Sunday, September 14, 2008

the twilight mystique: part 1

What a long strange summer it’s been. Having forsaken my cozy Wolery for a new perch in the Emerald City (which, as anyone will tell you, is no place for owls) I’m once again able to turn my predator’s eye to the field of children’s literature. And what have I found?

Turns out owls can’t hold a candle to everyone’s favorite nocturnal predator, the Vampire. Unlike owls, Vampires are further than ever from the endangered species list. And Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is on the forefront of this trend. I’ve only read one and a half books in the series, and on the prose level, Meyer is no J. K. Rowling, though she spins a good tale. So why are her books so popular?

To be honest, I’m just not that into vampires. I’ll leave it to the Glass Cat to explain why they’re so awesome.

But as soon as I started into Twilight, I got all excited about one part of the book—not normally what catches my eye in a teen romance—the setting.

See, it turns out I passed through Forks, Washington—Twilight heroine Bella Swan’s hometown—just a couple weeks ago, on my way to go backpacking in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. Forks is truly remote. It’s hours from anywhere, and the trees, where they haven’t been cut down, are absolutely enormous. Some of those trees 500 years old, older than Dracula, maybe even older than the idea of vampires.

As I was hiking along the Hoh river trail, before I had read any of the Twilight books, before I knew they were set in Washington, I kept thinking “This is the kind of forest that would make you believe in magic. This is the kind of forest where a witch could pop out from behind a tree.”

An old-growth forest is totally different from a forest that got logged a hundred years ago. There are more spaces between the trees, more clearings, more variety. And when you stand among those trees, give you the feeling of how puny and small you are as a human (see above photo), which is exactly the feeling Bella gets when hanging around with Edward Cullen.

Maybe part of the reason these books are popular is the same reason I went backpacking—a desire to experience something mysterious and ancient—whether it’s an unimaginably old forest or a hot makeout session with your undead boyfriend. When Bella kisses Edward’s undead lips, she’s kissing something that existed before she was born, in a time she couldn’t imagine. And when I leaned against the trunk of a 500-year-old Sitka spruce, I touched something that was alive before any of my ancestors came to this country. Something older than I can imagine.

There’s other elements of the book that seem nostalgic to me, too, but I’ll get to that later.

This theory is slightly ruined by the fact that Stephenie Meyer hadn’t been to Forks when she wrote Twilight. She just picked Forks by googling the rainiest place in America.

If you go out to Forks, you can take a Twilight tour, where fans have mapped the fictional story onto the real landscape. The Seattle Times has a great story about it here. If I went back out to Forks now, I’d see it with totally different eyes.

And one postscript: Bella Cullen sounds a lot like Bella Coola, a mythical and remote town in British Columbia, where, according to friends who used to live there, there are lots of grizzly bears. Bet some vampires live there, too.

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