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Link looking at Zelda in an image from Breath of the Wild

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The Zelda timeline doesn’t matter

The story of a Princess, a Champion, and a Big Bad

Image: Nintendo

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Last week, Polygon ran a definitive breakdown of The Legend of Zelda’s ridiculously byzantine timeline and where both Breath of the Wild and the upcoming Tears of the Kingdom fell on it. But we also pointed out The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Creating a Champions claim that “Hyrule’s recurring periods of prosperity and decline have made it impossible to tell which legends are historical fact and which are mere fairy tale.” It makes the chronology (or even reality) of all the previous games suspect.

In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.

With The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s release fast approaching, let’s return to that question of where it fits in The Legend of Zelda series’ timeline. We know that Tears of the Kingdom happens shortly after Breath of the Wild, which falls at the distant end of one of three possible timelines.

After we thoroughly broke down Link’s adventures across all 20 mainline games from the series’ nearly 40-year run, it might sound weird to ask: But what if it doesn’t matter?

Maybe it doesn’t. Like, at all.

A Princess, a Champion, and a Big Bad

The earliest game in the Zelda chronology is Skyward Sword, but Hyrule’s creation myth starts with a story from Ocarina of Time.

Deku Link from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Image: Nintendo

In it, the Great Deku Tree explains that the world was created when the three Golden Goddesses Din, Nayru, and Farore came to the chaos of pre-creation and introduced some stability. (If those names sound vaguely familiar, that’s because they’re echoed in Breath of the Wild’s three dragons.)

Their work done after creating the world, the Golden Goddesses just kind of left, but not before creating the Triforce — the Triforce of Power was made by Din, the Triforce of Wisdom by Nayru, and the Triforce of Courage by Farore. The whole Triforce was guarded by another, non-Golden goddess named Hylia who stuck around in the world they created.

Fi from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Image: Nintendo

Our next chunk of history comes from Fi, the spirit that lives in the Goddess Sword (and, later, the Master Sword) during The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and from the manga The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa (which you can read at that link via Kotaku) that was published in the Hyrule Historia.

While Hylia was hanging out and keeping the Triforce safe, a demon king named Demise showed up with an army seeking to claim the Triforce for himself. With the help of a Hylian hero named Link, Hylia gathered her people and sent them to live on a floating island in the sky — the island of Skyloft that we see in Skyward Sword. (What this says about her opinions of the Gorons, Mogmas, Zora, or any other race we see on the surface world is a topic for another day.)

A panel showing the goddess Hylia and the hero Link from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword manga. Image: Akira Himekawa/Dark Horse Comics

The goddess Hylia and the hero Link (not the Link from Skyward Sword, but the much earlier, manga Link) were ultimately triumphant in the battle against Demise, but Link died in the process. A mourning Hylia told him (well, told his corpse):

I will ensure that your gentle, heroic spirit will live on eternally. And I… I shall shed my divinity. The next time we meet, I wish to stand before you as a simple human. Whenever the land of Hylia is in danger… we shall be reborn.

Shedding her divinity is what led to Hylia being reborn as Skyward Sword’s (not-princess) Zelda a millennium or so later.

At the end of Skyward Sword, Demise (in his proto-Ganon form) has some dying words that echo Hylia’s promise:

You stand as a paragon of your kind, human, though this is not the end. My hate never perishes. It is born anew in a cycle with no end. I will rise again! Those like you, those who share the blood of the goddess and the spirit of the hero, they are eternally bound to this curse. An incarnation of my hatred shall ever follow your kind, dooming them to wander a blood-soaked sea of darkness for all time!

It’s a bit melodramatic, and has big monologuing-villain energy, but what he says rings true. There’s a Princess with the blood of the goddess Hylia, a Champion with the heroic spirit of the original Link, and a Big Bad incarnation of some sort of power-hungry evil (usually Ganon), and all three of them are locked in battle for eternity.

A carving of (probably) Zelda shown in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo

Yes, we can point to various versions of Zelda and Link across history, but their roles are what really matters. (There are words like “hero’s journey” and “archetype” that I’m purposefully avoiding here. The work of Joseph Campbell, despite his personal antisemitism and published misogyny, can be applied to Zelda’s storytelling, much like how it influenced stories like Star Wars. And Carl Jung, whose work was often racist and bigoted, is also in there. But all that — and its inherent problems — would take thousands more words to dig into here.)

What’s in a name?

After Skyward Sword, the people of Skyloft headed back to the surface world, where Zelda’s bloodline established a (seemingly permanent) monarchy that ruled over a kingdom they named Hyrule.

Princess Zelda in cold-weather gear from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild DLC Image: Nintendo

Every daughter in the Hyrulean monarchy’s bloodline, dating back to that first Zelda, was (and will be) named Zelda. In Hyrule Historia, we learn that “Princesses were repeatedly given the name Zelda, a name that came from the historical legends.” The manual that came with Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link adds that one prince of Hyrule “ordered that every female child born into the royal household shall be given the name Zelda.” While, in a practical sense, that seems like it could get super confusing in a hurry, in a poetic sense, it serves to tie every Zelda back to the Zelda of Skyward Sword and the goddess Hylia.

Whenever there is an existential threat to Hyrule, the current Zelda always has a champion by her side that’s named, by default, Link. Until Breath of the Wild, every game in the Zelda series let you choose your own name or accept the default. The hero’s name didn’t really matter — it could be Link or it could be (depending on your maturity level when you played) Fart — what mattered was that the hero embodied the heroic spirit of that original Link, just like the goddess Hylia promised.

Link from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom examining his strange mechanical glove Image: Nintendo

Every game has a version of a Princess Zelda and a Champion Link who are (re)incarnations of the goddess and her champion, and who show up when Evil gets too serious about taking over the world — two people playing the roles of Princess and Champion against each new incarnation of evil. And that takes place in a story — a story from Creating a Champion’s “Era of Myth.”

The Era of Myth

Mythology (including creation myths) is a narrative way for humans to assign meaning to the world around them, and provide neat answers to existential questions. And I think we can assume the same of the Hylians in the Zelda series. Creation and foundational myths are often messy and contradictory and hand-wave-y. The characters in those stories — culture and folk heroes — have similarly pliable histories. Think of characters like Gilgamesh, Baba Yaga, Hercules/Heracles, the Monkey King, Anansi, or King Arthur.

Link watching a Blood Moon rise in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo

If we accept Breath of the Wild’s treatment of everything before it as myth, it explains those contradictions and multiple timelines from the official Zelda chronology. In fact, every timeline can be equally true, since all myths are as true as they need to be, so long as they tell the story.

So, what story do all of those myths tell the people of Hyrule? They say that sometimes evil shows up, but when it does, they can look to a princess with the blood of a goddess who embodies (the Triforce of) wisdom, as well as her champion with a heroic spirit who embodies (the Triforce of) courage. By Hyrulean law, that princess’s name will be Zelda and, depending on the game’s options, that hero’s name will probably be Link (or maybe Fart). They’ve done incredible things in the past — unbelievable things in undreamed-of places — and they’ll be here when we need them again.

Link diving toward a falling Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Image: Nintendo

Right now, we know our current Link and Zelda fairly well. Some of us have spent more than 1,000 hours wandering Hyrule with various versions of Link. And there’s something a little more… certain about a Link whose name can only be Link. We met him, along with Calamity Ganon, during Breath of the Wild.

And we’ll learn even more about the timeless battle they’re playing out in Tears of the Kingdom.

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