Discover more from Liminal Web
Yes, but... Is it canon?
Of canonicity in contemporary (possible) mythologies and why the obsession with canon by certain fans and writers may hurt their legacy.
Liminal Web is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I grew up in the 1970s-1980s. I’m Generation X. You know, the generation that the media have forgotten even exists. It’s fine, we’re used to it, it’s been like this our whole life.
And so, just like many awkward gen-xer teens in the 80s, my passions mostly revolved around certain types of fiction, because reality just wasn’t that appealing. While the younger generations tend to fantasize a lot about the 80s, growing up in the actual 80s kinda sucked (The cold war, Reagan, Thatcher, the glorification of Wall Street, the worst fashion in history, and more). One of the few things that didn’t suck was narrative pop culture (comics and movies, basically). So, fictitious universes were the places some of us preferred to spend our time.
What fictional universes am I alluding to? Oh, you’ve heard of them. One is Star Wars, another one is Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the third one is Marvel Comics.
I find it very interesting that these three “places” where I used to spend most of my time that wasn’t school - and even some of my time that was school - have become the biggest movie or even media franchises of our times.
Because back then, they were not cool. At all. Remember that I grew up in France, so things were a little different from the US. For example, I believe that, in the US, Star Wars was always cool, wasn’t it? Being a fan of those things (not to mention tabletop role-playing games) in France in the 80s was the opposite of cool. Some classmates would regularly make fun of me. It was borderline bullying. I never was physically bullied, but being constantly mocked for your passion probably qualifies as psychological bullying.
So when these three universes became not only mainstream but the most popular movie franchises of all time and “cool”, I sure felt vindicated. A lot of us were. 20 and 15 years later, I’m still a little bit in disbelief that Lord of the Rings and the MCU became what they became, to be honest. Geek is not even a derogatory term anymore, can you believe it?
You probably know the feeling, you probably were in a similar situation if you’re of a similar age. Sometimes, I think that these universes also “became” so popular because they probably always were very popular. We just didn’t know it. There was no internet back then. We enjoyed our passions alone at home, or with the few friends we had. We didn’t really think that there were many other people like us. We were wrong. We just didn’t know about each other.
So, now, that geeks have taken over popular culture all is well that ends well, right?
Well, not exactly.
There’s one thing that has been bothering me more and more in the various discourses surrounding pop culture nowadays.
I’m not going to talk about how some people think that these universes have “become political.” The fact is that they always were political. Some people were just not paying attention. Some others became the bad guys from these stories and have trouble looking at themselves in the mirror today. It’s been talked about in length here and there. I’m not going to detail here beyond these three points:
Star Wars has always been about a “woke” rebellion fighting right-wing fascism.
Marvel has always been about civil rights, and minorities being oppressed and fighting for what’s right.
Middle-Earth has always been about several peoples from all walks of life, all “races,” putting aside their differences in order to fight a greater evil.
These are facts, and I will never waste my breath debating them. People who disagree with that have nothing to do with the fandoms of each of these universes. The end.
But that’s not my point today. My point (and it’s in the title) is the current obsession with the “canon” by many fans of these universes.
I could be wrong, but I think this mostly started with Disney buying Star Wars, and putting aside the Expanded Universe: decades of comics and books taking place in the Star Wars universe that told the stories of everyone and their mother. Those went in every direction, most of them were of disputable quality, and all of them turned Star Wars into a very rich - but very messy - universe. A totally unmanageable one if you wanted to create new “main” content that is not just another spin-off.
I think Disney made the right choice. All of these “expanded universe” fictions were created at a time when fans craved more content and it was unlikely that another movie ever is made again. This was especially true in the late 80s and early 90s when a new Star Wars movie coming to our screen was just a pipe dream. During and after the “prelogy” (that’s episodes 1, 2, and 3 for the non-geeks among you), those expanded universe publications were just a cash cow. Some publishers figured that a good number of fans would just buy anything that had the label “Star Wars” on it.
It was impossible for Disney to tiptoe around these hundreds of works of fiction when making new movies and now TV shows. Getting rid of all of it was the only way. Well, there was another one.
It was to not care about canonicity at all.
