A “canon” in literature is a body of work that has some claim to authority, often because it was all written by a single author. The Doyle Holmes canon, for example, consists of all the stories about Sherlock Holmes that were written by the original creator of the character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Shakespeare canon consists of all the works written by Shakespeare. The “Western canon” is a body of literature (written primarily by wealthy white men) that (most wealthy white men agreed) was the foundation of a good education.
Today canon is a core foundation of modern fandom. The proportion of derived works has escalated drastically in the last few decades, in part because sequels and prequels have become more and more popular and cheaper to make, and in part because of the incredible explosion of free fan-generated fiction. Any new work is necessarily built in the vast shadow of the edifice of everything that has gone before — an immortal, inviolate, unassailable authority — and is judged against it.
Here I want to tackle why we have “canon,” what it’s for, and whether it’s a good thing.
Where Canon Came From
Literature borrowed the idea of “canon” from early Christianity. The word comes from Latin “measuring line, rule”; and this, in turn, came from Greek kanon, a rod or bar, rule stick, a standard of excellence. The Scriptures were the original canon of the Catholic church, and it took hundreds of years and gallons of spilled ink and blood before the church established a single set of documents that were definitely, unequivocally canon. If you find a gospel not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, then it’s considered fanfic at best, and you read it at peril to your soul.
The step from this religious usage to “the official body of work by a particular author” was short and occurred around the end of the 19th century. Doyle, for example, wrote dozens of Holmes stories, and they contain multitudes of quirky fascinating facts about the Holmes universe. Holmes kept tobacco in a Persian slipper; he practiced his pistol shooting indoors; he played the violin as a virtuoso; he wrote a monograph on cigar-ash. When people began to write Holmesian fan fiction, they included their own quirky fascinating facts. It was natural to ask, “wait, does this appear in the Holmes canon?”
It is, I think, inevitable for people to compare new works against their predecessors. Our minds are always searching for connections and consistency; they raise red flags when they see something that doesn’t seem right. Was Watson’s war wound in his shoulder or his leg? Wasn’t that superhero’s uniform a different color before? I don’t remember Sam ever leaving Frodo except when he thought he was dead. And so on.
Some of these non-canonical details are probably just innocent mistakes. Others might be for storytelling convenience, but they can be irksome for those who notice. Sometimes they reveal a complete lack of understanding (or intentional disregard) of the source material’s themes, leaving the true fan righteously incensed.
But does this notion of “canon” really help us?
Arguments for Canon
I’ve seen two main arguments for canon as a legitimate tool for evaluating a work of fiction.
It makes stories more self-consistent, creating an improved illusion of reality and deeper investment in the readers. After all, if a magical hammer has the power of lightning in one book and the power of a lightning bug in another (changing with the author’s mood), the suspension of disbelief will collapse. The reader will toss the book in the bin.
It shows respect for an author’s vision. Some argue that authors will be rightly insulted if their meticulous worldbuilding is disregarded haphazardly. Fans will be offended if their favorite characters are mishandled. One should only write fanfic or sequels if one is prepared to treat the original material with respect.
Another argument that I have not seen explicitly stated but I think is subconsciously operating is:
It allows us to rush to judgment. We can categorize stories and authors neatly into “correct” and “incorrect,” “good” and “bad,” based on relatively simple, if obscure, criteria.
This last one borrows most clearly from the earlier notions of “canon” as a religious text. While the original use of “canon” comes from the early church, it’s even more important in the Protestant varieties of Christianity, where adherence to holy writ can be absolutely preeminent. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not celebrate birthdays, and their argument is, essentially, “there are no good birthday celebrations in the canon.” Considering the zeal with which we fans bludgeon each other with canon cudgels, it seems clear that this fervor has not faltered.
Canon vs. Consistency
Many discussions of canon online confuse it with consistency. People argue, for example, that if a work breaks canon, then there are no rules at all. It’s the same as breaking character or plot for the author’s expedience, making things up willy-nilly, destroying the illusion of reality, etc.
But canon and consistency are two separate things. A single work can be self-consistent while violating canon, as long as the author is at pains to make sure that the rules within the story are clear.
