Canon is a concept from aesthetics that has become a
regular subject of commonplace discussions. The nature of canon, especially as
it is used in these commonplace discussions, has not been subject to adequate
philosophical scrutiny. We attempt to remedy that by placing canon in its
historical and philosophical context, exploring and rejecting several common
accounts, and presenting some basics of how canon works. We reject the accounts
that place control with the author or the legal property holder, which appear
to be the most commonly held accounts.
canon; intellectual property; interpretation; truth in
1. The truths
In his seminal 1978 paper, "Truth in Fiction," and
also "Postscripts" in 1983, David Lewis sketches a theory about how we can
make truth-functional sense of propositions about fictions. Take the
statement, "Sherlock Holmes has hands," for example. Now, assuming
that we take the statement to refer to the fictional character created by Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle, we want to frame the domain of our proposition. For purposes of
analysis, Lewis suggests that such a proposition should be regarded as being
prefaced with the operator: "In such-and-such fiction…" or, in this case, "In
the Sherlock Holmes stories…." The fiction,
Lewis suggests, is best understood not as a string of sentences but rather as "a story told by a storyteller on a particular occasion," in particular, a
story told in a world where that story is known fact, that is, known to the storyteller,
and not as a fiction. Conveniently,
in all but four of the Holmes stories written by Doyle, it is Holmes’s
companion, Dr. Watson, who narrates the stories.
Lewis famously analyzes counterfactual truths by
looking to possible worlds, worlds where things turned out differently than
they did in ours. There are countless such worlds that contain an entity named Sherlock Holmes, and in many of
these he is a detective. Now, in some of these, he is a man with two hands, and
in others he is a sort of slug with no hands at all: the possibilities are
endless. But, when we are talking about Sherlock Holmes, we aren’t normally
talking about the slug-Holmeses or most of the other Holmeses; we’re talking
about the worlds that align with what’s written in the stories we have read.
That Holmes has more than one hand appears unproblematically confirmed by the
text of "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" (1911) and The Valley of
Fear (1915), both narrated by Watson. So, in all of the worlds that align
with the story-as-told in Doyle’s Holmes stories, where these stories are told as facts known to the
storyteller, it would be true that Holmes has hands.
Now, take the statement, "Sherlock Holmes is
left-handed." What are we to make of this? Nowhere in any of the stories
written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is it suggested that the detective is
left-handed. Nor, however, is it said anywhere that he is right-handed or
ambidextrous. That is, there are equally as many worlds where Doyle's stories (as written) are told as known fact where Holmes is is
right-handed, left-handed, and ambidextrous. So, on
Lewis’s theory, the matter is indeterminate: "What is true throughout [the
worlds] is true in the stories; what is false throughout them is false in the
stories; what is true at some and false at others is neither true nor false in
So far as it goes, Lewis’s theory would seem to have a
lot going for it, even if we don’t buy into the extremes of modal realism. Towards the
end of "Truth in Fiction," however, Lewis makes a curious claim:
I have spoken
of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories; but many other authors also have written
Holmes stories. These would have little point without inter-fictional
carry-over. Surely many things are true in these satellite stories not because of
the explicit content of the satellite story itself, and not because they are
part of the background, but rather because they carry over from Conan Doyle’s
original Holmes stories. Similarly, if instead of asking what is true in the
entire corpus of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories we ask what is true in "The Hound
of the Baskervilles," we will doubtless find many things that are true in that
story only by virtue of carry-over from Conan Doyle’s other Holmes stories.
Certainly this makes some sense. In A Study in
Scarlet, the story of Holmes’s and Watson’s first adventure, it is
established, by Watson’s estimation, at least, that Holmes is an accomplished
violinist. So it should follow that in "The Stockbroker’s Clerk," which takes place some years
later, Holmes is an accomplished violinist, though no mention is made of this.
Of course, things can work in the opposite direction, too. In "The Greek
Interpreter," we are introduced to Holmes’s elder brother Mycroft, whose
deductive powers outstrip those of Sherlock. The events of this story take
place several years after A Study in Scarlet. Though Mycroft goes
unmentioned in the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, surely it is true that if
Holmes has an older brother in "The Greek Interpreter," then he has the same older
brother in the earlier Study in Scarlet.
