Home > Fake History, Pop Culture > A Brief History of the Zelda Timeline Part 1

A Brief History of the Zelda Timeline Part 1

The Triforce
Without a doubt, my favourite video game series is the Legend of Zelda franchise. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is the sense of wonder and excitement I feel when exploring the mythology of the games. Until recently, a big part of my geeky, unhealthy attachment to the series was the joy of piecing together the chronology of the games.

The official chronology of the games, and indeed, the question of whether an official chronology existed at all, were once all-consuming questions among Zelda fans. Any suggested theory would be debated, rebutted, refuted, called into question, modified and revived over and over on message boards and chat rooms all across the Internet. As part of the 25th anniversary of the series in 2011, the creators finally settled the question in a commemorative artbook called Hyrule Historia. This, then, is an attempt to tell the story of what happened before.

The games take place in a vaguely medieval fantasy setting and follow the theme of an endless cycle of reincarnation and repeated history a la Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Thus they invariably follow the tale of a youngster whose destiny is to fight the forces of an ancient evil. This format is repeated in each game in an ever-repeating cycle within the overarching story continuity, though the names, locations and times change. So far, so good, right?

Don’t worry, it gets more complicated.

For one thing, the hero in these stories is always known as Link (though you can choose your own name for your hero if you wish) and many characters in each game, though ostensibly different people, will often have the same names as their counterparts from previous games. So the Princess Zelda from Twilight Princess is a descendant of the Princess Zelda from Ocarina of Time, who also appears briefly in Majora’s Mask.

Many of the games, furthermore, provide the player with no firm context as to how it fits in with any of the others despite clearly being connected. This leads to the kind of ambiguity that would drive insane anyone trying to make sense of the whole. For instance, on Zelda fansites around the web, much proverbial ink has been spilled trying to decide the question of whether The Minish Cap takes place before Ocarina of Time or after Wind Waker.

Then it really starts to get crazy. The pivotal moment in the series is the 1998 game Ocarina of Time, which, through the events of the game’s story, results in a three-way split in the series continuity thanks to the protagonist’s time traveling shenanigans.

Yes, you read correctly – a three way split. Imagine if the events of Back to the Future resulted in three ongoing storylines, one in which Marty McFly succeeded in reuniting his parents, one in which Biff Tannen obtained Gray’s Sports Almanac and a third where Marty failed to reunite his parents and disappeared completely. Now imagine if multiple sequels independently followed what happened to the characters in each storyline and all three were considered canon in the movie universe. Then imagine if these sequels were released in random order with no numbered titles or guide as to which movie fit into which storyline and nobody could decide what order the events happened in.

The root of the problem, up until the release of the commemorative art book Hyrule Historia that finally explained the whole thing in late 2011, was that while the series’ creators had acknowledged the existence of an overarching continuity for the series, they were never explicit about what that continuity was, leaving fans to piece it together as best they could from in-game evidence, developer interviews and marketing materials. It was a seemingly impossible task that fans jumped into with relish.

The result was decades of heated, chaotic, endless debate on message boards, blogs and fansites. The full history of the Zelda fan community, should one ever be compiled, would read like a history of a religion, full of schisms, heresy, reformation, counter-reformation and the near-continuous generation of offshoot sects as everybody attempted to glean the truth from the myriad canon, apocrypha and tradition that surrounded the Legend of Zelda series.

If you are unfamiliar with the Legend of Zelda series, it is best that you stop reading at this point as it is going to get very esoteric very quickly from here on in. Perhaps now would be a good time for you to go ahead and try one of the games; Ocarina of Time, Skyward Sword, Twilight Princess or A Link to the Past would be great places to start. They really are wonderful games.

If, like me, you are a Zelda fan or are interested in what people come up with in the near total absence of concrete information, please read ahead in this (planned) multi-part series on the history of the Zelda timeline. I plan to expound on each game’s story, how it fits in the greater whole and how it changed fans’ views on what the mysterious timeline was at each step of the way.

In the Beginning

It all started off simply enough when The Legend of Zelda first released. The story begins with the land of Hyrule being invaded by the Price of Darkness Ganon and his armies in order to obtain some legendary magical artifacts known as Triforce. Of these there were two in the kingdom – the Triforce of Power and the Triforce of Wisdom.

The invasion proceeded quickly and Ganon managed to seize the Triforce of Power. Princess Zelda, in response to the invasion, took the remaining Triforce piece and split it into eight pieces, hiding them all over the kingdom.

