In many discussions amongst Star Wars fans you can hear the word “canon”. Yet many of those discussions provide evidence that little thought is spent on what “canon” actually means. So let us have a go at it …
In this post I will take a Q&A form to approach the topic of “canon” in Star Wars. That might mean you favorite question about it isn’t addressed. In that case I recommend you leave it in the comments so I can come back to it. But I choose this form because it allows me to focus on the usefulness and uselessness of “canon” in its different guises.
Canon: Is this an important topic?
The answer here is “Yes and No”. In fact whether or not you tend towards a “Yes!” or a “No!” depends on what kind of a Star Wars fan you are. If you are a “fan of a series of entertaining movies and/or enjoy the craft of filmmaking in these movies” then the notion of “canon” is probably a waste of time. Whether or not something is “canon” in one or another way doesn’t detract you from these joys nor does it diminish or increase them. So in this case the answer would tend towards “No!”.
If you are a “fan of the specific narrative, its interpretations, the values and ideas it is seen to express” then the answer is probably “Yes!”. In this case you will have certain ideas as to which parts of the films, animation-series, books, games and comics are “real” and which are “not real”. This is the root of the phenomenon of “canon”.
Canon: How can something in fiction be “real”?
“Real” evidently is a stupid word to use here. Nothing in a fictional story is “real” in the normal meaning of that word. What this word means points at is what the word “canon” tries to capture. If you have a large collection of stories that you somehow experience as inspiring and relevant to your own thought, feelings and/or outlook on life then usually you will have ideas about which elements from that collection are important enough to influence your interpretations and thoughts about it. Those elements are what would be your personal “canon” or, as some call it, “head canon”.
So having a “Star Wars canon” is first and foremost a framework that consists of narrative elements or visuals or musical ques within which you assess and interpret all new elements of Star Wars you encounter. Typically when a fan with a certain personal “canon” sees a new movie and comes across scenes or plot-twists that do not fit the framework of their personal “canon” they will interpret it as “unreal” or “out-of-character” or “inconsistent”.
The emotional response to something that challenges a fan’s “canon” can be very strong. There are some deep psychological and neurological reasons for this.
Canon: So it is just everyone their own “canon” then?
The answer to that is “Yes and No”. The strong response of people when something challenges their “canon” shows the answer can’t be purely “Yes!” but equally the fact that people can have wildly different strong responses to new films, books and other Star Wars outputs suggests that neither can the answer simply be “No!”. So whether or not “canon” is a personal thing or not depends on two other questions I need to answer first: (1) who gets to decide what “canon” is and (2) what does function does choosing a “canon” have?
Canon: Who gets to decide that?
Here we come to the first of two very crucial points. In our modern-day culture we are accustomed to putting the author or the intellectual property-rights owner at the center of attention as the source of meaning and interpretation. For many Star Wars fans it is George Lucas, as the original author, who determined what is and what isn’t canon. In the 1990’s there used to be a whole informal system for the Extended Universe (EU) of Star Wars books of A-, B-, C-, etc-, “canon” to distinguish between things that George created himself, signed off on or just thought were ‘acceptable’ additions by others. The neatness of that was the explicit admission that “canon” is not one single thing and rather comes in different versions and flavors.
The question who decides what is “canon” acquired new relevance after the sale of the Lucasfilm and the Star Wars IP to Disney. Disney’s choice to ‘decanonize’ the EU caused an uproar amongst many for whom that was an essential part of their beloved “canon”. And much the criticism against especially The Last Jedi was driven by individuals who found the content of Episode VIII or its characterisation of some of the (main) characters unacceptable deviations from their personal “canon”. Interestingly, although those debates were then subsequently framed in terms of whether to reject this or that “canon” as illegitimate there were, and are, only very few voices who advocate the obvious solution: “canon” is not decided by an author, an IP owner or any other individual person or firm. Lucasfilm and its “Story Group” may claim to be the guardians of “canon” but the matter of fact is … they are not.
What you seek out to be the source of interpretative legitimacy is something known in the Arts as an author theory. One perfectly acceptable and workable author theory is the ‘author-centered’ one which pervades much of modern visual media art. But the “reader-centered” or “language-centered” author theories are just as sound, just as academically consistent and at least as useful, if not far more useful, in understanding how to analyse and interpret Star Wars. Those two categories of author theories that place either the visual language of Star Wars, or the viewers/readers of Star Wars at the source of meaning and interpretation actually make clear what is going on with this whole discussion about “canon”.
