On Critical Reception of Harry Potter and Twilight: “It’s Deja Vu All Over Again” (Part 3: Artifact)

For Part 1 of this post, click here. for Part 2, click here, or just scroll down on the home page.

I went to the library tonight to pick up Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on CD (I am driving to Connecticut tomorrow for a Zossima Press lunch and to sit in on a class at Yale; they’re reading Goblet and discussing Christology so I thought I’d listen to Jim Dale telling the TriWizard Tournament story on the long drive up 287N). Our local library has a wonderful woman at the helm and she teased me because it took me so long to find the Potter CDs. “Your children would have been able to find them right away.” Because she knows what I write and talk about, she asked me why I needed the audio versions of Goblet and what I was thinking about these days.

I took a deep breath and said I was reading Twilight. After reading this afternoon one self-anointed Potter maven’s disdain for my suggestions here that there is something more than Harlequin Romance in Stephenie Meyer’s books, I half expected her to laugh or do the eyeball-rolling headshake dance. Instead she asked what I thought of them, obviously very interested, and, when I expressed my doubts that teenage girls were the niche audience propelling these books to sales approaching 20 million, she laughed. She admitted that her experience was only anecdotal, but that what she had noticed was readers of every age, male and female, asking for, borrowing, and reading the library’s copies or their own in the library. Other than Harry Potter, she’s never seen anything like that.

I share this conversation for you to make of it what you will. It doesn’t demonstrate anything conclusive, of course, but it makes me think I’m not silly for thinking I’ve seen this situation before (“deja vu all over again”). The desire to bottle and stopper the Twilight Saga phenomenon as a tweenie fad is similar to the insistence in media and reviews for several years that Ms. Rowling’s novels were “just for children” and their success was due to kids loving Goosebump like stories, their susceptibility to clever marketing, and the madness of crowds. Potter mania couldn’t be about the stories being masterfully written and having transcendent meaning.

I suspect we’re seeing the same sort of collective dismissal of Ms. Meyer’s work, which, it should be noted, is counter intuitive given her success. Yes, not all best sellers are great literature, but popularity is a marker of an author having at least touched a nerve or created some resonance within a large group of people with the writer’s answer to an important human question or need. Our reflex, mysteriously, though, when a book sells well is to look for ways to sneer at what the plebians are reading. Eliade’s thesis about the role of entertainment in a secular culture being mythic and religious tells us this thinking is upside down; if a book becomes a “mania,” we should assume at least that it has spiritual trappings and look seriously for allegorical and anagogical meaning.

But that’s not what we’re seeing with Twilight or the three and a half other books of Bella’s adventures running with wolves (and vampires). Just as with Harry Potter at its debut, we’re getting superficial looks from culture and Christian cognoscenti and their commentary about the reflection of the surface rather than exploration of what is beneath, behind, and within that is causing the response these stories generate in readers.

On Monday we talked about how Ms. Rowling’s debut and Ms. Rowling’s have both been met with critical disdain largely consequent to their choice of genre and yesterday I reviewed how each of their series has been used as a litmus strip by Culture Warriors for fidelity to tradition or apostasy. Harry is the gateway to the occult; reading about Bella’s relationship with Edward undermines a young woman’s innocence, and consequently, her commitment to chastity and virtue. Tonight, I want to note that the Twilight Saga and the Hogwarts Adventures have also been critiqued by Culture Warriors on the left, ironically and with as little merit, for being insufficiently postmodern or politically correct.

This ‘pc’ reading is actually something of a step-up from the other two critical reactions, both of which featured specific communities marking their territories and members with easy to identify touchstones. Notable academics condemned Harry Potter and Bella Swan as “slop” so reading or not reading Rowling and Meyer has become a sign of not belonging or belonging to the educated class (academia is a remarkably bourgeois and class conscious culture that, because the pay is so bad, has to use other things than expensive possessions or power to visibly signify membership). Culture War faith community leaders have done the same thing with Harry and Bella as the ivory tower mavens, only differing in their nominal reason for thinking these books something “other” and somehow defiling. The virtue of a politically correct dismissal of Harry and Twilight, though, is that it reflects at least a greater degree of engagement with the text than a genre or catechism check.

My favorite example of Harry’s being skewered for being an elitist vessel of capitalists to enchant and ensnare the young in order to train them to be consuming automatons is Andrew Blake’s The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter (Verso, 2002).

