People have been debating for years on if there was an official timeline to The Legend of Zelda or if it was just a bunch of similarly titled, but unrelated games. Nintendo has hinted at it in the past suggesting that not only was there a super secret official timeline, but that there were multiples created due to the time traveling in Ocarina of Time. This has lead meany to debate about what that timeline would be.
The one theory I heard most about was the split timeline theory. At the end of Ocarina of time Link gets sent back in time as a kid to live out his life like nothing happened. The theory went that Link warns Zelda of Ganondorf's plans, he is arrested, and they live on without the horrors of Ganondorf with the Triforce of Power. But, the other timeline, where link was an adult, still continued after Link was sent back. This timeline still had Hyrule rebuilding from the seven years of terror and didn't have the great hero of time to help.
Now Nintendo has officially released the timeline in the new art book Hyrule Historia. This throws a monkey wrench into the split timeline theory. No, it's not just one timeline, it's three.
Caution: I will be discussing specific parts of the Ocarina of Time story and complex time travel. If you have not played the Ocarina of Time game or have trouble understanding temporal mechanics, proceed at your own risk.
The Hyrule Historia has only been released in Japan so everything I hear about it is translated into English. This is an important factor since I believe the translation is wrong. What it says is that all three timelines branch off at the very end of Ocarina of Time. One where Link wins and gets sent back in time, a second where Link wins and doesn't get sent back, and the third where Link doesn't win. The reason I think this is wrong is due to the fact that timeline two and three didn't happen in the game, they weren't scripted events. If we're going to assume things that didn't happen, then lets assume that Link died as a child inside the Great Deku Tree and thus Ganondorf didn't get the Triforce at all.
Why do that when there's a perfectly reasonable way to have all three timelines using scripted events?
The first timeline is easy. This happened in the game, we see it happen. Link beats Ganon, Zelda sends him back to be a kid, and Link warns kid Zelda of Ganondorf.
The second timeline may be a little hard to understand, but after adult Zelda sends adult Link back in time, that timeline doesn't disappear. Like the original single split timeline theory, this timeline goes on without Link in it.
The third timeline is where it gets really hard to understand. This is the one where Ganondorf wins. How can Ganondorf win if we see Link defeat him at the end of the game? We have to look back further into the game to see the potential breaking point. In the game you are forced to travel back in time at least twice, once to get the eye of truth, and another to get the silver gauntlets. Each of those times has the potential to break the timeline in two; one with Link in it to defeat Ganondorf and one without.
From Link's point of view there is only one timeline and all the events happened in order even though the events as a kid technically happened before he was an adult.
The game starts out with Link being woken by an annoying but invaluable ferry, Navi, that starts him on his journey. He meets a giant ventriloquist tree who tells him of the three goddesses and swallows him to kill a giant one eyed arachnid. The joke's on Link as killing the giant arachnid breaks the curse that was the only thing keeping the deku tree alive.
After that, Link meets Zelda for the first time, beats a dinosaur, and get swallowed by a fish that's bigger on the inside. Then the first important part. Using the three stones he gathered from the first three dungeons, Link opens the door to the master sword room and the gateway to the sacred realm. This action does two things, it puts Link in a form of hibernation and lets Ganondorf in to take the Triforce of power. The next thing Link knows, it's seven years latter.
After the sudden shock of realizing that Link himself caused this problem, Link starts a quest to fix the problem. After several more dungeons comes the first time Link is forced to travel back in time. He needs the Eye of truth to see secrets to continue the story.
This is where the first split happens, the simple action of traveling back in time causes an alternate reality to form. This fact can be shown if Link takes the optional task of traveling back in time to plant the seeds. The plants are only there after the time travel, thus an alternate timeline must have been created.
After Link has played the Song of Storms, dried the well, and traveled back into the future, he continues his quest. But what he doesn't know is that he traveled to a new future, not the one he was previously in. The one he was previously in continues on without him and Ganondorf wins. This can also happen any time Link travels back to the past, but for the most part the timelines Link abandons will turn out the same so only one needs to be tracked.
Link continues his quest until he gathers all the sages, makes a magical rainbow bridge, and fights his way to the top of what use to be Hyrule castle. There he defeats Ganondorf and his pissed off form Ganon where he is rewarded by being sent back to potentially the beginning of the game. The timeline where Link won still exists, but it just doesn't have Link there any more.
Back at the beginning of the game, Link is seen speaking with Zelda where, we assume, he is warning Zelda of the inevitable betrayal of Ganondorf then he's arrested and cannot continue his plan. Theoretically, Link continues in Hyrule and does the first three dungeons to clean up what Ganondorf has already done and to gather the three stones to finally put the Master Sword back where we see Navi leave his side.
This interpretation makes sense to me and I hope it makes sense to others. Because it works so well with what actually happens in the game, this is why I believe what we have read is a mistranslation of the timeline. If I can find a good way to do it, I'll draw up a visual on the two views of the timeline.
Update: Timeline attached.