On Critical Reception of Harry Potter and Twilight Part 8: What the Critics missed (B: Moral)

The Potterdelphia Meet-Up Saturday was a blast — and it was especially good to catch-up with Debbie, a frequent correspondent, and Demarest, who blogs at ‘To Wander Diagon Alley’ (and knows my books and the many other commentaries on Ms. Rowling’s oeuvre better than anyone I know). I hope to get to their monthly meetings in the future for the Potter fellowship this big city group offers.

Back to our ten part series comparing the critical reception of Ms. Rowling’s Hogwarts Adventures and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga! When we last spoke, I tried to detail the several surface elements in each writer’s work that critics missed even though they usually restricted their comments to the narrative line. Today I want to discuss the moral level which is, as it is almost always, very much tied to the surface features of the story. First, though, to review some earlier posts, we have to note that much of the harshest criticism about these two series has been at the moral level — and almost uniformly wrong-headed.

The Harry Haters, of course, decided to use Leviticus and their Culture War concerns as their lens and filter through which they experienced and critiqued Harry’s years at school. This led to the bizarre and wide-spread belief that Ms. Rowling’s books were both the “gateway to the occult” and primers for disrespectful behavior, even disdain for all authority. This reflected their misunderstanding of what magic is literary and Christian in the English fantasy tradition (incantational) and what is forbidden by scripture and every revealed tradition (invocational, which Faustian literature portrays as the danger and evil it is). It also was a good measure of how little we Americans know about schoolboy fiction, in which novels the boys and girls misbehave in their first years and gradually turn into heroic, sacrificial champions of the underdog and the school’s values. The seven Hogwarts novel are an excellent example of just such schoolboy Bildungsroman transformations.

About Twilight, what I have heard and read in concerned posts by Catholic, Protestant, and LDS parents and readers’ online criticism is that Edward’s watching over Bella at night is problematic, at best, probably an “occasion for sin” and temptation teenage boys and girls would not be equal to, and something that young people shouldn’t be reading because they might try this themselves. I think, once again, we’re reading a story through the wrong filter and missing story elements that are certainly hard to replicate “at home.” That centenarian, super-powered boyfriend, for instance, who never sleeps and who worships his love interest as a fragile goddess more important than his own life…

I find this prudential objection understandable, even predictable, but only because of my experience in the Potter Wars discussing the morality of Harry’s stories with parents and professional Pundits. Like the Harry Haters before them, the Bella Bashers and Enemies of Edward gag on a gnat and swallow the camel. The morality of Ms. Meyer’s story is formed by the selfless and sacrificial love that this young couple feel for each other and, indeed, for their families and communities. Their physical relationship turns on the axis of chastity, restraint, and self-control. The overnight stays only accentuate this meaning; those criticizing the books at the moral level miss the greater part of the story’s moral meaning and value.

But there is a lot more than the critics are missing in both series at the moral level which is so much more interesting than the “Focus on the Family” check list of acceptable story elements.

The first thing, to me at least, is Harry and Bella’s shared disregard for themselves when it comes to “doing the right thing.” Harry has saving-people-thing and Bella, though not magically powered until the book’s finish, also has little problem throwing herself under the bus if someone will benefit or a life can be saved by her death. From her decision to move to Forks and the first book’s ending to save mom’s life to her decision to keep the baby in Breaking Dawn and protect Charlie, choosing the hard way that is right without counting the cost is “so Bella” (I saw those words on a license plate today on my way home from church on the back of a car with four teenage girls in it, Twi-Hards, no doubt).

The angst Edward feels about Bella and her safety and the often painful decisions he makes contrary to his desires because of his convictions take this morality to a new level. He worries, most notably, that he does not have a soul and cannot, consequently, hope for eternal, extraterrestrial life. This belief prevents from allowing Bella to choose this fate for 3 1/2 books. New Moon is largely the story of his choice to live apart from his beloved in the belief that this is best for her. The engine, in effect, of the story drama on Edward’s end is implicitly moral and has its foundation in his understanding of the soul and an afterlife.

Harry Potter, though he does not talk about his soul, is the story foil to and doppelganger inverted image of an antagonist who invests his soul in physical objects and lives for an ego-persona immortality without love. What drives Harry’s fight with Voldemort and his remarkable freedom in putting his life on the line is his ability to shelve his ego-persona concerns and act on the right thing to do which he perceives through purity of soul.

If the foundation of morality in individual choice is based on a person’s understanding of what it means to be human and what life is about (rather than conformity to social or even religious conventions), both series give us male protagonists that are heroic and throwbacks to the Victorian morality of the Penny Dreadful and gothic romance.