It came out the same month as Hidden Key to Harry Potter, my first book, and Prof. Blake and I took different approaches to understanding Pottermania and Ms. Rowling’s first four books. I read them as literature and found literary alchemy and Christian symbolism by the boatload; Prof. Blake examined the books and excitement they generated as cultural artifacts and, not surprisingly, found a crime being committed against the young.

Here is the publisher’s book description at Amazon.com:

As the British state begins to unravel, and journalists compete to pronounce on the death of Britain, a schoolboy from suburban Surrey who lives for most of the year in a semi-parallel universe becomes the most popular figure in contemporary world literature. Now read on …everyone else does …Harry Potter is an orphan, oppressed and abused by the adults around him, who retreats into a fantasy world. But ironically, as Andrew Blake makes clear, J.K. Rowling rescues her character through the reinvention of that apex of class privilege, the English public school, a literary conceit that problematises Harry Potter’s status as a role model and raises important social questions about the state of Blair’s Britain.

Andrew Blake’s examination of the Harry Potter phenomenon the literary equivalent of fast food also raises serious questions about the condition of the publishing industry, and filmmaking, and the ways in which the Potter consumer campaign has changed our ideas about literature and reading. Blake reflects on the ways in which these connections act as a template for Harry Potter’s extraordinary international success. Capitalism is, as the truism has it, global; certainly the much-translated Harry has repeated his Bloomsbury trick for child-consumer capitalism the world over. The Harry Potter industry provides the goods for all those generations brought together through the act of consumption.

The books are packaged for both adults and kids, and they are supplemented by objects more squarely aimed at children. Everything that could be taken from the books and films is available in Muggle-friendly form …and there are plenty of websites and in-store promotional posters to tell you all about it, and encourage you to save, bully your parents or otherwise spend, spend, spend. Thus the new generation becomes the new consumer, and Harry Potter, having done his bit for the future of publishing, plays another significant part in the development of consumer capitalism. Magic. No wonder so many adults identify with him…”

Prof. Blake is the Head of Cultural Studies at King Alfred’s College and he, no doubt, is a credit to his field of study. But for getting at what drives Potter mania, his holding the books at arm’s length to see how their success is only a function of marketing requires his beginning with and never stopping to examine the assumption that these novels are the “the literary equivalent of fast food.”

Prof. Blake takes the PC stance and denounces the work. Other academic critics who are much more sympathetic to Harry and Ms. Rowling, though, also insisted on deconstructing the text, “murdering to dissect,” as a cultural totem rather than a literary work per se with an effect on readers due to their artistry and meaning. You can find these treatments (mixed in with some wonderful essays) in the table of contents pages for Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays (Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture), and The Ivory Tower And Harry Potter: Perspectives On A Literary Phenomenon.

Unlike Prof. Blake’s Irresistible, there is a lot of value in these essay collections. The essays in each about Tom Brown’s Schooldays, for example, were wonderfully helpful to me, even enlightening, when I wrote the chapter in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf on the schoolboy novel genre. But every one of the books has essays that are more about social values, gender issues, politics, even economics than literary interpretation or just historical antecedents and influences.

Here are a few examples:

*From Sexist to (sort-of) Feminist: Representations of Gender in Harry Potter

*Potttermania: Good, Clean Fun or Cultural Hegemony?

*Accepting Mudbloods: The Ambivalent Social Vision of J. K. Rowling’s Fairy Tales

*Class and Socioeconomic Identity in Harry Potter’s England

*What Would Harry Do? J. K. Rowling and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theories of Moral Development

There is merit and meaning in each of these essays, none of which are inimical to either Ms. Rowling or Pottermania in the way Prof. Blake is. None of them, though, suggest there is anything of genius or even an especially creative or mythic artistry with spiritual valence and value in the series. Outside of Prof. Tumminio’s class at Yale, Prof. James Thomas’ at Pepperdine, Prof. Sturgis’ at Belmont, and Prof. Priggie’s at Augustana College, I’m not aware of other teachers that are looking at the books as much more than artifacts of this historical period and our confinement in the prejudices inevitable to our capitalist, racist, sexist (etc.) culture. (Forgive me for the many excellent Potter-phile literature teachers of whom I am unaware and fail to mention here! Please note them in the comment box below.)

To my knowledge, there have been no collections of essays deconstructing Ms. Meyer’s work but there have been plenty of folks writing to share their objections to her medieval ideas of sex, race, sex, family, courtship, and, well, sex. The books are, at the moral level, all about responsibility, chastity, virtue, doing the right thing, and such, even in the face of selfish desires or a mutually felt love. Edward is remarkably controlling and possessive even for a centenarian teenager, to which failings Bella is largely passive and submissive. Her father congratulates Jacob for forcing himself on Bella and it’s hardly clear we get a consensus that this was a bad thing despite Bella’s feelings of outrage (Edward’s murderous thoughts seem to be a function less about love than someone damaging his property).

At least one feminist
is chagrined by women loving books that celebrate, in her mind, a decidedly anti-feminist image of the helpless woman who cannot get by without her perfect man, which casting she thinks is a function of genre:

Such are the tortured internal contradictions of romance, as nonsensical as its masculine counterpart, pornography, and every bit as habit forming. Search a little deeper on the Internet and you can find women readers both objecting to the antifeminist aspects of Twilight and admitting that they found the books irresistible. “Sappy romance, amateurish writing, etc.,” complained one. Still, “when I read it, I just couldn’t put it down. It was like an unhealthy addiction for me … I’m not sure how I could read through it, seeing how I dislike romances immensely. But I did, and when I couldn’t get ‘New Moon’ I almost had a heart attack. That book was hypnotizing.”

Some things, it seems, are even harder to kill than vampires. The traditional feminine fantasy of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man, of needing to do no more to prove or find yourself than win his devotion, of being guarded from all life’s vicissitudes by his boundless strength and wealth — all this turns out to be a difficult dream to leave behind. Vampires have long served to remind us of the parts of our own psyches that seduce us, sapping our will and autonomy, dragging us back into the past. And they walk among us to this day.

The Native American community, quite understandably, is of two minds about being depicted as “magical negroes” in this series; why is it always the Natives who have the mystical voodoo solution to the white man’s nightmare? As Mariana observed at The Hog’s Head:

What irritated me most about Meyer’s attitude towards Native Americans is the way she perpetrates old stereotypes, stereotypes that are indicative of the general public’s complete ignorance of the reality of the Native American situation. How many books and films have portrayed Indians as wise and peaceful people with mystical powers and and a mysterious connection to the natural world?

And what about this heroine choosing the resplendently white man over the person of color, who is a beast? In ‘White Vampire yes, Indian Werewolf no,’ Bob Schmidt responds to a woman’s observation that “critical reception has been mixed. Bella’s enthrallment with Edward, and her near-constant need of being rescued, make some women (including me) cringe” by saying:

So the Disneyfied heroine (pretty, dependent, hungry for a man) will choose the handsome white guy over the not-so-handsome person of color, who happens to be a Quileute Indian. Nice message to send to the kids, Stephanie.

This is roughly the same story we’ve seen in every Disney movie, fairy tale, and historical romance going back to Pocahontas and John Smith. If the beautiful maiden is bland and submissive enough, she’ll get her (white) Prince Charming.

The corollary message to Indians? You’re not good enough to get the girl. You’re a loser who can’t compete. The only way to succeed is to abandon your traditions and act like the white man.

Even Edward’s and Jacob’s symbolism is fitting. Like an angel, Edward the Anglo vampire is pale, immortal, and (if he’s like other vampires) able to fly. That he’s a bloodsucker is beside the point. (Lucifer wasn’t a sweetheart either. Like his Euro-Christian counterparts, he founded a “New World” in Hell where he could rule over the unbelievers.)

Meanwhile, Jacob the Indian werewolf is hairy, snarling, and savage just like a demon. He’s literally a beast-man. So we see the duality Meyer has unwittingly set up. The white character is superhuman and the Indian character is subhuman.

But are these supposed sexist and racist failings of the Ms. Meyer’s novels what they are about and what readers love about them so much that they read the books again and again? It is hard to believe these books represent a Birth of A Nation moment, in which Americans set outside all their postmodern sensibilities and sensitivities on race and gender issues to enjoy a good laugh at Tonto and return to second-class citizenship based on gender. As we’ll see and as you’d expect, the Twilight Saga books are remarkably postmodern and upfront in denouncing prejudice, limits on individual freedom, thinking, and choice, and restrictive, outdated mythologies.

