On Critical Reception of Harry Potter and Twilight Part 6: Iconological Criticism and Best Sellers (B)

For Part 1 of this post on genre criticism, click here. for Part 2 on culture war critiques left and right, click here, for part 3 on artifact criticism, click here, for part 4 on derivative dismissal, click here, for part 5 on why there are four layers of meaning, click here, or just scroll down the home page.

First, a morning Grin and Giggle for Potter fans: ever wonder what it would be like if Penguin had bought the Hogwarts Adventures series instead of Bloomsbury and issued the books as part of their Penguin Classics paperback series? Me neither, but the covers have been prepared by a very thoughtful reader and are now available for view (and perhaps for purchase as prints). Check out the Deathly Hallows cover especially. Wonderful. And, if you have $8200 lying around you’re not using, consider buying the complete Penguin Classics set at Amazon. Free Shipping for 1,082 books! (H/T to Dr. Sturgis and The Spectacle weBlog for the Potter Classics link!)

Penguin is publishing my Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures but as a Berkley imprint rather than a ‘Classic.’ I hate to think what a Penguin Classic cover would look like for the book, especially because I like the facing they came up with so much. Except for the eyeball in the mirror on the podium of The Deathly Hallows Lectures cover, this new one from Penguin/Berkley is a favorite.

Anyway, back to the task at hand. Is there any point in looking at a book through the four layered lens of traditional, iconological criticism if the author only wrote the book as a trifling entertainment rather than serious fiction? Does a writer have to consciously be writing at four levels for there to be allegorical and anagogical meaning in addition to the surface story and moral messages?

Of course not. It certainly helps to have the faith and literary intelligence of a Dante, Sayers, Lewis, or Tolkien but it isn’t necessary.

For example, it is almost indisputable (to me it is well established but I learned last week there are holdouts in the dungeons of The Leaky Cauldron!) that Ms. Rowling is quite deliberately writing alchemical drama, as well as sharply edged satire and morality plays involving a Christian Everyman. Literary Alchemy in the detail and consistency that Ms. Rowling writes is just impossible to imagine having been done accidentally. The design is so involved and the workmanship is so evident, that coincidence or chance is precluded from possibility to explain it; Ms. Rowling’s having written the hermetic parts of Harry Potter “by accident” is only as likely as a jet airplane is to assemble itself spontaneously and without human agency from spare parts in a junkyard The alchemy and Harry’s apotheosis is, therefore, deliberate and we have the analogical layer of writing.

The satire of the books (take Aunt Marge, PLEASE!), too, and the Christian Everyman allegories, from the Morality play drama in the Chamber of Secrets to the Passion Play of Deathly Hallows, all require really conscious effort. So the allegorical level is in place as something that Ms. Rowling wrote knowing what she was doing.

But can we say that she sat down to write and said to herself, “Hey, this is really a neat story, but it would be a whole lot better if I wrote it on four layers the way Dante, Spencer, and Ruskin say I should and all the greats did”? C’mon. The woman is brilliant, she knows Dante, she has studied the classics (and at sufficient depth to have learned the secrets of hermetic writing) but we don’t have any evidence that she is some kind of Thomist writing machine. If anything, her politics and postmodern morality would suggest she’d find the idea of being classified this way as repugnant. Melville has his push to allegory from Emerson but Ms. Rowling seems to have made the trip to the greater depths of meaning without help from Ruskin and friends.

The traditional four layered lens, though, is invaluable, I have found, in unwrapping her artistry and multivalent symbolism and meaning to experience the depths of her story. As I explained yesterday, the tool works, not because of deliberate Dantesque artistry (though, of course, that helps!), but because reality is four layered and human beings are designed to perceive these four layers. Story and especially imaginative or fantasy fiction may be the last place in the postmodern world outside of orthodox religious liturgies in revealed traditions in which human beings actually experience reality outside the cave. Which explains the great minds from Swift and Coleridge through the Inklings that have labored in this field as a subversive counter force to the great rip tide and weight of naturalism, empiricism, and materialism, which is to say, mental life experienced only at the surface of things or as shadows on the cave wall. Hence, too, Eliade’s thesis that entertainments in a profoundly secular culture serve a mythic or religious function.

But what about an author like Stephenie Meyer who has said her books are only entertainments, which is to say, they have only surface meaning? Can looking at The Twilight Saga iconologically have any value in understanding these books or why readers love them?

I think so.

