Spend enough time thinking or reading about fictional worlds, and you’ll come across the concept of canon. What is canon, and why does it matter?
The term is borrowed from religion. A church’s canon is its core text, its founding documents, the books that tell its history truthfully (as the church sees it) and outline the tenets of the faith. Anything in the canon is real, accurate, reliable. Anything outside the canon is secondary at best, heretical at worst.
Now look at a fictional universe like Star Wars. You’ve got the movies, of course, but also cartoons, books, comic books, video games, and even more. Literally thousands of pieces of art created by lots of different people. How do you know what’s real – that is, what “really” happened in the context of the Star Wars universe – and what isn’t?
Canon is the answer. If it’s canon, it happened. Otherwise, not so much.
If you’re not a geek, this sounds absurd on the face of it. What do you mean, canon is what “really” happened? It’s fiction. None of it really happened. What does it matter?
It matters if you’ve ever stayed up till 3 a.m. reading an amazing book that you couldn’t put down. You turn the pages because you want to find out what happens next. You know, rationally, that none of it’s real, that nothing actually “happens.” But for the moment, it’s real in your mind. That’s what stories are all about.
And that’s what I mean by “real.” What’s part of the story, and what isn’t? What happened to the characters, and what didn’t? When you talk about this universe with other fans, what belongs to the universe, and what doesn’t? Non-canon stories can do all kinds of fun and goofy things; they can tell alternate histories, make weird jokes, cross over with other fictional worlds; they can contradict canon all they like. But they’re just for fun. They don’t answer the big question: what happens next?
So that’s what canon is about. But how do you know what’s canon and what isn’t?
The short answer is, the creator defines it. The creator of a story, by definition, sets the parameters of what does and doesn’t belong to the story. He can point to some of his own creations and say “That’s not part of the story,” or he can point to other people’s creations and say “That’s part of the story, but that isn’t.”
In fact, the creator can even shape canon directly, without using any work of art as a medium. For instance: Buffy’s birthday is given as October 24, 1980, at one point in the show, and May 6, 1979, at another point. To resolve the contradiction (and various other birthday-related issues), Joss Whedon declared that Buffy’s “real” birthday was January 19, 1981. So that’s what it is, even though it’s never appeared in a canon “work” (to my knowledge), and even though it contradicts what would otherwise be canon information.
So, canon is whatever the creator says it is. Simple enough, right?
Well, not exactly.
The creator could be dead. Or she could be alive but choose not to answer questions of canonicity, or give answers that are ambiguous, inconsistent, or incomplete. Or a world could have multiple creators of equal “authority,” who might contradict each other. Or a particular work might have multiple versions, leading to confusion about which version – if any – is canonical. Or two canonical works might contradict each other. Or an unfinished “canonical” work might be published after a creator’s death, leading to debate over how true it was to the creator’s vision.
In a weird way, I find these little puzzles fascinating.
Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for example. The Lord of the Rings (I mean, of course, the book) is clearly canon, as is The Hobbit (in its most recent version; there have been several). But putting aside those two neat and tidy packages, you’ve got a whole giant mess of notes that Tolkien left behind, mostly unpublished within his lifetime, mostly about the First Age – the stuff that happened long before Frodo was born.
These notes were collected and published – with astonishing diligence – after his death, by his son, Christopher Tolkien. They never had any finalized form to them. They were endlessly revised, often self-contradictory. The younger Tolkien made a valiant attempt to extract a single coherent narrative, which was published as The Silmarillion. Is that canon? In this case, I think you just have to accept that the boundaries of Middle-earth are a little blurry.
What about Star Trek? Roughly speaking, the shows and movies are all canon, the novels and comics aren’t. Except that, when you get down to details, it’s a mess. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry seemed to have a sloppy and ever-changing notion of what was and wasn’t canon. And nobody can agree on The Animated Series, or “reference” books like technical manuals. The whole situation has its own separate article on Wikipedia, if you’re interested.
The Buffyverse is better off, mostly because creator Joss Whedon is a geek and actually cares about questions like this. The TV shows (Buffy and Angel) are canon, the movie isn’t, some specific comic books are, most comic books (and novels) aren’t. The status of certain comics is ambiguous, but the big-picture situation is pretty clear.
