Friday, September 03, 2010

Nitpicking the Theseus Connection of The Hunger Games

So I sat down and read the entirety of the first Hunger Games book in one sitting on Wednesday. I'm sure none of you are surprised. I took one break for a granola bar and to stretch, then dived right back in. I don't normally do in depth reviews of book on the blog, and I'm not sure I want this to be considered one either-- I'm really only going to address one element, and that is (of course) the Theseus Connection.

Now, I've been hearing a lot about this from the start, and so maybe I was thinking there would be something greater than what there was, because of all the hype, and also maybe I am OVERLY familiar with the Theseus mythology, so it's hard for me to see the Trees for the Forest, or uhm, the Forest for the Trees, or however that saying is supposed to go. YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. Also, if you have not read the first book, there be spoilers ahead. Arrrr!

So let me just get right down to it.

The Theseus/Ariadne element? I think it's a stretch. A big one. Stay with me while I lay out my reasoning.

First, the mythology:
Athens had to pay a tribute to Crete every so many years of 7 boys and 7 girls. Now, it gets a little bit fuzzy here whether it was to feed the Minotaur or for the Bull Dance, but either way, this tribute had to be paid, and Athens, as you might imagine, wasn't really all that thrilled about sending its sons and daughters to die. Theseus, new on the scene at Athens and only recently made heir of King Aegeus, offers himself in sacrifice (or is drawn by lot--both versions are equally valid) and heads to Crete to kill the Minotaur or free Athens from the tribute by whatever means. Since he's already proved himself by whooping the monstrous people on the Isthmus road at the gates to the underworld, I'm sure he was fairly confident about this Minotaur business when he left.

Now we get to Ariadne, Minos's daughter. There are a slew of different interpretations as far as what happens here, but I'll go with the basic assumption that people jump to for ease of posting. Ariadne meets Theseus and falls in love with him (how they had the time to socialize, and when they met is something to think about). She agrees to help him find his way back out of the labyrinth if he'll promise to take her with him (and marry her*) when he leaves Crete. She gives him a ball of string to allow him to retrace his steps, and (sometimes) directions from Daedalus on how to get in and out without falling into the traps of the labyrinth. Theseus follows these directions, finds the Minotaur, kills it off, and makes his way back out. He collects Ariadne as per his promise and gets out of dodge. Theseus then abandons Ariadne on a nearby island, sometimes at the order of Dionysus,** who claims her for himself, and sometimes just because Theseus is inexplicably some kind of jerk*** suddenly who doesn't care about honoring his promises.

The book:
Katniss, a skilled hunter and established member of her community, volunteers to go to The Hunger Games (as a tribute to a "foreign" power) in place of her sister. The other tribute chosen (by lot) is a boy named Peeta, who it turns out, has been in love with Katniss since the age of five. Now, I'm going to go ahead and say KATNISS should be interchangeable with THESEUS here. Which makes Peeta Ariadne, and already we  have some divergence from the myth-- as we should, of course, because it isn't a direct retelling, just an allusion. From this point on, Katniss and Peeta are stuck together, and of course Katniss learns of Peeta's feelings for her, but she isn't so sure of her own (which will set up nicely for her to abandon HIM on the next island they come across in a sudden case of jerkdom, but I have not read book two yet, so I can not offer an opinion on that element as yet).

Now, inside the Games, Peeta goes about doing his best to keep the other tributes from killing Katniss, though I'm fairly certain that she really didn't need much of his help except in that one incident with those crazy wasps. Mostly, Peeta seems to be kind of useless inside the Games. He can't track, he can't move with any stealth, the only thing he's really all that good for is lying absolutely still in the mud under camouflage to die. When there's a chance that they might both win if they stick together, Katniss goes for it, either because of her feelings for him, or because she just isn't a jerk and doesn't wish death on people for no reason.

But here's the next major divergence-- Peeta essentially handicaps Katniss in pretty much every way. He isn't a help, he's a piece of meat, an extra mouth to feed, and in order to keep him alive, Katniss has to put herself into incredibly risky situations which she might not otherwise have had to face and almost gets HERSELF killed at least once. I finished the book convinced that Katniss would have triumphed even more effectively without the burden of Peeta to look after. And that's the biggest problem I have with this talk of the Allusion to Theseus and the Labyrinth business. Theseus absolutely could not have gotten back out again if not for Ariadne's love for him. Katniss would have been better off without Peeta, pretty much from beginning to end. That's too huge of a divergence for me to swallow all the hype surrounding the book as a retelling of Theseus and the Labyrinth, specifically. If someone hadn't flat out said it to me, I would have gotten nothing on my Theseus-dar. (And let me tell you, I am HIGHLY attuned to Theseus by now!)

