Every action done in the past ripples forward through time. Link travels multiple times to the past, creating multiple ripples. I’ve visually laid out those ripples in a spreadsheet graphic, something no one has done before.
This page is the home of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword temporal-sequential timeline. A temporal-sequential timeline charts the chain of cause/effect and shows how each change to the timeline results in additional changes as well as how each of those changes further alters events. It supposes a single timeline that is altered by each time travel event, wherein the agents who cause those events are not erased or changed but maintain their memories and physical selves even after the iteration of their timeline that they originated from has been overwritten.
You can find the actual timeline chart as a Google Sheet or as a PNG image in the links above. This theoretical temporal-sequential timeline is not canon but rather my own attempt to discover how the sequence of events in Skyward Sword is established in the way we experience those events in the game.
Below are instructions on how to read this timeline, as well as two short essays on the kinds of things I had to consider when constructing the first and second halves of the timeline, respectively. They will help you understand my thought process as I sought to untangle this unexpectedly complex topic.
My aim was to approach the construction of this timeline in the same way J. R. R. Tolkien would answer questions from fans of The Lord of the Rings. That is, instead of making something up on the spot, he would attempt to use his own text to deduce a reasonable answer to questions he may not have even considered before someone asked them. Granted, I’m not the creator of anything officially Zelda related, so my answers aren’t in any way official. But the principle herein is the same. Given the game Skyward Sword and the larger Zelda canon, how might we reasonably construct the rules of time travel based on what we see when playing Skyward Sword so that we end up with what we see in the game itself? This timeline is one answer that I hope provokes some serious thought and discussion. There will undoubtedly be other ways to interpret the game’s flow of time and its time travel, and I welcome them into dialog with my views.
How to Read This Timeline
- Just jump in and refer to this section if you are confused by something rather than trying to make sense of all these rules at the beginning. You will probably have an easier time doing it this way than by trying to exhaustively understand all the rules and nuances below before looking at the spreadsheet. If you have a question, refer to this document. Both this section and the two following essays can help answer some questions you may have.
- The timeline event summaries are shortened in this document since the extended timeline supplement already has all that information. Notes and footnotes have also been removed. For complete information on what happens during this period, please refer to the extended timeline supplement.
- As you look through the spreadsheet you will see multiple iterations of the timeline. These are NOT individual timelines. Rather, they are the same timeline and each successive iteration is a slice showing how the timeline appears in the moment as a result of time travel events made in the previous iteration of the timeline.
- When the timeline is changed, it is changed instantaneously. This is important to keep in mind as you puzzle through some of the paradoxes (apparent contradictions) that may reveal themselves within the spreadsheet.
- On your second read-through, it is best to follow the Cause/Effect Chain. It’s the borderless grey ribbon that snakes through the spreadsheet. It begins in the upper left hand portion of the spreadsheet, immediately following Hylia’s passing from the world to reincarnate into a human, since right afterwards is where time travel first begins to happen in Skyward Sword.
The Cause/Effect Chain documents how the time travel events in Skyward Sword cause changes to the timeline. For example, when Link travels back to the past to plant the Tree of Life Seedling in the Temple of Hylia, all of the events that previously transpired happen, but with the additional presence of the Life Tree now growing within the Temple of Hylia, which was not originally there in prior versions of the timeline. This example marks a relatively simple change to the timeline, but more significant changes have more significant impacts, which you will see as you read through the spreadsheet.
When a character travels back to the past, the Cause/Effect Chain follows the character back to their arrival point in the past, and replays the sequence of events through time while taking into account how their presence and actions in the past have caused changes to ripple forward through time. It repeats this process for each successive new time travel event.
- Each major event in the timeline is summarized within a bordered event box. The Cause/Effect Chain only intersects an event box if it was affected by the first event that the Cause/Effect Chain intersects in that timeline iteration or the last event shown in the preceding timeline iteration. Events that are not intersected by the Cause/Effect Chain in a timeline iteration still happen within that iteration.