Star Wars is really complicated, and the canon situation has changed over time. But (very) roughly speaking, there are tiers of canon. The movies are top-tier, 100% canon. The cartoon shows are second-tier: canon in all cases except where they might contradict the movies. Novels, comic books, and games are largely third-tier: they build on the movies, and try to keep up their own internal consistency, but new movies (like Episode VII) are free to trample all over them.
Regardless of what the creators say, I think there are usually “tiers” of canon, in practice, in the fans’ minds. Most fictional universes have a central, indisputable “text” – The Lord of the Rings for Tolkien, the live-action shows for Star Trek, the live-action movies for Star Wars, the two TV shows for Buffy – and everything else, no matter what anyone says, is secondary.
This notion of a de facto canon leads us to fanon. Fanon is fan + canon, that is, the stuff that fans consider to “really” have happened, regardless of what the creators say. The most infamous example of fanon is Han Shot First. (Yes, that has its own Wikipedia article too.)
The original version of Star Wars has a scene where Han Solo and Greedo (green alien dude) sit down at a table in the Mos Eisley cantina. Greedo has a gun on Han. Han slowly reaches under the table, grabs his own blaster, quick-draws, and takes the guy out.
When George Lucas released the Special Edition in 1997, it had all kinds of little changes. Among them: now Greedo shoots at Han first, misses, and then Han shoots. (Later editions of the movie fiddled with the scene still further.)
Fans hated the change. Why? Well, first, because Greedo missing at point-blank range makes him seem utterly incompetent, and thus, less threatening. Second, because it removes any shred of moral ambiguity from the scene, making Han a less interesting character. (Not like it was that much of a gray area anyway – I mean, Greedo had a gun pointed right at him.) And finally, because it alters a beloved classic for no good reason.
Lucas can say whatever he wants. Any self-respecting Star Wars fan knows what happened in the cantina. Han shot first – that’s fanon.
You can get break this down even further, from the beliefs of the fandom at large, to the individual fan. Any sufficiently obsessed fan probably has “headcanon” – their own private version of what did and didn’t happen. (I swear I’m not making these words up.)
Take Avatar. The party line is that the comics post-TV-series are just as canon as the show itself. But I ain’t buyin’ it. The idea that Aang would agree to murder his friend – when the central conflict of the series finale was that he wouldn’t even kill his worst enemy? And I’m supposed to accept this from a script writer who wasn’t even involved in the show? (No offense, Gene Yang.) Forget it. My headcanon says it never happened.
You can even have worlds where there is no canon, no central text, at all. Just lots and lots of contradicting stories with rough similarities.
King Arthur is a good example. Most everyone knows the basic elements of the Arthurian world – the Round Table, Queen Guinevere, the Quest for the Grail, etc. – but there’s no master document to clarify the details. You pick a story you like and get lost in its own, unique interpretation for a while.
I would argue Batman is in the same boat. His story has been told, retold, rebooted, retconned, interpreted, and adapted so many times that I would say there is no single, authoritative version.
In one sense, throwing away canon is nicer. Simpler. More room for artistic license. You can just sit back and enjoy each story on its own terms.
But on the other hand, there’s something pure and enticing about a precise, beautiful, undiluted world like the one in Lord of the Rings.
And that was quite possibly way more than you ever wanted to know about canon. Post script, oh my goodness I am a nerd.
I first encountered the term “canon” (in the non-religious sense) in writings about Sherlock Holmes, where obviously (obviously to me, at least) the novels and stories by Doyle are canon and everything else isn’t.
I think anti-canon world is probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where there are tons of inconsistencies and contradictions, all (probably gleefully) inserted by the original creator.
I disagree that Joss Whedon can set Buffy’s birthday just in an interview. If it isn’t established in a story, it’s not canon. J.K. Rowling can have her opinion about Dumbledore ‘s sexuality, but (from what I understand) there’s nothing in the text to support her opinion. In a hundred years, people will read the Harry Potter books and they’ll have no idea what she said in some random interview (my poetry professor in college was very strict on the rules of textual analysis 🙂 ).
I saw a picture of Harrison Ford on a movie set, in a directors chair, and on the back, instead of his name, it just said, “I shot first.”
RE: creators setting canon by fiat, I think it comes down to how the reader/viewer chooses to define “the story.” Limiting yourself strictly to the content of the text, as you describe, is certainly a valid perspective as well.
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