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TL;DR: See title.

I've been wondering, since my fandom is Harry Potter, how best to handle major canon discrepancies when answering questions, when separate canon-based explanations conflict and create disparate, but also valid, answers.

What is the best way to handle this?

What prompted me to ask this question is Pottermore and J.K. Rowling's explanations regarding the Chamber of Secrets and the Basilisk. in relation to the books. Currently, J.K. Rowling says this:

Chamber of Secrets - Pottermore - Current

Originally, the passage on Pottermore read:

Chamber of Secrets - Pottermore - Original
Please do not convert the images to text. Thanks!

So, the paragraphs are close, but there's definitely enough wiggle room between the two for a canon purist to argue retcon, author CYA, or just plain old, "Foul!"

There's more! (Of course there's more ... )

On July 30, 2007, J.K. Rowling says in an interview with La Gazette du Sorcier:

Delailah: How does Dumbledore understand Parseltongue?

J.K. Rowling: Dumbledore understood Mermish, Gobbledegook and Parseltongue. The man was brilliant.

This seems to correlate with the following, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

‘Ron,’ [Harry] breathed, ‘this is it. This is the answer. The monster in the Chamber’s a Basilisk – a giant serpent! That’s why I’ve been hearing that voice all over the place, and nobody else has heard it. It’s because I understand Parseltongue ...’

However, the actual books don't reference Dumbledore being able to understand Parseltongue at all (as far as I can recollect). Pottermore's information conflicts with the 2007 interview because if Dumbledore understood Parseltongue, shouldn't he have heard the Basilisk, as Harry did? Furthermore (ugh!), J.K. Rowling contradicts herself on Parseltongue:

Q: Since Ron is able to speak Parseltongue in the last book, does that mean that Parseltongue is a language that most witches and wizards can learn or must a person be born with some ability to speak Parseltongue?

JKR: I don't see it really as a language you can learn. So few people speak it that who would teach you? This is a weird ability passed down through the Slytherin blood line.

I'm not looking for the actual question to be answered here -- please do not leave an answer here. This is the meta forum and I've already asked this question on SFF.se. I merely wanted to be thorough with an example of a canon discrepancy by providing this lengthy example. What I really want to know is:

What is the best way to handle complicated or convoluted canon discrepancies in questions and answers?

I'm not looking for statements that J.K. Rowling or George Lucas or whoever sucks or can't do math or doesn't know their own canon. Spending years and years on one story or universe comes with changing attitudes, and I'm sure, like anyone, authors have moments of "If I had it to do over ..." And perhaps these thoughts slip out when it would be best that they didn't, and canon discrepancies are born. So, yeah, please no character or authorial competence assassinations. I'm not interested in reading that. Thanks!

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    To be fair to JKR, she’s publicly acknowledged that she can make mistakes with the consistency: web.archive.org/web/20041009205903/http://www.jkrowling.com/… – alexwlchan Apr 30 '14 at 19:38
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    @alexwlchan -- Well, yes, I realize that, but that's not my question. I'm asking how to deal with serious canon discrepancies when answering questions here on SFF.se. Most HP fans know that JKR has admitted to inconsistencies. – Slytherincess Apr 30 '14 at 23:27
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    Yes, which is why it was a comment – supplementary related info – rather than an answer. – alexwlchan May 1 '14 at 1:52
  • But otherwise, great question. – alexwlchan May 1 '14 at 1:54
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tl;dr: There is no "one true way" to discuss questions about canon because every work's idea of canon differs. For any given work, you provide as much information as you think is relevant and explain what makes it canonical. If there are any discrepancies, just point them out and let the reader figure it out.

I don't feel that it is this site's responsibility to assign motivation to an author's decision to change canon, so the question if "is this a mistake or a legitimate retcon or a CYA moment" is irrelevant.


Exactly what one means by "canon" differs for every single work of fiction. Star Wars has( had?) an entire database devoted to sorting out what is and isn't various levels of canon, while Doctor Who has spent the last 50 years laughing at the very concept of canon. So how to answer questions when the canon is complex or contradictory depends on what that canon entails.

I don't know exactly what one considers cannon for Harry Potter, but I assume that you do, so your answer should include whatever canon information exists and preferably where you go it. Something like

according to the novel Chamber of Secrets, such and such is true. In subsequent interviews, Rowling herself has also said this and that is true. Unfortunately, this contradicts another passage from Deathly Hollows where blah-de-blah happened, so things aren't entirely clear.

Things like this happen all the wibbly-wobbling time in Doctor Who questions. In that case, there's no such thing as canon, however, most Doctor Who fans tend to fall into two categories, a) only the TV shows count, or b) the novels also count. I will usually lay out the TV show only answer first, since that's what most people will accept. If I know of supplemental content that also exists I would include that in a clearly-separate section, identified as such, so the reader can make up their own mind.

