In my many debates with fellow Zelda fanatics, the single largest problem I have had to deal with is the question of which sources one should use in formulating one's theories. I kept explaining the same thing over and over again, so I finally decided to sit down and write an article to settle the matter publicly.
In your own studies of the Zelda storyline, you might have run across the following sources of information: comics and cartoons, officially sanctioned game guides, web sites, statements by Nintendo employees, etc. I intend to prove in this article that these sources of information should be ignored entirely when one is trying to understand the true Zelda storyline, because these sources have no authority.
I will start out my argument with an analogy. Let's say that you are an historian or a scholar who is studying the history of an ancient culture. You have several documents at your disposal, documents that were written by people living in the same era. You aren't entirely sure about what the order of events in the history of this culture is, but you can formulate theories based on the documents that you have.
In your highly commendable search for the true order of events, you must take into account the historical reliability of the documents you have in your possession. You have also in your possession documents that were written hundreds of years after the historical events you are studying, and these documents are inconsistent with the contemporary documents and each other. They contain exaggerated, inaccurate, legendary accounts, or are simply commentary on or interpretation of the history of the culture.
The first category of documents is called canon, and the second category is non-canon. Canon means authoritative or trustworthy, and in formulating your own theories you can only rely on the canon documents. The non-canon documents might be good for entertainment purposes or for ideas on new theories, but they are entirely useless if you want solid facts to back up your own theories. You cannot quote a non-canon source and offer that as proof.
Now, extend this analogy to the study of the Zelda storyline. In effect, we are all scholars and historians studying and trying to make sense of the history of Hyrule. If we want our methods to follow that of solid historical analysis, we can rely only on canon sources. The question now is, what is canon?
Games and Manuals
Everything we know about the games in the Zelda series can be summed up by two things that are packed in every box: the game itself and the game's instruction manual. The game can be likened to an interactive peak into Hyrule's history. The story elements contained in the manuals can be likened to accounts written by contemporaries of the time period, namely scholars who are keeping track of current events, old history, and ancient myths and legends. Picture a Hylian sage or scribe writing down history for the record, and then sticking that record into the instruction manual of the game. I think we can all agree that the games and their instruction manuals are canon. If we can't rely on the games and the manuals to understand the storyline, our efforts are in vain. I consider only the games and manuals to be canon.
Now, let's say that somebody writes their own storyline, one which is totally inconsistent with the established canon, and gets Nintendo's permission to publish it as a book or comic. Ask yourself: would you accept this as canon? The answer is no, because this person was not a contemporary of the time period of Hyrule. His theories may be interesting, but they are not authoritative and cannot be used as proof for other theories. If you try to accept it as canon, you are introducing inconsistencies into the storyline. The problem is, people publish things like this all the time, and uninformed Zelda fans accept this apocrypha (fancy word for non-canon or legendary sources) as proof for their theories.
It's very tempting to look at the golden "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality" on a product and, seeing that Nintendo was involved, accept whatever the product says as absolute truth. But this is an invalid analysis of the facts. Just because Nintendo employees created the Zelda games, doesn't mean that any given employee of Nintendo, or outsiders given permission by Nintendo, can establish what is true and what isn't. Not even Miyamoto, the genius behind the creation of the Zelda games, has a monopoly on truth (more on this later).
Let's look at the apocryphal sources that I listed at the beginning of this article and see why these sources cannot be trusted.
Statements by Nintendo Employees
The Zelda fan community is very split on one major issue: whether to believe Miyamoto or not. After all, this man created the original Legend of Zelda out of sheer genius, and has closely supervised and worked on all the other Zelda games. The games can be considered his masterworks, since he was the main force behind their creation. So when Miyamoto speaks, most Zelda fans take his words as godlike, and believe them without question. One problem: his statements contradict the canon. Can any true Zelda fan really reject Miyamoto in favor of the authoritative canon? I believe the answer to be yes, and I'll explain why.
The first question you might ask is: if Miyamoto intended the games to be in a certain order, shouldn't his order be the true order? This isn't a simple question, and it requires a thorough answer. First of all, as Zelda fans, we recognize that at the most basic level the Zelda games are merely fictional creations. On a higher level, though, we want to have fun figuring out the "true" storyline, and in order to do that we assume that the games and manuals are accounts of actual events. The distinction is crucial: if the history of Hyrule is just fiction, there is no point in analyzing it using historical methods. If the history of Hyrule is considered to be true, and the games and manuals are considered to be canon sources, then rigorous analytical methods should apply.
With that in mind, consider the original question: should Miyamoto's intended order be the true order? The truth is, if we assume for the sake of argument that Hyrule's history is real, nobody's intent has any weight. Whatever Miyamoto or anyone else says outside of the canon, can only be considered an interpretation of or commentary on the factual events of Hyrule, not canon itself. In effect, Miyamoto's original creation has grown beyond him.
As we all know, Miyamoto never explains his statements or proves them with quotes from canon sources. Therefore, as interpretations of the canon they have no value at all; they are merely another man's opinion, backed up by nothing. Since Miyamoto is outside of the canon, whatever he says is only his personal opinion of what the facts are telling us. Nobody outside of the canon has the authority to determine what's true, not even Miyamoto. The only way Miyamoto can reveal more truth is by making another game or explaining the storyline based on the established canon.
The same goes for Dan Owsen of "Ask Dan" fame. Dan Owsen has helped to translate the Japanese Zelda games into English, and in this respect can be considered an involved party. But nothing he says is canon. If he wants to back up his statements with proof from the canon, fine, but otherwise, his voice is just another one in the crowd. Neither he nor anyone else can merely make statements and expect them to be accepted as absolute truth. Dan may have helped translate the canon, but that doesn't mean he can go beyond it or put forth his own views as being the "right" ones.