For example, it is well-known in Doyle’s canon that Sherlock Holmes has used cocaine, morphine, and even opium recreationally and professionally. Other creators have taken this facet of Holmes’s character and developed it more fully. In the two Sherlock Holmes-based series Elementary and Sherlock, Holmes uses (variously) cocaine and heroin. (In Elementary, his heroin addiction is critical to his character’s arc.) In Nicholas Meyer’s Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Holmes’s cocaine addiction is the real reason he disappears at Reichenbach Falls. Almost half the book concerns his cure at the hands of Sigmund Freud.
But Holmes’s addiction is not canonical. In Doyle’s canon, Holmes is never portrayed as beholden to drugs, and it is never a central theme of any tale. It’s just a quirk of Holmes’s character — a quirk that is dropped after the first dozen or so stories.
Still, in Elementary, Sherlock, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, there is consistency within the stories themselves. Holmes is not a heroin addict in some episodes of Elementary, but not in others. The reader is never confused, never left wondering if there are no rules in this story, never lacking the illusion of reality or suspension of disbelief. The stories have their own logic, and that is what is essential.
Now, one may feel (as I do) that these stories are not really about the same “Sherlock Holmes.” Doyle’s Holmes, I think, would never allow addiction to dim his faculties. He would know his limits and act accordingly. So why do these modern versions of Holmes have “addiction” as a central theme? Our obsession with Holmes’s drug use says more about ourselves than Holmes or Doyle.
To sum up: these stories violate canon, both in the details of Doyle’s descriptions and in the themes and core character of Holmes himself. Nevertheless, Elementary is excellent, the Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a pretty good yarn, and even Sherlock is watchable in parts. But they could not be told if they adhered even broadly to Doyle’s canon.
In other words, one can, and in some cases must, violate canon to create a good story. But this is a different issue from the inner consistency of the story itself.
In fact, sometimes a good story can violate its own inner logic. My favorite example is the matter of hobbit birthday presents.
The first chapter of The Lord of the Rings plainly states that hobbits give away presents on their birthdays (the opposite of most human practice). It’s a big deal: Bilbo’s birthday party is the subject of the first chapter, and he gives away dozens of presents, many of which Tolkien carefully describes. In fact, the custom of gift-giving provides a critical plot point: Bilbo gives the One Ring to his nephew Frodo as a birthday present. (It also happens to be Frodo’s birthday, but Bilbo gives him the ring for Bilbo’s birthday.)
But in the very next chapter, it’s made plain that Sméagol — a “hobbit-like creature” who, Gandalf says, shares many cultural features with modern hobbits — expects to receive a present on his birthday. And the gift-giving custom is also critical for this plot point: Sméagol kills his cousin Déagol to steal the One Ring as a birthday present.
Tolkien didn’t notice the discrepancy until a reader pointed it out in a letter. The good Professor admitted the inconsistency, and he began developing his worldbuilding further to “discover” the explanation for it. If I remember right, he decided that hobbits mostly gave away presents on their birthdays, but close family members would also give unique treasures to them on significant birthdays. Thus when Bilbo gave Frodo the One Ring, it was significant because it fit both customs.
But it’s not a nitpick; one cannot simply wave it away as irrelevant. Instead, it is an inconsistency that must remain for the story to work. But the story does work, even without Tolkien’s deep-dive explanation. And this shows that while strict consistency (and, by extension, adhering to canon) can help create the illusion of reality and reader engagement, it is not necessary. Sometimes it is detrimental.
Canon vs. Respect
Is breaking canon disrespectful to the efforts of the original author? Does it insult the fans who love the work?
Obviously, one should not break copyright: that is a legal matter and quite different. And if an adaptation seriously misrepresents the themes or substance of an author’s work — especially if that adaptation is “official” and carries the name and implied approval of the author — then the author has every right to be affronted and to seek legal action.
Sometimes legal action is impossible, even if the misrepresentation is egregious. For example, in the early 2000s, the Sci-Fi Channel aired a series based on Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. When she licensed the material to them, she had to sign away a great deal of control over the final product. The result was a miniseries filled with white people, even though she explicitly stated that Earthsea was a diverse world with many cultures and peoples. The variety of skin tones was essential to that vision — and even more important in a visual medium than in text. Le Guin, who was officially a “consultant” on the project, was naturally affronted and angry that Sci-Fi had ignored her source material. But she had no legal recourse.
