Give-and-Take on ‘Who is the Mockingjay?’ Part 1


I posted my preliminary thoughts on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in a post here on Sunday called “Who is the Mockingjay?” It’s received quite the response in Hunger Games fandom with dedicated posts on Hunger, Boy With the,, and Team Peeta and has threads devoted to the Pearl Theory I brought up on forums at Hunger Games and It has been a mixed response and at many sites (to include this one), so I’ll try to respond to the criticism, suggestions, and questions in one spot to focus discussion.

Before I jump into the mailbag and respond to the feedback, though, I feel obliged to sort the retorts into three piles:

The three types of responses were:

  1. enthusiastic and with questions about the plot-point theory,
  2. skeptical and unkind (several of these described themselves as “snarky” so I guess it’s all right to go there, too), and
  3. curious, even excited about the ideas of narrative misdirection and of allegorical meaning that were in the post and my discussion with Travis Prinzi in the comment boxes.

Most of the readers who took the time to write something, as you’d expect, fell into the first two groups. This is consistent with my experience in Twilight and Harry Potter fandoms: the only discussion to be had online is about plot-point possibilities. If you want to smuggle in the good stuff like story symbolism and why we love these books the way we do, it is best to go where people live. And they live in the story surface meaning, especially in the months running up to a finale!

So I wasn’t surprised that most readers praised, criticized, or had questions about the Pearl Theory I put together. It was largely the reason I wrote the post the way I did. But those of you who have read my books on Harry Potter, especially Unlocking Harry Potter, which was written in the run-up to Deathly Hallows in 2006, know that as wild and crazy as much theories get (remember Scar-o-Scope?), I really don’t care if they’re right or wrong. It’s the literary device or symbolic tradition I can illustrate with the whacky idea that is for readers to take home.

Of course the guesses are going to be wrong! I’ve hit more bullseyes than I want to list here but no one was more surprised than I was when my longshots came home, to mix betting metaphors. If I could guess what great writers were going to write down to the plot point detail, I’d be writing novels myself, right?

The funny thing, consequently, is when readers, mostly of the snarky crowd, said it was almost certain that I was wrong and railed in some nasty ad hominem points about my Gilderoy-esque self-importance and my need to get a life. Ummm… As I am not married to any of my theories, “pearls” before swine or no, wouldn’t that be more true of the folks with a sure idea of how wrong I am than it is of me?

Two short stories here before the Q&A about “Who is the MockingJay?”:

First, Janet Batchler, a good friend, a brilliant screen writer, and a profound Potter Pundit. She even wrote a book for Harry Potter fandom before Deathly Hallows was published called What Will Harry Do? Pay-Offs and Possibilities in Book 7 that, based on her story-telling expertise (she teaches screen writing at USC), was an invaluable review of the set-ups Ms. Rowling had included that we should expect to see pay-off in Hallows.

The great thing is, Janet and I each admiring the other’s work (in which, because our areas of expertise are so different, there is very little over-lap), on the subject of plot-point theories we disagreed about everything. Because I’m writing the post here, you can probably guess that this post is about the one I had right (with most of fandom) and Janet got wrong.

The thing we disagreed about was whether Harry was a Horcrux. I explained that he had to be because it satisfied almost every one of the five keys I recommended readers use to unlock the meaning and power of the series, most notably, narrative misdirection, postmodern morality, and literary alchemy. The story ‘other’ had to turn out to be an aspect of the hero for him to identify and resolve.

Janet was convinced that this Manchurian Candidate cliche could not possibly be true. She argued cogently from her insights as a writer and how writers think that Harry’s scar would not, should not, certainly was not a Horcrux. Janet is indefinitely patient and charitable with those with whom she disagrees but she shredded all our arguments as specious nonsense.

That she was wrong, of course, means very little. I look forward to reading next week n Janet’s blog about my many miscalls that she got right — and there were quite a few. The point of the story, the moral, if you will, is that what survives is not the “who got the plot point right” battle but the principle you learn during the speculating that you can take to the next book you read or our next re-read of the same book. My “keys” and Janet’s story set-up cues were great for Harry and the work in Hunger Games, too. Mrs. Rowling cannot patent or copyright narrative misdirection, literary alchemy, Christian symbolism, or monomyth a la Dante — as is evident in trying to understand why we love Ms. Collins’ Katniss, Gale, and Peeta, answering which question all of these and several other keys will be useful.

