On Critical Reception of Harry Potter and Twilight Part 7: What the Critics missed (A: Surface)

For Part 1 of this ten post series, in which I discuss 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, for part 6 on using traditional tools to interpret modern best sellers, click here, or just scroll down the home page.

A friend wrote me to report that this series of posts has reached at least the eccentric periphery of the Twilight fandom blogosphere. If Twi-hard sites are anything like Harry Potter fandom weblogs, I suspect that news of HogPro’s arrival there is very much a mixed blessing. [Update: It turns out this fan site is a “spoof” or satirical fan meeting place of some kind.] Regular readers of HogwartsProfessor.com know that as a rule I do not visit fan sites or live journals because they are demeaning to author, book, and discussion participants as often as not and I am not equal to the challenge of such conversations. Some of my best friends, though, have joined the conversation here after following a link from just such sites. A hearty HogPro “Welcome,” then, to any serious Twilight readers falling into this discussion midstream! Please make yourself at home; your comments and corrections are much appreciated.

Today in the seventh post of this series, we enter the third and last part of our look at the similarities in the critical reception that the first books by Joanne Rowling and Stephenie Meyer received. The first part, posts one to four, reviewed the mistaken approaches critics have made to both the Twilight and Harry Potter series. The second part, posts five to six, discussed iconological or Platonic literary criticism and the appropriateness of using a four tiered approach in books most readers only appreciate at a surface level. In the third part, posts seven to ten, we will explore just what the critics missed at each level: the surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical.

We’ll start, of course, at the surface.

It is perhaps the signature irony and tragedy of our times that, focusing as we have on the physical sciences as our surest means to knowledge of what is most real, we have lost any profound understanding of what it means to be human, from our purpose and design down to knowledge about the most basic human needs. Eating is the easy example of our super-informed idiocy. We have gained the most precise scientific knowledge of every food’s energy and nutrient quantities (calories, carbohydrates, etc.) but have forgotten what, when, how much, and even how human beings eat.

The quantitative knowledge we have from food chemists, it turns out, is essentially useless when making food choices because neither calories nor nutrient quantities are visible. Not being able to see the substance quantities the nutritional scientists tell us determine what is healthy and what is not, we are left with only our desires to guide us (and the advertising that shapes our desires). Having stripped the world of a sacred dimension and denying the human capacity for sacramental vision or experience, we have lost traditional and revealed food guides and cuisine. In their place we have only the desire-driven food customs and habits created by advertising — the habits creating the chronic diseases epidemic to the secular West: obesity, cardiovascular dysfunction, cancer, and diabetes. By focusing on a material science of health, nutritional scientism, and forsaking a eucharistic understanding of food, then, we have lost even that which we thought we were sure to grasp and control, physical health, as well as our spiritual bearings.

As Shakespeare scholar and Sufi sheikh Martin Lings noted in his The Eleventh Hour, this ironic tragedy of losing the lesser thing by thinking only of it, i.e., physical reality, to the neglect of greater things, spiritual life, is the meaning of Christ’s parable of the talents (Matthew 25:29). “Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Lings comments that in our times it seems everywhere evident that “the unspiritual man is liable to find himself suddenly lacking in those very endowments that seemed most securely his” (Hour, p. 19).

I thought of Dr. Lings when outlining what I hoped to say about the points critics missed in the surface meaning of the books we’re discussing because it is precisely the surface meaning that the faux-scientists of literary criticism restrict themselves. Be it the aesthetic analysis of prose (“too many adverbs,” “only as majestic as a Judy Blume novel”), the reduction of the text to cultural artifact, the deconstruction of its syntactical components, or tendentious treatment of gender issues, modern literary analysis isn’t about reading a work at depth but in classifying it according to critical categories. As with our confusion about food consequent to a risibly impractical food scientism, our academic approach to fiction straight out of Swift’s Academy of Lagardo, in focusing on the surface narrative of stories has meant the collective loss of our ability to understand even that coherently.