But the issue was not breaking canon. The problem was a misrepresentation of the source material, a violation of its themes, and a contradiction of its values, all the while claiming to be a faithful rendition.
It is similar, I think, to fiction itself. The difference between fiction (which is awesome) and lies (which are awful) is that everyone knows fiction isn’t true. It doesn’t pretend to be true. Similarly, breaking canon can be fine, but breaking canon while claiming to be authentic to the original is fraudulent. It’s deceptive and hurtful.
But minor errors of worldbuilding, or tweaks to accommodate different media or practical constraints, obviously don’t fall into that category. For example, in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, Aragorn has a beard. Yet Tolkien never describes him as having one in the book. It’s pretty clear from Tolkien’s letters and unpublished writings that he was beardless because of his Elvish ancestry. It’s a small error and understandable, especially since the film tends to use age and facial hair to visually distinguish human men from elves. Even more significant changes, such as Jackson giving Arwen a greater role in the story, are easily justified and don’t offend anyone (at least, anyone reasonable) and make no claim to be canonical or authentic to the original. One might disagree artistically with Jackson’s choice, but it would be a criticism of his storytelling, not whether he broke canon.
Parody and satire are other examples of a work being changed drastically without the author’s knowledge or consent. They are proud literary traditions, and while they might be mediocre (cf. Bored of the Rings), they might also be brilliant (cf. Don Quixote). Any published author should be prepared for parody, satire, and whatever other criticism, insults, or distortions come their way. Again, no parodist or satirist claims to be representing the author. They are creating art, not perpetrating fraud.
So any fans who are insulted on the author’s behalf should rest easy on that account. But what about fans who feel directly offended by breaking canon? After all, we fans care about canon. Sometimes, a lot. If an adaptation breaks canon, it might mean that the creators don’t care about the original work, and they don’t care about our feelings. And if someone doesn’t care about our feelings, that’s an insult.
But should creators prioritize our feelings over anything else? We have seen that canon can be broken for excellent reasons. Canon is a tool, not a good thing in and of itself, and creators do not need to cross-check every single detail for consistency so long as they make a good story. The desire to spin a good tale, to entertain or educate, is, I think, a sign that the creators have good intentions toward we fans and that any “insults” caused by breaking canon are unintentional. The creators have a right to expect us to be reasonable about canon.
And while it’s true that of us care a lot about canon, it’s often not for the best reasons.
Canon vs. Artistry
Canon is a tool to quickly categorize a work as good or bad, right or wrong. In this way, “canon” in the arts is most similar to “canon” in religion. The world is large and complex, and, understandably, we want quick heuristics. We want to be able to make a snap judgment.
There is a recent Star Trek story out there (I have not seen it) in which a Vulcan falls in love with a Klingon spy, even though the Vulcan is not undergoing pon farr (the Vulcan seven-year itch — the only times Vulcans can, canonically, experience love). This breaks canon, and arguably quite severely, since Vulcans’ whole thing is that they are emotionless. So clearly, this must be a bad story. Right?
I have no idea. Perhaps the relationship between these women is beautifully described; perhaps the character arcs are expertly crafted. Perhaps the Vulcan emotionlessness is portrayed not so much as a species trait, but as intense cultural conditioning — social pressure conquered by this love, in much the same way relationships in our modern culture must overcome social expectations. That would arguably be an excellent reason for breaking canon, and it could be an incredible story. (Or it could be gutter slash fiction. I really don’t know.)
Because canon is, in fact, useless as a quick heuristic to judge stories. The various versions of Sherlock Holmes mentioned above are other examples: they all break canon in one way or another. Some of them are great, and others are terrible. The three Disney Skywalker movies are at the opposite extreme: they all go to considerable effort not to break canon (at least, as Disney’s writers and marketers defined it), and one of them is excellent, another is pretty good, and another is terrible.
