Any fan of The Legend of Zelda has heard the joke. You see it on memes, comic strips, even T-shirts. It’s the running gag that, to every person telling it, is hilarious and, to every person hearing it for the umpteenth time, nothing but an annoying and tedious remark. Even worse is the rare occasion when someone is being serious, as if after 30 years the actual message still hasn’t gotten across. It’s easy to picture: a stranger notices your Zelda shirt or hat and says in all honesty “Yeah, I like Zelda, that guy is so cool!”
I can already hear the collective groaning in all of your souls right now, but from an outsider’s — and even an insider’s — standpoint, there is a legitimate reason for the confusion. I mean, shouldn’t it be called “The Legend of Link”? After all, in every Zelda game, you play as Link. You are the green-clad hero of Hyrule, traveling the land, defeating powerful foes, and saving numberless people. The stories, as told in these games, focus on and are told from your perspective. Heck, the princess isn’t even in every game! Why is it called The Legend of Zelda?
It’s not an unfair question, but perhaps our attention is misplaced. Instead of focusing on how Link is the main character of the series, maybe we should instead try to take Zelda’s side. The princess has held the title for 30 years now, so she must have some legitimate claim to it apart from naming convenience. After all, she doesn’t appear have a great deal of direct influence on your quests, but perhaps there may be more behind the scenes.
Going back to the legend’s earliest roots
Oddly enough, the most direct answer to the question lies within the second Zelda title. I say odd, because this is the only game in the series where the phrase “The Legend of Zelda” isn’t in the title; it instead reads Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The narrative in the manual however, tells what Impa specifically calls “The Legend of Zelda.” Without telling the whole story, the Zelda in the legend is put under a sleeping curse due to her brother’s greed and shortsightedness. His regret and desire to keep her in remembrance led him to decree that every princess in the royal family was to be named Zelda from that time forward.
That tradition appears to have been kept, because generations later, the ruler of Hyrule is also known as Princess Zelda. This Zelda, whose story opens up the original The Legend of Zelda game, is faced with an invading army led by Ganon seeking the Triforce. To prevent this, she splits and scatters the Triforce of Wisdom and sends Impa (the one we mentioned before) to find reinforcements. Ganon, who had already obtained the Triforce of Power, imprisons Zelda and sends forces to stop Impa. It is only then, that the wanderer known as Link appears in the story; driving off the soldiers and learning of Hyrule’s situation from Impa.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Zelda always provides a pivotal role
Link needing to be brought up to speed is not an unusual event. In nearly every game, the circumstances surrounding the main plot have already been put into motion long before Link is ever introduced. Zelda, on the other hand, is right in the middle of them. In A Link to the Past, Agahnim disposes of the king and sent six maidens to the dark world before Zelda’s cries reach Link. In Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf has established diplomatic relations with Hyrule and stirred Zelda’s suspicions and dreams, thus inspiring her to plan an attempt for the Triforce before Link ever shows up. And in Twilight Princess, Zant has already defeated Zelda and conquered the entirety of Hyrule, save Link’s middle-of-nowhere home, without anyone in his village even hearing about it!
The only times Zelda isn’t right in the middle of everything that is going on is when she isn’t actually in the game, but, even then, Hyrule’s princess is a prominent force. Marin in Link’s Awakening bears an uncanny resemblance to Zelda in both appearance and voice. In Majora’s Mask, it’s your memories of Zelda and her gift to you that literally save you and everyone else in Termina. No matter what game you’re playing, the world, the story, and nearly everything else treat the hero as an outsider, and the real stories of the games start and end with Princess Zelda.
In an ever-changing world, Zelda is the one aspect that remains constant. The hero may travel to different lands, the villain isn’t necessarily the King of Evil, and the supporting characters change with every new game. The only items you expect to remain the same are your sword and shield (although even those are altered and upgraded repeatedly even within the same game). Even the Triforce, that divine relic that more or less represents the supreme power in this world and underscores so many of the games, is only present occasionally, and it’s actually used even less.
In an ever-changing world, Zelda is the one aspect that remains constant. Even the Triforce is only itself important occasionally.
As for Link himself, the one character we have played as throughout the entire series (and the one who keeps getting mistakenly called Zelda), he is by his very nature a very malleable substance in this franchise. While merchandise, fans, and even Nintendo refer to him as Link, his role as a literal link to these games mean that his responses and decisions — his internal make-up — differs depending on who is holding the controller. The name “Link” is itself a kind of pseudonym as you are free to change that name to whatever you please. Meanwhile, Zelda is the ever present force that, despite noticeable differences in personality as the incarnations change, still holds the core qualities that we have come to expect from the Princess of Hyrule. And it has always been that way, regardless if you look at it from order of release or from the beginnings of the Zelda universe.
Zelda is the series’ alpha and omega
And it’s important to remember that all the events and the very world of Hyrule were put into place by Zelda herself. As the
Goddess Hylia, she devised and set into motion the devices that would create the one with unbreakable spirit, the one who could wield both the Master Sword and the Triforce. Her plans, in effect, created the hero whose role we have taken up again and again, the hero who consequently both defeated Demise and created the never-ending circle that brings us back to Hyrule over and over. And, by stepping down from her godly state and becoming Zelda, she created the royal bloodline that would endure through untold generations and serve as the bedrock for the land of Hyrule, everything connected to it, and the games that we have come to enjoy so much.
It’s easy to just follow tradition. It’s easy after 30 years to just say, “Well, that’s what they called it, so we’re going to just keep calling it that.” Or, on the other hand, you can force yourself to just endure the dumb jokes and get on with your life. But when you simply leave things the way they are, you lose an opportunity to appreciate how the series started and why the name The Legend of Zelda is so important. You miss the chance to see what a powerful force the Princess of Hyrule is on the world we love and how this incarnate goddess has created and maintained her hero and, by extension, us.
So, all things considered, there is perhaps no better title for this series than The Legend of Zelda. Because it’s Zelda who started it, it’s Zelda who has held it together, and it’s Zelda who draws us back time and time again.