Chris Biscardi

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Gatsby Shadow Contexts

Gatsby’s Shadowing functionality works on the concept of a “shadow context” or “shadow set”. This concept doesn’t have a specific name because it is never mentioned in the code at all and is purely conceptual for understanding how shadowing works. Let’s say a Gatsby site has a set of themes installed. We’ll list the final ordering of themes here, regardless of whether they were horizontally or vertically integrated into the site.

const themes = [

While talking about shadow contexts we have a shadow root and possible shadow paths. The root is the file that is potentially going to be shadowed and the paths are the paths competing for the opportunity to shadow the root. Let’s say we have a root in theme-a. In this case it’s a header React component, but the file content doesn’t actually matter for this discussion.


The full list of possible shadow paths for this root is then:


When choosing which file to use, we go from last to first in this array. The user’s site wins above all else, then we traverse back up through the final ordering of themes for potential matches until we find a file that exists or we end up back at the original.

This is how shadowing works. If you import the root path from theme-a the file the import resolves to will be the latest filepath in the list. This allows themes to import the root path and integrate with other themes that shadow that root path without knowing about those other themes.


Shadow roots and contexts don’t do a lot to help us explain single-path selection (unless we’re talking about forking multiple contexts… a topic for another day). They do however explain something interesting about what happens when a file further down in the shadow context imports a file further up, like the root. Let’s say theme-b wants to shadow header, but instead of providing its own implementation wants to modify theme-a’s implementation, also known as extending.

// theme-b/src/theme-a/components/header.js
import Header from "theme-a/src/components/header";
export default props => (
<Header {...props} aProp="I want to change">
With my own content!

In the normal case of any other component importing theme-a/src/components/header the file returned can be any of the shadow paths. This way even when shadowing is active the import of any given shadow root will always yield the same file, even if it’s one of the shadow paths. This is because the import is happening across shadow contexts. (The two shadow contexts in this case are the other component’s and the header’s, which is why we say the import happens “across” contexts.)

Importing within a context

When we are in a shadow context and import a “parent” shadow path (for example if theme-b/src/theme-a/components/header.js imported theme-a/src/components/header.js as in the above code) we receive the original file from theme-a instead of the file the shadowing algorithm resolves to. If it did not work this way we’d end up in an infinite loop because the shadowing file in theme-b imports the shadow root and with shadowing active, the shadow root resolves to the last shadow path in the context (in this case, resolving to theme-b itself, which then imports the shadow root for itself again).


This post gave some insight into the mental model for shadowing when it comes to importing from a different shadow context and importing in the same shadow context. Our next post on shadowing will cover what happens when you fork shadow contexts and why forking shadow contexts can lead to some very confusing behavior.