I've seen the word canon used occasionally on this site. I've also seen it used quite extensively on Stack Exchange's science fiction and fantasy site.

I'm pretty sure I know what the word means, but I went looking for a definition on Stack Exchange and couldn't find one. Given that the word is used occasionally on this site as well, I think this question could also be useful here as well.

What exactly is canon?


2 Answers 2


When it comes to literature, there are two related but slightly different definitions. To cite the Oxford Dictionary, canon is:

  1. The works of a particular author or artist that are recognized as genuine.
  2. The list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality.

You'll see the word canon used in both contexts. People talk about whether, say, a particular statement about a particular series is canonical, e.g. is this website published by an author canonical? But you'll also see people talking about the "literary canon" or the "musical canon" or the "western canon." Both uses essentially mean the same thing: the word canon is trying to deliminate whether a particular work is worth considering when answering a particular question, whether that question is "who is Hagrid's father" or "what works of music are worth teaching in schools".

The key word in both definitions is recognized. If you read the definition closely, you'll see that it doesn't say who recognizes things as canon or how works are recognized. And there is quite a bit of debate about what counts as canon. For example, take a look at the following debate over on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange website about whether Pottermore--a website published by the author of the Harry Potter series--is a genuine contribution to that author's body of work. Another example: do half completed works by Tolkien, which were then published posthumously by his son, count as canon? Needless to say, there is actually a great deal of subjectivity involved in determining what is canon and what isn't. Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice rather than objective truth.

  • 1
    "Pottermore--a website published by the author of the Harry Potter series" - no, it's more complicated than that. Not all of Pottermore even claims to be penned by JKR, and some of us believe even the bits that do are actually ghostwritten.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 25, 2017 at 1:16
  • @Randal'Thor unfortunately I don't think it's worth going into the specifics of the debate in this answer. But yeah, it's very complicated and depends a lot on making choices that don't have a right or wrong answer. For example, do the last three wheel of time books count as cannon? They're based on notes from the original author, but the original author died before writing the last three books--someone else wrote those books for him.
    – user111
    Nov 25, 2017 at 1:24
  • The question of whether something is canonical revolves around the question of whether you think a work should be considered in some broader context. And there isn't a hard and fast rule--you have to make decisions that have no right or wrong answer.
    – user111
    Nov 25, 2017 at 1:25
  • then there are works or parts of works which the entire community has rejected from canon. In Star Trek alone, Gene Roddenberry famously declared parts of the fifth movie "apocryphal," most of the fanbase rejected the VOY episode "Threshold," and almost everyone who saw or heard of the preposterous attempt at an ENT finale, "These Are the Voyages," immediately dismissed it as garbage. A creator can claim something is part of "canon," but the audience is not actually obligated to accept that claim. Nov 25, 2017 at 11:52
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    @LaurenIpsum the important takeaway is that deciding something is canon is ultimately a statement of "I think this work is valuable, useful, worthwhile, and should be read." Thats a subjective decision.
    – user111
    Nov 25, 2017 at 12:32

In terms of "what is the literary canon," to paraphrase noted science-fiction author Samuel Delany (from his About Writing) the most practical marker of inclusion in the "canon" is when a work remains part of the living discourse, because of ongoing creation of an active body of derivative (adapted, parodied, modernized, retold) and secondary (critical, biographical, analytical) literature.

Thus, Romeo and Juliet is part of the canon, because a new movie version comes out every twenty years or so. The works of Toni Morrison are part of the canon, because new books about them and about her continue to be published. This definition is useful because it avoids value judgements on the relative worth of various works of literature, and focuses in on the objective, empirical traces of the quality of having been canonized. It also allows for work to go in and out of the canon, and traces how works might have originally entered the canon in the first place.

The other common literary meaning of "canon" is confirmed information about the characters or settings in work of fiction. The primary source of canon is the actual work itself (assuming there are no contradictions). The secondary source is what the author says (assuming that doesn't contradict what is in print). In the case of a large franchise, what is canon may be controlled by official sources produced by the franchise owner. Speculation by fans is not canon, unless confirmed by one of the routes above. What is canon is thus usually clear, except in the case of contradictions. The common factor between the terms is that both are based by analogy on the religious canon, the term for the officially endorsed sacred writings of a religion.

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