That probably was the better choice, but it probably would have proven even more unpopular among a large part of the fandom than discarding the “expanded universe.”
A thing that grew out of that move is a constant debate about what is canon or not in the Star Wars universe. What adds to the canon, what changes the canon, and so on. Go to Reddit or to any other website talking about popular culture, and everywhere you’ll see people referring to the canon and discussing it.
And it’s just not Star Wars.
Nowadays, every time another fictional universe reaches the mainstream, every time a book is adapted into a movie/TV show or something gets sequels or prequels, these conversations pop up.
I’m not going to lie, this has annoyed me more and more in the past few years. I personally think that this kind of discussion is completely sterile. The last straw probably happened these past couple of months, with the release of the Rings of Power, the TV show taking place in Middle-Earth and based on a very interesting but “dangerous” concept. More on that later.
First, I’m going to try to explain why this obsession with the canon, especially in recent years.
What does “canon” even mean?
To try to understand this, I think we need to go back a few decades ago, back to the infamous 80s, when the expanded universe of Star Wars was born (well, it really was born in the late 70s with the very first comic books and novelizations, but it really took off in the late 80s).
Every time something was published and was “canon,” it added to this universe. It made it more “real” in the fans’ imagination. More real, and also more legit. If some writers were willing to write stories taking place in that universe, stories that were official, it had to mean that this universe mattered. And so, a lot of the socially awkward kids who were mocked at school for their passion could find solace in the fact that this universe mattered. If it mattered enough for some adults to write about it, to publish things about it, it meant that the universe in question mattered. It meant that these kids' passions mattered. It meant that these kids mattered.
Yes, I cared about the Star Wars canon a great deal back then, and I think that’s the reason.
Except that I grew up. I still love these universes, but I know that they’re just fiction. I also studied literature, I almost got a Ph.D. in the thing. Maybe that’s the difference between me and a lot of my fellow geeks. I understand that fiction is just “text,” and that it’s not real. It doesn’t mean that I like Star Wars any less. It means that I understand that every Star Wars story is the product of someone’s imagination. Debating the reality of what happens in these stories is pointless. It’s not real. Nothing is factual. Discussing them as if they were factual is something children do. Why would an adult do that? Is it because deep inside, the adult is still that insecure kid who’s holding on to these stories as if they were lifesavers because, back then, they really were? I sometimes think that’s why. I’m not judging, we all need our safe spaces, and sometimes adults who don’t have enough of those keep on having the same coping mechanisms they had as children and teenagers. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s the reason. Psychology is not my field. Text and narration are.
Do you know what other kinds of texts and stories some adults consider to be the truth, fight about, fight for, kill for even? Religions.
You probably see where I’m going and before we go there, let’s make a small epistemological detour. Let’s talk about the canon.
Not Star Wars canon, but the very concept of canon.
So yes, what does canon even mean?
Well, here are a few links to some very respected dictionaries:
As you can see, none of them mentions Star Wars, but a lot of them mention the Christian religion. It is not a coincidence.
Indeed, when people wonder if that fictional alien race or if that fictional event is “canon” it usually means that they’re asking whether this element is part of the“accepted Holy Scripture” of Star Wars.
They don’t use canon in its “Shakespeare canon” meaning (i.e. all of Shakespeare’s works). They don’t use canon in its “American literary canon” meaning (i.e. all of the important works of American literature). They use it in its “it is not apocryphal” meaning.
And yes, a lot of fan behavior can be correlated to religious behavior. Just google “fandom and religion” and you’ll see what I mean if you’ve never had that thought before.
So, very often, when something becomes “canon” in a fictional universe, there is a feeling that “it’s real, so we can care about it, we can love it, we can worship it.” And the opposite is that if it’s not canon, some fans wonder why they should waste their time with it? How can it be worth of interest if it’s not canon? Can it even be good?
So, yes, I’m asking these questions to fans who are obsessed with the canon:
Does a story have less value if it’s not canon? Doesn’t it give you the same feelings? Doesn’t it make you think in similar ways?
Once again, fiction is not religion. We can debate the reality of religious texts all we want, there is no reality in fiction. This is not where the interest of fiction lies.
What about Tolkien?
