'The Dark Crystal' Canon Cracked
How 'The Dark Crystal' Canon Has Changed Over Time
The Netflix fantasy series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a prequel to Jim Henson's 1982 film The Dark Crystal, has been embraced by many fans of the franchise. However, it has contradicted other Dark Crystal media, thus bringing attention to the question of canon. Below is a history of what the Jim Henson Company has said about the canon, as well as a broad overview of the contradictions (which may contain spoilers).
The Age of Canon
The original film had a novelization, but some details in that book are different since they are based on an earlier version of the film. I imagine that some details can still remain canon as long as they do not conflict with the film. Then came the 1983 book The World of the Dark Crystal, which told the history of Thra from the Age of Innocence to the events of the film.
For the next quarter of a century, there were no new stories until Tokyopop released the manga Legends of the Dark Crystal, set during the Garthim War that results in the extermination of many Gelfling prior to the film. The two volumes, The Garthim Wars and Trial by Fire, were released in 2007 and 2010 respectively. Then Archaia released a graphic novel series titled The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths, with each volume released in 2012, 2013, and 2015. These graphic novels retold the early history of Thra and the Great Division differently from how The World of the Dark Crystal presented it.
Though it may not be common knowledge, the Jim Henson Company did comment on the canonicity of these supplementary materials. In 2013, they decided to hold a contest called The Author Quest, which would result in the selection of an author for a young adult novel series leading up to the Gelfling Gathering prior to the Garthim War. For the participants, the company included a FAQ page and submission guidelines that contained comments regarding canon.
One of the questions on the FAQ page was, "Are the Archaia and TOKYOPOP graphic novels considered canon?" The response was, "Absolutely. We love those stories and they are planted solidly in the official Dark Crystal universe." The FAQ made no mention of The World of the Dark Crystal, so it seemed that the more recent Creation Myths graphic novels had the definitive backstory for Thra, with details of The World of the Dark Crystal (particularly regarding the urSkeks' backstory and where in the Castle their division took place) being retconned. So in 2013, the Jim Henson Company's view was that Legends of the Dark Crystal and Creation Myths were canon, despite minor contradictions.
In the feast scene of Trial by Fire, it appears that there are seventeen Skeksis. However, the original eighteen are reduced to sixteen right after the Great Division in Creation Myths. A possible way to fix this would be to say that one of the Skeksis in that scene is just a statue, as there are other such artifacts in the Castle.
In 2011, artist Heidi Arnold mentioned that skekCru the Mariner and skekEer the Spymaster were next to skekVar the General in the feast scene. But neither of those names appeared on the Skeksis list on the DarkCrystal.com in 2013, with skekSa being the Mariner and no Spymaster to be seen (I like to think that skekYi, who dies along with skekHak the Machinist in Creation Myths, would have become the Spymaster.). Since those names are not in the manga itself, no in-universe explanation is required.
It appears that the intention was also to have the young adult novels be considered canon. The submission guidelines said, "Have you ever told a story that can withstand the test of time and forever be part of The Dark Crystal canon?" So, in 2013, it seemed that there was a promise that the yet-to-be-written young adult novels would be as canon as the film, along with the Archaia and Tokyopop books. The guidelines added, "In creating your story it is important to tell an exciting and unique tale that expands the existing canon in a way that's true to not just the physical world and characters of The Dark Crystal but also to its themes and ideas."
June 2014 saw the release of The Dark Crystal Author Quest, which contained short stories by the top five finalists of the contest. The introduction states, "Many of the characters and plots are original, yet are also consistent with the canon outlined on DarkCrystal.com." This may not necessarily have meant that the short stories were canon, but rather consistent with the lore of Thra as it was outlined at the time. It was possible that they would be contradicted. One of the short stories is even an early version of what would become the 2016 novel Shadows of the Dark Crystal by J.M. Lee.
Each subsequent year, that first novel was followed by the sequels Song of the Dark Crystal, Tides of the Dark Crystal, and Flames of the Dark Crystal. These books acknowledged the events of Creation Myths, right down to the existence of Aughra's son Raunip and which Skeksis are present during this time period. And by the end of the novel series, it seemed possible for the events of the manga to still take place afterward, though there were minor discrepancies (which I will go into later). The final book, Flames of the Dark Crystal, was released a few days before the TV series, and the marketing made it seem like it was essential reading that would add another layer to the series: "Before you watch the upcoming Netflix series (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance), read these original novels from J. M. Lee that tie into the events of the series."
The Great Division
Characters from the books did end up getting included in Age of Resistance. And it seemed like the show would tell the same story as the novels, but from different perspectives. However, the way that certain events play out in the show are very different from how they are told in the novels. The way that Naia and Kylan meet Rian is different from how the meeting plays out in the beginning of Song of the Dark Crystal. The carriage sequence from Tides of the Dark Crystal is told again in the next episode, but there are differences there as well.