- A time travel event is considered “new” when it hasn’t been documented yet or when the same character with a different set of memories than the previous iteration of that character undertakes the action. These characters are designated A, B, and C respectively since there are three iterations of Link, Zelda, and Groose, and two of Ghirahim, each with different memories from their counterparts.
- On subsequent read-through’s you can follow individual iterations of the characters as they travel through time. Each character is represented by a bordered, colored line that travels from one event to that character’s sequential next event that they are involved in. The A iteration is represented by the darkest variation of that color, the B iteration is represented by a less dark color variation, and the C iteration as the lightest variation of that color. You can find the Character Color Key in the upper left portion of the spreadsheet.
- A single arrow where multiple time travel paths of the same character iteration intersect indicates the presence of a stable time loop where all changes to the timeline have already been accounted for within that iteration of the timeline. This has the practical effect of removing repeated information and dramatically shortening the amount of space it takes to depict this temporal-sequential timeline. The direction of the arrow indicates the path the characters take.
- Timeline iterations are color coded by the colored ribbon that runs underneath them. Event boxes are color-coded to the timeline iteration they were last altered in so you can see, as you proceed through successive iterations, what iteration of the timeline was the cause of how that event now happens in the current timeline iteration. However, a bright yellow box indicates an event as it was experienced in Skyward Sword.
The First Half: On Split Timeline Theory and Infinite Regression
Demise’s defeat at the end of Skyward Sword happens chronologically prior to many of the events of the game, which creates a paradoxical “contradiction” where it appears as if the entire game of Skyward Sword cannot happen as seen in the game if Demise was already vanquished and sealed within the Master Sword. This is the case because there is no longer any Demise in the future to break out of his prison in the Sealed Grounds or to send Ghirahim to look for Zelda, meaning Zelda never falls to the Surface and Link never begins or completes his quest in the way the game shows. This type of problem appears several times throughout the game, and any temporal-sequential timeline of the game’s events needs to resolve it.
We could assume the existence of timeline splits to get around this problem, which is how the time travel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe works, as established by Endgame. In Endgame, altering the past does not change the future because alterations to the past create a divergent timeline. And so if this were a rule to be applied to Skyward Sword, then defeating Demise in the past would have no affect on the future, and thus the beginning of the game.
This happens to be the type of time travel established by Hyrule Historia’streatment of Ocarina of Time. And it’s interesting to note that Ocarina of Time has two different kinds of timeline splits. The split that results in the “child timeline” (Twilight Princess, etc.) and the “adult timeline” (The Wind Waker, etc.) is caused by Zelda’s action of sending Link back to his childhood body. Zelda’s timeline continues as the “adult timeline,” and Link re-emerging into his childhood body and then foiling Ganondorf’s plot creates the alternate “child timeline.”
The second kind of split is seen with the “downfall timeline.” At first glance you might be tempted to assume it’s just like the other two timelines. But if that’s so, then the split that creates the “downfall timeline” is caused by Ganondorf defeating Link, which means that the “child timeline” could never come into being because its creation is necessarily dependent upon Link defeating Ganondorf. Therefore only one or the other can be real. That is, one actually exists, and the other does not.
That doesn’t mean the one that is theoretical is not canonical. It just means that I can’t see an “in-universe” explanation for both to be caused to exist. But I am open to ideas for how both could.
I resolve this conundrum by assuming the timeline where Link is victorious—the “child timeline”—is the real one, and that Hyrule Historia treats the “downfall timeline” as a hypothetical “what if?” style narrative frame so Nintendo can fit the entirety of the catalog of their approved Zelda games into canon.
Given the “downfall timeline” is used as a narrative frame, it’s creation has nothing to do with Link’s actions altering time as he travels between his present and the future, whereas the in-game events of Skyward Sword are caused by Link doing just that. We can see the timeline changing as we play, and these changes imply that perhaps we should assume timeline splits are created with each of Skyward Sword’s time travel events just like the split that created the “child timeline” and the “adult timeline” was created. At the very least, Skyward Sword’s time travel events cannot be the way they are because of the use of a narrative frame.
