What Twilight Means: John Granger, Professor of Meyerology

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The prevalent critical tools take words as the critical meaning rather than story, which, to risk another tech analogy, is not unlike taking digital ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’ and reading them as signifiers of quantity rather than vehicles of meaning when taken all together. Hence the strangle-hold the of the “modern’ or psychological novel as the only genre writing which is just writing not to be dismissed as genre work. All of the story in these books is in the surface words and its value is in its aesthetic merits and in its implicit denial there is greater meaning to be had beneath the surface. This sort of story aligns with the implicitly nominalist beliefs of the critics and their tools, and, not surprisingly, gets high marks, if no one not writing for The New York Review of Books reads them.

What we need to understand Meyer and Rowling and all the writers, really, whose work resonates with readers, are the traditional tools, à la Ruskin and Northrop Frye. Frye’s spectrum of fiction is very helpful, I think, in getting at why Harry Potter and Twilight are the shared texts of the 21st Century. The spectrum, as Frye explains it in Anatomy of Criticism, is bound on its ends by supernatural Myth on one side — think of the Gods on Mt. Olympus in Bullfinch not Homer or Percy Jackson — and gritty literary realism or stream of consciousness on the other. Books at either end don’t do very well in the marketplace; story, just by being fictional, is a step away from reality as such, and myth is hard for hardened empiricists and rationalists to enter into by itself.

Most stories, consequently, are in the middle ground between Myth and Realism, what Frye calls “Romance.” These stories, when they work, are just realistic enough to draw us in and sufficiently engage our imaginations that we “suspend disbelief” and experience the mythic qualities lying beyond the story characters and events. We see through them as transparencies and translucencies to the transcendent. If Eliade was right when he wrote that popular entertainments serve a mythic or religious function in a secular culture, i.e., that people read to transcend individual ego and persona and experience a more real, mythic landscape, then Frye’s “Romance,” the story with just enough realism to draw us in and a boatload of archetypal and borderline explicit religious content, will be the best seller.

Forgive me for thinking that the popularity of the Forks and Hogwarts Sagas, stories meeting this formula exactly, mean we have much more to learn from Ruskin and Frye (or Dante and Spencer) about literary criticism than from Byatt, Derrida, or Bloom. To get at the mythic, archetypal, or transcendent meaning of, say the Cullen family, you need something greater than critical nominalism, because readers are experiencing in the Cullens allegorical and anagogical layers of meaning in these characters that aestheticism and deconstruction aren’t going to explain.

Back to your question. You don’t need a different approach for Rowling versus Meyer, you just need a critical approach that (a) takes each seriously as writers of worth and (b) has the tools to get at how they deliver the transcendent “wow” their stories are obviously packing. Frye’s iconological approach does just that while also revealing the significant differences in each writer’s choices and methods.

Okay, you mention the Cullens as a mythic family. At one point in Spotlight you suggest that the Cullens might correspond to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Unpack that idea for us, if you would.

Fair enough. The Cullen Clan are a celestial family consisting of three couples and Edward. The three couples are the family’s mother and father, Carlisle and Esme, the mystical duo of Alice and Jasper, and the gorgeous hunks Rosalie and Emmett. More obvious than the Trinitarian symbolism of these story ciphers or archetypes is the simple body-mind-spirit triptych obvious in the relationships: Carlisle and Esme are the otherworldly spirit figures of love and self-control to whom the family defers, Alice and Jasper have powers to sense the mental and emotional fabric of the world and the people in it, and Emmett and Rosalie are, well, center-fold portrayals of the body. How they work, live, and get along together is, as with all soul triptychs of this kind since The Brothers Karamazov, a snapshot of the soul’s faculties in its proper hierarchy and harmony, with which image the reader identifies, and, like Bella, wants to join. (We see something very much like this in Rowling’s body-mind-spirit trio of Ron-Hermione-and-Harry.)

This triptych in couples can be seen as the Holy Trinity because the family members are gods in all but name — never eating food, never sleeping, not needing to breathe, pretty much indestructible — who live in something of a Temple. Becoming part of the life in this eternal home, that is, gaining membership in this Greater-than-Human family, becomes the focus of Bella Swan’s ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-Swan ambitions, her dreams of divinization and life with the divine Edward.

Edward, if his family are a Holy Trinity of sorts and his home the Kingdom of Heaven, is Christ to Bella’s allegorical “human seeker.” His love is her means to Cullen family membership and theosis, which possibility and transformation Edward, as God, is hesitant for her to embrace because it will mean her destruction. God respects the human person’s free will, right? In this God-Man love story played out against a Garden of Eden back drop — hence the apple on the cover, the Genesis epigraph, and Bella referring to herself as “Eve” at their first meeting — Bella must love Edward totally, sacrificially, and from the heart and Edward is obliged, again as God, to respect boundaries and love her just as she is.

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