According to what I read, the original usage of the term "canon" as applicable to a set of literature works from a creator was by Ronald Knox in reference to Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" works (in a 1911 essay "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes"); though some claim it was instead Morley’s 1934 essay “Doctor Watson’s Secret” that introduced the term because Knox was basically writing a joke.

How and when did the terminology get adopted in relation to speculative fiction (scifi or fantasy)?

I am fine with any sources, but would prefer publishing or criticism or arts studies over simple fan usage.

  • I'm pretty sure Lovecraft would somehow figure in the answer. May 11, 2014 at 12:41
  • 1
    BTW, an interesting read on lack of canon in Dr.Who: andrewhickey.info/2012/09/07/i-blame-ronald-knox May 11, 2014 at 12:44
  • I've VTC because you've already identified the earliest use in relation to fiction. Essentially, you've answered your own question.
    – Valorum
    May 11, 2014 at 13:19
  • @Richard - Sherlock Holemes is not speculative fiction (defined as scifi+fantasy, basically the scope of this site) May 11, 2014 at 13:20
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    Are you looking for canon answers to this?
    – Möoz
    May 11, 2014 at 21:54

2 Answers 2


I've done a lot of work on things like this. Sadly, there is no specific instance. You've identified the use of the term for literature, and it grew organically in use in small publications following that time period (very early 1910s) until it was a generally accepted term. However, in the case of speculative fiction, it is not used to denote "worthy of being read" as in older literature (Conrad, Melville, etc) but to denote clear continuity.

Early writers it DEFINITELY was used to discuss include:

Lovecraft - (his work, vs. the work of others, led to what can only be called a CANON vs FANON (a fun portmanteau for "fan canon") argument.

Tolkien - There are many who feel that Tolkien's "canon" does NOT include the Hobbit, as it was written before his histories of Middle Earth were invented, and The Shire is sort of just tacked into the middle of that universe for the sake of a relatable protagonist or two. The Silmarillion is widely considered the de facto canonical source.

That said, my understanding (which I can't source currently, my Google-Fu is inadequate) as I recall from my years of literary study, yields that several "speculative fiction" novels have long been used as arguments against the actual Literary Canon, including George Orwell (1984), J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and other writers from 50+ years ago.

Hope this helps!

What you already know IS the closest thing to the correct answer. Even though it's not definitely Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Doyle has elements of the preternatural, and many pulp novelists emulated him. One imagines that if Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker had been more prolific, someone may have applied the term to them as well, but it didn't become a relevant term until the age of the serial.


I think that this is based on something beyond fiction. I believe this to be based on the way that the church 'defines' and regulates its 'beliefs'. It was just an easy, aready established term that was seized upon by fiction people.

The canon law of the Catholic Church is the system of laws and legal principles made and enforced by the hierarchical authorities of the Church to regulate its external organization and government and to order and direct the activities of Catholics toward the mission of the Church.

In the Catholic Church, universal positive ecclesiastical laws, based upon either immutable divine and natural law, or changeable circumstantial and merely positive law, derive formal authority and promulgation from the office of pope, who as Supreme Pontiff possesses the totality of legislative, executive, and judicial power in his person. The actual subject material of the canons is not just doctrinal or moral in nature, but all-encompassing of the human condition.


So, this goes way beyond any sort of fiction (depending on how you view the church !).

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