Which brings us to the most bizarre point that critics miss on this level, bizarre because of its obviousness and importance. The Gothic horror genre is, by definition, Calvinistic. The gothic story, in a nutshell, is the Haunted House thrill-show experience written out to highlight for us the facts of our spiritual condition as fallen people living in a world apart from God. As Ann Tracy writes, “The Gothic Fallen world is characterized by the concentration and magnification of fears and problems inherent in the ‘normal’ world. Hence the two worlds are both effectively dissimilar and latently identical…. The Gothic world and the Fallen world are both blighted ones, places of danger, sorrow, and exile, in which the inhabitants’ only hope is a rediscovery of and reunion with the Father and the Beloved” (Ann Blaisdell Tracy, Patterns of Fear in the Gothic Novel, 1790-1830, Ayer Publishing, 1980, pp 315, 327). As much as both Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga is gothic (and your eyes are shut if you don’t catch the gothic elements), then, they are implicitly a moral text.

I devote an entire chapter of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures (have you ordered yours yet?) to the gothic setting of the series which is so complete in terms of using every possible gothic touchstone that it qualifies as heroic parody. Harry, believe it or not, is the gothic heroine, a la Mina Harker in Dracula, and his experiences are a melange of Bronte novels, Jekyll and Hyde, and Frankenstein. Ms. Meyer’s Bronte templates and vampire-wolfmen fetish qualify her books as gothic spin-offs in much the same fashion.

And this isn’t even the most important moral element of the books.

It took close to ten years but critics did finally pick up on the politically correct postmodern messages in Ms. Rowling’s books; they now consider Harry Potter a “4100 page treatise on tolerance,” as Time magazine put it, and consider the assault on prejudice and the metanarrative of privilege the core and depth of what Harry’s magical education is really about. I need to note they are correct in noting the importance of postmodern morality — and add that, of course, this is only an aspect of the Potter adventures implicit in the story line. The depths of what Harry’s choices are about and what love means are significantly greater than his being the pointman for the doctrines of equality and tolerance.

Though some readers think Bella is a throwback to helpless heroines imprisoned by their men, the stories of her transformation and choices are, if anything, just as PoMo as Ms. Rowling’s books and certainly not just because Meyer, Rowling, and their audience live in this historical period. The four and half books recounting Bella Swan’s adventures show every one of the ten qualities of PoMo literature I discuss in Unlocking Harry Potter, most notably the genre ‘double-coding’ and the over-riding focus on the evils of a deceptive metanarrative generating prejudice and the consequent importance of choice for self-actualization and freedom.

So the critics, either by focusing on issues that seemed to be about morality but weren’t or just by not getting the right-and-wrong aspects of story setting and detail, missed the moral meaning of the gothic setting, the postmodern fulcrum of choice, and the spiritual bearings Harry and Edward take as the focus for their sacrificial choices. That’s quite a bit, frankly, especially for those who believe that judging a neighbor is a failing and “bearing false witness” a significant sin, but equally remarkable in professional readers and writers who dismiss a contemporary artist as “terrible” and unable to write “worth a darn.”

And, if the critics are bad at the surface and moral layers, the meanings they allow such books to have and which they explore, imagine how bad it gets on the allegorical and mythic levels they cannot imagine. Actually, please don’t imagine it; come back tomorrow and let’s discuss the allegorical level of Harry’s and Bella’s stories to see what critics overlooked. See you then!

To be continued.


  1. John,

    As I’m going back a reading this series of posts this mornng, I’m starting to buy what you’re selling a bit more. However, I think there is a significant difference between how Rowling “offends” moral “sensibility” and how Meyer does it.

    The main thing that worries me is, in fact, the way Edward and Bella’s romance is presented, and the audience which is receiving it, the girls who (God willing) will be in my youth group in the next decade or so. I think that, if in fact it has as much textual support as it seems from your post, the God-man drama is brilliant. The problem is that, as much as I adore the fourfold meaning hermeneutic, what the books “mean” or effectively communicate is not “the struggle between fallenness and love for a watchful, protective God”–they present an older, superpotent, omnipresent, dangerous MAN (however noble) as the ideal to which girls should aspire in their own relationships. In HP, if you’re uncomfortable looking at Harry as “Christlike” or a “Christfigure,” he works equally well when the term and focus is shifted to a “Christian everyman.” (I’d venture to say that the two should be nearly synonymous, but that’s neither here nor there). If Edward is stripped of his “divinity,” on the other hand, what’s left is simply a pretty creepy and compelling Victorian man-in-charge. And that, sadly, is the on-the-ground consequence of Edward’s reception.