Now, what are we to make of the story, "A Scandal of
No Importance," in which Holmes, in the fall of 1897, reveals his romantic
feelings for Watson? The story is written in six chapters by one "amalcolm1" and can be found on www.fanfiction.net, a repository of stories of
familiar characters written by their fans. As a work of fan fiction, "A Scandal
of No Importance" is relatively tame fare, but the story explains so much. In "The Blanched Soldier" (one of only two of Doyle’s stories that Holmes himself
narrates) taking place in 1903, the detective states, "The good Watson had at
that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in
our association." Discounting "A Scandal of No Importance," the claim of
desertion is odd. Watson has been married before several times, it seems, and
has moved out before. What makes this action in 1903 so selfish? Well, Watson’s
previous wife, Mary Morstan, died in 1894, and he remained single until 1903.
So, Watson’s marriage in "The Blanched Soldier" would seem to be his first
heterosexual romance since Sherlock declared his love for the doctor in 1897.
"But," you declare, "'A Scandal of No Importance' is
fan fiction! It didn’t happen! At the very least, it’s not the same Sherlock Holmes as the one Doyle
was writing about. It isn’t canon!" Exactly right.
2. Holmes and
Usually, when canon is discussed in the aesthetics
literature, it is with reference to "the canon" or "the Western canon," the body of literature, music, and art generally
considered the most influential or important to Western culture. Another
historical use of canon in art and aesthetics refers to an evolving set of
rules of beauty and art tracing back to Polyclitus’s system of proportions,
spelled out in his fifth-century BCE treatise, titled The Canon, and
exemplified in his sculpture of Achilles, also sometimes called The Canon.
Neither of these uses of 'canon' is in the sense that interests us here, though both
are related in meaning. Rather, the use of canon that concerns
us refers to material accepted as making up part of a particular fiction,
especially a story stretching over more than one work: roughly, the official,
authorized, or accepted story, though this sketch of a definition will need
It’s curious that Holmes has become the running case
in philosophical discussions about fiction, as the first works of popular
literature to garner serious discussions of canon, in the sense that interests
us here, were the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Although Holmes has appeared in
more movies than any other character, on stage, radio, and television, and has
been co-opted across a variety of media by a host of other authors, the
standardly accepted Sherlock Holmes canon consists of sixty adventures told in
fifty-six short stories and four novels, all written by Doyle. Some have argued
for additional works to be included in the canon, including two Holmes parodies
written by Doyle and a selection of Holmes stories written by Doyle’s son and
his biographer, but these are contentious.
The Holmes canon
has been a lively subject of serious literary debate for over a century, though
it started with something of a joke. One of the earliest forays into scholarly
consideration of Holmes was Ronald A. Knox’s "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," first
published in 1912 and often credited with birthing the field as a whole. The
now-legendary essay presents a tongue-in-cheek argument that the Holmes stories
written after 1893’s "The Final
Problem" should be considered apocryphal, as falling outside the canon. In "The Final
Problem," Doyle killed off Holmes, only to bring him back in 1901. The
twentieth-century Holmes stories, Knox suggests, are not actually stories of
Holmes but rather fabrications of the narrator’s (Watson’s)
against these stories may be divided into (a) those suggested by changes in the
character and method of Holmes, (b) those
resting on impossibilities in the narrative itself, (c) inconsistencies found by
comparison with the previous narrative.
In other words, Knox suggests that these stories
should be excluded as apocryphal stories of Sherlock Holmes because they are
inconsistent with the detective’s character, with other accepted stories, and
Curiously, these are some of the central criteria upon
which materials have been excluded from the biblical canon. Perhaps this
should come as no real surprise: Knox himself was a Catholic priest. Theologian
Kilian McDonnell notes that, for biblical canon, the question was not centrally
a historical question of authorship but rather a theological one: "[T]he Apostolic
Constitutions, a late fourth century canonico-liturgical compilation… warned that 'we must not rely on the attribution to the apostles, but attend to the
character of the material and the correctness of the thought.'" That a book was written by an apostle was less important than that it
represented the person and divinity of Christ, that it was a coherent book, and
that it meshed with already-accepted canonical materials.
Thus the emphasis often placed on authorship makes the
Holmes canon more the exception than the rule. One of the hottest ongoing
debates in the domain of canon is what we might call the Star Wars universe.
George Lucas had a hand in all six of the original movies, as screenwriter,
director, or both, enough to likely qualify him as an author, perhaps the
author, of these works. But he had
less to do with 2015’s
Star Wars: The
2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Nevertheless, few would suggest that these later films are not canon. Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda game series
presents a similar challenge: no single individual was instrumental in the
creation of every game in the Zelda canon, although Takashi Tezuka comes closest. Authorship
appears to offer neither necessary nor sufficient criteria for inclusion of a
given work in a canon.
