Society has many ways of conditioning its members to embrace its core values. Flat out preaching only leads to resistance. Conditioning is so subtle, we hardly know it’s happening. Of course parents and teachers play a big role. But entertainment also plays a vital role. When I was a child, reading was still a major source by which we are informed and entertained. Core moral values are so deeply embedded in the character of a culture, we hardly know they even exist.Who remembers when s/he “learned” s/he owed other people so much loyalty and concern? It was taken for granted.
As a child, I read the books written for kids of my age group. Many favorites existed in serial form. There was Heidi, Black Beauty, Sue Barton, Student Nurse and Lassie. The main character always had challenges in hir life and we would be at the edge of our chairs, breathlessly waiting to find out what was going to happen. Since kids are usually at the mercy of caregivers, usually parents, the main characters in children’s books were as well. Most kids identify with the main character although some laugh at their pain.
Stories read by adults are more nuanced as to the moral character of the folks we read about. The characters are divided into “good” and “bad.” The reader is led to identify with the “good” ones. But the sympathetic characters are killers (Interview With the Vampire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Interestingly, one is a vampire but he is tormented with guilt. The other is a vampire slayer. A lot of attention is given to stressing that Buffy only “slays” vampires, not people. She keeps reminding us that “a slayer isn’t a killer.” The two words really mean the same thing but Buffy makes a distinction between who or what is being killed. Both Louis and Edward are vampires who choose not to kill humans. They kill animals which is OK with them. Harry Potter kills nobody. Even in the final showdown with Voldemort, he doesn’t kill his foe. Voldemort’s killing spell is automatically deflected from Harry and turned on him.
Ever since Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice, I have been a fan of popular fictional series. Of course, Interview wasn’t a series in the beginning. It was a lovely gem of a novel. Only later on, did Anne Rice write a sequel which led to further sequels. Her vampire series joined another series she had written about a family of witches. I actually have friends now whom I met as a result of our collective love of these series.
Since Anne Rice, there have been more series. Harry Potter is read and loved all over the world. Many of these books have been made into movies. Another series started and finished as a TV series. I’m talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Twilight was another trilogy of novels that became movies. Another TV series that I would exclude from my forthcoming discussion is Sex and the City, which is refreshingly free of moralizing. The rest, not so much.
Interview With the Vampire
Interview introduced the abomination of a vampire with a conscience. Eeeuuuuwwww! How gross is that? I don’t have a conscience but I also don’t have the supernatural powers of a vampire. What I could do with that! But lots of readers just fell in love with Louis. Poor thing! He “fed” on rats rather than take human life, happy in the assumption that human life is sacred and animal life expendable. My friends and I spent hours, days, weeks, months, years debating issues of morality that came up in the Vampire Chronicles. Louis’ foil was Lestat, the vampire who gave him the “dark gift” and made him into a vampire. Lestat was free of any such pesky thing as a conscience. He manipulated Louis by making a little girl into a vampire to give Louis someone to love and care for. That way, Louis would stay with him and be his lessor half, a partner Lestat could control. The little girl, Claudia, was as amoral as Lestat. Both Claudia and Lestat died in the end. Lestat was reborn in the following novel, called The Vampire Lestat.
Since he was now the hero of this novel, Lestat was somewhat redeemed. He only killed “evil doers” it turned out. Interestingly, in the movie, Lestat said he killed “evil doers” because they tasted better. Hollywood must have realized how lame it was to make a vampire so pro social. If Lestat only killed the evil doers because they tasted better, he could still be amoral. But Anne Rice had to make vampires “good” or, at least, not so bad. Another vampire who had a big following among readers was Armand. He, it turned out, only killed those who longed for death. No evil predators here.
Just like Interview, Twilight features a vampire who only kills animals because he doesn’t want to be a “monster.” He disapproves of vampires and resists strenuously Bella’s request to be made one. He finally gives in but Bella is a “good” vampire, only killing animals (mostly mountain lions). The vampires in Twilight don’t sleep but they can have sex. Edward restrains his sexual desires for Bella through the first three novels. Finally, in the fourth book, after they are married, Edward is persuaded to try it with Bella while she is still mortal. They both love it but Edward is tormented by a few bruises on Bella’s arm. When she is impregnated, Edward is filled with self-loathing. Bella’s heroic insistence on going through with the pregnancy despite the fact that a half-vampire fetus is incompatible with her body could be a shout-out to the pro life movement although she is actually exercising choice in her decision to have the baby. But once the baby is born and Bella made into a vampire, she and Edward are able to enjoy sex with abandon, finally. Bella, of course, refrains from killing humans.
Harry Potter was an orphan living with a family who hated and abused him, a classic tale of an underdog. The story begins when he learns that his true identity is that of a wizard who is loved by a whole community he hadn’t known even existed. What’s more, he is a champion of good people against an evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. Harry goes to Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards where he encounters both good and evil people but stays firmly on the side of the good.
Harry is sorted into Gryffindor, the house associated with heroism. He is tested early with choices. Draco Malfoy, who becomes Harry’s enemy, is sorted into Slytherin, the house that is considered evil although they won’t come out and say so. Harry has to choose between loyalty to his new friend, Ron Weasley, another Gryffindor, and Draco.