The Dream Space sequence with Aughra happens in both that book and the show. But in the show, it seems impossible for Kylan, Naia, and Tavra to have met with Aughra at her home prior to the Dream Space event as they do in Song of the Dark Crystal, since Aughra is by the Sanctuary Tree during these episodes. And while Tavra becomes a crystal spider in the books, she gets controlled by the Arathim in the show. Some characters from each medium are even absent from the other. The final confrontations with skekMal plays out differently, with the last novel even depicting the origin of the Wall of Destiny. And the deaths of skekVar and skekLach prior to the Garthim War mean that Legends of the Dark Crystal, as its story is told, cannot fit in the same continuity as Age of Resistance.
Clearly, the Jim Henson Company had an idea of what they considered canon, but then things changed behind the scenes as the TV series was being developed. In an interview with Tobias Rowe on the site for the Trial by Stone podcast, author J.M. Lee talked about the differences between tellings. A big fan of Age of Resistance (who even wrote the second episode), he emphasized that the show was never meant to adapt his books and that differences in storytelling will depend on the medium and budget. Providing a timeline of behind the scenes events, he talked specifically about Gelfling swordsman Amri's absence from Age of Resistance:
"Age of Resistance was greenlit in 2016 and the story mostly broken in spring of 2017—almost a full year before Tides of the Dark Crystal (Amri’s book) was written in January of 2018. So even though his book came out before the show, it was technically written after the series was broken. To be totally honest, he just—unfortunately—missed the boat."
Lee also explained that "each person’s interpretation of an event or sequence of events is going to differ." This might allude to the possibility of unreliable narrators. However, there is no indication within his novels that there is someone in-universe telling the story that plays out in those books. The excuse could apply to other works, though. In Legends of the Dark Crystal, a Mystic is shown telling the story that we see in the manga, though I am not sure why that Mystic would say that skekLach and skekVar are around during the Garthim War when, in Age of Resistance, we see their deaths prior to that conflict.
In Creation Myths, we also see that Raunip is telling the events that play out in those graphic novels. But as of now, Creation Myths might still be able to fit with the lore of Age of Resistance. During the show, only sixteen Skeksis are known to be alive, which would fall in line with two having died in Creation Myths. Aughra in the show recalls having entrusted the Crystal Castle to the Skeksis and does not see them as a threat right away. And the narration at the beginning of the show says the Skeksis built the observatory for her, though much of the background info would be retold by skekGra and urGoh in a way that's closer to how Creation Myths and the film present it.
Creation Myths reveals that the cracking of the Crystal caused Aughra to become forgetful. This could explain why she recalls things differently in Age of Resistance, as well as why the Book of Aughra in The World of the Dark Crystal tells a different account of the backstory bereft of Raunip. Her faulty memory is also mentioned in the Book of Raunip from Song of the Dark Crystal. Though that book does not appear in Age of Resistance, there is a mention of a place called Raunip's Pass. Writer Will Matthews has also expressed that there was no space for Raunip in this season, but he would love for the character to appear in the show in the future. Only time will tell whether his fate in Creation Myths will remain intact, as far as canon goes.
Words That Stay?
There are also other materials that take place later in the timeline and have yet to be contradicted by anything onscreen. The children's book The Dark Crystal Tales contains three short tales about the Skeksis, Jen, and Kira prior to the events of the original film. Sometime after the film is the 2017-2018 comic series The Power of the Dark Crystal, which was originally developed as a sequel film in the 2000s. The story continued in another comic series titled Beneath the Dark Crystal, which ended recently. It's possible for all of these to still be canon, but the Jim Henson Company does not appear to have an established canon system in place. Who's to say that these won't be adapted onscreen in the future with alterations?
More recently, a comic series that takes place prior to and has the same title as The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has begun (It really should have been given a different title to avoid confusion.). Presumably, this may end up fitting well with the show. But it might not be surprising if some ideas change behind the scenes, resulting in a new season contradicting the backstory depicted here. At the moment, it feels like what's onscreen is what's permanently canon, and anything could get overwritten.
Heal the Canon
None of the contradictions keep me from loving The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. And they do not affect my enjoyment of any of the print media. But the contradictions were distracting the first time that I watched the show. I had to give up trying to reconcile everything, because trying to do so took me out of the show. It's so odd how the last J.M. Lee novel was advertised as something to read before the show. With hindsight, the marketing for it reads more like, "Hey, read this now because the show is gonna change it!"
The Jim Henson Company needs to redefine what the canon of The Dark Crystal franchise includes. Otherwise, fans might have certain expectations going into new stories, and then those expectations could go out the window. Honestly, it's very surprising how a smaller franchise (compared to Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who) was unable to keep all of its stories consistent. Such excuses as unreliable narrators, legends, and myths can be used to explain discrepancies. They might give off a feeling of a complex mythology. But these explanations feel lazy. It can get a little frustrating not knowing what "really happened." Yes, this is fiction. But the lack of consistency can affect immersion. It affected viewers when they thought that the opening narration of Age of Resistance was exactly how the backstory happened. Going forward, this franchise needs to aim for more synergy between media when it comes to continuity.