Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Harry Potter vs. the Cullens

I'm having a very weird literary experience right now: I'm reading both the end of the Harry Potter books and the end of the Twilight books - first time through, on both counts.

I'll follow with a fuller review of both later, but just now I have to say that they've very different from each other, despite both being YA fantasy.

I've read Stephanie Meyer says her books are about love. And I've read that J. K. Rowling says her books are about death. And I can see why they'd each say what they've said.

But here's the thing, as I go back and forth between the two series: I think they've got it switched. For one thing, Meyer's love reads a bit more like lust to my eyes, and I can't help but twine that with the theme of death, as in "the wages of sin is". (Despite her best efforts - and her stories are very compelling - the "undead" never lose their creepiness. If you think about it, that's probably a good thing.) And there is death aplenty in the Rowling's books, but I keep thinking of, "No greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends." For all about her stories that makes me uneasy, in their best sections, they're about that kind of love.

And then, when I think about that verse, the "no greater love" one, I think about what Jesus said next, that he has called us his friends . . . and then I'm not thinking of Rowling's books or Meyer's books at all, but rather about Jesus.

There's only so much you can say about death and love in fiction before your mind forces you back to the bright light of the real world in order to sit and contemplate the victorious One who by dying conquered death, and that because of the great love He has for mankind.

And so I'm back to wondering why I read fiction at all. Perhaps because even in its imperfection, fiction prompts us to ponder reality in deeper and deeper ways. Perhaps it's even the imperfection itself that prompts us toward meditating on God and his mercies. When we read world-building exercises that are lacking in some areas, it makes us think about how they're lacking, and what is really true, in the real world, the one God Himself made. The good parts of the fiction show us the glories we might, for our blindness, have missed on our own (like how Aslan makes you realize what joy really means) and the imperfections make you yearn for the real, God-created world again (like how Edward Cullen makes you shiver at the idea of an all-human eternity).

I don't know - and I'm not trying to start a Harry Potter fight or a Twilight fight. I think in both cases you can make a decent argument for reading them and a decent argument against. (Though, disclaimer: I'm pretty sure Twilight would be bad for teenage girls full-stop, and not because of the vampires, but because, though the heroine saves herself for marriage, she acts nothing like the way a real girl wishing to be chaste would need to act. If you want to be chaste in the real world, you have to flee temptation, not wallow in it. That's just the reality of making the decision to wait till marriage. You have to be like the little sister in the Song of Songs, you have to be a battlement. And in terms of how virtue is practiced, Twilight is wildly unrealistic, and I don't mean unrealistic in the "there are no werewolves in real life" kind of way. Fantasy is supposed to be unrealistic in that way. But virtue is supposed to translate pretty directly in fantasy; that's the point of the genre, really. Bella's actions are just bad modeling, and Meyer is so good at making her situation emotionally appealing that I think the book hangover could be very damaging at that stage of life. I'm sure there are exceptions, but fifteen-year-olds aren't known for their objectivity, you know?)

Okay, I got way off track there. Anyway, anyone else read both series and have the same impression? Oh, and am I going to change my mind when I read the last few books?

peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

p.s. Touchstone has an article in its upcoming issue about Twilight that sounds absolutely fascinating.


Jennifer said...

Book hangover... I love it! Describes exactly how I felt after I finished Breaking Dawn. I was kind of a wreck for a few days.

And I agree completely with your assessment of Twilight and teenage girls. After just reading Twilight, I thought to myself that I'd let my own daughter read this book as a teenage... over my undead body! Way too sensual!

Tienne said...

Your analysis is spot on, Jessica! That's exactly how I feel about the books, too, and the reason I read fiction is much like yours: there's a mirror to the world that is sometimes distorted in a way that makes the actual world reflect clearer. And I love spec-fi for the way it recreates life issues in a completely different setting.

I definitely think the end of the Twilight books may change your mind about them, though I'm not sure if it's going to be in a good way or a bad way. Personally, I liked book 2 of the series (New Moon) the best. After that, things get...um...well, they just get "off" a bit, I guess. Harry Potter, on the other hand, gets better and better and better and better and the end is perfect. Like the Narnia books, it builds on itself.

I would disagree that the Twilight books are bad for teenage girls, though. Anything that presents real love from a man's point of view and has a strong male character with actual character would seem to me excellent material for a teenage girl. Edward is such a great example of husbandly love (Christ giving himself for the Church) -- at least in most places -- that I think it's beneficial for a girl to read how she is meant to be treated. Any guy who is pushing her into intimacy or who isn't in control of himself is bad news and should be tossed.

Of course, I would couple any teenage reading with hefty discussions about the books, morality, purity, realism vs fantasy, etc etc etc.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I agree with Tienne that the Harry Potter books just get better as you move toward the end. I'm betting you'll like the last one a lot.

Also, I think you're right about the Potter books being about love. I had the same sort of reaction that you did (the "and this is love..." one). I do have reservations about the books (primarily: the kids get in all kinds of trouble without, well, ever actually getting into trouble!) but overall I think the message outweighs them.

Heather said...


I like your discussion about the two series of books (Potter and Twilight), and I'll have to second your and Jennifer's caution for teenage girls when it comes to the Twilight stuff. Plus Meyer's religious views come into play throughout the books. She's a Mormon, and in Mormonism there is a great emphasis on the physical rewards in the afterlife. Nearly every time that Bella dwells on Edward it is gushing with adoration of his physical beauty. Also, the Cullen's life, despite their difficulties, is idealized--to live forever and ever, but in an earthly, physical way. Maybe I'm not explaining myself well, and I don't want to give away the ending of the books, but those of you that have read them... what is Bella's reward? It seems so lopsided to me... such an over emphasis on earthly, physical pleasures and existence. There are plenty of more criticisms I could go into about Twilight (mostly around the fact that Bella is in no way a good model for girls), but I don't want to drone on and on... However, one thing that struck me when I watched the movie is how quickly it all went down (as in Bella falling for Edward--in the book and movie). I mean it nearly puts ol' Romeo and Juliet to shame! I don't think teenage girls should be encouraged to attach themselves to someone based on a very short-term knowledge/experience. With that said, I did enjoy the Twilight books (some mind-candy as I call it) as well as the series by Charlaine Harris too. But then again, I also like Anne Rice's Chronicles (which I read in high school!).

Jessica said...

thanks for all the thoughts, ladies.

Tienne, though I'd agree that it's great to see examples of chastity in teenage literature, I think I'd disagree that Edward's a good example of how a young woman should be treated. If you could look at his behavior with the vampire stuff taken out (I know you really can't, but pretend you could), I think his behavior looks like nothing so much as the behavior of an abusive boyfriend or a stalker. It's controlling, suffocating, and deeply troubling.

Of course, in the book, all of those deeply troubling behaviors are explained away as him keeping her safe or in some other way being necessary because he's a vampire. But I'd still argue that a more virtuous vampire wouldn't watch her sleeping, wouldn't inflame her passion until she's begging him to make love to her, wouldn't play with her emotions, etc. So, while they don't actually sleep together till marriage, I can't agree that he's any kind of a good role model.

But even though I disagree with you here, I hope you know I'm glad to have your comment, Tienne, because I always like hearing the other side of an argument. :)

Heather, I'm with you on your observations. I'm especially looking forward to that Touchstone article fleshing out some of the Mormon theology.