Canon To The Left of Them: The Star Wars Expanded Universe and the New Testament

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(Enjoy this guest post by Timothy Swann!)

This week I picked up for 99 English pence each the first ever Star Wars Expanded Universe books I ever read. I must have been seven or eight. And despite scorn, to my twenty-first year I’ve stuck with them as a major source of my entertainment. There’s plenty to overthink in the whole collection, and gems such as my personal favourite Traitor would stand alone as some of the best philosophical science fiction if not for the Star Wars brand tag. However, there’s one issue I want to address, a growing similarity that has not passed without comment on this internet of ours in recent days:

Penny Arcade: ‘there is a kind of holy war occurring in Star Wars canon.’

The concerns of this war – the status of Mandalorians (for you casual fans out there, that’s what Boba Fett is. And here I berate you for not knowing that, that being somewhat de rigeur) and whether they are good, evil or neither. A matter that would seem like any other internet discussion regarding the interpretation of a character or group of characters were it not for that all-important word, canon.

Because it turns out another collection of works of different sorts by different authors all telling different aspects of the same theme and setting has the word too. And that collection is the Bible.

(All craft, prepare to jump to Overthink on my mark …)

Sir Arthur ‘Canon’ Doyle.

To understand fictional canonicity, it’s worth checking in with the origins of the word in terms of a collection of stories rather than as a religious term, and that was in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan, or if you will, which you shouldn’t, ‘Canon’ Doyle regarding the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Their simultaneous actions of being about that one detective yet with numerous inconsistencies perhaps stimulated the fanbase more than any other to try and explain them, and indeed to form societies to do the same, a remarkable achievement in a world before the internet and fan forums (a happier, more innocent time). These fans’ idea of a hilarious joke was to do just what we do everyday – overthink it. For them this meant analysing the novels and short stories in the style of German New Criticism (or Higher Criticism, as was being applied to the Bible at the time. Quick to arise in this style was to call the stories, just as the Bible was, Canon.

Canon was the dividing line. Canon separated four novels and fifty-six short stories from all the pretenders, all the little parodies that Doyle himself had written, from them being just stories.

Canon in Star Wars

So, whilst I do my best attempt to eschew a joke about blaster can(n)on, (because, really, is that the only canon pun?) we reach the canon of Star Wars. Canon here is far less of a dividing line so much as several boundaries, or circles, just as in the Inferno, the smaller having greater precedence (Being a fan of Star Wars, I would have much rather these been the Spheres of Paradiso, but they get bigger as they get more important) – the most foundational, and smallest, being titled G-Canon, George Lucas’s own original vision – the films (and their various adaptations), upon that built, T-Canon, that which appears in the television shows, then C-Canon, the novels, comics, games – the meat of the Expanded Universe and finally S-Canon, which catches various miscellaneous elements like story fragments and MMORPG adventures. Each supersedes that which follows it.

Furthermore, newer works overrule older ones. (This is perhaps not surprising – if newer was overruled, what would be the point? Older demonstrates its superiority by being referenced or simply accepted in newer works).

Canon in the New Testament

At this point, you’re probably hoping that I’ll talk about the holy war, and I promise you… just one more expository section. Just the one. Then there’ll be Holy War. Holy War fought with these:

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Blaster can(n)on. Maybe holy war can be cool.

Although the early church relied, unsurprisingly, on oral tradition, it did not take long for numerous documents to be circulating with various stories, teachings, revelations, of various degrees of significance. By the midst of the next century, theologians such as Iranaeus quoted from texts that appear in the New Testament, as well as a few that did not, and the presence of four gospels was considered by him pivotal. In fact, the formation of canon seemed to arise as a response to the heresy of Marcion (who pitted Old and New Testament against one another), and in order to ensure that it did not take precedence in its truth-claims, the orthodox Christians had to determine what their collection of teachings was. This, containing a few final disputes (the Antilegomenna – widely but not universally accepted), was described by church historian Eusebius in 323-4.

Holy War

The reason canon was so important in the early church was that different epistles and gospels supported different points of view, and canon ensured orthodoxy. By contrast, until recently, in Star Wars, canon was significant in establishing internal consistency, but the supplanting of one part of a story by another only really ensured this, rather than changing the entire Star Wars saga. (One might argue the Prequel Trilogy did do just this, but I’d suggest that if I, like George Lucas himself, compared Lucas with God, the Prequel Trilogy is to some extent like the New Testament by comparison to the Old – some of what you thought the Original Trilogy meant and implied gets changed, but the two are very much linked, especially comments about the Clone Wars and Anakin Skywalker and the Messianic prophecies).