But there is countervailing evidence against the view that timeline splits are involved. For example, right after Hylia passes from the world to reincarnate into a mortal body, Impa travels thousands of years into the future to retrieve Hylia’s reincarnated form. When Impa does this, it is the very first recorded time travel event in Hylian history that we know of. There is no alternate universe to fall back on here. No split timelines. She leaves the time stream, meaning she is no longer around to grow old and guide Link at the beginning of the game when Link shows up at the Sealed Temple. Even when she returns to her time it would be an alternate timeline created by her own time travel. Yet there she is as an old woman regardless. Link of Skyloft cannot travel back to the past if there is no Impa there at the beginning to guide him. There must be a first cause.
Furthermore, invoking timeline splits for every time travel event would leave us with the uncomfortable implication that Demise is the victor in the vast majority of time streams since our hero characters are clearly shown leaving those time streams. Because of the moral implications of this, I don’t believe that is the way that time travel in Skyward Sword was intended to work.
Therefore, timeline splits don’t seem plausible. Indeed, it seems as if the only plausible pragmatic (old Impa still being present) as well as moral (Demise doesn’t win) explanation is that the entire game’s events happen within a single un-split timeline that is successively modified by each time travel event. And so that is what I assumed was the case.
Basically, the rule we can deduce from both Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time is that when two time periods are linked to each other by a time gate, both points that the gate connects to are “stuck together”, meaning alternate timelines cannot split off from the main time stream. But when the time travel is one-way (i.e. when Zelda sends Link back to his past body in Ocarina of Time, then alternate timeline splits can occur. We’ll have to see how this theory holds up when Breath of the Wild 2 comes out, which may also involve time travel.
And so after I began creating this temporal-sequential timeline, I encountered another logical problem with invoking timeline splits that seems to vindicate my decision. Since Skyward Sword shows Link traveling back to the past and then returning to his present multiple times, and if we assume time splits each time, then this actually creates a cascading effect wherein you will end up with the timeline repeatedly splitting off at the same points over and over and over again, with the same events happening over and over again. It essentially creates a duplication glitch that reproduces itself infinitely.
Think about what happens when you hold two mirrors up to each other. Then assume each of those images inside the mirror is an actual separate world. Each time the image shifts, its changes are replicated into the infinite reflection of mirror images. You can see the unintended effect that timeline splits cause in this case. You don’t just get an infinite number of slightly different multiverses, but also identical infinite copies of each of those slightly different multiverses. This is brain breaking, and better left for mathematicians and philosophers to ponder. This doesn’t seem to be an intended result, and so avoiding this result is one more good reason to avoid invoking timeline splits.
Frankly, laying out the events of Skyward Sword like this reveals the sleight of hand involved in this particular use of time travel, as the next essay further illuminates. Fortunately, there is a way to properly reconcile the chain of events that avoids timeline splits and the cascading multiverse mirror effect, as well as the consequent and vast array of split timelines where Demise wins. We do this by charting out the time travel events in a temporal-sequential timeline.
As I did so, these problems and the others discussed in the second essay forced me to devise a set of rules for Skyward Sword’s time travel that doesn’t invoke the existence of a multiverse or alternate co-existing timelines just to make the time travel work as a philosophically and logically consistent mechanism so that the game’s plot can happen. In other words, I didn’t approach this with a pre-conceived methodology in mind. Rather, the methodology appeared out of my attempts to reconcile all of the various brain bending issues created by the time travel in this game.
The Crazy Second Half: Time Within Time and Dubious Doppelgangers
The first half of the temporal-sequential timeline is relatively straightforward as it documents the changes to the timeline up until Demise is finally sealed within the Master Sword in the past. These changes are linear in sequence because Link has until that point always traveled back to the past to a point chronologically later than when he last traveled to the past, and during each of those trips he makes no major changes to the timeline that alters his own history or that of Skyloft where he grew up.
However, things get really crazy in the second half, which documents the changes to the timeline resulting from Demise’s defeat in the past at the game’s conclusion as they propagate throughout the timeline. This essay discusses why this happens.