    Even as relatively self-aware woman in my early twenties–one almost ridiculously prone to seeing anagogical symbolism is EVERYTHING–reading the first novel in the series in B&N, I literally had to snap myself out of it–in a bad way. The relationship is compelling, but it smacks of escapism and romantic idolatry. I can’t quite put that reality out of my mind, despite your convincing arguments to the contrary.

  2. RenaBlack, I had to give myself the same head-clearing shake several times during my first read through the first book. I do believe that “romantic idolatry” is a valid moral criticism of the books on the surface level, especially the first (and parts of the fourth) and most especially regarding very young and otherwise immature readers. But I do still think the point of the relationship is chastity, which Bella learns as she goes. She doesn’t even begin to really get it until the very end of the third book.

    Maybe this is just me, but I don’t quite get the whole application of “creepy” to Edward. (It’s not just you, Rena–everybody seems to agree with you!) Isn’t accepting a man’s freezing-at-age-17-for-ninety-years, and the possible consequences thereof, part of the suspending of disbelief? Surely he shouldn’t wait for a hundred-and-five-year-old woman to come along? Or is it just that Bella is underage for the first book?

    I think Bella is the “Christian everyman” in this story and Edward is less a specifically Christ-figure than a general God-figure. I might be wrong.

    John, when I get to Dracula I’m going to have to keep in mind the definition of the Gothic genre as Calvinistic. I grew up a Calvinist, so even now that I’m Catholic I wonder if that’s why the genre makes such sense to me.

  3. juliababyjen says

    You have to remember that Edward has lived a very long time and seen many horrible things. He has a knowledge that Bella does not, and he loves her in a way that we probably can’t understand. He is going to be very protective of her, because if something happens to her, he will have to “live forever” without her. Or try vampire suicide.

  4. Arabella Figg says

    RenaBlack, perhaps you can frame the story this way for the girls coming your way.

    Bella is a lonely girl, deprived of family love and connection. Instead of her parents taking care of her beyond her physical needs, she must take care of their physical and emotional needs, sacrificing her own. Her emotional needs are not on their radar.

    She meets Edward, who is not only concerned about her physical safety, but is most concerned about her emotional ones. He sees (without mindreading abilities) what those around her have not seen–a girl starved for affection, protection and concern, who has had to be unnaturally strong her whole life, sacrificing herself on the alter of selfish others.

    She meets Edward’s family and views them in a fourth-wall way; this kind of family affection, kindness and care is completely foreign to her. It’s also a powerful draw. Carlisle can be seen as a loving father, Edward a loving son, the others as brothers and sisters who care for each other despite, and even because of, their differences. What a revelation!

    Bella is drawn to and desires this family with whom she can be herself, one that loves her and which she can unguardedly love. And she makes the choice to become one with them, despite the sacrifices it will require.

    Is this not a picture too many young people can relate to? Kids who come from broken, abusive, neglecting homes, who caretake their parents and siblings, who bear burdens alone. Kids who meet Christians and are drawn to God the father and son, who are drawn to God’s family.

    As a young person who came from such a home, when I met true Christians and observed them and was with them, the longings of my heart were so strong! As a young Christian at a weekend fellowship getaway I was entranced to eat meals–together!–with others who didn’t ignore me, but embraced me. To feel one with a family was one of the most wonderful experiences I’d ever had. To know that I had them forever (even though family members in my life would change through the years) has been key to my life’s health and happiness.

    I feel this metaphor/allegory? is one of the huge draws of the book; I would have loved it as a love-starved teen and I found it drew me along the same lines as a mature adult.

    Perhaps you can use the Twilight story as a *general* metaphor in this way. (Of course it breaks down in several ways if taken too literally.)

    I see no problem with Edward’s age, either, as he remained 17. True, he’s an “old soul” 17, but then, so is Bella. In Midnight Sun he ruminates on how he wasn’t focused on girls before being vamped, but on the glory of war–typical for adolescent boys in time of war before our “bad” wars, sex-saturated times. And through his vampire years, he hasn’t found anyone interesting or been that interested. So, I guess you could say the romantic part of his growth was arrested until he met Bella.

  5. Arabella Figg says

    Oh, I forgot Carlisle’s wife, Esme, who nurtures and mothers this family that chooses to be different. In my metaphor/allegory, Carlisle and Esme together represent God’s paternal and maternal aspects.

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