Then came former Guardian (the left-wing British paper) journalist, war correspondent and military reserve trooper Karen Traviss. Traviss wrote a military story set in the Clone Wars, most likely utilising her experiences in these fields. Nothing controversial there. Then, continuing this series, she discovered the Mandalorians. The Mandalorians had been documented in bits and pieces – Boba and Jango Fett in the movies, a couple of comic appearances, a fictional non-fiction article. Traviss took them and to a great extent made them her own. Working on the language, the history, the culture, she worked out a nomadic, non-ethnic, warrior race.

A warrior-race that had spent its history fighting the Jedi.

A warrior-race that at the time of her stories existed in a tiny minority in the galaxy, save for the Clone Army made from its last leader. An army created to fight, both bred and trained to obey orders unquestioningly. In her words: ‘a slave army of cloned human beings.’ And so Traviss started to write not merely of the prowess of these Mandalorians, but of their nobility. At the same time, she took practically every opportunity she could to vilify the Jedi who would accept and use this ‘slave army.’ (Equally, Mr. Belinkie called it ‘pretty much slavery’) Practically every right-thinking character in her books perceived the universe through Mandalorian eyes (often, despite not being a Mandalorian).

Even within the bounds of canon, this would probably have died out as a controversy – Traviss’s fans would have appreciated her viewpoints, and those who were more pro-Jedi and anti-Mandalorian would have avoided her books. However, what none had reckoned upon was a children’s television series. This Clone Wars cartoon (as well as the upcoming live action TV series about which practically nothing is known) decided to delve into Mandalorians for itself. Now, at the time of this article, apart from introducing pacifistic Mandalorians and giving them another planet (and a Duchess for Obi-Wan to flirt with), it’s not clear what big changes this entailed. Whatever they were, Traviss called them ‘changes in continuity were such that I wouldn’t be able to carry on as originally planned with the storylines you were expecting to see continued in my books. It would have required a lot more than routine retcon. The only solution I could think of that could accommodate the changes was a complete reboot.’

On top of this ‘many of the characters whose lives you’ve been following for the last five years wouldn’t exist’ if she chose to try and retcon, trying to fit together the new, higher-level canon with her stories. Now, call me a conspiracy theorist, but that sounds like a hit-job. In a world where they employ an individual titled the Keeper of the Holocron to keep things consistent, this sounds like a big clash of Weltanschauungen not quietly decided off-stage. The Star Wars forums were ablaze with those hooting with delight at her downfall and those tremulous in fear for what might happen to future series of novels – could the canon so dear to those fans disappear in an instant? Could fans of the Coruscant Nights series, like fans of the Shepherd of Hermas, suddenly find their once canonical tales disappearing into the void? (There were also fans who, like myself, disliked Traviss AND feared for the future. But such nuance makes less dramatic holy wars).

In a very real way, Traviss made herself into Marcion. Not in provoking Canon into existence, since it already did, but fundamentally altering its nature and use. Suddenly, canon and the use of the various levels could potentially make philosophical statements about the entire Star Wars universe. What, in essence if not in design, the creators of the Clone Wars TV series have done is thrown their weight, and their position in the higher canonical level, behind, is the goodness of the Jedi, just as the orthodox Church fathers supported the goodness of God as described in the Old Testament. The Holy War of Star Wars still rages. Fans dispute which interpretation, which collection of materials they consider the true canon, as well as the interpretation of those that they accept. (I would here suggest some comparison with Protestantism and Catholicism – though Luther did consider changing canon, he didn’t really get around to it, and it is the interpretation, sometimes down to the comma, of agreed canonical texts that perhaps is the best way to consider the separation of the groups in terms of their relation to canon). Karen Traviss called those who believe the Jedi are good ‘Nazis.’ Her detractors didn’t raise the bar of the discourse.

Final Thoughts

Maybe you don’t know much about Star Wars, or about Church History, but I’m sure the idea of canon for one of the series or metaseries you follow will be very important. What if a philosophical clash arises? How should it be resolved?

