This is the third and last part of a three part ‘Unlocking’ series on the more esoteric, allegorical meanings of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy with special emphasis on the series finale, Mockingjay. For the first two parts, see ‘Unlocking Mockingjay: The Spiritual Allegory’ and ‘The Literary Alchemy.’
Yesterday, we introduced the color scheme and stages of literary alchemy, stages correspondent with the spiritual life, the black stage with renunciation and repentance, the white with purification and initiation, and the red with revelation and perfection. The colors reflect the nature of each period, i.e., the darkness before the light, the dawn of illumination, and the fullness of God’s glory experienced at spiritual perfection.
Today I hope to use this too brief introduction to traditional alchemical symbolism in English literature and yesterday’s notes about spiritual transformation as a resolution of contraries, the elision of subject and object in the Word’s recognition of its reflection, to survey the artistry and meaning of Mockingjay.
The series finale, if it is the series’ hermetic end-game as I suspect, should be the story of Katniss’ apotheosis or divinization, her recall and return to the story origin, i.e., the Meadow of Rue’s Song and the white rose of Mockingjay’s first chapter. Checking off items on our must-have list of hermetic story items, we need an Alchemical wedding to launch the rubedo properly and Finnick and Annie’s marriage satisfies that requirement. Now we need a clearly marked nigredo or black stage, an evident albedo or white stage, a blood-red rubedo, and a golden illumination. We should also see a resolution of contraries, some kind of sacrificial death and resurrection, and a rebus or story androgyn.
Ms. Collins give us all of this in her description of Katniss’ fight as leader of the Star Squad to get to the City Center, to enter the inner sanctuary there, and experience the White Rose. I think those who followed yesterday’s discussion of the alchemical stages and their imagery will see these markers without much difficulty.
The Nigredo: The All-Star company of soldiers is in the Capitol on light duty making propos well away from the front — when all hell breaks loose. Katniss’ Star Squad is slammed by the noxious black wave and makes a harrowing trip underground through the sewers. This odyssey in darkness reduces the crew to Katniss the Soul in transformation or Philosopher’s Stone, the ‘Quarreling Couple’ of Peeta and Gale, and two contraries (a mute and media maven). Peeta asks to be executed or to be allowed to commit suicide because he is a “murderer” (Chapter 21, p. 29o; cue ‘Hanging Tree’, the murderer’s song, which Katniss promptly sings, p. 291). Katniss is reduced to a new low by the Mutts who make the sewers smell of blood and roses. It doesn’t get much blacker than this.
And in the crisis moment of the book, perhaps the whole series, as Peeta begs to die after the death of Finnick just as they reach the relative safety of the streets, Katniss refuses to surrender to Snow-Satan and lose Peeta-Christ.
And here, finally here in this place, in these circumstances, I will really have to kill him. And Snow will win. Hot, bitter hatred courses through me. Snow has won too much already today.
It’s a long shot, it’s suicide maybe, but I do the only thing I can think of. I lean and kiss Peeta full on the mouth. His whole body starts shuddering, but I keep my lips pressed to his until I have to come up for air. My hands slide up his wrists to clasp his. “Don’t let him take you from me.”
Peeta’s panting hard as he fights the nightmares raging in his head. “No. I don’t want to…”
I clench his hands to the point of pain. “Stay with me.” His pupils contract to pinpoints, dilate again rapidly, and then return to something resembling normalcy. “Always,” he murmurs (Chapter 22, pp. 313-314).
The “Always” is a reference to Peeta’s declaration of fidelity to her, that he would always stay with her, that he made in Catching Fire and she remembers in Mockingjay on waking up after being shot in District 2 (Chapter 16, p. 218). Peeta-Christ has returned in this statement of his eternal, transcendent love, rescued by the belief and love of his beloved. The Star Squad remnant moves into the light.
In case you are confused by a Christ-figure being saved by the believer rather than the reverse, a short note is on order. The story is about Katniss the soul and her choice for either Gale-body and the world or Peeta-spirit and Love. As a 21st century soul, the difficulty of Katniss’ choice reflects the specific struggle of our time, a struggle very different than the one of a century ago.
In Tolkien’s body-soul-spirit triptych, for instance, Gollum-the-flesh is the nightmare character struggling to come to terms with Frodo-spirit and Sam despises him, which is a rough but poetic statement of 19th century Vatican 1 Catholicism’s stand on the body: it’s an obstacle to the life in Christ and for the Enemy to be defeated, it’s best to throw the flesh into the fire.
