I have been getting really into the Zelda Timeline debate recently, after playing Breath of the Wild for the Switch. I wondered where the game landed on the timeline, but nobody can seem to come to a unified conclusion.
That made me wonder about a few other things that are listed in places like Hyrule Historia or is said by the creators. For instance, the Rito have evolved forms of Zoras after the land in Wind Waker was flooded, but they do not appear in the plot of any other timeline, or by name ever.
Sure, you can point to bird people and say that they MUST be Rito, but unless there is evidence tying one race of bird people to another, then it’s not canon. That was the thing that made me wonder: canon. What makes something canon or not canon?
One explanation can be found in a whole different media: Books. Technically just one book, Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling got into hot water a few years back when she suddenly turned around and changed the character Hermione’s skin color.
She is mentioned in concept art drawn by Rowling herself as white, as is described in the book as such, and in illustrations as such, and is in the movie as such. Can she just turn around a retcon her characters? Well, she can do whatever she likes, there is nothing against such as thing, but is it canon?
To me, no. If creators can just make up new parts of a story that never existed anywhere in their work, or in promotional material like an instruction booklet released during the time of the creation, then it is not canon. Otherwise, a creator can just turn around and change whatever they want to about the canon, and the fans would be forced to accept it.
I see a game, for instance, as a form of contract. In a game or a book, the story provided in or with the creation is canon. In Zelda, that would be enemy descriptions, the guidebooks, player dialog, and everything related to the plot. Outside of the physical and seeable “contract” of the game, everything outside ODF that scope, including words by the creators, are merely interpretations.
There have been many times that different game creators stated various accounts as to how a game is interpreted. For instance, Shigeru Miyamoto told Nintendo Power in 1998:
Ocarina of Time is the first story, then the original Legend of Zelda, then Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and finally A Link to the Past. It’s not very clear where Link’s Awakening fits in—it could be anytime after Ocarina of Time.
This shows a very different version of events then what is seen in Hyrule Historia. Is this less canon than his newer statements because of his more modern timeline version? This and many other quotes by the creators of The Legend of Zelda should show that while some games did indeed have a direct parallel (like Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, or A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds) there is little to nothing to concretely connect all the games.
This should show that the Zelda Timeline is not canon, but is merely one interpretation of the timeline, that the creators thought long and hard about years or even decades after a game’s release. Does that mean the timeline is wrong? Of course not. But the creators never really considered the full timeline until much later, and connecting the dots is fun.
This does not mean that there are any right or wrong interpretations or timelines, it’s that just because the creators say something after the fact, does not mean it is canon.