The situation is a little different in Tolkien’s works. For decades, there simply was no question or debate about canonicity around them. Either something had been written by J.R.R Tolkien (and/or edited by his son Christopher) and in this case, it was “canon.” Or it wasn’t.
Somehow, the question never really occurred with the various adaptations. The ones by Peter Jackson, of course, but also the few that were made before him (Ralph Bakshi’s movie, the Hobbit cartoon, and more?). Was it because Tolkien fans were more literary-oriented? Maybe. Or simply, because it happened before the democratization of the internet, and the debate about canonicity in pop culture hadn’t taken root yet? No idea.
However, things changed very recently with the Rings of Power, the new TV show taking place in Middle Earth and whose first season was released at the end of last summer.
Suddenly discussions around the canonicity of the show started to arise.
Why is that?
Well, the show is written around a very interesting and, I believe, unique idea. It’s not exactly an adaptation in the usual sense of the term. Tolkien never wrote a story called The Rings of Power. The show is based on The Lord of the Rings appendices, which are if you haven’t read them, mostly a chronology of Middle Earth, a list of historical events, as well as family trees of important characters, lines of succession of certain rulers and a few short texts giving historical background about certain things. They’re not a narration, they’re not a story. And they’re the source material for the Rings of Power.
So, is the Rings of Power canon? Is this TV show part of the Middle-Earth “Holy Scripture?”
Well, yes and no. Yes, because, the thing is very official. The show was even created in cooperation with the Tolkien estate who had veto rights on everything that was being done on the show and to the show.
Note that Peter Jackson’s movies were made with no overview from the Tolkien estate at all. It is even said that Christopher Tolkien hated them.
But one can also argue that no, the show is not canon because many changes had to be made to adapt these appendices into a story, the main one being the timeline. The show compresses several thousands of years of history into just a few years or a few decades (we’ll see when all is said and done). Not to mention the fact that while a good number of characters and historical facts come straight from Tolkien’s writings, many others were imagined by the producers of the show.
Yes, the Rings of Power is canon, and no, the Rings of Power is not canon.
And you know what? It doesn’t matter!
It’s pretty much irrelevant to ask oneself about it.
Because I believe that writing this show, in the way it was written, is one of the best homages that can be done to Tolkien. Even one of the best ways to make sure Middle-Earth endures the test of time and stays relevant in the 21st Century and even longer if we’re lucky.
Ancient and Modern Mythologies
I made a pretty strong statement about the Rings of Power in the previous paragraph. Let’s focus for a minute on the origins of Middle Earth to understand where it comes from. What did Tolkien try to achieve by writing the Lord of the Rings and all the other things he wrote, considering he spent most of his life writing about this universe and this universe only (he did write a bit about other things, but barely)? Well, you may know that he was a prominent linguist and he “just” wanted some sort of background for the languages he had invented. That’s what started it Middle-Earth, but not what kept him going for the rest of his life. You may also know that he often lamented that there was no real English mythology like there are Norse mythologies, Celtic mythologies, Roman, Greek, and more. Yes, in his wildest dreams, he was also hoping that Middle Earth could become some sort of English mythology.
Did he succeed? Probably not if we consider what mythologies really are and how they really are born. But he definitely succeeded in creating a simulacrum of mythology. It’s not actual mythology, but it sure looks like one.
There are many things missing for Middle Earth to attain the rank of mythology.
One of them is a plurality of authors.
Who invented each mythology? One unique author? Of course not. They’re the results of many decades or even centuries of people telling and retelling the same stories. Who were they? We have no idea. Homer probably is the only one whose name stayed in history.
And what is canon and what is not canon in mythologies? Who knows? Who cares?
You see where I’m going here, right?
Sometimes, people call Star Wars one of the mythologies of our times. I’d argue that as long as Star Wars is obsessed with the canon, it just can’t become a mythology. And as long as Tolkien is the sole author of the stories taking place in Middle Earth, they also can’t attain the status of mythology.
However, what J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay - the Rings of Power’s showrunners - are doing is a step in the right direction. They’re doing what many authors of many myths, legends, and mythologies have done. They’re taking an existing work and filling in the blanks in the story. Adding to it, twisting and changing things when needed.