Our world has embraced the flesh but struggles to believe there is any supernatural reality not reducible to brain chemistry or quantities of matter and energy. Hence Harry’s struggle to believe in Dumbledore-God and Katniss’ Mutt-Peeta. Peeta at the sewer top is, frankly, unrecognizable as Christ to anyone not initiated into His Love as Katniss has been. Her decision to kiss him at the risk of her life is her victory over Snow-Satan and the restoration of Peeta-Christ as the master she will serve.
Poor Gale! Game over.
A quick aside: I am not Roman Catholic and do not know if this is Ms. Collins’ faith. I suspect it is, because of the choice of ‘Peeta,’ resonant with ‘Peter,’ as the Hunger Games Christ and the identification of Catholics with St. Peter as the first Roman pontiff (for non-believers, orthodox Christians think of the Church as Christ’s mystical Body, so the conflation of Christ and His Church is a no-brainer). Not to mention their belief that the bread of the Eucharist is the sacramental body of Christ; the Boy with the Bread is a natural Catholic image of the God-Man and his Church.
If this is so, I suspect Katniss-the-soul’s struggle to remember, recognize, and embrace Peeta-the-Christ as her means to transcendence (“survival”) reflects the 21st century American Catholic’s struggle with their Church amidst the clergy sexual abuse of children and episcopal negligence scandals that have surfaced in the last ten years. Katniss’ decision to kiss Peeta as they ascend from the sewer may be Ms. Collins’ depiction in story of either her experience as a Catholic lay person coming to terms with these scandals and her faith or her hoped for resolution of the crisis in her community by the lay faithful’s loving re-engagement with the Church that isn’t what they imagined it to be.
Back to the alchemy.
The Albedo: The spiritual transformation that takes place in the white stage of the Great Work is revealed in the red stage because the albedo purification takes place largely in secret. Having escaped the darkness of the lizard-man-mutt sewers at last, the five survivors take to hiding to make their final plans. Katniss confesses her lies to her remaining squad and receives their forgiveness and direction (Chapter 23, pp. 324-325); thus absolved or cleansed, having received Peeta’s blessing and support, she chooses to pursue her attack on the Capitol to the end. Peeta and Gale converse late at night and Gale concludes correctly, though to Katniss’ consternation, that she will choose the man “she thinks she can’t survive without” (ibid, p. 329, cf., chapter 27, p. 388).
Purified and her choices made, Katniss breaks up the team for the final assault, Pollux and Cressida in front, Katniss and Gale together again on the hunt, and the restored Peeta willing to act as a sacrificial distraction for the home team. They head out into the purifying touch of a snowstorm, the Hunger Games signature for the albedo.
Before leaving the white stage for the crucible of the Capitol streets, I’m obliged to note the curious figure of the Tigress, a former Hunger Games Stylist reduced to the position of sales clerk in an upscale fur-underwear store. I do this with apologies because I must admit I didn’t get it at first reading and a clear allegorical reading still escapes me.
My two thoughts to spur your thinking on this curious figure are (1) her protection of Katniss is a foreshadowing of the coming resolution of our heroine’s self-hatred that Ms. Collins has presented to us in the form of Katniss’ relationship with Buttercup, Prim’s cat (see Steve Barkmeier’s Guest Post here for more on this) and (2) the animal-human, like the leopard, lion, and she-wolf of the Commedia‘s first canto and Blake’s Tyger, represents human decadence into something approaching bestiality and evil that must be transcended.
It’s a soft, almost pathetic image, though, this Stylist whose cosmetic surgeries went too far (did anyone else think of the late Michael Jackson?), and she plays the part of mother-protector rather than she-cat demon. Is this a note of possible redemption in the white stage? Is Katniss reflected here by Miss Cat-ness?
You got me. On to the story’s crucible!
The Rubedo: Red Alert! Katniss watches a video of exploding rose bushes before donning her red-riding hood disguise (p. 338) and entering the bloodiest, reddest pages of Mockingjay. She sees a foreshadowing snapshot of the journey’s end when “a little girl in a lemon yellow coat,” an image of golden innocence and light, is hit by “a wave of bullets” which “slices across the chest of her yellow coat, staining it with red, knocking the girl onto her back” (p. 339). And then the madness begins, all in red. Scalded flesh and blood red.
Civilian refugees are caught in Peacekeeper and Rebel crossfire when the pods are activated. The first one is “a gush of steam that parboils everyone in its path, leaving the victims intestine pink and very dead” (p. 341). The steam cuts visibility in the snow to nothing and everyone with a weapon begins shooting in every direction: “Screaming people, bleeding people, dead people everywhere” (ibid). Then a purple-light weapon causes the death of everyone it touches: “fingers clutch their faces, as blood sprays from all-visible orifices — eyes, noses, mouth, ears” (ibid). Running away, Katniss drops to the ground at Gale’s command and “my face lands in a still-warm pool of someone’s blood” (ibid).
