Canonizing Star Wars

I started drafting this piece a while back, intending to publish it somewhere, but then various things happened and I never finished it up. With the release of the first episode of The Book of Boba Fett in the last week, I decided to go back to it. It turns out that I had a mostly complete article, so I did some revisions and I’m posting it here as some of my general thoughts on concepts of canon and apocrypha related to Star Wars and the Bible. I hope you enjoy!


With Star Wars media, we are constantly reminded that “everything is a remix.”

While reorganizing some of my books recently, I came across my copy of The Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley. Published in 1979 and 1980 (and later collected into one volume in 1992), the three novels collected in this book defined Han’s backstory for Star Wars fans. I was rather amused to find the book now, considering that the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018 gave us a wholly new story arc for Han and Chewbacca. Coming across this book again now also reminded me of other similar books from the same era, like Tales from Jabba’s Palace, which have been abrogated in more recent Star Wars media, like the series The Book of Boba Fett.

Of course, since I read The Han Solo Adventures as a teenager, there have been many changes to the Star Wars galaxy. There has been a proliferation of media (including films, books, comics, various series on Disney+) that continue to expand the contours of the galaxy in both canonical and apocryphal ways.

Such an expansive array of media raises questions about how Star Wars stories are told and accepted. We’re confronted with a jigsaw puzzle of stories, retellings, adaptations, expansions, and appropriations threaded through the Star Wars saga since its inception. We’re confronted with how stories envelop, twist, and transcend fact, fiction, and history.

At the heart of this puzzle, we’re confronted with which stories are authoritative and which are not, which become “canon” and which become “apocrypha.” For Star Wars, canonicity is as much a puzzle to sort out as the Bible is. In what follows, I examine some connections about canonicity in both the unfolding history of Star Wars media and the history of Christianity. Related to this, scholars have recently begun to explore how contemporary fan fiction studies offer frameworks for thinking about biblical apocrypha. I won’t delve into that conversation directly, but I do want to pose some ideas about canonicity and apocryphicity by discussing the two storyworlds of Star Wars and the biblical together.

Retelling Stories

Another recent addition to the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, provides three versions of the story of Ben Solo’s turn to the Dark Side that leads to his self-redefinition as Kylo Ren. First, Luke Skywalker tells his bare-bones account, demonizing Ben as he turned to the Dark Side; later, Kylo Ren tells his own version, demonizing Luke’s actions; when Rey confronts Luke about the differing stories, Luke tells his story a second time, with more details and commentary.

None of these versions is a strictly factual narration. Instead, all three are told from the perspectives of subjective participants in the story. After these three versions have been told, Rey and audiences still lack any semblance of facts, left to reconcile the stories into the most credible version as a kind of middle way.

These retellings are reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashômon (1950), which offers several accounts of a murder from the points of view of different witnesses. This echo isn’t surprising, given how influential Kurosawa’s films were for George Lucas (and subsequent makers of Star Wars media), or how much classic Japanese films have become a staple of contexts for the Star Wars movies.

Juxtaposition of fight scenes from Rashômon and The Force Awakens. Image credit: Digging Star Wars.

Closer to home in the Star Wars galaxy is another echo evoked by the stories Luke and Ren tell: a story told by another Ben, Obi-Wan Kenobi, about how Luke’s father was killed by Darth Vader. Of course, we’re told in The Empire Strikes Back that this is only one interpretation of the events leading to Anakin Skywalker becoming Vader. In Return of the Jedi, Luke confronts Obi-Wan’s Force ghost, who admits that his version “was true, from a certain point of view.”

The Last Jedi isn’t the only recent Star Wars release to highlight the power of storytelling perspectives and adaptations. Similarly, the From a Certain Point of View book series (with a direct allusion to Obi-Wan’s words) offers short stories parallel to the original trilogy from the perspectives of various minor characters, in celebration of the fortieth anniversaries of the original films. We also see more whimsical retellings of the Skywalker saga, such as the LEGO Star Wars video games and animated series. With Star Wars media, we are constantly reminded that “everything is a remix.”

From a literary approach, we must deal with mythic storytelling structures, unreliable narrators, creator’s intentionality and audience responses, as well as adaptations over time. From a historical approach, we must deal with how history and historiography are written based on available evidence, the perspective of the historian, as well as shifting history based on new evidence.

Establishing Canon & Apocrypha

The first definition of the Star Wars canon authorized by Lucasfilm is generally attributed to the inaugural issue of the magazine Star Wars Insider, which rebranded the publication previously known as the Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine in 1994 (issue #23). In a piece about the Star Wars Publications Timeline,” Lucasfilm employees Allan Kausch and Sue Rostoni relate that “‘Gospel,’ or canon as we refer to it, includes the screenplays, the films, the radio dramas and the novelizations…. The entire catalog of published works comprises a vast history—with many off-shoots, variations and tangents—like any other well-developed mythology.” This definition by Kausch and Rostoni as well as their evocation of the biblical Gospels are striking, and worth exploring further.

Translations of the Bible into various languages.

The biblical Gospel of Luke begins with a curious statement about the various stories told about Jesus. He admits that “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” (1:1 NRSV). This statement, at its heart, causes readers to consider why only four gospels were eventually deemed authoritative, canonical, and the exclusive gospels of the Christian Bible. For that matter, the basic issue raises questions about why four were needed in the first place, rather than only one or two. These questions are made all the more pertinent when considering the large amounts of overlap between the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

The development of the biblical canon is more complex than can be related here, and more historically complex than developments in Star Wars history between 1977 and 2014. But certain parallels exist.