Just as with Ms. Rowling, serious readers are missing the cause of what makes these books work by focusing on their surface meanings and the reflection of these surfaces in cultural issues of the day. I have one more point to make in my list of shared critical responses to Twilight and Harry Potter before I try to explain what it is in each series that these critics have failed to see.

To be continued.


  1. John, interesting post as usual. I would tell you that you spoiled Jacob is a werewolf for me, but I thought the foreshadowing was pretty heavy in the text. Also, you have quite the critic in the leaky lounge. Travis tried to comment in the thread but to no avail.

    Northern Arizona has a freshman seminar course called “Rereading Harry Potter” that suppose to look both the cultural and literary analysis of the series. Not sure if it compares to the aforementioned courses, but sounded like a decent course

    Seemed to be a lot of baseball references in the text. Any ideas? I thought maybe an orb motif like the “forbidden fruit.” Or maybe, it’s just Ms. Meyer’s favorite sport.

  2. John, I just had time to skim what you wrote this time, and still not having read Twilight, I don’t have anything to add there.

    However, I clicked on the Leaky Lounge link and NOW I remember why I stopped going there. It was the “self-appointed maven”, who I assume means davidenglish? I have other, less kind words to describe him. He didn’t seem interested in anything to do with more meaning in Harry Potter than it just being a story, yet he couldn’t seem to keep from derailing civil discussions on the subject of alchemy or any Christian meaning. As Travis pointed out, he reads with his eyes closed – and his mind. Too bad he can’t manage to keep his mouth closed as well.

    Sorry to rant, and feel free to not post this, but he is the reason I stopped going to that forum. It wasn’t fun having to deal with someone whose only purpose was to be rude and abrasive. However, he did make me realize how nice it can be to have discussions here and at The Hogshead, where we often agree, but even when we don’t we do so politely.

    I think I’ll go back later and send a message to some of the mods at Leaky about his latest obnoxious behavior. Maybe they can get him to clean up his act.


    (I really will read all this again later, but I have to leave for choir in about 1 minute. Yikes!)

  3. Arabella Figg says

    John, I too only had time to skim this this morning. There’s so much to comment on and I see you have part 4 up. I hope to add my two bits soon.

    I just got “two bits” from Fullatricks…

  4. Arabella Figg says

    I just read the David English comment. My, my, has he got his literary undies in a twist. How self-agrandizingly snotty can you get? I should send Fullatricks HIS way…

  5. IstariErangua says

    Again, not having read Twilight (but not having been spoiled, as everyone has told me all about it) not as much to say here, but just as a matter of personal preference (and maybe many girls will think I’m weird for this) I prefer werewolves to vampires, if only because of the attitude of superiority that so many vampires are portrayed as having. I’m trying my hand at writing a story about a werewolf, nothing fancy, just playing around with an amalgamation of ideas from some of my favorite literature, including a view on werewolves that keeps them from being the mindless beasts, and though there are vampires in my story, I’m finding that I’ll probably end up writing them as the characters rather reminiscent of Slytherins, the arrogant snobs that are the reason I tend to dislike vampires. If anyone here has read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, his view of werewolves, particularly Angua from the Watch, is my favorite.

  6. juliababyjen says

    I still can’t believe these people think only tweenies read these books! At every HP book premiere party I was at, there were people of all ages there, both male and female. I would definitely say there were more adults. And by the way, my mom is who turned me on to the Twilight books. And she’s almost 60!

  7. I’m still reading both the saga and these threads in chronological order, in order to be able to join and contribute sensibly to the more recent discussion going on.

    Can’t refrain from a little comment here though on Meyers’ books’ reinforcing or recreating “the traditional feminine fantasy of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man, of needing to do no more to prove or find yourself than win his devotion, of being guarded from all life’s vicissitudes by his boundless strength and wealth”. I have to say that I agree with this assessment, and that I’m very curious if I find anything further up that redeems Meyers’ books in this respect. This unquenchable feminine fantasy and its roots in Jane Austen’s times (and the literature of that time) are one of the things that struck me most when reading Twilight – how come it’s still so appealing, not only to me, who have been steeped in “Pretty woman”-stories, but also to modern, young girls like my niece?