Starting with Harry Potter, there are three things that come immediately to mind that most critics miss despite their being right on the surface: voice, drive, and setting. The first key in Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader is “narrative misdirection,” the way Ms. Rowling surprises us at the end of every book. She achieves the big “twist” she likes and quite a bit of her “you shouldn’t believe what you think” PoMo theme by telling the story through the Austen narratological voice (3rd person limiyed omniscient). How many critics have you heard discuss the most superficial element of the stories, “who tells it,” and what Ms. Rowling is after by choosing this voice? (I discuss the Austen influence again in chapter two of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures.)

The first chapter of Bookshelf is about the influence of Dorothy Sayers and her character driven mysteries on Ms. Rowling’s work. In terms of the surface layer of meaning, the mystery novel facet of Harry’s genre melange provides the story drive, what keeps us turning the pages start to finish. We’re hooked by the question Harry, Ron, and Hermione are trying to answer and are fully engaged by the characters. Again, how often do critics discuss what keeps the turbo conveyor belt narrative drive of these stories going and how it, like the voice chosen, are meant to create an atmosphere of confusion and foster reflection and “penetration”?

Many critics have noted that Harry’s seven year odyssey is a classic school boy novel see part 1), usually to dismiss the book because of the supposed inevitability that books in this category must be insipid “penny dreadfuls.” You can find out just how much Harry Potter is indeed a Latter Day Tom Brown in the articles by Karen Manners Smith’s [“Harry Potter’s Schooldays: J.K. Rowling and the British Boarding School Novel” in Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays (ed., Giselle Lisa Anatols, Greenwood Publishing (Praeger), 2003, pp 69-88)] and David K. Steege [“Harry Potter, Tom Brown, and the British School Story: Lost in Transit?” in The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter (ed., Lana A. Whited, University of Missouri Press, 2004, pp 140-156)]. What you want find even in these very helpful introductions to a genre I knew little about, though, is how Ms. Rowling advances the Victorian morality and her postmodern themes by making the school more like a trip to Transylvania than Tom Brown’s Rugby.

More on the gothic quality of Harry Potter tomorrow when we move on to the morality layer of meaning. What have the critics missed in the story line of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga?

There seems to be a growing consensus in the critical community that Ms. Meyer is a pedestrian writer at best and “terrible” is heard too frequently. As I wrote in the first entry to this series, I think these critics are largely hung up on the principal genre in the Twilight double-and triple-coded story-mix. No one of any taste is supposed to like Harlequin Romances or Danielle Steele novels and Ms. Meyer seems to be writing just this sort of book, with a few refugees from the Hollywood Horror Hall of Fame backlot thrown in.

But have the critics examined the formula of this genre to check the points in which Ms. Meyer conforms and departs from the rules? The several I have read that roll their eyeballs at Bella’s repeated statements of Edward’s beauty and perfection never raise the possibility that the author is parodying the popular romance cliche, or, more likely I think, using it for allegorical ends (about which more in part 9). The paranormal elements alone in the storyline signal that the writer is aware of the rules enough to disregard the typical gothic elements for hyper-horror and metanarrative-disrupting characters and plot points (can you say “vegetarian Vampires”? “werewolf love-at-first-sight”?).

But the critics diss her as a hack romance writer and many readers blush and hesitate to admit they have read the four and a half novels once (not to mention five or six times).

Then there’s the cover and opening quotation from Genesis. There are still some Potter readers who insist literary alchemy is a joke made up by sophomore pranksters at the Harvard Lampoon to snare gullible fandom members. That the cover of the first book says “Philosopher’s Stone” means nothing to these dwarves in the Narnian stable. We have a similar blindspot in the first book of the Twilight Saga. The Twilight cover (and, yes, I know the original title for the book was Forks and that Ms. Meyer didn’t design the cover) has a woman’s hands holding an apple. Wassup with that?

Cue the Genesis quotation: “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” A woman’s hands offering an apple, the critical line from God about what cannot be done… I mean, this is right on the surface, correct? Even the editors at Little, Brown and the cover design decision makers picked up on the Garden of Eden re-write this first book is about. Have you stumbled across any discussion of that in reviews you have read? I haven’t.

Just as odd, Ms. Meyer has characters make and repeat almost wooden references to specific books to the point of quoting passages from them and discussing characters. In her interviews she discusses that she has used these books as story templates, or, as she puts its it, “basing” her stories on classics like Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights. Again, the internal references to these books and others makes them huge red flags of story meaning and classical character facsimiles and PoMo re-writes.

Ever read thoughtful discussion of what this BYU English major is about in how she turns Romeo and Juliet on its head (almost) in New Moon by filling out the characters of Paris and Roseline neglected in the original? How she makes Edward and Jacob into Heathcliff and Linton action figures in Eclipse and has them switch roles when Edward reads Wuthering Heights one more time?

Maybe these are the things I’m missing by not surfing through the discussion boards at Twi-hard sites. The subjects right in the story line and surface elements, though, that point to Ms. Meyer’s success being a result of her skills as a writer rather than the psychological immaturity and wish-driven tastes of her supposedly girls-only audience certainly haven’t been explored in mainstream media reviews.

Tomorrow: what the critics missed on the moral level of meaning. Stay tuned.


  1. Don’t forget the other Shakespeare plays: The Merchant of Venice and Midsummer Nights Dream. These are huge clues. You are right John, if that does not hit people over the head with a hammer to go and seek that lit out to understand her books, we are in trouble. Can you say “Dark Night of The Soul”

  2. IstariErangua says

    John, just so you know, I was a doubter about the Twilight books for some time, but your eloquent defense of it (not for the sake of the writing style, which is what I’ve heard the most complaints about) comparing it to my favorite boy wizard and his story, have led me to purchase the first book, and I’ll let you know my specific thoughts once I’ve finished it (read: probably next week, since I’ll be reading it on a road trip this weekend).

  3. Arabella Figg says

    Another great post, John. Thank you for all this hard work.

    You write: “It is perhaps the signature irony and tragedy of our times that, focusing as we have on the physical sciences as our surest means to knowledge of what is most real, we have lost any profound understanding of what it means to be human, from our purpose and design down to knowledge about the most basic human needs.

    I counter that, physical sciences be hanged, too much of Christendom focuses on “our purpose and design” but neglects to even ask and ponder the question “what does it mean to be human?”. In many spiritual circles our humanness/body is something to be despised, a mere jacket for the spirit, a despised material means to communicate with a material world, something regrettable to be gladly shed someday as the inconvenience and impediment to spiritual perfection they deem it.

    God called his human creation–in full–good (with the addition of Eve, it was “very good”–hah!). And God acknowledged that even he could not fulfull all human requirement (“it is not good for man to be alone”). In calling his creation good, God meant all aspects of humanness, including the physical. For us to consider our physicality and its requirements/possibilities bad is to contradict him. Our sin-tainted bodies will be restored, not thrown away for something entirely other.

    I first came upon the question, “what does it mean to be human?” several years ago in a book by author, sociology professor and progressive evangelical Tony Campolo. It struck me that I’d never heard any Christian, clergy or lay, ask this question. Why? It became a huge part of my quest while reorienting my life during a turbulent time. That question and a new understanding of God’s grace hugely impacted my spiritual growth, and I began to appreciate the body and humanness, and their beauty, needs and quirks, in a much deeper, more meaningful way. You could say I went beneath the surface meaning of physicality and human nature so neatly explained by many believers.

    If we, as Christians, try to separate the two concepts in your paragraph, what hope has the rest of the world in grasping the interconnectedness in literature or anything eles?

  4. I disagree that our culture or our churches needs to embrace “the physical” or “the body” more than they have. I find it hard to imagine even that this is possible. And I’ll leave it at that as we’re already a long way from the subject of the post.

  5. Connecting Mrs. Figg’s idea of the perfection of the body to Harry Potter, I would point out that in The Forest Again and King’s Cross (Deathly Hallows) the souls of Lily, James, Sirius, Lupin, and Dumbledore each appear to Harry in some idealized physical form. Lily and James presumably look rather as they did when they died at age 21. Sirius looks as he did before he was sent to Azkaban (at the same age) and Lupin also looks years younger without the gray in his hair and the lines in his face. Dumbledore on the other hand appears as an old, silver-haired man, but with a whole, unblemished arm. These images would seem to be what each individually desired to look like. In the case of Lily, James, Sirius, and Lupin, it was how they appeared as young adults, not as teenagers or as middle aged men. Dumbledore, however, viewed his youth with shame and regret. He preferred to look as he did as a wise and venerated old man, fighting against evil, before his final act of folly.