Demise’s defeat not only changed the past, but it did so in a way that changed the circumstances that resulted in Link’s previous time traveling (as well as Impa’s and Zelda’s) that in turn were what led to Demise’s defeat in the first place. In short, defeating Demise in the past would likely ensure his ultimate victory in the present, since defeating him in the past would prevent Demise from being able to do the actions that led our heroes to travel through time in the first place, such as sending Ghirahim to try to kidnap Zelda. If Link and Zelda do not travel to the past in any one iteration of the timeline, then Present Demise is not destroyed, Past Demise is not sealed within the Master Sword, and the end of the game would be undone, and time loops back to Iteration 1.
But there is one way to resolve this problem and preserve the Cause/Effect Chain. And that is to conjecture the existence of a C iteration of our heroes doing roughly the same things even though Demise was no longer active. I decided to start at the game’s end point and work backwards from there, working out the minimum necessary conditions the C iteration characters needed to fulfill for the result to be what we see at end of the game.
This would preserve the temporal sequence of events that lead to Demise’s defeat, but it also introduces two problems. The first is that the minimum necessary conditions to preserve Demise’s defeat require the C iterations of our characters to do some things that do not seem especially necessary. However, they do remain within the realm of possibility and I could easily explain them by invoking some creative storytelling to introduce new situations and/or characters.
Because we never see them, everything about the C iterations of our characters is all just speculation and there are actually many scenarios you could suppose to get us from Demise’s defeat in the past to our heroes emerging to a future that looks roughly similar to the one they left in the first place, with no clones in sight.
But these are decisions that I don’t feel comfortable making because it would be too fannish and I would end up imposing myself too much onto the game’s lore, something I’m already risking doing. As such, I instead decided to make sure the event boxes describing what actions the C iterations of our heroes took adhered as close as possible to the actions the B iterations took. In short, my decision here leaves some gaps in story and motivation for these C iteration characters that gets them from action to action, but the possibility that they would perform these actions still remains. I simply tried leave it unspecified as to how they were motivated to do so.
The second problem is one of necessity. While this speculation may seem too “out there” at first blush, it does seem to be where the breadcrumb trail leads. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, we theorists must take the information we have and deduce a reasonable answer from it. I would be interested in hearing of any alternate temporal mechanical models that make sense of Skyward Sword’s time travel.
I take some comfort in knowing that astrophysicists have had to do something similar to what I’ve done here to prop up general relativity theory, a theory so well-attested and which explains so much that most scientists consider it an established fact. There’s just the problem of accounting for all the matter in the universe. So scientists theorized the existence of dark matter, a heretofore unobserved substance that makes up as much as 85% of the matter in the universe, at least according to general relativity itself and a whiz-bang number of other astronomical observations.
So just as scientists posit that dark matter exists so they don’t have to throw out all the benefits of general relativity theory and all it does for astrophysics, we can conjecture the existence of C iteration characters to ensure our timeline ends up where the game does. It’s not because I’m particularly wedded to the idea but because it seems that every other potential theory to account for Skyward Sword’s time travel can’t account for all the problems discussed in this essay and in the previous one. I think mine does.
Now that the Cause/Effect Chain is preserved, I still have to deal with the fact that Demise’s defeat and sealing within the Master Sword in the past is the first time a change to the timeline has occurred chronologically earlier than other changes previously made by Link and company. That is, that Past Demise is defeated before he can be destroyed by the Triforce in the present.
That causes modifications to all the previous changes made to the timeline between the point when Demise is revived and sealed in the Master Sword in the past and the point in the present when Link, Groose, and Zelda go one final time through the Gate of Time to the past. That makes this change the first where there are multiple nested layers of time travel actions to deal with, as you can see from the chart.
And given that we justifiably assumed in the first essay that there is just one single timeline and not alternate split timelines, these modifications must happen “instantaneously” to the timeline as Iteration 8. Why? Well there is no ‘time’ operating outside of time itself. That makes time a tenseless thing. Therefore if you are looking upon a timeline from outside of that timeline as we’re doing here, changes made to what the past is “instantaneously” change what the future is.