Ganon, upon learning what happened, flew into a rage and captured the Princess. Zelda, however, had sent her nursemaid Impa out to find help. Impa was chased from one end of the kingdom to the other, finally being cornered by Ganon’s troops in the midst of a forest.

At this point in the story, we first meet Link, a traveller who happened to be in the area where Impa was about to be set upon. He fought off the attackers and Impa told him her tale. Link, filled with a sense of justice, decided to go forth, gather the scattered Triforce pieces and rescue Princess Zelda from Ganon’s clutches.

An auspicious beginning
This first hero we meet is a mysterious figure. He has no real past or backstory apart from being a traveller of some sort. We might give him an appellation of some sort to distinguish him from all those other heroes also named Link, perhaps the Hero of the Triforce.

Regardless of what you might call him, the lad travelled through many locales that would become staples of later games – Spectacle Rock, Death Mountain, Lake Hylia and the Lost Woods to name a few. Having gathered up the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, he then took on Ganon in a final showdown.

Playing
After defeating Ganon, taking back the Triforce of Power and rescuing Princess Zelda, the stage is set for the events of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link.

The story of the second game begins a few years later in a Hyrule attempting reconstruction. Though their leader is gone, the remnants of Ganon’s army still roam the land causing havoc using some of his magic that has been left behind. They have become fanatical about the idea of capturing the Hero of the Triforce, sacrificing him and sprinkling his blood on Ganon’s ashes, thus reviving their dead prince. Hyrule is in a bad way and times are desperate.

The Hero of the Triforce, now approaching the age of sixteen, is helping in the reconstruction. One morning, he is shocked to find that a mark identical to Hyrule’s national crest has appeared on the back of his left hand.

Presumably worried that he had picked up some sort of nasty Hyrulean skin disease, he went to the princess’s nursemaid, Impa, asking for help. Impa, upon seeing the crest, reacted with somewhat less than the calm demeanour one wants from one’s physician.

She took him to Hyrule’s North Castle, where an aptly, if unimaginatively named Door That Does Not Open stood. Leading him there, she pressed his hand onto the door. After some noise, it swung open to reveal a beautiful woman lying asleep upon a raised dias.

With great gravitas and ceremony, the nursemaid then told Link of the legend of Zelda.

So do they change her clothes every once in a while?
Hold up, you say. All this stuff just happened, we’re already up to the second game and nobody actually explained what the Legend if Zelda actually was?

Well, yes. The most obvious explanation is that the developers originally intended to let the events of the first game as a whole serve as the Legend. Unfortunately, when writing sequels, sometimes you need to apply a bit of retroactive continuity to make the story work and this is but the first of many examples of this principle at work in the series.

Regardless of how it came to be, the Legend of Zelda, also known as the Sleeping Zelda Story (to avoid confusion) is told by Impa as follows:

“It is said that long ago, when Hyrule was one country, a great ruler maintained the peace in Hyrule using the Triforce. However, the king too was a child of man and he died.”

“Then, the prince of the kingdom should have become king and inherited everything, but he could inherit the Triforce only in part. The Prince searched everywhere for the missing parts, but could not find them.”

“Then, a magician close to the king brought him some unexpected news. Before he died, the king had said something about the Triforce to only the younger sister of the prince, Princess Zelda. The prince immediately questioned the princess, but she wouldn’t tell him anything.”

“After the prince, the magician threatened to put the princess into an eternal sleep if she did not talk, but even still, she said nothing.”

“In his anger, the magician tried to cast a spell on the princess. The surprised prince tried to stop him, but the magician fought off the prince and went on chanting the spell. Then, when the spell was finally cast, Princess Zelda fell on that spot and entered a sleep from which she might never awake. At the same time, the magician also fell down and breathed his last.”

“In his grief, the prince placed the princess in this room. He hoped that someday she would come back to life. So that this tragedy would never be forgotten, he ordered every female child born into the royal household should be given the name Zelda.”

She then gives the Hero of the Triforce a scroll written in some ancient, indecipherable script. Nevertheless, he is able to read it as though the words were being spoken to him.

The scroll explains to Link that the Triforce is made up of three separate parts, Power, Wisdom and Courage and that when all three are brought together, they are much more powerful than they are individually. Additionally, to be able to use the Triforce, a person must possess inner strength, a heart free of evil thoughts and a third, unspecified inborn quality. Having failed to find anyone with these characteristics, the author of the scroll cast a spell over the whole kingdom that would mark the hand of any young man possessing these qualities in addition to having been well brought up, well travelled, experienced and having reached a certain age.