An ontology of characters might provide insight into
an account of canon. If a work is canon, then it depicts the same character(s)
as other works in the canon; if it falls outside the canon, it does not. In her
analysis of fictional characters, Amie Thomasson suggests that character x (appearing in work W) and
character y (appearing in
a later work W') are the same
fictional character only if the author of W' is well-acquainted with x, and intends to import x into W' as y. This account
is only intended to provide a necessary condition for x and y to be the same character and not a
sufficient condition. In regard to sufficient conditions, Thomasson suggests
that if the properties attributed to y are too different from those attributed to x in W, then x and y are not the same character. Although Thomasson
contends that she isn’t providing a sufficient condition, and the aberrant sort
of case just discussed notwithstanding, she suggests that her criterion
provides "a very good benchmark for whether or not we can reasonably claim that
two characters are the same." However, as
things stand, your writing a Holmes story where the detective’s attributes are
perfectly in line with those of Doyle’s detective will not make them the same
character. You don’t have the requisite authority to make that happen.
3. What is
Although authorship is not the sole determining factor
of canon inclusion, there is nevertheless a matter of authority at play. And,
as a matter of practice, such authority seems wrapped up with legal ownership.
The Legend of Zelda series is legally owned by Nintendo. Legal ownership
of the Star Wars franchise passed from George Lucas to Disney in 2012.
Following acquisition, Disney has formally pronounced a list of canonical works and
relegated the rest to Legends status. In 2011, Nintendo published The Legend of
Zelda: Hyrule Historia, a sort of bible that laid out the official chronology of the Legend
of Zelda canon, excluding a number of games. However, this
official chronology came with a caveat:
As the stories
and storytellers of Hyrule change, so, too, does its history. Hyrule’s history
is a continuously woven tapestry of events. Changes that seem inconsequential,
disregarded without even a shrug, could evolve at some point to hatch new
legends and, perhaps, change this tapestry of history itself.
So canon is open to change, seemingly at the whim of
the legal authority. As a particularly good example of this rule, we might
consider the Highlander franchise. The original movie, Highlander (1986),
introduced audiences to the mysterious race of Immortals. The first sequel, Highlander
II: The Quickening (1991), made drastic changes to the story set out in the
original film, effectively rewriting key points in the story’s history,
generally referred to as a "retcon" for "retroactive continuity." These changes were not well
received. Critic Roger Ebert gave the film half a star, calling it “the most
hilariously incomprehensible movie I’ve seen in many a long day.” So the
producers did the only reasonable thing they could. They premiered a TV show
the next year, Highlander: The Series, and pretended the second movie
had never happened, re-rewriting history. Then, a third movie was released, Highlander
III: The Sorcerer
(1994), that ignored
both the TV series and the second
movie. The fourth and fifth films then followed the TV series’ continuity,
ignoring the second and third movies. Similar
retconning moves can be found in the original Halloween movie series,
where the seventh and eighth films ignore the events of the third through sixth
movies in the series; in the Rocky franchise,
where later films effectively ignore the unpopular Rocky V; and in the Exorcist
film series, where the third movie ignores the second film, as do two later
prequels which are incompatible with each other.
All of these changes have been authorized by the legal
authority. But the fickleness of the legal authority is not its only problem. A
work being authorized by a legal authority does not cement its status as canon,
either. The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has authorized any number of
stories of young Sherlock Holmes, including the 1985 film, Young Sherlock
Holmes; the 2011 graphic novel, Sherlock Holmes: Year One; and the
Young Sherlock Holmes series of novels by Andrew Lane. Some of these directly
contradict the content of Doyle’s stories, and all of them contradict one
another. None, however, are widely accepted as canon despite being authorized
by the legal authority. Perhaps the
most (in)famous example of an authorized work excluded from canon is The
Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), released between the original Star Wars (1977) and The
Empire Strikes Back (1980), which features Chewbacca’s extended family and
Boba Fett. The show aired only once on television, in 1978, and has never been
rebroadcast or officially released. Although Boba Fett would go on to appear in
the film series, this iteration of Chewbacca’s family would not, and the Holiday
Special would be wiped from official Star Wars continuity.
When works in a series are particularly poorly
received by fans, it is not unusual for legal authorities to overwrite them.
Even Doyle did this when he brought Holmes back from the dead, bending to
enormous pressure from fans. At other
times, a retcon may be motivated by other marketing reasons. But, while
fans, and other factors, can apply pressure or offer ideas, ultimately it seems
only the legal authority has the power to decide what is and is not canon,
sometimes by official pronouncement, as in the cases of Star Wars and The
Legend of Zelda, or by releasing a new work that overwrites some past
work, as with Highlander,
Halloween, and Rocky.