First, Ms. Meyer’s “entertainment only” comments on MuggleNet, if taken to mean “there is no moral, allegorical, or mythic meaning to my writing” contradicts her other interview and website statements in which she quite clearly points to these greater meanings. Second, her books have moral, allegorical, and anagogical content. Third and last, I think the reader response to her books about Edward and Bella is inexplicable except for their causing her audience to resonate to some degree at the four levels of cognitive experience touched on yesterday, which experience for lack of better words would have to be qualified as ‘integrating’ or ‘spiritual.’

I’m not going to argue these points at any length today except for the interviews (I return to comparing the critical reception of the two series tomorrow which will involve the second and third points). Here I just want to make clear that auctorial iconological intention isn’t the sine qua non of interpreting a book or a series of books on the traditional four levels.

On the MuggleNet Interview comments: Ms. Meyer was asked on Mugglecast 156 what the message of her stories was and she responded “there is no moral of the story, the point is to have a good time.” Don’t strain yourself with finding the Deep Hidden Meaning because the tale is about “having fun and entertainment, and nothing beyond that was intentional.”

As I suggested in Part 4 of this series, I think we can dismiss this comment as self-defense in the face of the audience to whom she was speaking, i.e., a prudent modesty. Her other interviews reflect that there is moral meaning to the stories and the evident artistry of the books reveal her deliberate attempts at allegorical and mythic meanings.

For more thoughtful interviews than the MuggleCast gabfest, try any one of these:

*She told an adult ABC reporter that the “themes are admittedly dark, but she says her books are about life, not death — love, not lust.”

*In her discusion with School Library Journal, she discusses the books’ themes of choice and free will.

*In Meridian Magazine, ‘The Place Where Latter-day Saints Gather,’ Ms. Meyer said “her [Mormon] faith informs her work and hopes that the message comes through. She was looking to put a lot more light than darkness in the books.” We also learn that “her first book Twilight was loosely based on Pride and Prejudice; the second, New Moon was based on Romeo and Juliet; the third, Eclipse, was based on Wuthering Heights, and Breaking Dawn was a mix of many others including Midsummer’s Night Dream.”

*She denied explicit religious meaning in her books while talking with Entertainment Weekly, but only in the sense of not being a proselytizing tract. “I really don’t write about religion and my characters aren’t specifically religious in any way. I suppose it does influence me because I think about things like, ‘What comes next? Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is the purpose?’ And my characters think about those things. I think it’s important in a book that is about immortality to think about these things.”

*In her interview with the Wall Street Journal‘s Jeffrey Trachtenberg, we learn “the author, a Mormon, adds that her faith has influenced her work. In particular, she says, her characters tend to think more about where they came from, and where they are going, than might be typical. ‘Is there nothing if it all stops?’ she says. ‘They worry’.”

Any of these statements makes Ms. Meyer’s “it’s only entertainment” comments at MuggleNet an indication more of her humility or thoughts about the folks with whom she was speaking than of any conviction of her books not having moral or allegorical content.

Which the books clearly do have. I hope in the next few days to close out my discussion of the similarities in “what the critics missed” in both Ms. Rowling’s Potter novels and Ms. Meyer’s Twilight series by detailing the high points of each of the four levels in these bestsellers.

Over at The Hog’s Head today, Mr. Prinzi and friends are discussing an editorial in an Ivy League university newspaper that cites the popularity of Harry Potter and Bella Swan as evidence that the nimrod millenium is upon us, “the End of Literacy.” I hope in the next few days to demonstrate why this writer needs to stay in school, or better, to get out of the school he is in currently. I suspect that only when he is freed from the nonsense he is learning in the academy even for a spell will his chances of learning to read critically, outside the artificial parameters of canon that act as blinders, significantly improve. Stay tuned for the literary elements in the two series this writer so conveniently joins as “schlock” unworthy of serious readers.

To close this necessary diversion from the larger discussion of my series of posts on Twilight/Harry Potter criticism, though, I still need to explain how, if a writer isn’t intentionally writing at the traditional four levels that the writer’s book or books have these four levels of meaning. There are two answers.

The first is the one we saw with Ms. Rowling. Assuming she doesn’t wake up each day that she writes with the set determination to write like Dante — and, please, let’s make that assumption collectively — “just” by writing stories with satirical, allegorical, and alchemical symbols and artistry, Ms. Rowling is writing tales that reflect the four levels of reality as Platonists and Christians understand it. In this, her books engage every level of human cognition as we enter into them fully through our imaginations. I have to doubt this is her conscious intention; it is unmistakeably a consequence, nonetheless, of how and what she writes.

