New Yorker: Dragon’s Egg — High Fantasy for Young Adults

Adam Gropnik offers his thoughts on Twilight, The Lord of the Rings, and the Eragon books in ‘The Dragon’s Egg: High Fantasy for Young Adults,‘ the Critics at Large column in The New Yorker (5 Dec 2011). I recommend it for three reasons:

(1) It is the sort of writing that thinks of reading as a psychological diversion rather than a means of transcending self, which is to say, ‘psychological’ in the sense of what we usually mean by ‘spiritual.’ As such, the insights and critiques offered, however clever and well put they are (and I like Gropnik…), leave me wondering, “does this sort of criticism explain what readers find worth re-reading many times, especially in the case of Eragon?”

Saying it is “mythology” and that young adults crave mythology more than story without explaining why that might be and what mythology is really isn’t doing much more than re-setting the taxonomic labels for literature students. Eliade said that reading serves a religious or mythic function in secular cultures and I suspect that Mr. Gropnik if he were honest with himself would have to admit he is using the word ‘mythology’ and ‘sacred books’ to mean what we normally would call ‘religion.’

Just never in The New Yorker. He is obliged lest he suggest that human beings long for a greater reality than their ego-bonds to opine that “Kids love these books because it satisfies, y’know, that big narrative longing all adolescents have…” Sigh.

(2) We are seeing movement at last in appreciating what Mrs. Meyer does well in no less a forum than The New Yorker. Gropnik is no Twi-hard, certainly, but he does allow that she can write:

Books win their audiences for a reason. Most popular books wear their artlessness on their sleeve: Stephenie Meyer, the author of the “Twilight” series, is an awkward writer with little feeling for construction, but the intensity of emotion with which she imbues her characters is enviable. You never doubt her commitment to the material, which is half the battle won.


That other great phenomenon of fiction for thirteen-year-olds, Meyer’s “Twilight,” may again help explain its more boy-centered companion series. What’s striking is how little escapism there is in these stories of vampires and werewolves. This is how the Bellas of the world actually experience their lives, torn between the cool, sensitive boy from the strange, affluent family and the dishy athletic boy from across the tracks. It’s “My So-Called Life,” with fangs and fur. The genius of the narrative lies in how neatly the familiar experiences are turned into occult ones; the Cullens, for instance, are very much like the non-vampire family in “Endless Love”; even the terrifying Volturi are the Italian family you go and stay with in Europe. The tedious normalcy of the “Twilight” books is what gives them their shiver; this is not so much the life that a teen-age girl would wish to have but the one that she already has, rearranged with heightened symbols. Your life could be like this; seen properly, from inside, it is like this.

Back-handed? Yep. Patronizing? Obviously. But this is progress, believe it or not. The New Yorker is allowing that there is value in Twilight. Anthropological artifact value mostly, but value nonetheless.

(3) I loved the stories about Tolkien being the worst possible professor. What an indictment of the man! I hope we get to read the thoughts of Ms. Rowling’s French students someday.

Your comments and corrections, please. Hat tip to James!


  1. Yeah, that quote from Philip Larkin was classic! I teach one of his poems in my AP class. (One that doesn’t have profanity, obviously.) Oddly enough, amongst my senior high schoolers, both Tolkien’s fantasy and Larkin’s poetry are holding up against the dull test over the decades. 🙂

    (Of course, I’m assuming that was THE Philip Larkin. I’m not sure how common that name really is.)

  2. I don’t really care what thoroughly corrupt proselytizing nihilists like Gopnik think about things – or rather, I would much rather *not* read it; since this stuff is a kind of soul poison.

    Screwtape, presumably, loves it!

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