Pink to red to purple with a blood-red face-paint job for final touches. We’re literally neck deep in the literary rubedo.
And just as suddenly it ends.
Katniss the soul is separated from her ego identity and look-alike, Gale the body, by her escaping the “seam” pod (p. 342) while he is captured. Having left the Seam once again and died to everyone there, Katniss changes her appearance. “I remove my cloak and turn it inside out, letting the black lining show instead of the red exterior” (p. 345). She has arrived at the City Circle, its center, the President’s mansion, where she sees the children blown up by parachute gifts falling from a hovercraft with Capitol markings.
There, dressed in black just as Cinna had dressed her for chariot entrances to the Capitol’s Hunger Games and Quarter Quell, the Mockingjay sees Prim just before the bombs explode and catches fire.
I am Cinna’s bird, ignited, flying frantically to escape something inescapable. The feathers of flame that grow from my body. Beating my wings only fans the blaze. I consume myself, but to no end (chapter 25, p. 348).
Ms. Collins is describing the alchemical phoenix, the resurrection bird; Katniss the soul, in becoming a Fire-Mutt, dies and rises from the ashes a different person. Peeta, as with her previous ‘Girl on Fire’ appearances in the Games, was by her side at City Circle, unseen but caught in the same blast (ibid, p. 351). Unable to speak, she is transferred from the hospital to the President’s mansion, the circle center.
From the beginning of Chapter 25 to the end of the Epilogue is the surreal, otherworldly part of Mockingjay. Katniss has been confused and found it hard to think clearly since her escape from the Quell Arena, but now, as she recovers from her burns, she describes her existence as floating and the narrative becomes increasingly unreal. MENTALLY DISORIENTED. Allegorically, I think Katniss-soul has only to make her decision to take up her cross (the bow) and join her beloved, Peeta-Christ, the self-described “murderer,” on the Hanging Tree. That she is approaching spiritual perfection or divinization is reflected by her continuous near out-of-body experience and by several alchemical markers.
She stands, for example, before a mirror, an experience which bothers her more than the pain of bathing her new grafted skin. What does she that is upsetting? “My naked fire-mutt body. The skin grafts retain a newborn-baby pinkness. The skin deemed damaged but salvageable looks red, hot, and melted in places.Patches of my former self gleam white and pale. I’m like a bizarre patchwork quilt of skin” (Chapter 25, p. 362).
She says this view upsets her because it reminds her of the physical pain she has been through and the pain of Prim’s death she still feels. That makes sense, but readers of C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra, his most obviously alchemical piece, recognize in Katniss a shadow of Prof. Ransom the “pie-bald man” who is half-red and half-white after his trip to Venus in the white coffin. The marriage of the red man and white woman or Red King and White Queen — think ‘Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacouer’ — is the central piece of the alchemical work, the so-called alchemical wedding; Katniss here is the conjunction or androgyn of these figures, their polarity resolved in her person without duality. Peeta we learn later is her fire-mutt piebald-androgyn twin.
She needs to come to the Absolute Center, to the Secret Garden of President Snow, the home of the White Rose, in order to reach her end in Christ. This involves a trip through the veils, if you will, for a trip back to Eden for Katniss, whom, you recall, was expelled from the Eden-Meadow and life with the Father which began her journey of return with Peeta’s bread. Paradise, though, is a non-local place just as eternity is an atemporal time, so “getting there” involves “getting lost:”
Late one afternoon, after a long period in a cushioned chair behind a painted screen, I emerge and turn left instead of right. I find myself in a strange part of the mansion, and immediately lose my bearings. Unlike the area where I’m quartered, there seems to be no one around to ask. I like it, though. Wish I’d found it sooner. It’s so quiet, with thick carpets and heavy tapestries soaking up the sound. Softly lit. Muted colors. Peaceful. Until I smell the roses. I dive behind some curtains, shaking too hard to run, while I await the mutts. Finally, I realize there are no mutts coming. So, what do I smell? Could it be that I am near the garden where the evil things grow?
As I creep down the hall, the odor becomes overpowering. Perhaps not as strong as the actual mutts, but purer, because it’s not competing with sewage and explosives. I turn a corner and find myself staring at two suspicious guards (Chapter 25, p. 353).
The “painted screen” is the equivalent of the templon or iconostasis dividing the mundane world from the sacred. Katniss “after a long time” “emerges” and through a series of wrong turns winds up where she is happy. We know she is coming near the center because it is “so quiet,” “muted,” and so “peaceful” that Katniss wishes she had “found it sooner;” the Absolute origin, devoid of contraries that typify creation rather than the creator, is all of these things.