  6. Mrs. Figg, you can tell me if I’m misapprehending–but I had something of a similar experience, I think. The separation of the physical and spiritual realms, excluding the possible influence of one upon the other, must have come into my Christianity through modernism somehow. I’m not sure. I had failed–not to focus enough on the body, but to focus on the possibility of effects of body upon spirit and vice versa. For me the understanding came in discovering the Catholic understanding of the sacraments: I finally realized that physical and spiritual work together and strongly affect each other.

    With that understanding, then, I’m thoroughly interested to hear how Meyer’s use of harlequin elements might be done for allegorical purposes. I’ll watch for that information in post number 9, John.

    The rewriting of the Genesis tale fascinates me. I missed it, of course, but now that I think about it, it’s totally intriguing. Bella’s forcing her way into a knowledge that Edward tries to keep from her, a knowledge much too great for her; the deadly consequences of that knowledge, which she faces again and again, and the resolution through loving, self-sacrificial death–wow. I’ll have to think through that more.

    Interestingly, they integrated the first book’s cover into the movie. Bella knocks an apple off a cafeteria buffet, and it bounces off Edward’s foot; he catches it and holds it out to her in cupped hands.

    I can understand the frustration of those who are exasperated by our culture’s taste for the informal voice and the less-than-magisterial, even though I can only agree with it to a point. It reminds me of church debates (which I’ve been around numerous times, having been involved in church music for many years) over hymns played on organ and praise choruses played on the guitar. All Creatures of our God and King, played on the pipe organ with the stops pulled out, is sublime–the earth loses its gravity and I feel like I can touch heaven listening to that. But Here I am to Worship, guitar strumming alongside the highly repetitive melody, is almost as likely to bring tears to my eyes; it’s comforting, and heaven seems to reach down and softly touch the earth. Nobody claims that the latter is constructed on principles as high as that of the former, but that lowliness doesn’t make it meaningless or unworthy.

    The polarization is of the masculine and feminine–which might also help explain why academic men so often snub the work of women–and the two were made for union.

    We just need a little alchemy. Heh. 😛

  7. Arabella Figg says

    Thank you LibraryLily. I’m hesitant to comment on this again after John’s response, but I was referring to the modernistic gnosticism of the faith in which I was “spiritually raised,” in which the body has been so irredeemably ruined by sin in the Garden, that it is merely a hindering burden to be gladly shed. I wasn’t referring to *indulging* our physicality (too much of that!), but embracing, not denying, its importance and connectedness to our wholeness–spirit, mind and body. I feel one of Twilight’s below-surface meanings may be about the balance of these three, and how none can be separated or demeaned as unnecessary and “lesser.”

  8. Wasnn’t quite sure where to post this comment, but thought I’d put it here as it relates (loosely) to the comparison of Twilight and Harry Potter, though not to the specific topic of Part 7 — After reading all of John’s postings comparing Twilight and Harry Potter, I was highly amused this morning to catch part of/be told of two back-to-back episodes of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (on Cartoon Network): one called “Dracula Must Die,” spoofing Dracula and the movie Romeo Must Die, and the second “Nigel Planter & the Order of the Peanuts,” spoofing our favorite boy with a scar. The part of Dracula Must Die that I caught was extremely funny and my daughter described Larry Planter to me and it sounded very funny, too. Interesting juxtaposition of episodes, and in fact they were sequential episodes when originally produced; both are from season 7 (2007), episodes 11 (Dracula) and 12 (Nigel Planter). They’re on again today at 3:30 and 4:00 EST but that will probably have passed by the time this is posted.

  9. juliababyjen says

    Good post, John! It’s amazing how people only see what they want to see, right?

  10. Lily Luna says

    Sorry to dredge up an old topic. I just finished reading Twilight and New Moon for the first time. Both books were very gripping, extreme page-turners, and well written, which I didn’t expect. Regarding the cover art for Twilight with the woman holding the apple: in addition to the interpretation offered above, of it symbolizing the Garden of Eden, man’s downfall, original sin, the temptation of knowledge, it seemed to me symbolize the physical temptation of biting. What do you do with a juicy, tempting apple? You sink your teeth into it, give it a big bite, just like what Edward longs to do to Bella’s neck, but must will himself not to.

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