The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy written by well-known American children’s writer, Suzanne Collins. She’s been around for quite a while, and had an earlier success with a series of books called Gregor and the Underworld, etc. These are fantasies about an eleven year old boy plunged into a war featuring rats, mice, bats and other creatures beneath the surface of New York. It’s a rite of passage book in which Gregor has to contend with his own demons as well as some very real villains. The series was aimed at a younger age group than The Hunger Games and I didn’t find it nearly as enthralling.
The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy in the genre referred to as YA, Dystopian. This means it was intended for Young Adults – an older age group than for Gregor – and it is set in the future in the opposite of a Utopian age. Its popularity is such that it has crossed over into mainstream for adults and also for younger children, and is now being featured in a film.
The plot is based on a Greek myth … at least that’s where it started, though in Suzanne Collins’ imagination it has developed into a comment on politics throughout the ages. The origin of this particular myth dates back to the Bronze Age in Crete, but traces of it can also be found in other Mediterranean countries, including Egypt.
The story goes that the king of Crete’s wife became enamoured of a bull and bore him a son with a bull’s body and a man’s head … or perhaps vice versa, a man’s body and a bull’s head. His birth sign was Taurus, the bull. The king kept this half-human, half-beast in an underground maze of rooms designed by Daedalus the architect, from which there was, reputedly, no escape.
Successful in war, and doting on his wife’s son, king Minos is supposed to have demanded tribute from Athens of seven youths and seven maidens every nine years, with whom to feed the monster. The youth Theseus volunteered for this duty, attracting the attention of the king’s daughter, Ariadne. She agrees to help him on condition that he takes her away with him afterwards. She supplies him with a sword and a ball of string which he ties to the entrance door as he enters the maze. He finds the bull, kills it, makes his way back out by following the string and flees with Ariadne, only to abandon her on a nearby island.
Another myth, which possibly predates the Theseus story, tells of young gymnasts trained in the art of bull-leaping. There are numerous depictions of this sport in frescos, clay-seals, and on decorated vases. Experts continue to argue as to how the youths leaped the bull, whether from a podium, or by grasping the horns of the bull and leaping into the air and landing on its back, or by being caught by another member of their team. There is much reference to the Athenian games. Perhaps this sport was the origin of Spanish bull-fighting?
In these myths I am reminded of how the victors of tribal wars demanded hostages of the loser’s families as a practical and efficient way of ensuring they keep to the terms of an agreed peace settlement. In Biblical times tribute was paid by way of money or goods, wheat or cedar, horses … and in Ancient Greece, by way of youths. This practice went on throughout Europe in the Dark Ages according to Bede, and well into the Middle Ages as documented by Froissart in the Hundred Years’ War. Then and later it was common practice for the daughter of a king to be sent off to marry into the family of an ally by way of cementing a relationship.
Add in the kudos of the Athenian games which have developed into the Olympics – and there you have the background for The Hunger Games.
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The Hunger Games reads well. It is written in the first person, present tense. Some writers find there is a problem with writing in the first person because the reader can only learn what the protagonist knows. Other people’s plans and thoughts are a mystery. Some writers today get round that difficulty by writing one chapter in one persona, then switch to another to explain this or that, and then on to a third, and so on. Writing in the first person present tense means that you, along with the protagonist, have to guess at what other people are planning or thinking. In the beginning the heroine doubts Peeta’s declaration of love to her, and so do we. She hasn’t a clue what makes their mentor Haymitch tick – unless it’s drink! There’s a lot more to both these characters than is at first apparent, but it makes for a better story that the heroine has these doubts and that she changes her mind about them as the story progresses, rather than us getting to see what is going on in other people’s minds the whole time.
The book is set in the future after a series of catastrophes and wars have wiped out most of civilisation in what used to be North America. The Capitol is surrounded by twelve districts who have to send their produce to the Capitol, but are not allowed to eat or use it themselves. This keeps the districts in a state of semi-starvation. Added to this, once a year a boy and a girl are selected by lot from each district to take part in the killing games. These are televised in the Capitol throughout 24 hours a day until at last there is only one man or woman standing. The victor gets privileges for his or her district.
That’s the set-up.
