(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:
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.
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.
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.
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)