unlike in other media with complicated storylines and multiple timelines (comic books for instance), the narrative flow of each game is not impacted. Nintendo’s rather delicate hand with the Zelda series’ timeline has ensured that a comprehensible series of events emerged from beneath mountains of lore and exposition.
That is not to say that the timeline is perfect. The need by Nintendo to establish a third timeline, the timeline where Ganondorf defeats the Hero of Time, leads into many questions regarding the final battle in other games in the series. For example, in the final battle of Twilight Princess, if Ganondorf somehow defeats Link does that spawn yet another sub-timeline? Given the difficulties of determining a spot for A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda, and The Adventure of Link within either the Child or Adult timelines, it is evident that Nintendo’s hands were tied. Nonetheless, it does not excuse the laziness with which some elements of the timeline were constructed.
Despite its origin as an archetypical tale of good and evil, the Zelda series has evolved in thirty years and its storytelling, while never straying into anything spectacular, has only improved. The timeline allows the series to serve many different purposes; it gives larger context to what seem like brief excursions in the world of Hyrule and diversifies a tried-and-true story, allowing for an easy avenue by which the games can evolve beyond their past while keeping that same, comfortable feeling which The Legend of Zelda has cultivated over time.
In the end, although the logic of underlying parts of the timeline can be tenuous at best, it serves as an admirable way by Nintendo to treat its canon with more respect. Given that Nintendo and Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s relationship with story-focused games have been less than stellar in the past, the timeline was a spectacular step in the right direction. It gave focus to an often rudderless franchise and ensures that future stories will no longer need to be patched, or reinterpreted by fans to be vaguely coherent with canon. The creation of the timeline found in Hyrule Historia was an event that changed the Zelda fandom forever and one which is propelling the series forward into even greater vaults of storytelling. It gives greater meaning to the often repetitive plots in the series and involves the player in legendary battles stretching thousands of years in three separate timelines. It is because of this timeline that the franchise deserves its moniker, The Legend of Zelda.