Stories and fiction are not set in stone. They’re not religions. When a story is written in a pre-existing world, the story is more important than the world. The world is only here to help the story be told. It is there to serve the story. Not the other way around. When a writer writes a story set in a world that they are imagining as they go, they create that world in ways that help them tell their stories. There is no reason for this to be different when we’re dealing with a pre-existing world.
Tolkien did this all the time. He often mentioned it in his letters. The most famous example is the changes he made in the second edition of The Hobbit. Originally, the ring that Bilbo found was just a random magic ring, not the One Ring. It didn’t even exist at that time. And Bilbo didn’t even find it. Gollum gave it to him willingly after losing the riddle battle. Tolkien changed all of this to the story we know when it was time to republish The Hobbit on the eve of The Lord of the Rings publication as a way to link both stories more. Plain and simple retconning.
Where was the outcry on this blatant attack on the canon, then? Nowhere. People were not obsessed with canon at that time.
There are tons of similar examples, not just with Tolkien.
The most blatant and important precedent is well-known, it’s one of the most famous stories of Western civilization. And, honestly, I’m surprised to never see it mentioned in the debates about the canonicity of adaptation, spin-offs, and other extended universes. I’m talking about
The Arthurian Legends!
You may disagree with me, but I consider them some sort of go-between the ancient mythologies (Greek, Norse, etc.) and the modern would-be mythologies.
Where is the canon in the Arthurian Legends? I’ll save you the suspense. There isn’t any. It’s as simple as that.
I’m not even going to delve into the historicity of King Arthur, it would be beside the point.
On the other hand, let’s delve into his literary side quite a bit. The origins of the character are uncertain; probably some Welsh and Breton tales. He really appears in culture as a fully formed character in the 12th Century in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (the History of the Kings of Britain). How much did Geoffrey of Monmouth invent and how much did he borrow from earlier tales is not known. The story has some familiar elements: the unification of England, Merlin, the treason of Mordred, and more. It also lacks some other elements that are indissociable from the Arthurian legends nowadays: the Round Table, the Holy Grail, Camelot, and Excalibur come to mind (although Arthur did have a special sword from the beginning, so did all heroes, kings, and such at the time, nothing unique to Arthur).
The story was immensely popular. A couple of hundred manuscripts have survived to this day. And remember, these are manuscripts, the printing press was not going to be invented for a few more hundred years. They didn’t exist by the million. The fact that about 200 of them survived implies that there was an even more significant number that didn’t survive, and the fact that a manuscript may have existed in such a big number of copies is impressive. It gives you an idea of the popularity of the story at the time. It basically was the medieval Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or MCU in terms of popularity and cultural impact.
And as a consequence, the story of King Arthur didn’t stop there. These were different times, copyright didn’t exist, and just a few years later, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work crossed the Channel and was translated (from Latin to Anglo-Norman French and eventually to French), adapted, rewritten, expanded, and more by other authors. First by Wace (the Roman de Brut), by Marie de France (Lanval), and then, more famously, by Chrétien de Troyes. I’m only mentioning the more famous ones. There are more. Some of them also used Celtic influences predating Monmouth's story.
And with every new author, things changed. Arthur was a great (and somewhat cruel) warrior in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story, he becomes more gentle, but also more passive in the French stories. It’s also in France that the Knights of the Round Table get fleshed out. Chrétien de Troyes invented most of them in several texts, that we would call spin-offs today. He’s also the one who introduces the Holy Grail to the Arthurian universe.
Chrétien de Troyes’s tales are hugely influential and after him, dozens of writers continued his stories or used them to write their own versions, not only in continental Europe but also back in Great Britain. This back and forth across the Channel is important because it gave its different genres to the Legends (partly courtly love, partly epic) and it’s what made this universe so rich and fascinating.
However, not once, any of these writers were worried about the canon. Every time something needed to be changed, it was changed. Even the real world was changed when the story demanded it. My favorite example (unfortunately, I forgot what story it is in, probably either Lancelot or Yvain) is when a character walks from Camelot to Brocéliande. I always love that part, not because Camelot is pretty far from Brocéliande but because… Camelot is in Britain and Brocéliande is in France. It just doesn’t matter. It’s the story that matters. Always has. Always will.