    I plan to comment more in-depth (I hope…) in this vein, citing Luhmann (influential German sociologist, I guess you’ve heard of him – love as a sociological discourse, or code of behaviour) when I get around to it, and if I find a suitable thread…

  8. I’ll be interested to see your take after you finish Breaking Dawn!
    The Pretty Woman fanatasy is interesting to me, as I never thought much of the movie, but a woman I really admired as role model just loved it, and said it was her fantasy. “You want to be a prostitute?” I asked.
    “No, I want some rich guy to give me his credit cards and turn me loose on Rodeo Drive.”
    The princess fixation, along with the attendant rescuing prince, is bigger than ever, too, prompting mothers like me to constantly point out to our daughters the qualties that princesses have other than looks (Belle’s intellect, etc.) Fortunately, Bella is more Belle than the super passive Sleeping Beauty! By the end, she’s much more like the heroic Mulan (sorry, Disney is big at my house).
    Yet Bella’s resistence to being spoiled may deflect some of this fantasy connection. Interestingly, she actually accepts some of the material perks of being with Edward around the same time that she develops into rescuer/hero instead of victim.

  9. I’ve been reading your articles and I have to say this one bothered me a little. I don’t agree with many of the assessments here. Bella wasn’t needy and waiting for a man to rescue her. Bella was actually very dismissive of the men around her. She was drawn to Edward because he’s her mate and vice versa. There is a supernatural component to their relationship that people seem to ignore. The story is based on the idea that were fated to be together, as though she were born to be a vampire and Edward’s life partner.

    Also, in regards to being drawn in by his wealth. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Bella didn’t care that he was wealthy and had a really hard time accepting anything from him that was expensive or reflected his wealth. She loved him because of who he was. He was a vampire that that went against his nature to be something that he considered better. He didn’t want to be a monster. She was drawn to that. She didn’t understand why he berated himself for giving in to his natural inclinations. Also, she loved that he was gentle, kind, charming, and loving towards her. He saved her life on several occasions. He was a heroic figure to her. She was drawn to that. Does that make her anti-feminist that she fell in love with her hero? It’s possible. However, I thought feminism was about a fight for parity in housing, employment and education. I didn’t know that feminism meant that women were supposed to be dictated to about what they should find attractive in a man and what they need in a relationship with a man, or another woman for that matter.

    In regards to equating the shape-shifting Quileutes to “magical Negroes,” I truly resent that statement. Quileutes real life legends is as follows, according to Wikipedia which, admittedly, could be wrong: “The beliefs of the Quileute People have changed over time. They originally were a very spiritual people. The boys would go on quests to find their supernatural power once they reached puberty, if they wanted to. Yet, at a certain age, the power would wear off, or stop being put to use. They would perform the first salmon ceremony to ensure a good season.”

    According to this, they are spiritual people who believe they have supernatural power. It is not so far-fetched that Stephenie Meyer wrote them as shape-shifting spirit warriors. They are in the shape of “a beast” because that beast is strong enough to defeat the cold as ice, marble-like vampires and protect their people. Yes, their main objective is to protect THEIR people. It just so happens that their protection of their land benefits the surrounding area.

    Why aren’t white folks upset that they’re being depicted as cold-blooded, parasitic creatures that have no heart? The Quileutes are practically elitists. They feel superior to the Cullens and they are NOT SUBHUMAN. They are superhuman. The Cullens are the ones who are subhuman. In fact, Jacob’s argument to Bella was that she would not have to lose her humanity if she gave in to her love for him and she did love him.

    It wasn’t a matter of Edward being better than Jacob. It was a matter of Bella and Edward having this fated and supernatural connection. I just don’t see things the way they’re being discussed here. Maybe I’m off track.

  10. Elizabeth says

    Thanks for joining in, Amy! Actually, if you’ll check back through our previous posts, you’ll see that your observations are much more in line with ours (particulalry mine) than some of those that were reported in this post! We often post stories that we find pretty way out, just to see what everyone else(like you!) thinks! If you really want some great Twilight insight, do check out Spotlight! It’s fanatastic, and it sounds like it will be up your alley!

  11. Arabella Figg says

    Amy, I second the Spotlight recommendation. You will have an even greater appreciation for the Saga. Some of the material you’ll find here, so do explore!

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