So, with all this in mind, it might seem that it is
the legal authorities who control canon and, so far as it goes, this is largely
true. Today, for better or for worse, the authority over canon will largely
rest with the person, persons, or corporate entity holding copyright over the
works and characters in question. Copyright ownership consists in a certain
sort of authority, centrally, the exclusive right to make or authorize copies
of one’s protected works. By extension, copyright provides the owner with the
exclusive right to make or authorize derivative works based on one’s protected
work. It also provides protection for at least some fictional characters. Since
the most obvious place where such extensions of copyright come into play is
with regard to making or authorizing sequels, the connection between copyright
and canon is fairly intuitive.
Certainly, copyright owners can and do use their
authority to quash unauthorized sequels featuring their characters. In 2009,
J.D. Salinger successfully sued the author of 60 Years Later: Coming Through
the Rye, an unauthorized sequel to Catcher in the Rye, preventing
the novel’s distribution in the United States. J.K. Rowling
and Warner Bros. have similarly worked in recent years to prevent publication
or distribution of unauthorized sequels. Andrea Phillips notes: "At the end of
the day, the core owner of the property in question is the one with the power
to choose who profits and how much, or what becomes canon and what doesn’t." Owning
copyright in a work and its characters means getting to decide which stories
are released, when protected stories are re-published in revised editions, and
which of the many works featuring protected characters are authorized, and all
of this is supported by an international legal system.
Where an unauthorized work is released featuring
characters protected by copyright or which would be treated as a derivative
work in the law, copyright owners have the legal authority to quash that work.
Where there is no copyright in a work or its characters, canon quickly becomes
murky. One might not expect any certain answer to a question about the "Arthurian canon" or the "Robin
Hood canon." Although,
thanks to the popularization of select works, certain versions of these
characters, and also Santa Claus, Count Dracula, and others, may have become
more cemented in the public imagination over time, the lack of any recognized
authority makes canon a more difficult matter.
All this would seem to support the idea that, as one
legal scholar puts it, "In the context of fan-based activities and their
resultant works, the concept of canonicity draws a clear and nigh impenetrable
barrier between the works of the original author and the fan works based upon
it." However, it
now needs to be pointed out that the practice that establishes the copyright
holder as the authority over canon is utterly contingent. None of the copyright-holder’s authority over canon
necessarily follows from that copyright ownership. Copyright legally protects
works and certain elements of those works, but there are no laws protecting
canon. Nothing about the ownership of works or even fictional characters
provides the copyright owner with the power of determining that his or her sequel, rather than
some unauthorized work of fan fiction, is the real/true/better/right/canonical story
of what happened to Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes next. Those of us who
concern ourselves with cases of canon do, as a matter of practice, typically
treat the copyright owner as if he or she has this authority, but it is not a
part of her copyright ownership, and not of any logical extension of that
Although the connection between copyright and canon is
not altogether arbitrary, it is nevertheless altogether contingent. Why, as a
matter of contingent fact, we do give such
authority to the copyright holder is an anthropological question, and there is
almost certainly a complex anthropological answer. Perhaps we recognize such
authority because copyright owners hold an official position of authorizing
sequels, and we simply conflate the two. Perhaps it is because we are lazy and
would prefer to hand over the reins rather than be forced to make the decisions
for ourselves. However, there seems no in-principle reason that fans might not
rise up and wrest control over canon from the copyright holders, installing
some new criterion for what will be canon, perhaps recognizing canon in the
best stories, regardless of who has written them and whether they are
authorized by the copyright holders.
In the case of legally unregulated characters, like
Robin Hood or Santa Claus, we might imagine such criteria as the source of the
stories, historical priority, or public consensus. Indeed, we can already see
some cracks in the veneer. When George Lucas released the Special Edition of Star Wars in 1997, a
great many fans were aghast at one change Lucas had made to the film: In the
original 1977 release, Han Solo, questioned at gunpoint in the cantina bar by
the bounty hunter Greedo, shoots Greedo dead before calmly strolling out of the
bar; in the Special Edition, Greedo shoots first and misses, and Han fires the
fatal shot a fraction of a second later. "Han shot first" became a rallying cry
that hasn’t yet died down. In this case, fans are unwilling to accept Lucas’s
attempt to change canon.
Holmes, too, is instructive. Although the detective’s
copyright was held by the Doyle estate well into the twenty-first century,
die-hard Holmes fans have generally rejected from the accepted canon anything
but the stories written by Doyle himself. Indeed, this
blanket rejection may be the result of the Doyle estate’s indiscriminate
or it may be
some reverence for the author himself. Regardless, the until-recent legal
authority had by the author’s estate does not seem to have translated into
recognized authority over the canon.