Enter Katniss Everdeen, an undernourished, angry 16 year old, who has been illegally foraging outside the limits of their district with an older boy called Gale, in order to feed their families. On Reaping Day, Katniss offers herself in place of her younger sister, Prim, and is transported with Peeta, the baker’s son, to the Capitol. Their mentor is Haymitch, a past victor who seems to be a useless drunk. There the youngsters are prepared for the games and let loose in the arena, to hunt and be hunted to death – which could be by starvation, thirst, another competitor’s knife or spear, or by one of the semi-natural events such as a field of fire, poisonous berries, or mutating hornets. Interesting and unusual traps are set by the organisers but Katniss’ knowledge of the wild and Peeta’s silver tongue helps to keep them alive. Peeta nearly dies, fighting to save Katniss but, when he is severely wounded, against her every instinct as a loner, she nurses him back to a degree of health. Only, when they finally find themselves victors in the arena, there are yet more twists to the tale …
The second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire, is another cracking good story and Katniss’s character goes on developing nicely. Her defiance of the Capitol at the end of The Hunger Games causes the despots to feel threatened, and they try to wipe her out. They re-stage the Games, recalling previous winners – including Katniss and Peeta – to fight again. By this time Katniss has become a symbol of resistance and is beginning to be aware she is being manipulated. She goes into the arena determined only that Peeta should survive. The other victors have different agendas and the denouement is a horrible surprise, as Peeta is taken prisoner amid scenes of open defiance of the Capitol. In a dreadful act of reprisal, Katniss is told that District 12 has been bombed out of existence.
The third part – Mockingjay – sees Katniss and her old friend Gale transported to the devastated district 13 – which has mostly been recreated underground. Many of the districts are now in revolt. District 13’s leader Coin coordinates assaults on the capitol and wants to use Katniss as the Mockingjay symbol to head up insurrection. Peeta is rescued from the Capitol, but has been brainwashed to think Katniss is evil. Katniss imagines Peeta is now seeing her for what she really is – violent, distrustful, manipulative, deadly. She also realises she is expendable.
The final defeat of the President comes via a horrific struggle through the sewers and streets of the Capitol and ends when a human shield of children – including Katniss’s young sister Prim – is annihilated. Who authorised this atrocity, the rebels or the President? Katniss carries out the execution of the perpetrator and perhaps sets the government, on a different, more humane path.
In this third book there are many questions raised about the right of government to crush rebellion, and how one palace coup may only breed another. Will peace and a more equitable distribution of assets mean a better future? Perhaps. This is a topic for discussion for all ages.
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The trilogy is well written. Fantasy writers often make up hard-to-remember names for people and objects which can turn the reader off, but Suzanne Collins has chosen names whose meaning is easy to guess, such as Morphling for morphine and Avox for someone without a voice. Mutts are mutations; they can be wasps or wolves or even the Mockingjay. You only need to have these explained once, and you remember them.
Many of the minor characters have names taken from Greek/Roman sources, which are easy to remember and usually reflect their function; Castor and Pollux, Plutarch. Doctor Aurelius. Some names, like Beetee and Wiress, give a nod to modern technology. Haymitch – I don’t know where that name comes from, but it sounds right. President Snow, is a snow job. Leader Coin lives for money and power. Gale is for a furious onslaught.
Katniss is a perfect name for this heroine. Not a pussy cat, but a tiger. A bundle of nervous energy, a huntress, fiercely devoted to her little sister, Prim (Primrose). Sexually unawakened at the start, careless of her appearance, sometimes sulky, often angry and frightened, she has little self-worth. When Peeta declares he’s been in love with her since they were children, she can’t accept what he says. During the Games she is asked to act as if she reciprocated Peeta’s love in order to get the sympathy vote and life-saving gifts from the watching crowds, and she does so . . . but she is aware she is acting . . . or is she? She does eventually come to recognise Peeta’s worth and even begins to respond to him, but as soon as the Games are over and she has saved him – or he has saved her – she stands back and tries to disentangle her feelings. Is she really in love with him, or is what she feels for him part of what she had to do to survive? What about Gale and her long and trusted hunting partnership with him? Who will she choose to be with?
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Suzanne Collins is a Christian and there are many pointers to this in the story. The first is that Katniss sacrifices herself to save her little sister. Then, when she and Peeta are likely to die, they are sent gifts from the sky which, like grace, are freely given to help her and Peeta through the worst times.
As for Peeta, there’s a whole set of references here to the Christian St Peter, whose other name is Rock. Peeta is not only Katniss’ rock, but also a Christ figure; he suffers for her sake. He uses his silver tongue to tell stories to help them. As a child he gave her bread to save her from starvation, knowing full well that he would be punished for it. When he is severely wounded and like to die, she puts him into a cave and nurses him for three days before he is able to emerge to fight again.
Some readers have wished that Katniss could have ended up with Peeta instead of Gale. Gale was her match in temperament, but she needed Peeta’s wisdom to balance her wilder qualities.
The end of the third book is quiet, almost serene. Katniss and Peeta return to what is left of District 12, start to rebuild their lives and eventually to have children.
In bad moments Katniss says ‘I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. But there are much worse games to play.’
Indeed there are.
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