Ultimately, since fiction is fiction, and the author is making up all the rules as they go along, there's a good chance somewhere along the line they're gonna mess up. As consumers of their fictional world, we just have to accept it. As scifi.se users, we should try to make our answers as complete and informative as possible, without going off on irrelevant tangents berating those authors for not being perfect.

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    For a nice example of how Doctor Who canon is a complete mess and how I would handle it, see: scifi.stackexchange.com/a/21274/2816, or @BESW's similarly awesome scifi.stackexchange.com/a/48536/2816 – KutuluMike Apr 30 '14 at 19:18
  • +1; being mainly active on Tolkien questions I'm very familiar with this problem, and agree that the best approach is to accept the discrepancy and even to point it out. It's also not the site's job to adjudicate canon disputes, and where one exists the most that can be done is to say "this is a potential canon dispute, move along". – user8719 Apr 30 '14 at 19:38
  • Actually, I don't know if there is a formal hierarchy for Harry Potter canon. I have my own personal hierarchy -- what matters to me most -- but if there is a formal HP canon chart or whatever, my adopted hierarchy might be different. Just to clarify, the point of my post is not to advocate the berating or character assassination of any author. My question is merely asking about how to handle very complex canon discrepancies when answering a SFF.se question. I had hoped my last paragraph would reinforce that I'm not interesting in bagging on the authors/writers. – Slytherincess Apr 30 '14 at 23:43
  • Ultimately, since fiction is fiction, and the author is making up all the rules as they go along, there's a good chance somewhere along the line they're gonna mess up much true, but I don't think this is too different from what happens with actual history (sources contradicting each other, making no sense, etc.) – o0'. Jun 9 '14 at 16:32
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I have a feeling that I won't really deviate much from Michael's excellent answer, but I fear I can't stand the lack of bullet points.

So, my own shorter version is:

Do exactly what you did in your example.

  • List every relevant fact you are aware, together with their level of canonicity.
  • If there are canon resolution rules for your canon[1], note which facts are "more canonical" based on those rules
  • If some statements are vague, pinpoint the vagueness and offer likely different interpretations
  • Offer up both clear communalities as well as irreconsilable differences
  • If you have a personal opinion of what the "most correct" final answer is among different possibilities, express that, explaining that it's your own opinion and there are other interpretations possible (for example, see my answer on the size of Galleon coins).
  • ???
  • Profit

Footnotes:

[1] As Michael noted, there are different rules on how canonicity of different sources is reconciled. If you aren't sure of the rules for your fandom, SFF.SE is a great place to ask :)

  • In Harry Potter, there is no official "corporate" canon rules but generally people consider Pottermore to arguably trump JKR interviews; which trump earlier books; with movies not considered canon at all by most serious fans (or in my case, very weak canon at best since JKR kinda approved a lot of stuff for movies).

  • Star Wars had (pre-Disney) Lucas movies (G-canon) trump Lucas TV (T-canon) trump EU licensed works (C-canon) trumps Star Wars Christmas Special (WTF-canon). Post-Disney there are new rules la-la-la-la-la

    My personal opinion of new Disney canon rules are adequately expressed by the following:

    enter image description here

  • Bullet points are a completely personal preference! This post took me foreeeeeeeeeeeever to write because I wanted to make sure everything was in the correct order. Funny, but my canon hierarchy is different than yours! :) – Slytherincess May 1 '14 at 1:14
  • @Slytherincess - DIfferent? Pray tell! Your order in the question seems to match (Pottermore then interview then book) – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 1 '14 at 1:18
  • Hmm, I had to think about this! I guess my hierarchy is Books -> Pottermore/Interviews (because there are discrepancies with both) -> pre-released canon (like with Half-Blood Prince when someone got hold of the book on a US Army base in Korea and managed to scan the first page of every chapter and put it online before the JKR police confiscated the book and took the images down.) -> Scholarly writings on HP -> Rumors and predictions from reputable HP sources (The Leaky Cauldron; Mugglenet) -> the Cesspool of lies (and remember, Umbridge said we must not tell lies) ;) – Slytherincess May 1 '14 at 1:37
  • @Slytherincess - See here for my own canon hierarchy. Add your own! We will have the battle of cannons! – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 1 '14 at 1:44
  • BTW, why are you even considering "Rumors and predictions from Mugglenet" to be any more of a canon than fanfics; unless they were confirmed by JKR in an interview at which point their being associated with Mugglenet loses any importance? – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 1 '14 at 1:46
  • +1 For the bullet points. – SQB May 1 '14 at 6:14
  • @DVK-in-exile - Because Mugglenet in particular (along with The Leaky Cauldron) is rather renowned for its reliability and strong relationship with J.K. Rowling. So, yeah, I do pay attention to what Mugglenet has to say about canon. :) – Slytherincess Oct 30 '16 at 4:14

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