Henry Jenkins notes that the modern fan fiction
movement began in part to correct what fans saw as errors and oversights by the
works’ creators, particularly female fans, and particularly fans of Star Trek. Indeed,
Jenkins notes, "many fan writers characterize themselves as 'repairing the
damage' caused by the program’s inconsistent and often demeaning treatment of
its female characters."
If control over canon were taken from the copyright
holder, where could it go? This centrally depends on whether people want to
maintain a single sense of canon, many senses, or no senses. The establishment
of the biblical canon was intended to be driven by the authority of expertise,
requiring careful and considered judgment by those most familiar with the
materials, history, and repercussions of any determination and not
authoritative fiat. It isn’t difficult to imagine a revised practice putting
canon determinations in the hands of those with the greatest expertise.
Alternatively, Elisabeth S. Aultman imagines a scenario where a group of
participating fan-authors are collectively in charge of a canon, where that
canon "would be determined by the number of up votes a given submission gets by
members of the participating online community." In Aultman’s imagined
scenario, canon is determined by popular vote. Again, it
isn’t too difficult to imagine a revised practice distributing equal power and
responsibility among those most invested in the outcome the determination. Of
course, if fan fiction could impact canon, there would only be more reason for
copyright holders to sue to forestall these derivative works, once again
showing the interaction of the two. So perhaps this isn’t a power that fans
want, after all. And, again, any new authority in canon determination could be
just as arbitrary as our current arrangement.
4. How canon
Usually, if we refer to the Holmes canon, we are picking
out a set of works: the 56 short stories and four novels generally accepted as
encompassing the official story of Sherlock Holmes. This appears similar, then,
to talk of the Western canon. But, since we are centrally talking about an extended
story, "canon" is also used
as shorthand for the official chronology of events and the facts and rules
derived, or, what happened in that story, when, why, and to whom. Typically,
such facts are determined in-story but matters of canon may also be established
by official pronouncement outside the narrative itself. Marvel Comics, for
example, has established a number of canonical facts in its Official
Handbook of the Marvel Universe, an encyclopedic series of periodicals with
entries on each of the major characters, groups, and technologies appearing in
Marvel Comics stories, where entries often outstretch details provided
in-story. In the same
series, Marvel established the rule that for every four to five publication
years in the real world, one year passes in-story in the Marvel Universe. J.K. Rowling
has similarly released a steady stream of facts about the Harry Potter universe
outside of the novels themselves. In addition to publishing editions of
textbooks discussed in-story, in 2012 Rowling launched the Pottermore website,
unveiling secrets and histories for fans of the series. These revelations are
generally, though not universally, accepted as canonical.
As such, canon is tied up with philosophical issues of
both truth-in-fiction and interpretation. While these two are often divided
based on their subjects (concrete fictional facts versus more
ephemeral claims about things like themes, meaning, and messages), they can also
be divided based on approach. Truth-in-fiction
usually takes a descriptive approach to the answers it offers by attempting to
establish facts. Under current practice, interpretation often offers a
hypothetical approach, proposing readings based on the content, form, and role
of a story.
Although it is centrally a matter of truth-in-fiction,
canon prescriptively establishes facts of a story or fictional world by
determining what rules apply and what events should be included. Sometimes this
will be a coarse-grained matter: Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon
is not canonical, nor are the events that occur in it. And sometimes this will
be more fine-grained: officially, the original Star Trek TV and film
series takes place in the twenty-third century, though occasional statements in
particular episodes would appear to place it in the twenty-second or
statements are non-canonical, though the episodes in which they appear are
To say that a work, a fact, or a rule is canonical is normally
to say that there was another viable option, given what has been descriptively
stated of the story or fictional world. In other words, to say what is
canonical is ordinarily to imply that an official or authoritative choice, a sanctioning, has been
made either to include or to exclude some work, fact, or rule. As such, it is
unusual for some straightforwardly descriptive fact of a story or fictional
world to be referred to as canon or
canonical. It would be
strange to ask, for instance, whether it is canonical that Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry is in Britain, as this has never been a matter of
debate. However, it would be perfectly reasonable to ask whether it is canonical that the
Gotham City and Metropolis of DC Comics are connected by a bridge, or rather
are hundreds of miles apart, a surprisingly flexible issue. Sometimes an
apparent in-story discrepancy will prompt an authoritative decision about
canon; sometimes such a decision will simply be prompted by creative or
The authority that sanctions the facts of canon does
not likewise authoritatively sanction interpretations. Disney’s prescriptive
exclusion of the 1980s Droids and Ewoks cartoons from
the Star Wars story is a matter of canon, but an official interpretive claim by
Disney, say, that the
Star Wars saga is centrally about the cyclical struggle of good and evil
embodied in the story of the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker as
a tragic hero, would not be canonical. Although
canonical interpretation is a widespread notion in biblical studies, it would
seem to have little application in studies of literature. That being said, what
qualifies as canon can have an enormous impact on interpretation. If amalcolm1’s "A Scandal of No Importance" is in the Holmes canon,
then it would seem perfectly reasonable to interpret Sherlock’s feelings of
betrayal towards Watson in "The Blanched Soldier" as those of a jilted lover
and to place some importance on the fact that nowhere in the later story does
the detective mention his love for the doctor. If the story falls outside the
canon, however, this interpretation would seem altogether unfounded.
Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that canon has
gone largely overlooked and underdiscussed in the aesthetics literature until
quite recently. There is,
after all, no Dickens canon; there is no Tolstoy canon; there is no Shakespeare
canon, at least, not of the sort we have been discussing. Rather, the term
appears to be restricted in its use largely to works of contemporary popular
fiction, and, at that, to a rather select body of such works. Although, for
instance, Happy Days and All in the Family were immensely popular
television shows, and although each raises many of the issues at the heart of
canon, it would be at least a little odd to refer to the Happy Days canon or the All
in the Family canon. And although
certain genres seem to predominate canon discussion, genre does not appear to
offer any clear conditions, necessary or sufficient, in this regard. Indeed,
there would seem to be no
for which works will garner considerations of canon except that talk of canon
normally arises within a well-developed fan community, and often where there is
a lively tradition of fan fiction.
Still, for such works where canon does come into play,
it would seem to do a great deal of critical work. Where a fictional story
stretches across individual works, be they novels, video games, episodes of a
TV show, or some combination of these, what is true of that story or the world
it describes may depend very much on canon. This will include the rules of that
world, in turn determining any number of particular fictional truths. In
telling us which works are stitched together, and which are excluded, canon
adds a complicating factor for identity conditions for fictional characters,
further grounding ontology in artistic practice. And although its work seems to
logically precede that of interpretation, insofar as the first task of
interpretation lies in identifying the thing being interpreted, canon can play
a central role here, too. Moreover, insofar as canon can change, so too it
seems can the domain of reasonable interpretations of works within that canon.
In a very real sense, then, the malleability of canon can change what is true
of a work long after that work is completed by its author. So, although the
domain in which it operates is contingently small, canon is part of an artistic
practice that widely impacts philosophical issues in fiction and must be
accounted for. So, certainly, philosophers have some unique reasons to care
Canon matters to writers, filmmakers, and other
creators because it is often important to those creators to control the nature
and fates of the characters and worlds they create. Controlling canon is no
small part of this. Canon matters to fans to the degree that they are invested
in these characters and stories. And make no mistake: fans care very much about
canon. It is in the interests of copyright owners, who may or may not be the
creators, that fans care about canon and associate it with the copyright
owner's authority. Doing so will keep them coming back for more official content and otherwise
shunning what is not. Insofar as philosophers are interested in the
relationship between artist and audience, and particularly in the power
dynamics at play in this relationship, they have this reason to care about
canon as well.
Derksen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at California State University East
Bay. He is very interested in the intersection of popular culture and
Darren Hudson Hick
Darren Hudson Hick is the author of Introducing
Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (2012, 2017) and Artistic License: The Philosophical Problems of
Copyright and Appropriation (2017), and co-editor (with Reinold Schmücker) of The
Aesthetics and Ethics of Copying
Published on March 27, 2018.
 David Lewis, "Truth in Fiction," American Philosophical Quarterly,
15 (1978), 37–46; "Postscripts to 'Truth
in Fiction'," in Philosophical Papers, Vol. I (Oxford: OUP, 1983),
 Lewis’s central example is Sherlock Holmes.
 Lewis, "Truth in Fiction," 37-38.
43. This has all been a rather quick sketch of Lewis’s analysis, which delves
into much greater technical detail than we are outlining here. We have omitted,
for instance, the parts of Lewis’s theory that allow him to declare it false
that Holmes, for all his two-handedness, has a third eye in the middle of his
forehead, which simply goes unmentioned in Doyle’s stories. Such detail is
unnecessary for our purposes here, and for the analysis of such statements as "Sherlock Holmes has hands" and "Sherlock Holmes is left-handed," so we leave
 Although some accept Lewis’s theory as being on
the right track (see, e.g. Gregory Currie, "What Is Fiction?," Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 43 (1985), 385–392; ref. p. 391), he is
certainly not without his detractors (see, Peter Lamarque, Fictional Points
of View (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 55–70). Nevertheless,
we believe that the problem we present for Lewis’s theory raises similar
problems for competing or refined versions of his approach.
 Lewis, "Truth in Fiction," 45.
 See, Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, "Introduction: Work in Progress," in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the
Age of the Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006), pp. 5–32;
ref. pp. 9–10; Eckart Voigts-Virchow, "Pride and
Promiscuity and Zombies," in Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation:
Literature, Film, and the Arts, eds. P. Nicklas and O. Lindner (Berlin: de Gruyter,
2012), pp. 34–56; ref. p. 42.
 See, Peter Richard, "Completing the Canon," Sherlock Holmes Journal, 6 (1962), 10–14; Peter Richard, "Completing the Canon," Sherlock Holmes Journal, 6 (1963), 76–81; Peter Richard, "Completing the Canon—A Postscript," Sherlock Holmes Journal, 6 (1964), 114–115; Peter Haining, "Introduction," in Arthur Conan Doyle, The Final Adventures
of Sherlock Holmes (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2001), pp. 11–15.
 Reprinted in R.A. Knox, "Studies in the
Literature of Sherlock Holmes," Blackfriars,
1 (1920), 154–172.
 Knox never actually uses the word 'canon.'
 Knox, "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock
 Kilian McDonnell, "Canon and Koinonia/communion: The Formation of
the Canon as an Ecclesiological Process," Gregorianum, 79 (1998), 29–54;
 See, Lee M. McDonald, "Identifying Scripture and
Canon in the Early Church: The Criteria Question," in The Canon Debate,
eds. Lee M. McDonald and James Sanders (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 2002), pp.
 See Darren Hudson Hick, "Authorship,
Co-Authorship, and Multiple Authorship," Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism, 72 (2014), 147–156.
 Amie Thomasson, Fiction and Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999),
 Nintendo also states that the Link and Zelda identified
in the chronology might not be the same Link and Zelda throughout but might be
a series of descendants. Patrick Thorpe, The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule
Historia, English Edition (Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2013), p. 68.
 Roger Ebert, "'Highlander 2'
Plummets to the Depths of Absurdity," Chicago Sun-Times, (1 November
1991), p. 45.
 Highlander: Endgame, dir. Douglas Aarniokoski, (2000), and Highlander: The Source,
dir. Brett Leonard, (2007).
 Halloween H20, dir. Steve Miner (1998),
and Halloween: Resurrection, dir. Rick Rosenthal (2002).
III: Season of the Witch (dir. Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982), which was never
considered part of the canon; Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (dir.
Dwight H. Little, 1988); Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (dir.
Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989); and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (dir.
Joe Chappelle, 1995). Only the original Halloween (dir. John Carpenter,
1978) and Halloween II, (dir. Rick Rosenthal, 1981) remain in-canon.
 Rocky Balboa (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 2006) ignores Rocky V (dir. John G. Avildsen, 1990) though it doesn’t
flatly say anything to contradict it. Creed
(dir. Ryan Coogler, 2015) explicitly refers to
events from each of I-IV, and is consistent
with Rocky Balboa, but there is no hint of Rocky V. Given the
narrative parallels between Creed and Rocky
V, that the latter fits into continuity but was simply not mentioned would
 The Exorcist III, dir. William Peter
Blatty, 1990, and Exorcist II: The Heretic, dir. John Boorman, 1977; Exorcist: The Beginning, dir. Renny Harlin, (2004); and Dominion:
Prequel to the Exorcist, dir. Paul Schrader, (2005).
 Contrary to recent claims by James O. Young,
then, the character of Sherlock Holmes does not evolve with new imaginings of
him, as in Guy Ritchie’s films starring Robert Downey, Jr., or Bill Condon’s Mr.
Holmes (2015). These are different Holmeses. See James O. Young, "Appropriating Fictional Characters," in The Aesthetics and Ethics of
Copying, eds. Darren Hudson Hick and Reinold Schmücker (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 153–172.
 See Darren Hudson Hick and Craig Derksen, "Righteous Art Anger," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 70
 This has occurred several times in the superhero
universe of DC Comics, a case that would require much more space to spell out
than we have available here, but see Henry John Pratt, "Why Serials Are
Killer," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 71 (2013), 266–270;
 Salinger v. Colting, 641 F. Supp. 2d 250
 Quoted in Elisabeth S. Aultman, "Authorship
Atomized: Modeling Ownership in Participatory Media Productions," Hastings
Communications and Entertainment Law Journal, 36 (2014), 383–405; ref. 388
 Strictly speaking, there is no international
copyright law. Each country has its own copyright law but these are harmonized
according to international treaties to which nearly every nation is a member.