If you still aren't convinced, I'll put the whole thing in more practical terms. Consider the "Lord of the Rings" series, which was written and invented entirely by one man, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolken invented the entire history of his fantasy world, and when fans hungered for more, Tolkien wrote more books and prefaces to these books to explain the history. His history was internally consistent and thoroughly explained. He had the perfect right to write whatever he wanted about the history, because he explained himself and was the the sole creator of the canon sources of his fantasy world.
Miyamoto's relationship to the Zelda games, while similar, is not exactly the same. First of all, he did not single-handedly create each and every aspect of every single game. In most instances, he worked with a team of professionals to make sure that most of ideas got implemented, and left the rest up to them. He had a general idea of what he wanted in each game, but it's apparent that he didn't plan everything in detail beforehand.
If Miyamoto were the sole creator of everything in Zelda that's canon, I might consider his words to have some weight. But as it is, his position is a little weaker than that. He is not the overreaching genius behind the whole storyline, he is only a very influential member of the team. Worse yet, he doesn't explain his statements at all, or appear to be able to. As for Dan Owsen, he didn't even have a hand in determining the story; he only helped translate it. So his words have even less weight than Miyamoto's.
First of all, let's define "official" guide. Official guides aren't just those that are published by Nintendo. They include guides written by outside companies, such as Brady Games or Prima, that have the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality on them. Of course, one might think the two are different, and they would be right. But the two categories of official guides have one thing in common: they are written by people who don't have canonical authority.
Guides are written by people who are outside of the canon, whether they be Nintendo employees or employees of an independant company. So, anything anybody says about the storyline in a guide, offical or otherwise, is just an interpretation of the facts. Since guides tend to never back up their version of the storyline with facts, and since their versions are many times contradictory and inconsistent with the facts, whatever they say should have little influence on one's own interpretation of the storyline.
Cartoons and Comics
Back in the 1980s, when Mario mania and Zelda mania were at their height, Nintendo gave publishers permission to use characters from their games in cartoons and comics. Later, a comic book based on ALttP was serialized in twelve issues of Nintendo Power Magazine. These are official Nintendo products, but they are non-canon for the same reason official guides are non-canon. They were made by people who were clearly outside of the canon, even outside of Nintendo. Most of them contain elements that are contradictory to known facts and/or not in keeping with the general atmosphere of the Zelda universe.
Nintendo even issued a disclaimer on the serialized comics: "Although the story loosely follows the plot of [ALttP], some new twists and characters were added to preserve the elements of surprise and add to the dramatic flow." So either you can believe what the canon sources say, or you can accept what the comic book says; but you can't do both, because the comics are only a loose interpretation of the story, if they are based on any game at all. Let me offer an analogy:
All Christian denominations accept the Old Testament, a collection of documents written over several centuries, and the New Testament, a collection of historical accounts and letters written over approximately eighty years, as canon. (Catholics and Protestants differ slightly in which books they consider canonical.) Outside of the Bible, though, there are literally hundreds of documents, many written hundreds of years after the canon. They are based on stories from the canon, but they contain inconsistencies, legendary elements, fictional accounts, and/or outright lies. Any good historian will tell you that it's better to ignore these sources because they are inferior to the root source, i.e. the canon. They are merely inferior versions of the canon, and don't have canonical authority. In other words, go to the Bible for facts, not to documents based on the Bible that might be wrong in places.
You can see the same relationship between the Zelda canon and the cartoons and comics. The canon establishes fact authoritatively. Cartoons and comics are based on the canon, but don't have canonical authority. They contain elements that were clearly added by their creators, which have no place in the Zelda universe. As for comics and cartoons that aren't based on any existing game, these are like the fictional, legendary accounts in Biblical lore. Since the canon doesn't support the story, it's safer to assume that the story was made up and never really happened.
Maybe you read something on Nintendo's official Zelda site (zelda.com or zelda64.com), or read a good theory on zhq.com, and now you want to offer that as proof for your theory. If you've been following my previous arguments, you'll recognize immediately why this doesn't work. Official Nintendo products outside of the games are made by people who are not part of the canon. Whatever they say is just another opinion, not fact.
On a side note, I want to address Nintendo's latest efforts to explain Zelda's storyline. On their newly relaunced site, Zelda Universe, they go into surprising detail in attempting to explain the storyline. I commend them for trying, but Zelda fans should not accept their storyline as "the" storyline. Parts of their theory work, but many others either contradict canon, are not explained in enough detail, or add elements to the storyline that are not found anywhere in the canon. This storyline is not canon, only the games and manuals are. If Nintendo ever comes up with a storyline that explains everything and doesn't contradict canon, I'll be very impressed.
If you don't know, a while back Nintendo gave permission to Philips to publish two Zelda games on their CDi system. The games were made entirely by Philips, and weren't directed or influenced by Nintendo or Miyamoto at all. They were utter crap and were inconsistent with the established Zelda canon, and sold horribly for some odd reason. These games are on the same level as comics and cartoons for what should be obvious reasons, so don't consider them canon.
I hope that I've made my points very clear, but if I haven't, I'll sum up everything you need to know in a few sentences. If you're trying to figure out how the Zelda storyline works, the only sources you can ever trust are the games and their instruction manuals. Anything else was written or said by someone who was not personally involved in Hyrulian history, so reject it.
This has possibly been the most long-winded article I have ever written, but this issue is important and requires careful, exact deliberation. I hold these convictions very strongly, and everyone I have ever debated with has finally agreed that everything outside of the games and manuals (except for Miyamoto) should be rejected. I know for a fact that not everyone will believe me about Miyamoto, and possibly never will. I beg you to reconsider.
An Italian translation of this article is available at The Lost Woods.