The universe of Harry Potter was created by J. K. Rowling beginning in 1990. For five years, she worked on not only the first book but also the outline of the entire series of seven books and the development of the world in which the stories occur. Rowling wanted her world to be consistent and detailed. She never suspected that so many people all over the world would be analyzing all that consistency and detail; she did the work for her own satisfaction.
Because of all this careful work on her part, the world Rowling created is rich beyond what can be included in the books themselves. She has written past histories of many of the characters and developed origins and back stories for many parts of her world. For example, she has written that the Death Eaters were originally called the Knights of Walpurgis. The Lexicon’s entry on this topic shows the richness of her work:
JKR made this comment during the Jeremy Paxman interview on the BBC, Thursday night, June 19, 2003, while looking at some of her notes on the books: “…here is the history of the Death Eaters and I don’t know that I’ll ever actually need it — but at some point — which were once called something different — they were called the Knights of Walpurgis. I don’t know if I’ll need it. But I like knowing it. I like to keep that sort of stuff on hand. “This is a play on “Walpurgis Night” — April 30th, named for Saint Walpurga (whose feast day is the next day, 1 May, and who is the protectress against witchcraft and sorcery). On Walpurgis Night, witches are supposed to meet in the Harz mountains, especially near the highest point. Incidentally, Walpurgis Night stands opposite the calendar from Halloween.
This depth of meaning and detail is found throughout the Harry Potter series. Casual readers of the novels will very likely miss most of it. The Lexicon is intended to help fans of the series understand and appreciate Rowling’s creative work at all these levels.
The Harry Potter Lexicon is an attempt to catalog in a user-friendly way all the information J .K .Rowling has given us about the world she has created, the universe of Harry Potter. For that purpose, a distinction is made between information which comes from the author herself and that which comes from other sources, whether officially licensed or not. Information which comes directly from Rowling is referred to as “the canon.”
The use of the term “canon” to represent the body of work by a particular author, excluding that which is added or derived by others, is not unique to the Harry Potter books. Aficionados of the Sherlock Holmes stories refer to Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete stories and novels as “the canon”. Holmes fans have been writing fan fiction and deconstructing the tiniest of canon details for decades. The same is true of fans of Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga. Potter fans are in good company indeed.
It would never occur to a Tolkien fan to include the animated Lord of the Rings film in their studies of that author’s work. No Holmes fan would argue a point about Dr. Watson’s skill as an M.D. based on lines from one of the plays or films that have featured the famous detective and his assistant. In the same way, the Lexicon makes a distinction between material which appears in the writings or words of the author and that which is derived from her work, such as the films or the video games. In order to make that distinction clear, it is important to state which sources are considered to be part of the canon and which are not.
The definition of canon is not agreed upon by all fans, however. A strict interpretation of canon insists that only information specifically stated in the books themselves qualifies, and (if you’re going to be extremely strict about it) only in the corrected Bloomsbury editions. By that definition, the discussion of the Knights of Walpurgis cited above would not be considered canon.
Most fans are willing to expand the definition of canon to include any information developed by Rowling, whether published in the books or stated in other sources. The Lexicon uses this expanded definition. Since Rowling herself treats the extensive backstory as part of her world, we do as well. Some of the back story is a bit difficult to categorize, of course. For example, can we say that it is canon that a dog-loving witch named Mopsy lives on the outskirts of Hogsmeade? In one draft of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling had Sirius staying with Mopsy in his dog Animagus form. Since Mopsy never made it into the final version, is she canon? We’re not sure.
It is important to realize that there are still inconsistencies no matter how narrowly you define canon. Within the published books there are contradictions. Some of Rowling’s comments in interviews simply don’t fit with the world she’s described in the books. Some dates and other information on the Famous Wizard cards are just not logical. Fans like to assume that there is one true set of facts, and as a result they work very hard to rectify these inconsistencies.
For that reason, the Lexicon prioritizes canon sources. It is important for people trying to better understand the Harry Potter universe that they understand which canon sources are considered “more correct.” In a conflict of facts, higher canon trumps lower canon. However, in some cases later writings trump earlier writings simply because Rowling’s process of creation is evident and either changed her mind or fine-tuned the information. A good example of this are the departments of the Ministry of Magic. Several departments were mentioned offhand in earlier books which disappeared when she set down the official description of the Ministry in 2001 while working on book five.
Information which has come directly from JKR in either written or spoken form is considered canon. All other sources, including the film version from Warner Bros., are NOT considered official or canon, although some information from them is included in the Lexicon if it can be verified as coming from Rowling herself. The films are wonderful but they are considered to be very expensive fan fiction, not canon.
Here are what we at the Lexicon define as the three levels of canon:
- Primary Canon – the Harry Potter novels
- Secondary Canon – other books and writing by Rowling
- Tertiary Canon – a variety of other sources which provide information from Rowling
Full lists of these sources can be found on the Sources page, accessible at the top of every page on the Lexicon.
For in-depth discussions about various interpretations of “canon,” these essays from MuggleNet are a must-read: