Creatures of the Knight

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In movies and literature, the vampire and the knight in shining armor might seem like polar opposites. The knight is a bright, shining champion, while the vampire is a dark, dreadful monster. But take a closer look — today vampires are immensely popular, and like the brutal Gothic warriors of the Dark Ages, the character of the vampire is undergoing a transformation. The current breed of vampire, from Angel (the “vampire with a soul” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to Edward Cullen and the vampire clan made famous in the book Twilight (the poster from the movie release is pictured below), vampires are being infused with new life for a new generation.

In today’s stories, vampires still drink blood, avoid sunlight and have mystical powers — but they also struggle to redeem themselves for evils of the past, use their powers to protect the weaker mortals in the world around them, and abstain from their famous lust for blood in favor of unconsummated romance. Strength, duty, sacrifice, restraint … In short, these vampires are acting an awful lot like knights in shining armor.

This tendency hasn’t escaped literary critics like NPR reporter Lynn Neary, who recently commented on the latest trend in chivalry in the world of “those who walk the night.”

Today’s Vampires Cast Reflections of Chivalry

Twilight-smA new generation of vampire heroes has stepped out of the moonlight and into the cultural spotlight — dominating best-seller lists, movies and TV with its dangerous mystique. The modern-day vampire gentleman is eerily alluring in all the old-fashioned, bloodsucking ways, but now he reins in his baser instincts in an impressive display of control.

There have been hundreds of depictions of vampires over the years, but Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film Dracula still defines the role. Lugosi leaned over his pretty female victims without remorse and — without the aid of special effects, blood or fangs — managed to be really, really creepy.

Eric Nuzum, author of [slider title=”The Dead Travel Fast,”][/slider] says vampires have been around in one form or another since ancient times. And while vampires cannot see their own reflections in the mirror, they are a perfect reflection of the culture that creates them.

“You look at vampires from any given era and you see what they thought was frightening,” Nuzum says. “You see what they thought was sexy, and what they thought was forbidden.”

The Southern Gentleman Vampire

The latest craze is the romantic — or even chivalrous — vampire. In HBO’s [slider title=”True Blood”][/slider] series, vampires prowl openly through small-town America and even campaign for their civil rights.

Sookie, a young, pretty waitress, falls for a vampire named Bill, and, just like any young woman, her interest only intensifies when her friends object to her new crush:

“You don’t know how many people he’s sucked the blood out of,” Sookie’s friend warns.

True Blood is based on Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampires book series. Harris creates a fictional world inhabited by good and bad vampires alike. She constructs Bill as a genteel vampire who protects Sookie from the worst of his kind — even as he tries to reign in his own baser instincts.

Harris says Bill’s restraint makes him all the more alluring: “I could rip you limb from limb, but because I think you’re so great, I’m going to be very, very careful. That’s got to be kind of intoxicating,” she says.

Abstinence Only?

Edward, the hero of Stephenie Meyers’ [slider title=”Twilight “][/slider] series, has stolen the hearts of “tween” girls everywhere. Fans of this conscientious young vampire live vicariously through his romance with Bella, his high school sweetheart.

Edward and his clan refuse to feed off humans, and Meyer explains that this choice is what makes him so popular.

“These are vampires,” Meyer says. “They are these creatures who exist to hunt humans. They are evil and they choose something different. They find another way. And I think kids respond to the idea that it doesn’t matter where I am in life; I always have a choice.”

Nina Auerbach, author of [slider title=”Our Vampires, Ourselves”][/slider], believes every age gets the vampire it wants.

“Vampires aren’t supposed to be restrained,” Auerbach says. “They’re all our hungers. That’s why they’re vampires.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, she says, vampires took young women away from their narrow lives and transformed them. But when AIDS came onto the scene, even the fictional prospect of uninhibited bloodsucking fell out of favor. Though Auerbach says this is completely understandable, she finds this latest crop of vampires kind of … boring .

“These are very abstinent vampires,” Auerbach says. “If he truly loves you, he will not do it to you.”

Whether they terrify, entrance or court their victims, vampires are always on the prowl. Waiting for that moment when the moon comes out, and the cultural spotlight shines on them again.

© 2008 Lynn Neary

About the author: Lynn Neary reports on books and publishing for the Cultural Desk at NPR. This piece is a transcript of a report that originally appeared in the October 31, 2008 broadcast of All Things Considered.