Can you fix a bad story by making sure it doesn’t break canon? No. I disliked Sherlock, and it could have been improved by changing Holmes’s character to be more like Doyle’s version. But making it good would have required changing some actors, some writers, and all the showrunners. And also the central theme of the show (which seemed to be “it’s ok to be an asshole if you’re brilliant and male”).
There is no correspondence between canon and quality.
Here’s the bottom line. If it’s a bad story that breaks canon, adherence to canon won’t fix it. If it’s a good story that breaks canon in a minor way, it’s irrelevant; it’s nitpicking. And if it’s a good story that breaks canon in a major way, it’s probably a good story because it breaks canon.
Canon and Cudgel
It’s natural to notice inconsistencies and to be curious about them. It’s natural to wonder whether they are intentional, whether they serve the story. The mind is drawn to them.
It’s also natural to want a quick way to judge the quality of a new piece of media. Today we have a ridiculous amount of content to choose from, and it is often hard to know what is worth spending our time on. Using canon as a proxy for quality allows us to quickly form strong opinions about new stories, sometimes without even seeing them.
And having strong, simple opinions — even wrong ones — can grant social status. If we firmly denounce a new movie or piece of fanfic because it contradicts canon, it shows off our expertise in a very public way. And who doesn’t like showing off their expertise?
But it’s a trap. We’re revealing that we care more about irrelevant detail than about the actual caliber of the art. And when we use canon to attack art, and people who enjoy that art, we’re trying to increase our own status at the expense of others. That’s nothing but bullying.
Beowulf: the Monsters and the Canon
Beowulf, the oldest and greatest known work in Old English, clearly leans heavily on recycled snatches of earlier stories, now lost. The poet took a folktale or two, stitched them together, and embedded them in a semi-historical setting, not unlike the process which gave us the tales of King Arthur five hundred years later. The result is a masterpiece of fantasy, one which — when translated well — gives us not only a vivid glimpse into the unexpectedly vast depths of English history, but a rousing tale of monster-hunting and a haunting saga of the brevity of human life and fortune.
Was the Beowulf poet concerned about canon? Not unduly. But certainly his critics were. Many researchers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw Beowulf as a lesser poem composed of cannibalized bits and pieces of older, more worthy, more complete works. They accused him of bastardizing his pagan source material, being disrespectful or ignorant of his own cultural heritage, and being a hack who, while clearly having a gift for eloquent verse, could write nothing original.
Tolkien, in his 1936 lecture The Monsters and the Critics, defended the poet:
“A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. …He took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions… They said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in! …He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.“
— JRR Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 1936
Tolkien argues that Beowulf is, in fact, a masterful opus — a poem that inevitably borrowed from and built upon older tales, but which should be considered on its own terms.
It’s not quite the same situation as we find today with canon-fed criticism, but it’s similar. Art deserves to be judged on its own merits, not just on the provenance of its building material or its architectural forebears. It need not be built in the shadow of everything that has gone before.
Uplifting Great Literature
When it comes down to it, why do we discuss canon with other fans? Because we love the art itself. The story moves us, transforms us. We want to spend more time with it, engage more deeply with it, and share our fascination with other fans.
Canon is a quick and easy way to engage with a work, but it barely scratches the surface of what can be done. Instead we can ask:
- What was the creator trying to achieve? Why?
- Did they succeed? Why or why not?
- How could they have been more effective?
- How does their effort compare to other creators currently working? What about creators in other times or places?
- How was this creator influenced by other works? How were they themselves affected?
- How does this fit into the broader currents of culture?
In Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, he suggested that among the highest goals of literature are these:
- Recovery: a change in viewpoint that allows the reader to regain a proper perspective
- Escape: relief from suffering, and a glimpse of the world outside the reader’s current circumstances
- Consolation: a moral or emotional affirmation of timeless truths
Canon has nothing to do with these goals. It doesn’t matter whether the tower’s stones are reused or new-wrought, or whether the construction is consistent with what went before, or if the tower is respectful of earlier architects. The real questions are: is it structurally sound? Does it keep out elements and enemies, providing shelter and refuge? Is it tall, well-made, and beautiful? Does it provide a view of the sea?