What is canon?

Since I’m a nerd, I tend to have opinions about continuity in the media I enjoy. At some point, the notion of canon was introduced – the basic idea seems to be that a canon instalment counts as part of the continuity, whereas a non-canon part does not. Seems simple enough, but people keep tossing the term around and arguing over whether things are canon or not. The biggest case of this was last year’s announcement by Disney that the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe, rechristened Star Wars Legends, was no longer canon – yeah, only a small (but prominent) amount of total continuity was actually in continuity. I understand why they did it, since they wanted to be able to make new movies that didn’t have to maintain consistency with a bunch of books, comics, and games that hardly anybody played, and from what I heard, most the Expanded Universe was terrible. Still, up to that point, standard practice was to declare one or two instalments non-canon while leaving the majority intact; Disney, in contrast, removed the majority of continuity from canon.

This move was troubling to me, particularly when everybody on /r/AskScienceFiction started whining that absolutely nothing in Legends was admissible when answering questions about Star Wars even though, again, it made up the majority of the franchise. Sure, declaring a troublesome instalment to be outside continuity can help smooth out the overall shape of the story, but 90% of the story? That’s just not right, is it?

I think we need to consider how the word canon has been used to get a proper understanding.

Origins: Religious scripture

As you may or may not be aware, the Bible is not a book. It’s actually several dozen books, which in the modern age are usually collected together in one volume, though different churches disagree as to which books should be included.

In the early days, before Christianity was schismed, there were a whole lot of holy texts floating around purporting to describe the life of Jesus and the Apostles, and of the ancient prophets. Different bishops declared different books to be truly holy, with others said to be merely the work of humans. The official list of Christian holy scripture was officially settled by Saint Athanasius in 367, who referred to it as the canon, from the Greek word for a measuring stick. Thus, in the beginning, canon referred to a collection of separate texts with some basis for exclusion of others – in this original case, the fact that non-canon texts were not inspired by God.

While the word was used by Christian Church Fathers, the concept is older. Jewish rabbis during the Babylonian captivity assembled an official list of which texts were sacred Hebrew scripture around the second or third century BC, and the Pali canon of Buddhism was compiled around the fourth century BC.

Also, different Christian churches do define different canons. Catholics, for example, do not include Esdras or 3 and 4 Maccabees, while the Ethiopians include Jubilees and Enoch. Protestants, meanwhile, tend to leave out Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Maccabees, and Baruch altogether (and sometimes Revelation).

Sherlock Holmes

After the death of Arthur Conan Doyle, other writers began producing stories starring Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, James Moriarty, Inspector Lestrade, and others. Ronald Knox, an Anglican-turned-Catholic priest and Doyle superfan, started using the term canon to refer to those novels and stories written by Doyle himself, in a deliberate and playful extension of the word’s established meaning of the official contents of Biblical scripture into a meaning familiar to modern geeks, that of the official and ‘real’ instalments of a franchise of fiction. Here, again, the meaning was pretty clear – Doyle’s stories were canon (and, by inference, part of a single continuity), while those by other writers were not.

Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon is the one who really made the idea of canon crazy.

In 1993, he worked on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, but formally dissociated himself from it due to excessive studio interference resulting in a movie that is not what he wanted. When he revived the property as a TV show in 1996, the story continued on from the original script of the movie, ignoring the film that was actually released. The official description of this state of affairs if that the movie wasn’t canon. Whedon also declared the novels and tie-in comics to be non-canon (with the exception of Fray, which he wrote).

Things got more confusing. The Dark Horse-published continuation comics Buffy Season 8, Buffy Season 9, Buffy Season 10, and Angel and Faith are all considered canon because Whedon wrote or co-wrote them, or at the very least co-plotted them. IDW’s Angel: After the Fall is also considered canon since Whedon co-wrote it, but then things get ambiguous. The IDW Angel series continued for another 27 issues not written by Whedon, and there were also 16 issues of a Spike comic that tied in heavily to Angel but Whedon was not involved with. Christos Gage, the writer of Angel and Faith, stated that he will not be referencing the IDW Angel issues that Whedon was not involved with, but will also be taking care not to contradict them so that those fans who enjoy them can consider them to still be in continuity.