Her panic as she approaches the Garden? “After he drove the man out, [God] placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24) . The initiate remembering her unworthiness before her purification by fire — the lizard-mutts of her nigredo — is terrified by the security at these gates to keep away the unworthy.
The guards at the gate refuse to let her back in the Garden but Commander Paylor ex machina intervenes. Who is she?
We met Commander Paylor back in District 8′s ad hoc hospital and on the roof of a warehouse later when Katniss and Gale do their Diana and the Green Arrow super-hero number against the Capitol hovercraft-bombers. The commander didn’t think much of Katniss in her Cinna designed super-slick Mockingjay costume but she warmed to our heroine after she knocks down a few planes and makes a great propo. Still, it’s a surprise that she shows up here at the City Circle center just in time to open the gates to the Garden for our allegorical Adam.
Elizabeth Hardy, the Milton Spencer Professor of Really Tough Reading at Hogwarts, wrote me to say that she thought Commander Paylor’s last name should be read “Pale Ore” meaning “gold,” the “solid light” of traditional, sacred metallurgy. That is a great catch and makes sense; there should be gold at the primordial center. “Pale Ore,” though, could also be “silver,” which with Snow and the white rose in the scene coming up would all be alchemical signatures of the albedo, according to Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I leave it on the table for your consideration.
The prevailing symbol of Catching Fire and the most meaningful token the Christ figure of the series gives Katniss is a pearl, the solid-light symbolism of which we’ve discussed before. I think Commander Paylor’s name may be our last Madge-Pearl-Mags name reference in being a “pale orb.” That gold and pearls have a similar translucency and metaphysical correspondence with the ‘Light of the World’ make the twin possibilities that much more rich — and Commander Paylor’s ascending to Panem’s Presidency that much more meaningful and appropriate.
Katniss steps into the Garden with the Pearl’s blessing (“on my authority”) and discovers roses of every possible color. There are red, of course, and “lush pink, sunset orange, and even pale blue.” She knows what she wants, though; the rose colored like light, the white rose, Dante’s symbolic prelude to the beatific vision and transcendence. Just as she cuts the “magnificent white bud just about to open” “from the top of a slender bush” (ibid, p. 355), the manacled, “pale, sickly green” President Snow, our snake in the Garden, speaks.
“The colors, are lovely, of course, but nothing says perfection like white.”
Our story Satan, you recall, left her a white rose in District 12 in chapter 1 and dropped roses with the bunker buster bombs in Part 1 to terrify Katniss. Now we know why. He was taunting her with her end, that as a seeker’s soul he knew her goal was perfection in Christ and taunted her with it, especially when he held Peeta-Christ and understood the cartharsis and chrysalis she would have to pass through to claim it herself. Now that she is in the inner sanctuary, the High Place, he tells her the truth she could not hear anywhere else, the final, ugly truth about the cause for which Katniss had sacrificed everything. Snow reveals, just as Peeta had told her at the story’s start, that she was deceived by those she trusted. President Coin killed Primrose with a weapon designed by Gale.
Having been to the Absolute center, the world navel, and taken away the beatific vision as a white rose, Katniss is no longer a seeker but the resolution of contraries, an androgyn of justice and mercy. She is above right and wrong now as the phoenix-mockingjay and hears the voice of the “murderer” on the Hanging Tree at last. She deceives President Coin at the Victors Meeting as something of an avenging angel; she becomes a murderer herself by assassinating President Coin. Peeta-Christ comes down from the tree as her savior once again and prevents her suicide via Nightlock by his out-of-nowhere intervention.
Katniss is hustled to the training room stripped of all possible tools for self-destruction — and she sings. Katniss has been at last reduced to her mockingjay essence. When she has finally died to the world and all human concerns and attachments, she stops eating. On the third day — and I’m guessing I don’t need to decipher that transparency — she is raised into the heavens by Haymitch and taken back to the story beginning for life with Peeta and Primrose bushes at the Meadow-playground-graveyard (about which Meadow as paradise, see this post).
Katniss joins beginning and end, alpha and omega, with all the references from chapter 1 of the first book and of Mockingjay finding their resolution in her return to District 12 in the series’ last chapter. She is joined with Peeta-Christ in this postmodern heaven of PTSD recovery at the center of the world; the mirror and ring composition of the book, every chapter reflecting its complement chapter on the other side of the midpoint, has brought us to this place of peace, of elision of subject and object in the logos.