Second story.

Alan Jacobs has a PhD from the University of Virginia and is an English Professor at Wheaton College. He is a C. S. Lewis authority because of his critical biography, The Narnian, and had written several articles on the Harry Potter novels that were borderline apologetic and in admiration when ‘The Controversy’ about whether these books were the gateway to the occult was at its peak. I sent him a copy of my first book, The Hidden Key to Harry Potter (which is now How Harry Cast His Spell), because it was the first published work that focused on the Hogwarts Saga’s literary nuts-and-bolts rather than its relation to the law-giving in Leviticus. Prof. Jacobs refused and did so again when Tyndale sent him the revised editions they have published.

His reasons? I can only guess because he never sent a note with his refusals but I have a pretty good idea.

He thought my “hidden key” theory was sophistic if not nonsensical, especially with respect to literary alchemy. As he wrote in a First Things article called ‘The Code Breakers,’ in which he dismissed literary analysis based on a neglected or unknown secret that unlocks a book’s meaning:

A few years ago, I wrote an essay in praise of the Harry Potter books that yielded some interesting responses. One man, knowing that I am a Christian, wrote in some astonishment: Did I not see that the books symbolically describe an alchemy-based paganism, a model of magical power deeply hostile to Christianity? The key, he said, was to be found primarily in the names of the main characters, which referred to different stages of the alchemists’ wisdom, and in animals like the phoenix Fawkes—the phoenix being a major symbol, for the alchemists, of transformation.

I did not find these arguments strong at the time, and I grew more dubious a few weeks later when I received a letter from another Potter scholar who claimed that the books did indeed have a hidden meaning but a specifically Christian one. According to this interpreter, my first correspondent was right in thinking that the phoenix was deeply significant but wrong about what it signified: Far from being anti-Christian, the phoenix is a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus, and the whole Harry Potter series is a covert retelling of the Christian narrative.

My two correspondents may have come to opposite conclusions, but on a deeper level they were confederates: fellow believers in the Gospel of the Hidden Meaning. And they have plenty of company. The world is full, it sometimes seems, of people who think that what writers do is encode secret messages, and what readers, therefore, should do is decipher them.

Prof. Jacobs misrepresents my explanation of literary alchemy rather boldly to make his point but you see what it’s after. My arguing that Ms. Rowling was using alchemy as her story scaffolding a la Shakespeare, Dickens, Lewis, and others was sophomoric treasure hunting and wish-fulfillment projection the text could not and did not support. He was after much larger game than me in his ‘Code-Breakers’ piece — he finds Catholic arguments that Shakespeare was a secret Papist wanting, to say the least — but I got his point.

The moral of this story? Well, we have to get to the end first.

Prof. Jacobs wrote about Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, pre-publication, in his Lewis biography. He is patronizing and dismissive, as you’d expect from one thinking “code breakers” are a silly bunch. He wrote, “It is hard not to be skeptical of Ward’s argument, because Lewis flatly told a young reader that the series was unplanned” (page 192n). Prof. Jacobs was obliged, however, when presented with Ward’s full argument, to acknowledge the key fit the lock:

Noting Michael Ward’s claim that he has discovered “the secret imaginative key” to the Narnia books, the sensible reader responds by erecting a castle of scepticism. My own castle was gradually but utterly demolished as I read this thoughtful, scholarly, and vividly-written book. If Ward is wrong, his wrongness is cogent: it illuminates and delights. But I don’t think he is wrong. And in revealing the role of the planets in the Chronicles, Ward also gives us the fullest understanding yet of just how deeply Lewis in his own fiction drew upon those medieval and renaissance writers he so loved.

(blurb, Planet Narnia, back cover)

Has Prof. Jacobs retracted his dismissal of Ms. Rowling writing on a traditional alchemical scaffolding? Say, when Ms. Rowling’s 1998 comments about alchemy were posted online in 2007? Suddenly the world acknowledged “we always knew that” because, y’know, the first book is titledPhilosopher’s Stone (hardly subtle, eh?). Maybe after reading Deathly Hallows, in which the alchemical symbolism determined every major plot point and most of the colors on Ms. Rowling’s palate?