The second possibility is I think what we are seeing in The Twilight Saga. No, Ms. Meyer is not writing alchemical drama in the same way that Ms. Rowling does; it’s not a centerpiece of her genre melange and stage setting as it is in Harry Potter. But, as I think is obvious from the story templates she has chosen (Romeo and Juliet, etc.) and in what I will discuss here the next few days, she is writing fiction with involved moral, allegorical, even anagogical meaning. How is that possible?

Beyond the fact she is anything but the borderline illiterate many of her critics seem happy to assume she is (largely, I’m afraid, because she is a woman, a happily married mother, and a person whose faith is the center of her thinking life; call it “Governor Palin Syndrome”), we can start with how Ms. Meyer is writing much like Ms. Rowling on three or four levels just by telling her stories as she does. The Zombie theme of New Moon, for example, is, like the Dawn of the Dead movies they allude to, both allegorical and satirical. There are much grander correspondents that Ms. Meyer is after in her Bella Swan adventures but this politico-social Zombie element alone gives us allegorical meaning. The morality of Edward’s sacrifices in that book, too, and of Bella’s attempt to die to save her mother in Twilight, not to mention the commitment to principle over desires that Edward lives by (the online chapters of Midnight Sun are especially good for seeing this) make Ms. Meyer’s assertion that her books are only entertainment hard to take seriously.

Beyond just her seriousness as a writer, though, I think the nature of story telling makes the assertion that Ms. Meyer is writing on multiple levels of meaning that can be opened up using the iconological key more credible in her case than it is for Ms. Rowling. The nature of writing, especially writing imaginative or fantasy fiction, is inevitably the projection of beliefs into story. As much as these beliefs correspond with the multivalency of reality we explored yesterday in Plato’s cave, we have iconological artistry.

I mentioned in a previous post that C. S. Lewis wrote in Of Other Worlds that “to construct plausible and moving `other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real `other world’ we know, that of the spirit” (pp 35-36). Ms. Meyers is a faithful member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, a graduate of Brigham Young University, the principal LDS academic institution, and is married to another Mormon who are raising their children in that faith. “The only real ‘other world’” she knows, “that of the spirit,” is the spiritual world of LDS revelation and understanding; we can safely assume, therefore, that it informs her work.

This is not the place to discuss the orthodoxy of LDS beliefs (and I will not post comments that ‘go there’). I think it is indisputable, however, that Ms. Meyer’s devotional life and adherence to religious tenets is the core of her life as a thinking person; she has learned about literature and what great fiction is and does through the filter of her church’s teachings (every teacher at BYU must have either a Temple Recommend or, if one of the few gentiles, demonstrate they are teaching in conformity to Mormon standards and beliefs). Again, whatever your thoughts about the validity of LDS revelations and practices, their focus collectively and individually on preparing in this world for life after death I think is undeniable, and, frankly, much greater taken as a group than among most Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians who are not in professional vocations.

My conclusion is simply that religious people are more likely to see the world as Platonists do and, if they write or tell stories, their tales are more likely to have profound meaning than stories written by secularists or empiricists (do they write fairy tales except to mock traditional ones?). Classicists, too, are more likely to see the world upside down (which is to say “right side up”). I’m certainly not saying that religious believers and classicists are “good writers” or that they are even necessarily even better than non-religious writers or moderns per se. There are plenty of examples of Christian “schlock” we are all too aware of to take that proposition seriously.

I am saying that, as is evident in Ms. Meyer’s books (to me at least!), religious beliefs informing fantasy fiction mean almost by default that books by devout authors can be read on multiple levels. Whether the story works or not and resonates with readers, of course, is an entirely different question and one which, outside of gender issues, I don’t think is problematic in The Twilight Saga. It quite clearly, to the tune of millions of books sold, has connected with readers.

Your comments and corrections are welcome, as always. Tomorrow, I head back into reviewing “what the critics missed” by reviewing one by one the four levels of meaning and what Ms. Rowling and Ms. Meyer have done at these levels that reviewers have overlooked. Please stay tuned.

To be continued.


  1. Re: Penguin: Congratulations.

  2. Arabella Figg says

    Thanks for all this great material to help us more fully understand and appreciate books and story. I really appreciate the labor you’ve put into it.

    You write: “…reality is four layered and human beings are designed to perceive these four layers. Story and especially imaginative or fantasy fiction may be the last place in the postmodern world outside of orthodox religious liturgies in revealed traditions in which human beings actually experience reality outside the cave.”