So what did I need in order to preserve the future we see at the end of the game? I needed to preserve the actions that led to Demise’s sealing within the Master Sword as well as deal with the ripple effects of Demise no longer being an active agent in the timeline. We used the C iteration characters to stabilize the timeline and accomplish that, but to visually depict those changes it became necessary for me to break this final timeline iteration into seven separate imaginary timeline iterations in order to account for all these nested changes. These timelines are labeled as Iterations 8A-8G, which when combined together represent Iteration 8, the real iteration. I derived this concept of imaginary timelines from the concept of imaginary numbers in mathematics.
In addition to preserving Demise’s defeat in the past, this method also prevents Lanayru from dying again and prevents two copies of Link, Zelda, and Groose from appearing in the present at the end of the game, and perhaps even more duplicates of Link B, one for each time he arrives at the present from the past. Obviously, these are all side effects we wish to avoid. It even opens one tantalizing possibility for the origin of Lorule, although never in a million years would I argue that such a thing is plausible.
Additionally, accounting for all the nested changes to the timeline appears to result in several orphaned versions of Link B, who upon traveling from the past to the future never actually arrive there. They do not arrive because the timeline changes propagate and overwrite their origin point while they appear to be en-route to the present (as you can see from the Cause/Effect Chain), effectively erasing them. But being as this happens within the imaginary timelines it is not especially concerning because these versions of Link B never actually existed anyway.
If these Link B’s did not travel to the past in the current imaginary time iteration, then they could not have traveled to the future to be erased. They are in a very real sense only imaginary, echoes of an older iteration of the timeline that is being overwritten.
It is important to remember that when a timeline changes, it changes “instantaneously” (I use scare quotes because it’s a tensed word and time really has no meaning outside of the timeline, thus everything happens in an “instant”). That is why all except the combined version of Iteration 8 is imaginary.
As an aside, I think it’s important to provide a reminder here that every other time travel event in the game except for Impa’s first time travel to the future has been from the future backward to the past, which is why those timelines do not have imaginary versions to overwrite.
Admittedly, this past-overwriting-the-future process results in one pretty strange anomaly where the C iteration of Zelda actually meets the B iteration of Link in Iteration 8B instead of the C iteration of Link that she grew up with. This is, of course, only imaginary, and if I did things right, it’s simply temporal mechanics at work. Try not to think too linearly about it.
Instead, let’s think of an illustration to help you understand how imaginary timelines work. Picture a large red light illuminating a windowless room. Photons from the red light fill the entire room, indicating that Demise still exists and that he is threatening to break his seal. Demise’s defeat in the past would be equivalent to a blue light instantaneously turning on at the exact time the red light turns off. Once that happens, the output of photons from the red light is stopped and photons from the blue light begin filling the room instead. For several instants after the blue light is turned on, there are still photons from the red light bouncing around the room. But they will rapidly dissipate until the photons from the blue light completely overwhelm them.
To us, this change is imperceptible. It is “instant”. But when you visually depict that kind of change on paper it becomes necessary to document how Demise’s defeat in the past (the blue light turning on) affects each nested change (individual photons interacting with the room) just so you can keep track of it all.
You can consider Iterations 8A-8G of the timeline to be a snapshot of each moment after photons from the blue light begin illuminating the room until they have completely filled the room and photons from the red light have dissipated. Soon, there are no further changes to the timeline available to document, and all that remains is Iteration 8G.
If that’s still hard to understand, that’s okay. This is some really trippy Brannon Braga level stuff, and it may be worthwhile to reread these essays a few times. Also, please feel free to point out anything you think I may have missed. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, so I’ve already accounted for many apparent errors, but it’s still possible I missed something. Good luck!
 For more information on imaginary numbers, see https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-imaginary-numbers-at-the-edge-of-reality-20181025/, and see if you can figure out how they are similar and different to imaginary timelines. This is a bit beyond my mathematical ability to fully understand, but even I can intuit that just as imaginary numbers yield new ways of thinking about the world, imaginary timelines give us new ways of thinking about time travel and its causes and effects upon time.