In fact, Prof. Jacobs is still struggling to come to terms with Harry as a Christ figure (he wrote flat out in his Books and Culture review of Hallows that Harry most certainly was not a Christ figure). I suppose if your definition of ‘Christ figure’ requires a clone of Jesus of Nazareth that would make sense, but Prof. Jacobs refusal to see the Passion narrative in Hallows is a telling blind-spot. As I wrote at the time:

My first impression is that Prof. Jacobs goes out of his way to be both laudatory and patronizing in this review. I suspect this will become a preferred posture among the academic mavens of literature because it will allow them to admire Ms. Rowling’s accomplishment without having to admit it to the Halls of Serious Literature above and beyond the dumpsters of fascinating Cultural Artifacts. Prof. Jacobs’ celebration of the books as cliched writing and penny dreadful “kid lit” done very well achieves something like what the New York Times’ creating a Childrens’ Book Best Seller List did: isolating Harry in a lesser category of reading for applause appropriate to this lesser fare. Parents applaud a Nutcracker performance with their children in it with as many decibels as an audience of real ballet aficionados applaud the real Nutcracker at the Balshoi — but there is a difference, even if both dramas receive standing ovations. And the difference is that the kids’ dancing was great only for kids’ dancing….

Jacobs clearly means when he says that Harry is “not a clear Christ figure” that he is not meant as a one-to-one allegorical representation for Jesus of Nazareth and His Passion and Resurrection. I have yet to read anyone claiming that, if Connie Neal comes distressingly close. What I have said since 2002 is that Harry is a Christian Everyman, from his name to his status as seeker, which in no way diminishes the edifying and symbolic meaning of his serial near deaths and faux resurrections, not to mention his sacrificial death and victory in Deathly Hallows. Prof. Jacobs is a very serious reader; can he really think that Harry must be either an allegorical stand-in for Christ, point-by-point, or not carry any symbolic weight whatsoever?

And here is where we get to the moral of the story.

Yes, Prof. Jacobs and every other nominalist critic educated in academic literature factories who are convinced that the three literary pigs — aestheticism, genre taxonomy, and deconstruction — are the only sure measures of a book’s artistic merit, not to mention ‘meaning,’ believe that characters do not carry allegorical or anagogical weight. Stories, in brief, are not transparencies or translucencies, as Dante, Ruskin, and Frye argue they are, through we transcend our ideas in poetic faith for an experience of what is more real. Stories are more or less edifying diversions with implicit morals to be judged on their surface merits, their psychological realism, elevated language, or engrossing distraction (‘entertainment value’).

The comedy of dismissing readers who follow Dante’s injunction to read at four levels as deluded “code breakers” is that it reflects the paucity of the tools in the postmodern critics work-box. The three literary pigs certainly aren’t going to explain why readers love The Hunger Games, just as they could not and do not explain the record sales of the Potter and Twilight Sagas. For that kind of mania-inducing fiction, you have to have transcendent meaning delivered by significant artistry, i.e., artistry working well beyond the narrative line and the reader’s conscious experience. (for more on iconological vs. reductive criticism, see the first chapter of Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Novels or this short course posted here.)

I write this out at relatively painful length because this is the “back” you cannot see to the snarky “front” visible in most of the dismissive comments about “Who is the Mockingjay?” Complaints that I’m reaching, speculating, full of myself, etc. don’t explore as a rule either the point I am illustrating (e.g., narrative misdirection, allegorical symbolism) or the merits of my case. These readers are annoyed that I am arguing that there is more meaning and artistry in the books they love than they feel comfortable admitting.

Part of this, no doubt, is having to allow on platforms where they are expert, that they may have missed something important. Nobody like the new guy elbowing his way in (one reason I rarely post on any fandom sites). The sadder part is that their skepticism is grounded in critical nominalism: “everything read beneath the surface is just projected meadow muffins on the critic’s part.”

I put this up-front to save time when we get to the snarky crowd. I’ll try to just answer their criticism with just a note that the reader seems hostile to a lot more than the ‘Pearl’ theory I offered for comment and correction.

Into the mailbag — tomorrow! It’s late and I’m whupped…


  1. I would think that people would get more satisfaction out of the books they love to know that there are deeper meanings to the plot than just what’s on the surface. I know I do — but, then again, I am not “most people.”

    I believe most of your theories are spot-on — or close to it. I look forward to reading what else you’ll share with us in the weeks leading up to the final book’s release date. 🙂

  2. As I wrote in Part 2 in answer to your comment, I think, on the original thread, it’s meeting and conversing with readers like you who know there is more to the narrative line than meets the eye (because it stirs the spiritual heart!) that make conversations here worthwhile.

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