The author of the scroll is never stated, but many assume it was written by the elder king from the story.

The scroll then tells Link to put six crystals into six statues located in palaces all over the greater Hyrule region (the Hyrule from the first game fitting into just a tiny corner of the map) so to break the magical barrier sealing away the Great Palace, the resting place of the hitherto lost Triforce of Courage. This, along with the others already in Link’s possession, would allow him to rule as a powerful, benevolent king, the worthy heir the elder king hadn’t been able to find in his own lifetime.

At this point, Impa tells Link that if he had the power of the full Triforce, he could use it to wake the sleeping princess, become king and bring peace to Hyrule.

Pretty heady stuff for someone who had been but an anonymous traveller up until just a few years ago.

Now, leaving aside the misogynistic implications of the elder king’s search for a worthy male heir, there are still a host of political implications inherent in the quest Link was given, not least of which is the fact that the Kingdom of Hyrule very likely already has a king who mightn’t be happy to have his claim challenged by some punk kid with a mark on his hand.

Or is there a king? Perhaps the old king died and Princess Zelda is the un-crowned de-facto ruler? Perhaps the kingdom is so fractured and chaotic that she is having trouble pressing her claim anyway?

Fake Cartography!
Additionally, the Kingdom of Hyrule is at this point an empire at the very ebb of its power. Once its royal family built palaces all over the greater Hyrule region, an area encompassing not only the area south of Death Mountain, but also the forested land to the north (North Hyrule), the two large islands to the west and northwest, (Maze Island and a very large un-named island, possibly the site of the lands of Labrynna and Holodrum, but more on that later) and various smaller islands in between. Now though, their power appears to only encompass the Death Mountain Area and a few regions on the northern mainland. Would the inhabitants of the islands then accept Link as their new king?

Maybe, I suppose, if he got rid of all the monsters running around.

Additionally, what happens to the present day Princess Zelda (the one you rescued in the first game) if Link manages to revive the Sleeping Zelda? Would there be some kind of power sharing arrangement?

To spoil the ending of the second game, the Sleeping Zelda and Link do in fact, get together at the end. Does his marrying her grant him some kind of legitimacy?

None of these questions are ever addressed in the games, because, let’s be honest, they are 80s video games and the creators did not think these things through. I’m just going to go ahead and assume that Link and Sleeping Zelda went on to rule the islands while Princess Zelda ruled the mainland as a vassal or ally.

With the prologue out of the way, the game proceeds to take Link on a very grand, very difficult adventure through the lands of Greater Hyrule. Not only does Link have to face the guardians of each of the statues in each palace, but he also has to face constant harassment by Ganon’s minions, both within the palaces when travelling the land. The most grueling trek is the path to the Great Palace, a road that takes Link through the cheerfully named Valley of Death.

The end of the game has the Hero of the Triforce fighting a doppelganger known only as Shadow Link in order to gain access to the Triforce of courage and wake the sleeping princess. As I mentioned earlier, as the curtain drops, Link and Sleeping Zelda come together in some kind of embrace, perhaps hinting at some kind of romance, or at least a hasty and very ill-advised hookup.

The State of the Timeline

The Legend of Zelda first debuted in 1986 and its sequel, Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link first released a year later, in 1987. At this time, there was no confusion, no ambiguity whatsoever. LoZ came first, AoL came second. As of 1987, the timeline looked like this:

LoZ / AoL

That the official timeline would eventually come to look like this would never have occurred to anyone:

…………………………..TWW / PH – ST
…………………………/
SS – TMC – FS – OoT – ALttP / OoS / OoA / LA – LoZ / AoL
…………………………\
…………………………..MM – TP – FSA

Again though, as of 1987, the Zelda timeline was simple, straightforward and intuitive. Yes, it had already suffered one lot of retconning, but this was nothing compared to what was to come.

The Zelda fan community, such as it was, had a consensus on the matter for perhaps the only time in its history up until the release of Hyrule Historia in November 2011.

Conclusion

That is the Legend of Zelda story in a nutshell – needlessly complex, ambiguous, frustrating and often outright contradictory. I love it so very much.

Join me again next time as I explore the SNES and Gameboy era of the early 90s and the controversies that would spring up among the Zelda fan community in the next generation of games.

For part 2 of this post series, please click here.

For part 3 of this post series, please click here.

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