    I know you despise TV, but it’s a shame you haven’t followed the mythic and intelligent show ‘Lost.’ It deals with the four levels (and then some!) in intriguing and compelling ways. It’s faith vs. reason theme, traditional and (often quite direct) Christian symbolism, literary influences (books shown, episode titles, and within the storytelling), and inside/outside cave thinking and motives(and resulting consequences) is riveting. I think you’d appreciate this literate show, with it’s huge twists, more than most people. Perhaps sometimes you’ll watch the series on DVD, in order, of course. (Jeff Jensen’s recaps/articles at EW dig into all the above. If you ever watch it, I’ll send them to you.)

  3. I really, really liked this post!

    It’s taking me awhile to catch up on commenting (I didn’t take my computer for the week in FL after all), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts and everyone’s comments on the critical reception of Harry Potter and Twilight.

    The idea that almost by default, “books by devout authors can be read on multiple levels”, makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it is because the very religious have spent so much time and energy and passion in asking the deeper questions of life; that much love and need can hardly help working their way into the creative output. My mother, an artist, always taught us that “what’s in your heart will come out in your art”.

    Curiosity: Do you think Stephenie Meyer used literary alchemy at all? My impression was that she did, though not nearly as thoroughly as Rowling … but I’m no expert.

    Funny, Mrs. Figg, but everybody I know who watches Lost absolutely loves it and hangs on every show. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes, which were only enough to tell me that there was much more to the story than I was getting. Most TV comes off as mindless and pointless to me, but it seems that now and again a really clever work comes along.

  4. My thoughts on the covers of Twilight: The apple symbolizes the fall of man and sin, the flower is hinting at Ophelia in Hamlet and Bella being covered and drowned in water throughout the whole book, the red ribbon, is the binding of her and Ed in mairrage, not without it’s disasters, and the chess board of course is the mystery about whether Bella and the Cullens etc.. will survive, and they need a strategy.

  5. John, this was really helpful – especially your observations on religious authors and meaning. I’ve come to the same conclusion, especially after reading about “Ender’s Game” (need to read that one yet) – Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, Meyer are all in a line.

    I also think, however, that religious authors may have a special propensity or talent for Fantasy literature for another reason: Their experience of faith while living in a modern, empiricist, materialist world could be related to their commitment to “outdated” themes such as “self-sacrifice”, “duty over pleasure” or “eternal love”. To say it polemically, in our modern world, their faith is as anachronistic as is their subject matter. Which of course may be precisely why it appeals to so many people – speak of Eliade, and smuggling the Gospel.

    I see a parallel to the Reformation here: When Calvin, Luther and the others abolished the catholic belief in a parallel world full of saints, ghosts, witches and a coexisting purgatory, they couldn’t purge the collective unconscious of these ideas – and as a result, the supernatural retreated into the realm of the fantastic and returned as literature – hence Hamlet’s ghost and the age’s fascination with witchcraft. Similarly, in modern times, many traditional values have become problematic and cannot (or not easily) be treated seriously anymore in “serious” literature – think of honor, chastity, self-sacrifice and the like. However, these values are still with us (if only as a cultural residue that informs our cultural experiences or if because they reflect higher truths is another question), and they find an outlet in Fantasy literature – hence the fascination with it.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your posts on this topic. Oh, and one problem I had was following your first argument about involuntary meaning on the four levels. You write that, consciously or not, “”just” by writing stories with satirical, allegorical, and alchemical symbols and artistry, Ms. Rowling is writing tales that reflect the four levels of reality as Platonists and Christians understand it. In this, her books engage every level of human cognition as we enter into them fully through our imaginations”. It may just be too late tonight for my mind to operate well – but isn’t this a closed circle? Are you saying that it isn’t the intention of the author, but the content of the books that counts with respect to the four levels of meaning – that whenever a book has a certain content (i.e. satire, allegory and symbolism), well, then the four levels apply, and otherwise they don’t?
    Not sure if I’m making sense here – I’d better get to bed P.

    Arabella: I’d love to get these articles on Lost you mentioned! That was the one and only TV-series I’ve been watching in, oh I guess more than 30 years… and yes, it was intelligently done, though I never thought it to be more than a mystery show with a clever script and good characterization. What you write makes me wonder if there’s more to it that I related to, subconsciously…
    Unfortunately they haven’t shown the last season over here yet, so I’m still in the dark as to what “it” is… and truth to tell, I got “lost” somewhere around season three, what with new miracles and illusions by the handful. So I’d be grateful to read something that makes sense of the story.
    John has got my email-address…

    rumor: Nice ideas and associations! I especially like the Ophelia-connection…

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