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Throughout the Legend of Zelda series, there have been many incarnations of Link. Chronologically, the first Link was in Skyward Sword. His mission was simple: prevent Demise (Ganon) from taking over Hyrule. This Link did just that; Demise defeated and sealed away only to haunt Link and Hyrule for eternity as Ganon. That Link's story finishes there.
Quite some time later, after a few more Links have some adventures in The Minish Cap and Four Swords, The Hero of Time is introduced in Ocarina of Time. This incarnation of Link stands as one of the best and most powerful heroes in any medium. All Links, clearly, are courageous, humble, and strong-willed, important traits to any hero. The Hero of Time, however, takes all of these traits to a new level. I will begin with a description of the events on Ocarina of Time for those who are not entirely familiar.
His story begins as a child living in the Kokiri Forest. Abandoned there as a child, he lives in exile as he is the only child living there who doesn't have a fairy. The forest's resident guardian, the Great Deku Tree, sees something in Link. He bestows him a fairy and, in a test of courage, asks Link to enter him and save him. The fact that Link would even do such an act for little to no personal payoff only begins to show the true majesty of this character. The game goes a step further when, after completion of this dungeon, despite Link's best efforts, the Great Deku Tree dies anyway. With his dying breath, he sets Link upon an adventure to save Hyrule and to try and prevent a similar outcome to occur to all of Hyrule. Selflessly, Link accepts.
When Link meets Zelda for the first time, she tells him of a plot to destroy Hyrule, instrumented by a Gerudo King named Ganondorf. At this point he appears to be swearing allegiance to Zelda's father, the king of Hyrule, while his true intentions are not yet known. Nobody believes Zelda's intuition that Ganondorf has foul plans and it is up to Link and Link alone to do something. In order to take control of Hyrule, Ganondorf would need all three of the Spiritual Stones scattered throughout Hyrule and the legendary Ocarina of Time. Link was given the first stone by the Deku Tree after failing to save it.
Again, with no personal payoff, the Hero of Time sets off to find the two other sacred stones needed to open the Temple of Time. In finding those stones, Link manages to help rescue the Goron and Zora races.The fact that this hero, while trying to save Hyrule in general, finds time to help these civilizations is exemplary. After finding the three stones, Link attempts to return to Zelda in Hyrule Castle to present her with the stones. However, he finds that Ganondorf has already laid out his attack on Hyrule. Link returns to the castle town only to see Zelda escaping, closely followed by Ganondorf.
In her escape, Zelda throws the Ocarina of Time into the moat before Ganondorf could see. Link attempts to stop him but is only thrown aside by Ganondorf's superior power. Link then uses the Ocarina of Time to access the Door of Time in the Temple of Time, revealing the Master Sword. After pulling the Master Sword out, however, Link is sealed in the sacred realm for seven years, unable to do anything. In that time, Ganondorf takes over all of Hyrule.
It's then up to Link once more to find a way to stop him. He sets about to find the seven sages and then finally using their power to fight and defeat Ganondorf. With Ganondorf defeated and Hyrule saved, Link puts the Master Sword to rest and returns as a child to warn Zelda about Ganondorf's evil plans early on. Ganondorf is thus stopped and the evil never to have occurred.
But Links story then never occurs.
Ganondorf never attacks the Gorons, the Zora, or the Kokiri. Link retains full memory of the events that took place during his adult life in finding all the sages and slaying Ganondorf's evil. He retains all memory of finding the Spiritual Stones to draw the Master Sword. He remembers saving all of Hyrule from the darkest evil it had ever seen. Yet his name would only appear in legend, forgotten as truth.
The Hero of Time is not the kind of hero that is flaunted. He is never congratulated. He is offered no reward. He is given no thank you of any sort because his journey ends up never happening. At the end of his journey, even, he's abandoned by who has become his closest friend, the fairy Navi, entrusted to him by the Deku Tree.
But his story doesn't end there.
Years after he informs Zelda of Ganondorf's true intentions and the evil prevented, Link leaves Hyrule and finds himself in Termina. Here, the Hero of Time proves himself once again. Majora's Mask, taking control of a Skull Kid, is forcing the moon to crash into the land. In only three days, the moon will destroy the world. Once again, everything seems hopeless. The world cannot be saved in three days.
However, using the Ocarina of Time, Link is able to travel back in time at any point to the start of the three day cycle. Using all of the items and masks he finds throughout the repeated three day cycle periods, he eventually is able to stop Majora's Mask and save Termina from the moon crash. Once again, without any personal gain or recognition, Link saves the world from a threat most evil and continues on his way.
At last, we can assume that the Hero of Time is finally given a chance to rest after saving the world twice and receiving nothing, but it is not so. In Ocarina of Time, it's described that anyone who enters the Lost Woods who isn't a Kokiri will become a stalfos, a skeleton creature. Link, who is not a Kokiri, does enter the Lost Woods on multiple occasions throughout his journey. His fate, ultimately, is thus to become a stalfos. In Twilight Princess, the Hero of Twilight is taught special moves and attacks to aid his own journey against Ganondorf by a stalfos. One can only assume that this stalfos is the Hero of Time aiding, in his own way, to forever fight Ganondorf, as always, with no personal reward.
The Hero of Time is not the hero that anyone in Hyrule wanted. He was never the hero that anyone remembered. He never asked for reward or recognition. He was never perfect and had to face many defeats before managing to win. He was a hero in the most powerful sense. A tragic hero. He was the hero that Hyrule needed.
I played a few of the Zelda games on Gameboy but had no idea that it was this in-depth. Great article!