Twilight Vampires and the Return of Courtly Love (Potential Spoiler)
When it came out last fall, I saw the teen vampire movie Twilight with my adult daughter. We grinned through some parts, groaned through others. Vampire aficionados of the old-school fang and grown women who know a little about relationships, we felt the characters were unrealistic and that had nothing to do with some of them being vampires.
That's not to say that Twilight's vision of the vampire doesn't have teeth, but that it twists the very nature of vampires we have known and loved. Defanging vampires for romance is the staple of some of the newer vampire movies, books, and TV series that make vampires our chivalrous lovers, and the idea of the chivalrous beast has its appeal. For instance, the post you're reading now is an update to a post penned shortly after I saw the movie in November, but in the last few days I've noticed a rush of queries from Google on the post's theme, vampires and courtly love. I suspect many women long for a love that appears both pure and dangerous, either that or a summer school teacher's just assigned a paper.
In Twilight, Vampire hero Edward (Robert Pattinson) understands that he is the monster and what his real nature is, the one he must fight. He tells Bella (Kristen Stewart), the object of his affection, that he is the perfect predator: he smells good, looks good, sounds good, and yet needs none of those traits to overpower prey because he has superhuman strength and speed.
As much as I am a fan of Joss Whedon's Angel, who also fights his nature because he has a soul, I resist the idea that Edward fights his nature based simply on the teachings of the vampire who made him, Carlisle Cullen. Rethinking this as I revisit this post, I consider that Edward's state of mind reflects a Christian theme, the human fight against "sinful" nature to honor the holy God who created them. The difference is that humans have souls or so we believe.
I can believe a soul brings conscience and creates angst and that angst is heightened by moralistic teaching, but what if you have no soul, which vampires supposedly do not have because they are the undead? I have not read the Twilight books. Perhaps I should. Maybe the author, Stephenie Meyer, develops within the books that the soul is trapped in the undead body and so vampires retain human conscience and do not become cunning creatures who must act on blood lust. If not, then, well ... whatever. Meyer is making lots of money so why should she care whether her premise makes sense to me?
My daughter, who after seeing the movie decided to read the books and became hooked tells me that Edward debates whether vampires have souls. She believes that if vampires as presented by Meyer and others can choose, then they have souls. She says further that later in the book series Bella becomes a vampire and retains her humanity. So, I suppose Meyer has re-varnished the vampire as we know it completely.
To some it seems odd to discuss fictional creatures as thought they have any real bearing on our lives. The reality is that literature that appeals to the masses usually reflects the human psyche, our struggle to make sense of existence. Art comes to us as what we think we know about ourselves.
Perhaps this is why Meyer is not alone in creating the sensitive vampire, the creature who battles the demon that is him or her. Louis in Ann Rice's Interview with The Vampire hated his nature without soul provocation as well. However, the vampire Lestat was more interesting. And True Blood's Bill, who cherishes Sookie seems to follow a taste a little and protect a lot blood ethic; however, True Blood has tossed aside or reshaped quite a few vampire legend traditions as well. In addition, Lifetime Television produced Blood Ties with its don't-bite-the-heroine hero vampire, Mike. (Now I'm wishing I didn't remove my old essay on vampire characters and types from the Net.)
I suppose it could be argued that if you live long enough you must mature and so conscience is reborn in a sense. You learn, as one of the "bad" but reasonable vampires said in Twilight, "don't play with your food," and maybe grow weary with unrestrained carnage. Yes, living without learning or evolving is both boring and sad.
Anyway, I told my daughter after the movie, "Lots of melodrama. But I can see why this movie appeals to teen girls. It's the return of the courtly love."
She, who like me was an English major, thought about my assessment a moment and then agreed. I don't want to write an English paper here tonight, and so I'll reference other articles that mention courtly love in relation to Twilight, Bella and Edward's love.
Twilight is an anomaly in our sex-mad world. It preaches the virtues of celibacy, of saving yourself for future pleasure, while at the same time elevating the subject of your devotion to almost mystical status. Messages of abstinence rarely penetrate the minds of teens, yet this one has them lining up.
In literature class, they call this neck-up amour courtly love, and it began with knights wooing fair maidens. In the Twilight of current times, it's vampire boys chasing grunge girls, and that's the genius of Meyer's otherwise pedestrian book, which director Catherine Hardwicke has ably served in her screen adaptation. (The Star)
Hardwicke indeed serves the courtly love theme well in Twilight because I, who knew little of Meyer's books, saw immediately in the movie the knight and the maiden, in love but forbidden to consummate due to some moral restriction. In old courtly love tales their love may have been forbidden because the maiden was the king's wife and so the pair had to bridle lust and rise to a higher, spiritual love.
Naturally this idea of an unconditional love in which the male sticks by you even if you never bed him appeals to young girls because, no matter how modern their parents may be, most moms and dads still would prefer their daughters abstain from sex until they're out of school, and many still advise "Say 'no' until you're married."
Plus, girls experience pressure to have sex and some want to resist because they're not emotionally ready and know it. A boy who says "no" makes resisting easier.
Yet, in Edward Twilight also contains the romance novel hero who is so smitten he must beat himself up to not ravage the heroine. In old formula romance novels geared toward older women, at some point the hero falls and practically rapes the heroine, but it's never called attempted rape. It's called heavy seduction.
Edward and Bella petted a little in the movie, and he had self-control and threw himself off Bella, surprised that he'd had the will to do so. If Edward went as far as the human heroes in traditional romance novels, then he'd have to bite Bella. What is not orgasm but a total loss of control?
The scene at the movie's climax, however, with its wrist sucking bite executed in order "to save Bella's life" was definitely sex. Writhing, moaning, even the prick.
- Twilight vs. True Blood: My Vampire Can Kick Your Vampire’s Sparkly Little Butt
- It's Love and Hate, the age of the vampire is back
- Marriage a la Carte with references to courtly love.
- Podcast on Twilight and Courtly Love
- A Twilight Fan site, Twilight Source
- Twilight New Moon movie site
- Twilight Moms for adult fans of Twilight
- The Indisputably Black Vampires of Three Female Writers
- "The Modern Vampire, Bloodthirsty but Chilvalrous," NPR
- "Twilight: Where does the fandemonium lead now?" CNN
- "Twilight: Love Bites," The Star
- Twilight: Vampires Don't Suck, They Rule, KansasCity.com
- Twilight Central at Entertainment Weekly
- "Defining Dracula: A Century of Vampire Evolution," NPR
- "Beyond Twilight: Vampire Movies for Grown Ups," NPR
- Twilight Series: Terrific or Troublesome by Sassy Monkey