But what is “good” in Harry Potter and what is “evil?” Well, the Slytherins cheat at sports and look down on people. Gryffindors are fair and inclusive. But Harry is better than even the average Gryffindor. His goodness amounts to selflessness and takes the form of his not wanting anyone to risk any harm on his own behalf. Since he was their hero against the evil wizard, Voldemort, it was necessary that the others protected his life above their own. He was their best hope of survival. But he immediately tried to veto the idea of a group of them disguising themselves as Harry to distract from the real one so he could get away safely.
“No!” he said loudly, his voice ringing through the kitchen. “No way!”
“I told them you’d take it like this,” said Hermione with a hint of complacency.
“If you think I’m going to let six people risk their lives — !”
The polyjuice potion with part of another person mixed in would turn the drinker into an exact replica of that person. Naturally, Harry being so saintly, “the potion began to froth and smoke, then, all at once, it turned into a clear, bright gold.” They reached safety with a great deal of trouble and at the expense of some lives. Yet, in his place of safety, Harry said, “I can’t stay here.” The whole point of the exodus they had just been through was to get him there and, Mr. Selfless immediately wanted to leave, not for his own sake, of course, but because he couldn’t stand anyone endangering himself for him. Later, Dumbledore tells Harry that is is “a remarkably selfless person.” Selflessness is the philosopher’s stone as it is in each of these series I am discussing.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy is a typical teenager until once day her dharma is thrust upon her. She is the “chosen one,” the Slayer. There is one out of every generation, yada yada. She, alone, has to fight the vampires and demons. When one slayer dies, another one is called. Why one has to fight all of them is never explained. Plain unfair, in my opinion. Furthermore, she is not allowed to reveal her sacred identity to anyone else except her “Watcher,” a man from the Watcher’s Council that supervises the whole thing. Somehow, Buffy’s secret mission becomes known to a small circle of friends who work with her to help her slay vampires and demons. Every year, her foes become more dangerous and harder to overcome until, in the fifth year, she comes up against Glory who is more than a demon. She is a god. Glory came from a hell dimension and is now exiled from that dimension. What’s more, she has to share the body of a nice man, Ben, who only wants to be a doctor and help people. The body is under the control of each of them alternatively. Neither one can control when the other one will take control. Glory wants to return to her hell dimension where she can reign again. There is a key that can unlock the door between dimensions. An group of monks has taken possession of the key. They have “pressed” it into the form of a teenage girl, Buffy’s sister, Dawn. They imprinted false memories of this sister on everyone who knows Buffy, including her mother and friends. Dawn also has these false memories and has no idea what she really is. An order of knights thinks the key is unspeakably dangerous and their mission is to destroy it. In the beginning, nobody knows the truth about Dawn but they find out. Buffy is set to protect Dawn both from Glory and the knights who want to destroy her.
We are never told why the monks created a human being out of the “key.” I think the knights are right. The key is dangerous. It can turn the universe into a place of torment when the different dimensions “bleed” into each other. To get back to her dimension, Glory has to perform a ritual where she slowly bleeds Dawn on a certain day and time. If Dawn were to die quickly, the walls between the dimensions will only be down briefly and the universe will be able to heal. But Glory wants Dawn to bleed slowly to give her time to get back to her dimension. It’s obvious that, once the ritual starts, a quick death for Dawn is the only hope for everybody. Otherwise, everyone will suffer horribly, including Dawn. Even Dawn realizes this. But Buffy is possessed with the idea that she is going to protect Dawn to the end, even if it means destruction for the universe. Giles, her watcher, says at one point, that he is proud that she always follows her “heart.” Despite this, even Giles knows Dawn must die to prevent chaos and torment. But Buffy irrationally follows her heart and says, “Then the last thing she will see is me protecting her.” In the end, it turns out Buffy has another alternative. She can die in Dawn’s place since the monks made Dawn’s blood out of hers. That really makes no sense since Dawn is already bleeding and Buffy’s suicide won’t make her stop bleeding. But never mind that. Buffy’s suicide is accepted as the way the world got saved. Dawn’s life is spared, she goes on living while Buffy is honored as a martyr.
Finally, we have the Twilight series about a whole family of vampires who refuse to kill humans and live off the blood of animals.
What’s the Message?
These series are entertaining but they are also conveying a message(s) about right and wrong. In every case, we are confronted with a being who has supernatural powers. In every case, the powerful being, be s/he a vampire or a hero or a wizard, has a conscience that limits hir use of power. The idea that human life is worth more than animal life is seen in Interview, Buffy, and Twilight. Harry Potter introduces us to the value of “selflessness.” But it’s not all that new. We have been told from day one that selfishness is bad and selflessness good.
Most of us have been told by adults to be “unselfish.” We are urged to share our toys and restrain our desires for the sake of others. These novels reinforce all those messages. It is therefore interesting to note that a significant number of Harry Potter fans decide to side with those characters who are clearly marked as the bad guys. I congratulate those people on their independence of mind.