One answer is that of personal canon. One that doesn’t get much of a look-in in modern religious expression, but in terms of the second-order canon of New Testament scripture (say, I love the Epistle of Diognetes but I doubt anyone else I know will have heard of it). Personal canon consists of pieces that are not heterodox, but neither are they essential: church traditions, papal ordinances and the like fall into this category, though they’re more important in general to people’s lives than obscure 3rd Century documents. This might be where non-Alternate Universe fan fiction or one’s instinctive filling in the gaps comes. Of course, this is also where people privately begin to pick and choose those parts of the canon considered true by the central authority which has brought them forth. In religious terms, this probably equates to liberalism if undertaken on a wide scale. In Star Wars terms, this means denying The Force Unleashed.

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Heresy!

Another is the authority of the compilers. The church had their councils (and long before that, their Church fathers), Star Wars has Lucasfilm Licensing. From a central authority, doctrine is determined, and the people who participate in a non-authoritative manner accept what they say as correct. These people, perhaps like most Christians, find some of the parts more difficult to swallow than others, but nevertheless accept them.

And the final way is the way of the heretics, or the traditionalists. These, along with those who overreact to them from the orthodoxy, are the participants in the holy wars and the schisms of canon, fictional or biblical. They hold to one latterly rejected belief, and get cool names like Marcionites, Nestorians, Pelagians (Traviss opted to title hers Talifans… perhaps because there was lots about Pelagia in Star Wars already ).

Which one are you for your fandom(s) of choice? Obedient, heretical or quietly doubting? And what will happen the day your canon stops being about consistency and starts being about philosophy?

(Timothy J Swann is rapidly coming to the conclusion that you can measure your success by how many mini-bios you’ve written for yourself… so he’s not doing too badly. He is currently wrapping up his degree and working on the publication of his first novel; his poetry and short stories can be found at http://marvintheparanoid.deviantart.com)

12 Comments on “Canon To The Left of Them: The Star Wars Expanded Universe and the New Testament”

  1. chris #

    I stopped reading Star Wars books midway through the Dark Nest series when I realized how silly it was. My personal canon ends with the New JEdi Order. The characters had other little adventures, but nothing galaxy spanning anymore, and they all lived happily ever after.

     
  2. Ed #

    For me, “Star Wars” means the first three movies, except on days when it just means the first movie, well, “Star Wars”.

    Its actually not a particularly deep universe, which I think was the reason you couldn’t get six good movies out of it. “Star Wars” (the first movie) explains the conflict between the empire and the rebels, and the Force, pretty well. Trying to make the universe more complicated just led to contradictions and implausibilities.

    With “The Foundation” trilogy, its just a trilogy to me. I don’t see much reason to include the later four books, one of which seems to be more of an addition to a completely separate Asimov series.

    Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” series was one instance of a fictional universe, where other authors could come in and write stories set in the universe, and the stories not only fit into the universe but were as good or better than the original material.

     
  3. chris strange #

    Is there any chance of Jar Jar Binks becoming something akin to the Satanic Verses and all mention of him being shunned as heritical? They made Greedo shoot first so it shouldn’t be that difficult.

     
  4. Timothy J Swann #

    @Ed – that’s interesting, because the united universe of Asimov is something I love – but maybe there’s a general affinity towards or against Expanded Universes?

    @Chris Strange – the other answer is to try and save him from George Lucas (with some if not complete success in the Clone Wars).

     
  5. James T #

    Call me paranoid, but I get the impression the TV writers may have pulled rank because they didn’t like the political subtext implicit in Traviss’s setup. Not a big deal at the end of the day, but still a move whose implications go beyond comic book conventions…

     
  6. Matthew Belinkie #

    @Timothy – Great article! The title alone is a big sack of Win.

    So it remains unclear what The Clone Wars is doing with the Mandalorians that makes the novels completely obsolete? Interesting.

    I know little of Star Wars’ C-Canon, but there is one thing I’m very happy to agree with: in the Extended Universe, Boba Fett doesn’t die inside the Sarlaac. He gets out of there thanks to his crazy Inspector Gadget armor, and later has many many fights with Han Solo.

     
  7. Jamas Enright #

    A more interesting comparison is Doctor Who, with TV series, the movie, the books (Virgin, Telos, Big Finish, BBC), the audios (Big Finish, Telos), the comics, the…

    However, we don’t have ever expanding bubbles of canonicity. People do try to align them all (and that can be fun), but mostly people just accept them as different continuities. [Although I should say I don’t go to the main DW forums, where rabid battles probably wage as we type.]

