It’s a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has touched so many people because it’s fundamentally a story about growing up. When designing Link, Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired by Disney’s rendition of Peter Pan, and his Lost Boy status is solidified in a game where he must pass from an idyllic — if lonely — childhood to uncertain and demanding adulthood all too soon. This has generated some inspired criticism (as in literary critique, because unfortunately we live in a world where that needs to be clarified), like Liz Ryerson’s heartwrenching “Evil was Born” and Good Blood’s haunting “A Masterclass in Subtext.”
I knew this and know this; I’m one of those people whom Ocarina of Time has touched. But when I revisited the game on original hardware to celebrate its twentieth anniversary last November, I was struck by something I don’t see much discussion of:
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is also about Zelda becoming an adult.
When Link first meets Princess Zelda, they’re both children. Even as Zelda explains her troubling visions and the grave harm she believes Ganondorf poses to Hyrule, she seems to truly believe that the solution is simple. If Ganondorf wants to open the door to the Sacred Realm to try and claim the all powerful Triforce for his own nefarious ends, then they’ll just stay one step ahead of him and steal the proverbial keys to the kingdom before he does. She tasks Link with doing this in her stead.
But Ganondorf catches on and stages a coup before Link can finish the job, and in a desperate last ditch effort, Zelda gives Link the last piece of the puzzle — the eponymous Ocarina of Time — before fleeing with her attendant/bodyguard, Impa, and begging him to enter the Sacred Realm himself and protect the Triforce.
And it backfires. Before Link whites out, he hears Ganondorf thank him for leading him to the gates of the Sacred Realm.
When Link wakes up seven years later, it’s in a nightmare future, where Castle Town is overrun by zombies, Lake Hylia is empty, and ghosts roam the landscape, mocking him. He battles his way through dungeons and across time alongside old and new friends, including the mysterious Sheik. Sheik, of course, is the now-grown Zelda, which she reveals after tasking Link with confronting Ganondorf one last time.
She explains what happened after Link opened the door to the Sacred Realm: that Ganondorf invaded not only Hyrule but the Sacred Realm itself, turning it into a dark world that spews evil out of the great temples of Hyrule, filling the land with corruption and monsters. The only thing that prevented Ganondorf from claiming the Triforce outright is his own evil heart, which split it into three pieces.
“All of this,” Zelda tells him, “is an unfortunate coincidence.”
Which is a lie.
If it wasn’t for Zelda, Ganondorf’s coup would have ended at the gates of Hyrule Castle or even been thwarted. If it wasn’t for Zelda, he would not have the Triforce of Power. If it wasn’t for Zelda, Hyrule would not be doomed. It’s something she must feel on every possible level, as the last surviving member of the royal family.
In a game that examines how we can and cannot return to the past (Link can literally go back in time, but never farther back than the decision that doomed Hyrule), it’s no wonder that Zelda is in such deep denial about her own actions. Admitting what she’s done would be tantamount to admitting that the Hyrule-That-Was is unsalvageable. It would be admitting that she will never be as sure and confident in her role in the world as she was as a child.
This subconscious denial extends to how Zelda treats her identity as Sheik. When she reveals herself to Link, it’s not by simply unmasking herself, but by transforming into full regalia. She’s lived as Sheik for seven years, through the formative years that Link has completely missed out on, but she apologizes to him for meeting in disguise—"it was necessary to hide from the King of Evil."
However, Sheik is much more than a disguise. She’s literally who Zelda is in a world where she can’t be the Princess of Hyrule. Not a princess, but someone who rescues them. Not her father’s daughter, but Impa’s apprentice. Not a ruler and stateswoman, but a warrior, philosopher, and musician. She’s a wise and capable survivor in the ruins of her own kingdom. But as much as Sheik is a true and real part of Zelda, there’s no room for Sheik in the Hyrule-That-Was that she’s trying to get back to. Her efforts to save Hyrule are, in part, an effort to save herself from the heartache of having to grow up. Of having to admit she has become a different person than she thought she would become as a child.
Link does go off to that final confrontation with Ganondorf, after the King of Evil captures Zelda and spirits her away. He defeats Ganondorf; Zelda rescues Link from the wreckage of the castle; they’re faced with the Great Beast Ganon. While Zelda isn’t an active participant in the battle until the end, some combination of the eerie music, her gasps when Link suffers a blow, and her determined, Sheik-esque pose when she collapses from using her magic to contain Ganon, makes her feel like she’s right there.
And maybe it’s in this moment that she finally sees what she’s been hiding from, physically and emotionally, for most of her life.
It’s only after she and Link vanquish Ganondorf together that Zelda finally accepts responsibility for what she’s done. Speaking with Link in the quiet of the aftermath, she apologizes, head bowed. “All the tragedy that has befallen Hyrule was my doing... I was so young… I could not comprehend the consequences of trying to control the Sacred Realm. I dragged you into it, too. Now it is time for me to make up for my mistakes…”
To do so, she will stay and rebuild Hyrule-That-Was into a new, peaceful world, accepting that it’s built on the ashes of her mistakes and regrets. Hyrule is her responsibility, in more ways than one. And she tries to give Link back the childhood she stole from him, bidding him farewell forever.
(Of course, this goes awry, but that’s another story for another time.)
Zelda’s narrative in Ocarina of Time is, like Link’s, a story of growing up. But where Link is forced to mature too fast, Zelda has to come to terms with the sins of her past and who she has become before she can become who she was born to be: the Queen of Hyrule.