The Alchemical Scorecard: Why We Love the Hunger Games — and Why Mockingjay Was a Shock
For a proper ending to this alchemical series, we needed to find in Mockingjay a clearly marked nigredo or black stage, an evident albedo or white stage, a blood-red rubedo, and a golden illumination. We expected a resolution of contraries, too, some kind of sacrificial death and resurrection, and a rebus or story androgyn. As we’ve seen, each of these alchemical markers are evident in Katniss’ final Arena and unofficial Games in the Capitol, the story of the soul’s divinization told beneath the surface of a dystopian novel.
Beyond Katniss’ transcendence, we have a political resolution of right and left, District and Capitol, when Katniss killed President Coin and destroyed in that murder the continuing Capitol-District hatred that Coin intended to foster in a Hunger Games featuring Capitol children. President Pale-Ore/Pale-Orb ascends to power with the Republic dream Haymitch and Plutarch argued about above District 8 early in Mockingjay.
Remember my Ten Out on a Limb Mockingjay Predictions? Based on what we knew from Ms. Collins’ first two Hunger Games novels and the traditions in which she is writing, I guessed on the day before Mockingjay was published that the finale would:
- Be a Completion of the 3 oriented Set
- Include a Big Reveal as series Rubedo
- Feature Katniss ‘Speaking Truth to Power’
- Have a satisfying Resolution of Core Contraries
- Be Filled with Christian Content
- Meet every Alchemical Marker List entry
- Present a third Hunger Games Arena in the Capitol
- Beat up on the Teevee Culture
- Qualify as a War Story
- End with Peeta, Katniss, and Gale Underground a la Zola’s Germinal
Y’know what? I think numbers 1, 2, and 8 were gimmees that had to be true. Guesses 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9, though, were direct hits and 10, meant as a joke that was offered just to draw attention to Ms. Collins’ favorite books, had its moment in the Capitol sewers.
Forget all of that, please, and remember Numbers 5 and 6 on Christian Content and Literary Alchemy. These predictions were about the essential heart and soul of the last book, the artistry and meaning of the work; these two subjects are the important ones because they explain in large part the power of Mockingjay as well as why we loved this series and were bowled over by the finale.
The story works. We’re engaged by the surface narrative and identify with the principal character, whose laughably unlikely and unreal Cinderella story is just realistic enough for us to enter in and experience the story transparencies and translucencies, the allegorical and anagogical meaning of the books. Katniss, a story cipher for the human soul, as we’ve just seen, loves Gale the Body and Peeta the Christ; together the three are a triptych of the human person, body, soul, and spirit, and Katniss’ journey is a 21st Century retelling of Dante’s journey to Paradise and divinization through the beatific vision, symbolized by a white rose.
It is an alchemical trip and Ms. Collins meticulously and creatively meets every requirement of that tradition for the cathartic shared transformation of her readers. Katniss’ circular journey, beginning and ending in burned over District 12 with the story climax at the Capitol city Circle center, the inner sanctuary of the President’s Mansion, is presented in the remarkable ring and composition of the novel, in which each chapter has its reflection in the opposite half of the book. Having reached the transcendent origin defining the story in the circle’s center, Katniss achieves a union with the story equivalent of that Creative Principle, Peeta the Christ. All contraries are resolved and her sacrifice has left a legacy of peace.
The book, though, quite intentionally is disturbing rather than a simple delight, satisfying while leaving the reader almost shattered alongside Katniss and confused on quite a few points. The race to the Capitol’s many alchemical notes came in such a rush that, while effective, were lost on the reader almost literally “blown away” by the accumulative gore and violence. Peeta’s agony, too, obscured for most his continuing role as the Christ of the books, the savior in whom our heroine struggles to believe, restores by her love and faith, and whose message she delivers sacrificially by taking up her own murderous cross to land on the Hanging Tree.
It is not a Christian book, of course, in a Focus on the Family, cardboard-Jesus, evangelical fashion, but in the tradition of English literature. It is a work that one enters, and, if the heart is pure and disbelief suspended, we are transformed in our shared experience with the hero/ine and his or her greater life in Christ or as Christ. That this anagogical experience and deep stream of meaning exists beneath a dramatic indictment of modern media, the crimes of the political left and right (and how nebulous and superficial the differences between power-pursuing partisans of either side of the aisle are ultimately), and of modern warfare makes Ms. Collins’ achievement that much more notable.
I close with the observation that, as obscure as the sublime content may seem, it is the power of this well-beneath-the-surface story and its magic that delivers all the other messages. Though we only notice the political allegory, perhaps, and want to deny the spiritual freight of the books, it is the latter that changes us, maybe even shattering us, lifting us to a better, more human place above our ego concerns.
I covet as always your comments and corrections.