 Actually, there is ample extant academic
discussion of the Arthurian canon, and more
limited discussion of the Robin Hood canon, though in each case the term 'canon' is used with maximal inclusivity, being
effectively synonymous with "stories about the Knights of the Round Table" or "stories about the Merry Men," respectively.
 Nathaniel T. Noda, "Perpetuating Cultures: What
Fan-Based Activities Can Teach Use about Intangible Cultural Property," Creighton
Law Review, 44 (2011), 429–461; ref. 453.
 It was only in 2014 that the U.S. Supreme Court
declined to take up an appeal ruling that the character of Sherlock Holmes had
outlived its copyright and fallen into the public domain, thus officially
ending any legal control over the character.
 Roy T. Cook contends that "canonicity practices
involve complex negotiations between producers and consumers." See "Canonicity
and Normativity in Massive, Serialized, Collaborative Fiction," Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 71 (2013), 271–276; ref. 273). Cook points
as evidence for this claim at Marvel Comics’ historical practice of awarding "No-Prizes" for readers who are able to offer explanations, however convoluted,
for errors in published comics. However: (1) The No-Prize has largely drifted
out of practice; (2) No-Prizes were never a matter of negotiation between
producers and consumers, but were awarded at the publisher’s whim; and (3) Cook
offers no evidence of No-Prize solutions being treated as canon.
 Henry Jenkins III, "Star Trek Rerun,
Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching," Critical Studies in
Mass Communication, 5 (1988), 85–107; ref. 93.
 Elisabeth S. Aultman, "Authorship Atomized:
Modeling Ownership in Participatory Media Productions," Hastings
Communications and Entertainment Law Journal, 36 (2014), 383–405; ref. 388.
 Though, as it happens, Aultman’s hypothetical
still conflates copyright and canon authority, rather than separating the two
 That Wolverine’s claws were bionic implants was
first established in Volume 1, Issue #15 of the Official Handbook of the
Marvel Universe. This was later confirmed in-story, and still later
 Jeff Christiansen, Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe A-Z, Vol. 2 (New York: Marvel, 2008), np. This rule
has produced a complex litany of subordinate rules and rolling in-story
retcons. There are actually several distinct chronologies in the Marvel
Universe, with the central storyline, where the sliding timescale rule applies,
taking place on what is called Earth-616. The Marvel cinematic universe takes
place in a parallel world: Earth-199999.
 See, harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Canon, accessed February 19, 2018; Erin McCarthy, "15
Post-Harry Potter Revelations from Pottermore," Mental Floss (2015), http://mentalfloss.com/article/59817/15-post-harry-potter-revelations-pottermore, accessed February 19, 2018; Kat Miller, "'What
Is Canon?' – Part 1: It’s All in J.K. Rowling’s Head," MuggleNet (2014),
http://www.mugglenet.com/2014/08/what-is-canon-part-one-its-all-in-jk-rowlings-head/%20, accessed February 19, 2018; Keith Hawk, "'What
Is Canon?' – Part 2: The Books or Not the Books – That Is the Question," MuggleNet
(2014), http://www.mugglenet.com/2014/08/what-is-canon-part-2-the-books-or-not-the-books-that-is-the-question/, accessed February 19, 2018.
 Unusual, but certainly not unheard of. The terms 'canon' and 'canonical'
can be used quite loosely in ordinary conversation.
 A recent debate between Andrew McGonigal, Ross P. Cameron,
and Ben Caplan, for instance, has focused on the question of whether fictional
truths change as canon changes. Although
our discussion here would certainly impact that debate, our focus has been on
the foundational mechanics of canon itself. See Andrew McGonical, "Truth, Relativism, and
Serial Fiction," British Journal of Aesthetics, 53 (2013), 165–179; Ross P. Cameron, "How
to be a Nominalist and a Fictional Realist," in Art and Abstract Objects, ed. Christy Mag Uidhir
(Oxford: OUP, 2013), pp. 179–196; and
Ben Caplan, "Serial Fiction, Continued," British Journal of Aesthetics, 54
 Each of these shows takes place in a larger
universe folding in a number of related works. Happy Days takes place in
the same fictional world as Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and a number of other sitcoms; similarly for All
in the Family; and each raises continuity issues. For example, Chuck
Cunningham, older brother to Richie and Joanie on Happy Days, was
written out of continuity in later episodes, to the point where Mr. Cunningham
refers to his "two kids."
We are grateful
to the anonymous reviewer for helpful comments.