From at least the second century onward, debates raged about which texts should be authoritative for Christians to read and follow. Some early Christians accepted the Hebrew Bible (mainly in the form of Greek translations now known as the Septuagint), or at least parts of it, while others rejected it wholesale with the idea that more recent revelations were more important. Some texts came to be seen as part of “the Bible,” while others came to be seen as “apocrypha.” Some Christians accepted the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, while others accepted fewer, or different, gospels. Many arguments centered around Paul’s letters, and the various letters of other apostles. Some texts, like Jude and the Revelation of John, were hotly debated.

By the fourth century, a general consensus about the contents of the Christian Bible was already emerging, but there were still debates. None of these developments of the Christian canon, however, should be understood as teleologically leading to a closed set of books as we now find it in printed versions of the Bible. In fact, closer looks at the tables of contents of different Bibles through the centuries reveal how the canon was and continues to be somewhat fluid across different Christian communities. Different Christians have continued to read and use different apocryphal works in various ways. Yet the fourth century was a definitive period for the solidification of the Christian biblical texts into a general state of canonicity.

It’s clear from definitions like the one offered by Kausch and Rostoni that critics have been thinking about issues regarding the Star Wars canon in terms of the biblical canon for a while. It’s not surprising to find fans of Star Wars and the Bible musing about relationships between notions of canon, apocrypha, and fandom across these two storyworlds.

Some attribute the idea of fictional canon to Monsignor Ronald A. Knox, in his pioneering essay titled “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” (1911). In this satirical publication, Knox both opened the door for critical study of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and humorously wrote as if the Sherlockian canon were made up of historical accounts. It’s telling that Knox was a Catholic priest who knew the Bible—so well that he had translated the Latin Vulgate version into English, while also using the Hebrew and Greek sources to inform his work. Clearly he had considered some thorny issues surrounding canonicity in multiple literary contexts.

Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie for the cover of the Star Wars novelization.

Between 1977 and the present, the Star Wars canon has also been hotly debated as new media have emerged. To fully consider the canon would mean to go back several years earlier, to Lucas’s own notes and script drafts. Some of these may be glimpsed in books like Laurent Bouzereau’s Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays and various other publications. Still, a simpler starting point is November 12, 1976, just months before the theatrical release of the first film, now known as Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (though at the time its debut title was simply Star Wars), when Del Rey Books published the novelization titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, attributed to George Lucas and ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster. The following year, on March 1, 1978, Del Rey released another novel by Foster, titled Splinter of the Mind’s Eye—ostensibly the first published Star Wars fan fiction (though it was authorized at the time). With these books, the expansion of the Star Wars galaxy and questions about canon were already in motion.

Along with the releases of the films and novelizations of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the galaxy burgeoned with many other books, comics, video games, and other media from the late 1970s well into the 2000s. Most famous among these are probably Timothy Zahn’s novels, expanding the story of the Skywalkers and the Jedi beyond the events of the original trilogy.

In 1997 Lucas himself released his own sort of author-turned-fan-fiction-creator with the Special Edition versions of the original trilogy. Just a few years later, in 1999, 2002, and 2005, came the release of the prequels (Episodes I-III). In time, some fans came to reject these sorts of additions from the canon, despite what others might say. The canon wars were well underway.

Star Wars canon changed dramatically on April 25, 2014, when Disney, the new owner of Lucasfilm, redefined official canonicity. Under the new definition, the only canonical works created before 2014 are the six Star Wars films of the main saga (episodes I-VI), The Clone Wars animated series, and the Dark Horse Comics story Darth Maul—Son of Dathomir. All other movies, books, comics, games, and other media previously known as the “Expanded Universe” were relegated to being known as “Legends.” Curiously, according to Disney’s standards of definitions, even the novelizations of the original films are now considered non-canonical.

Suddenly, the many Star Wars stories of yesteryear became divided into canonical and apocryphal.

Conclusion

In my teenage years, my friends and I spent a lot of time with the Star Wars Customizable Card Game (CCG), produced by Decipher, Inc. between 1995 and 2001. Initially based on the original trilogy, many of the cards featured characters, settings, creatures, weapons, vehicles, and more from the Star Wars galaxy, with their details culled from Lucasfilm lore and the Expanded Universe.

The Star Wars customizable card game.

I spent hours with these cards—reading the rules and supplements, collecting the cards, discussing them with friends, playing the game, and arguing about inconsistencies between gameplay and the original movies. Along with resources like the artbooks for the original trilogy and Bill Slavicsek’s A Guide to The Star Wars Universe, details from the CCG were central to my Star Wars education.

Since the Star Wars CCG wasn’t included in Disney’s redefinition of the canon, the cards are now seemingly relegated to apocryphal status. It’s hard to imagine that the details I gleaned from those cards will ever leave my memory, though. Whenever I watch the scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina, my mind recalls details about characters like the Tonnika Sisters (Brea and Senni), Ponda Baba, and Dr. Evazan. They’re all headcanon to me.

That last point demonstrates a distinct aspect of canonicity and apocryphicity: no authoritative definition, however official, will ever stop individuals from creating their own personal sense of what is considered canonical. In fact, what’s clear from both the history of Christianity and the history of Star Wars is that we all create our own notions of what we see as canonical and apocryphal, from a certain point of view.

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