At first glance, the situation with the Buffyverse seems similar to that of Sherlock Holmes – works written or officially blessed by the original author are canon, those that are not are non-canon. However, there is a significant difference. Doyle never approved anyone else’s Sherlock Holmes stories; the post-Doyle stories came out after his death, and are simple fanfiction. In conrast, all the ‘non-canon’ Buffyverse works (except the movie) were officially approved by Whedon and published with his knowledge under the Buffy/Angel brand, even if he never considered them part of continuity. Thus, there was a shift in the meaning of the term canon from ‘every member of a set’ to ‘every member of a subset’ since, after all, officially canon Buffyverse material is a subset of the entire Buffyverse (albeit one that includes the majority of the material).

Now, at this point, someone will surely argue that the Bible, original source of the term canon, does include multiple subsets. That’s true, but the Old and New Testaments, as well as the various sections into which they are divided, are all canon in their entirety. Likewise, Sherlock Holmes canon includes both novels and short stories, but they are all part of a single set. In contrast, the Buffyverse set is stated to include both canon and non-canon members.

Before we think about a solution, let’s consider the clusterfornicate that is Star Wars

Star Wars

Since the Star Wars Expanded Universe is so huge and maintaining consistency, a really weird system arose to define what is and isn’t canon, an issue that arose as soon as the first movie was released and wasn’t quite consistent with the novelisation. Lucasfilm eventually defined four levels of canonicity:

  • G-canon, for Geoge Lucas. This level refers to the movies and the Clone Wars cartoon in which Lucas was directly involved. If something contradicted G-canon, it was wrong, end of story.
  • C-canon, for continuity. This level referred to the books and comics officially declared to be canon, whose content and continuity was taken to be accurate except when it contradicted G-canon.
  • S-canon, for semi-canon. Writers are free to use an ignore aspects of S-canon material as they see fit, the idea being that something like it was part of the story but not necessarily the events as presented. It was originally applied to comics published before there was an official policy on canon, but was primarily used for video games to account for player choice in shaping the narrative.
  • N-canon, for non-canon. This is for the obviously silly stuff like Tag and Blink, Darth Vader and Son, and Vader’s Little Princess.

Then Disney came along and screwed that all up, saying “Nope, the entire Expanded Unviverse is equally non-canon and everything going forward is just as canon as the movies!”

Yeah, this is just silly. Star Wars gets even worse than the Buffyverse, because at least nominal canon stayed the same in the works of Joss Whedon. Lucasfilm and Disney reassigned canon statuses on a whim. To be honest, I think this was a marketing ploy. Rather than announce a new continuity, or even a reboot (a concept which people were starting to dislike, at least partially because of the poor reception of the Amazing Spider-Man movies), they declared that only their material and the movies people knew about would be a part of the actual story, thus giving the new movies and cartoons a veneer of authoriticity, elevating them to a level above the existing tie-in stories.

So here’s what I think

We should decouple the concept of canon from that of continuity. This is already the case in Transformers fandom, where all material approved by Hasbro and Tomy is canon, and the existence of multiple continuities is acknowledged. This would bring it back to its original meaning, of a set of texts that are part of a single franchise.

In terms of the Buffyverse, it’s canon if Joss Whedon approves of its publication. IDW’s Angel series? All canon. The books? Totally canon. Note that this says nothing about whether they are in continuity with what Whedon is writing, merely that they are canon.

And absolutely everything Star Wars is canon. The original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, Rebels, the Expanded Universe/Legends, Marvel’s Star Wars, Tag and Blink, Holiday Special, Darth Vader and Son, Vader’s Little Princess, Star Wars Transformers… all of it is canon. It’s not all one big continuity by any means, but if the label is on it and Lucasfilm/Disney approves its release, then it is indeed canon.

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