Canon: What function does it have?
Now we come at the second crucial point: what is the purpose of “canon”. Those who view the author, or IP owner, as the ultimate source of meaning tend to view what is Star Wars “canon” as the collection of stories that “really happened in-universe”. That view supposes that Star Wars stories are to be seen as narrating a ‘real’ timeline of events which are causally connected, despite the fact that this is a fictional universe. We have a analogous phenomenon in religion where “canonized” stories about prophets, the messiah or saints are regarding by some as representing a literally timeline of sacred events. Obviously people with that view often claim a deity as the author of these stories and as the subsequent source of all meaning and interpretation. Perhaps the analogy makes it easier to understand why Star Wars fans who hold an “author-centered” author theory get so riled up by deviations from what they thought was the “true canon”.
The “language-centered” and “reader-centered” author theories however bring out much better why this is such an important issue. Both have in common that they connect the source of meaning and interpretation to a clearly defined “in-group”. If the meaning of a text is sourced from the language it is written in, or is sourced from the minds who read the text, then the text serves as a unifying phenomenon amongst a group of like-minded. Whether or not you adhere to a certain “canon” defines you as being inside or outside a specific group. “Canon” as a separator between “us” and “them”.
“Author-centered” author-theory also implies that “canon” builds community, except that in this case the “author” also has a special role within the community. Such communities tend to revere the author … until the moment that the author goes against the accepted “canon” and he is effectively expelled as heretic or traitor. Anyone who wonders what on Earth I am talking should just watch the film “The People vs George Lucas”. There you see author-expulsion at work in all its merciless fanatism, viciousness and ugliness. You bet that ‘document’ bears also all the hallmarks of defining an “us” and a “them” and the overwhelming majority of so-called “Prequel-hate” is nothing but the “othering” of those Star Wars fans that do not submit to the “canon” chosen by that group to unify around.
Canon: is it good or bad?
Once you realise that defining “canon” is about defining groups and deciding who is “us” and who is “them” all the pieces of the canon-puzzle in the Star Wars community fall into place. The divisions within the Star Wars community are largely divisions on “canon” and these splits are emphasized by the adherence to rather strict “author-centered” author-theories. If Disney produces context that does not fit your “canon” but you at the same time believe all meaning and interpretation flows from the author or IP owner, then you easily slip into language that the author has become heretical and has betrayed the true “canon”.
Evidently the same thing happens to many religious narratives. The division between Catholics and Protestants is reflected in actual differences in the books they consider canonically part of the Bible! But also difference amongst Protestants (for example) are typically characterised by distinctions between which bible books they emphasize and which they attenuate in their readings. The accusation of heresy easily follows such strict ideas about where meaning and interpretational legitimacy come from.
“Canon” can be a force for evil, segregation and division. But it does not need to be. Once you embrace a view that “canon” is ultimately an individual choice, i.e. “reader-centered”, and that there is merit to people sharing a diversity of views on what constitutes their individual “canon” then the notion of “canon” can become very fruitful and productive. It is an encouragement to seek for a deeper level of personal understanding of what attracts you in Star Wars narratives, what you find compelling and what inspires you. It is an acceptance and even cherishing of that others are inspired and compelled by those stories as well, despite the fact that different people weigh these stories differently.
Canon: where will it take us?
Star Wars is one of those rare breeds of stories that get passed on from generation to generation. That process of handing over what inspires us can only persist if we find it in ourselves to give different people, and different generations, the room to access these stories in their personal ways, if we appreciate that different groups will cluster around different sets of stories and that one “canon” in no way diminishes or depreciates another “canon”. A company like Disney or Lucasfilm, nor an individual like me or you, or even George Lucas, are not the sole bearers of “true canon” because there is no such thing as “true canon”.
What unites us is not a particular selection of stories that we must all appreciate and another selection we must all reject. What units us is that Star Wars inspires us, encourages us to think about our place in our universe, about what we find meaningful in our lives. Our stories in our Star Wars universe allow us to express, exchange and share these ideas, thoughts, emotions and feelings. That … is what binds us and holds our galaxy together.