    My personal view (which started as ‘as much is canon as possible’) is “Is the story any good?” Everything else can go hang.

     
  8. Timothy J Swann #

    @Mr Belinkie – yes, although the finale of Season 2, recently aired certainly altered Boba Fett from cold seeker of revenge against the Jedi to conflicted young man who by the end could look Mace Windu in the eye. The rumours about Daniel Logan (young Boba) being in the live action TV series suggest maybe there’s more messing with Boba. But he’s one sort-of Mandalorian among many, so I’m still not sure.

    @Jamas – a good story in terms of what happens and how it fits with the rest, or a good story in terms of how it is written?

     
  9. Ezra #

    Something similar also has occurred with Dune, with the Holders of the Copyright promulgating ever-proliferating addenda and elaborations in their unending series of sequels, prequels, and tangential stories. Apparently, just as many actually like the Star Wars prequels, there are many who actually like the books written by the duo of the son of Frank Herbert and the biggest hack in the universe, despite, in both cases, their manifest inferiority. The position of the Holders of the Copyright is reminescent of the papacy: we are infallible, our writ derives directly from God (i.e., Frank Herbert), and we alone determine truth. But there are those who reject them…

     
  10. Ed #

    I think with me, when I am taken with a science fiction/ fantasy series, I sort of construct the rest of the universe in my head and so don’t like it when an expanded universe is put out later that contradicts the one I have already constructed in my head.

    But I also think that the earlier science fiction/ fantasy works just tend to be better. The original authors lose interest in their creation, or may even try to undermine it (I think this was the case with Asimov), may be writing the additional material only for the money, inferior authors take over, etc. The expanded stuff is an add-on, so winds up contradicting the original material in key places.

    Tolkein’s universe works remarkably well because Tolkein actually worked most of it out in his head first, then started writing stories set in it (I think The Hobbit was originally not supposed to take place in the same world as the Silmarillion, its just that the Silmarillion material in Tolkein’s head leaked into The Hobbit, and he made adjustments to reconcile them). Plus he recognized that the universe would be more realistic if not everything was covered and the material was not presented in the same format.

    With Riverworld, Farmer created Riverworld and then spent most of stories following one of the least interesting characters and one of the least interesting storylines. Paradoxically, this created room for other writers to write successful stories in that world. Plus it helps that the later books are set in a big tower at one end of the world, leaving the river valley fairly unaffected.

     
  11. Jamas Enright #

    @Timothy The story should be a good story in an of itself. With most ranges with differing authors (eg Doctor Who, Star Trek… Star Wars?) the quality can vary greatly from story to story. But if a story is a good watch/read/listen, who cares if it contradicts some other work by someone else?

    (Doctor Who did this itself in the main TV series, so any contradictions between genres are just keeping up tradition. ;) )

     
  12. Lisa #

    Official Star Wars canon is still being churned out, but it passed a point years ago where it no longer touched on those things that I first fell in love with in Star Wars. I will still love and enjoy those things, but I feel no need to delve into much of the EU, or even the TV series. Heck, I only sort of allow the Prequel Trilogy into my personal canon.

    Until recently, Star Wars canon was up to one man to define or at least tightly control. Until George started loosening the reins, if you as a fan disagreed with anything, you were disagreeing with George, not just with the current show-runners or authors, as in shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who. Now, to me, the interesting thing is that an author, part of the canon-makers, is disagreeing with another part of said canon-makers. This is putting Star Wars much more into the Trek/Who camps, with a wider array of stories available for whatever interpretation you want to make. Given that this has not always been the case with Star Wars, there might not be room for such a rift in the fandom. Then again, I already mostly departed it, since, while I like the original trilogy and about three of the books (the Zahn ones), I haven’t felt the same feeling of love with the rest of the EU (or even the prequel trilogy). I’ve enjoyed various works of fanfic more. (Heck, in many ways, I have more fun reading the cartoon “Darths & Droids” more than watching the prequel trilogy!) So maybe if the fandom becomes more accepting of the fact that I don’t really like the rest of the canon, I’ll once again find a place in it. I dunno where that puts me in terms of clerical canon.