On a side note, this disregard for the existence of the Channel also shows the cultural interconnections between the two geographical areas.
It’d be unfair to stop my brief history of the publication of the Arthurian Legends here, as I haven’t mentioned the two other most influential writers (once again, they were far from being the only ones, I skipped over Robert de Boron’s writing). The first one, in the 13th Century, is… unknown… But they are responsible for rewriting the main stories in prose, making them more accessible, as up to that moment, all Arthurian texts were in verse. The Vulgates (there are two, the second being a “remake” of the first one) develop some characters and elements even more. They introduce some new ones (Galahad). All these works really create a shared universe not too dissimilar to what the MCU is today. Interestingly, most of the French texts sideline Arthur, very often, he’s barely more than just a background character. The stories always focus on the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, and such. Arthur’s role is not too dissimilar from Nick Fury’s.
Finally, the Arthurian legends had to return “home” eventually. And this happened with Thomas Malory at the end of the 15th Century, when he translated into English and rewrote pretty much all of the stories, interpreting and changing things along the way when necessary. It became the main influence on everything that came after, mostly because it was one of the first printed books in the English language, and also because Arthur fell out of fashion on the continent at the end of the Middle Ages until his return in the 20th Century.
Interestingly, the story also fell out of fashion in England, and even stopped to be printed for a couple of centuries because it was considered… not canon!!!
Indeed, for a long time, there was a sense that the story was historical, but the Renaissance also redefined what history was, and people realized that there weren’t many facts in Malory's story.
Romanticism brought Arthur back to fashion in the 19th Century and with some ups and downs, he never really left us since. Can you count how many new stories, retelling, adaptations, and whatnot were made? Me neither.
And not a single one of these stories follows a “canon.” A lot of recent Arthurian works in the English-speaking world (most of them are from the English-speaking world) are inspired by Malory’s books, but they never follow it to the letter. And once again Malory’s book is definitely not an original story, as I just showed you.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I believe that the only reason the Arthurian Legends have been with us for roughly a millennium and can be considered the most recent mythology of the Western world is that not a single of the writers who dealt with them bothered to ask themselves whether their writings were “canon” and whether they respected the facts, chronology, and details of the works that came before. Some were retold exactly the same, some were changed, added, or removed as needed.
To conclude, I think you guessed my final point. If our contemporary “mythologies” want to stand the test of time, stay in history, and become new real mythologies, one of the things they need to do is stop obsessing with the silly idea that every new story, new element, and new character needs to be “canon.”
That’s why I think what is being done with Rings of Power is a step in the right direction to make sure Middle Earth has its place in the 21st Century. This is why I think Star Wars is sometimes shooting itself in the foot with its obsession with canonicity. And while I didn’t mention it much, it’s also why I think Marvel is in the best position right now to stand the test of time. First, the Superhero archetype is the closest thing to the mythological hero that we have in this day and age. Also, Marvel never really bothered itself much with that idea of canon. How many “retcons” have happened in the comics when one thing didn’t fit a new story? And which one is the “real” Marvel universe anyway? Is it the original one from the comic books? Or the much more popular MCU? And what will happen to the latter in the long term as actors age and leave? How long will we be without a Tony Stark or a Steve Rogers? Not very long, I assume. The fact that the concept of a multiverse has recently arrived in the movies is a sign that the canon will never be something Marvel worries too much about when doing their stories be they on paper or on a screen.
Alright, I guess that’s all for now. Thank you so much if you’ve read until this end, I didn’t plan this to be so long.
If you’re still here, I assume that you found this text interesting, so may I invite you to subscribe to the newsletter if you haven’t done so already, as well as share this text with your contacts and on social media? If you liked it, your contacts might like it too.
Thanks a lot once again, and see you soon with something much shorter hopefully (I’d like to post more than once a month)
Addendum: As I wrote this text, something historical (?) happened with Star Wars. They released a series of short animated films last week called Tales of the Jedi, and the last episode called Resolve is basically a retelling of a novel that was published a few years ago. In other words, the writers decided to not bother with that infamous canon. Both stories are similar but also very different. I think it’s the first time Star Wars does that. Hopefully not the last one.