As for Katniss having to defeat a Minotaur equivalent? Mrph. Katniss didn't defeat anything. Those hounds got called away by the Gamemakers. In fact, after they got Cato, they didn't seem all that interested in Katniss or Peeta at all.

(Sidenote: way to go blogger/firefox spellcheck for knowing how to spell both Theseus and Ariadne! you have trumped Word!)

So there you have it. My nitpicking review of The Hunger Games. Can't wait to see if Katniss turns into a sudden Jerk or not! And, all that said, I really really enjoyed this book a lot. I thought the writing was fairly flawless, and the present tense first person was masterfully done. Two thumbs up!

*Really, if Ariadne only made Theseus promise to take her with him from Crete, and NOT explicitly to marry her, he kept his word regardless.

**There is some interesting evidence for sacrifices being made to "The Lady of the Labyrinth" which may have been a reference to Ariadne, who may or may not have been treated as a goddess. There are also some theories floating about that Ariadne was ALREADY married to Dionysus before she made her deal with Theseus, and kind of just led him on to get herself out of there, which would fit with her already being a goddess also. Definitely a topic that I'd very much like to do more of my own research into. At the moment it is kind of classified in my brain as rumor.

***Personally, I find that to be a little bit bizarre behavior from someone who just volunteered to be sent off to a foreign land as a tribute RISKING HIS LIFE on behalf of a people he barely knows but has adopted as his own, when he has already established himself as someone with a keen sense of justice, but, you know, whatever. As they say around and about the internet, Haters gonna Hate.


  1. I love this post! I knew there were allusions to mythology in THG series, but this is a nice run-down of the divergence.

    Although, I do have to point out that Peeta did team up with the careers to help Katniss. And she would have been toast without his smooth-talking interviews and declaration of love- that's what made them a crowd favorite and allowed Haymitch to raise the money to send so many gifts.

    But then I'm a Peeta fan- Gale just didn't cut it for me. :)

  2. Yeah, I'm not sure he really did all that much with the Careers when he teamed up with them. This is maybe a limitation of the first person pov that was used, because I think Katniss would have been just fine either way, and I think she still would have been a crowd favorite without his declaration of love. I feel like she had some pretty significant charisma of her own-- Peeta even says himself that she doesn't realize the power she has over people. There was never any point in the book where I felt Katniss wasn't in control and fully capable without him, I guess. Except for the very end when they are looking for any excuse to kill them, where again, if it hadn't been for Peeta, she wouldn't have been in the predicament at all. I think Rue did more to help her than Peeta did, in the big picture.

    I don't think I've really seen enough of Gale yet to make a judgment on that. I have a feeling I will find out in the next book though :) I DO love that he calls her Catnip--and for a minute, I really thought he was going to volunteer too.

  3. Your thoughts are so interesting to read! Squeee! I love that you've read the Hunger Games.


    Um, see on the one hand I'd say YES Peeta is so unhelpful is unreal and I do see your point. But. Um. On the other hand I'd say that without him she wouldn't make it. Um, I don't know. I think he keeps her together, mentally.

    ZOMG. I can't actually tell you because I think it will spoil things. Hm, I just think he was more help than is physically seen.



  4. Yes! I am very curious how far she is going to take this along the Theseus path, and what comes next. I will head to the library next week and see what I can get my hands on. #TotallyregrettingmyoriginalPaperbackPurchaseofTheHungerGames #WichIhadjustboughttheHardcover

  5. I'd say Suzanne Collins was using the myth as a jumping off point. As she has said she morphed it with other cultural phenoms like reality tv. Anyway, you've got two-thirds of the story to go, and I'll be interested to see what you think when you shut the cover of the final book. I'm still musing on it.

  6. Love this! Since I didn't know anything about Theseus other than the labyrinth, this was very interesting. Thanks, Amalia.

    While I definitely see your point about Peeta, I would make the argument that he did save Katniss. Had he not felt anything for her, it's unlikely anyone would have thought of the romantic spin which in the end was the foundation of their escape from the Arena.

  7. Tricia, I think my beef is really just that there was all this hype that it was a "retelling" and to me, this is just Allusion. I'm all about taking liberties with mythology, but this book could have been a retelling of a lot of stuff other than just Theseus. But I definitely want to keep reading, and I loved the book!

  8. VR: Like I said, I really felt Katniss could have handled the situation without him, and in the end, they wouldn't have had to go Romeo and Juliet if she hadn't been carrying his dead weight. I think she would have been able to be more ruthless and gotten out of there a lot faster without him. BUT, only Ms. Collins knows for certain, I suppose! :) And there is certainly room for interpretation.

  9. I agree that Katniss had the physical skills to get out, but she was so damn dim, I doubt she'd have made it. My one complaint about THE HUNGER GAMES was Katniss and how clueless she was throughout. I thought Ms. Collins had failed to develop the character, but after reading your comments, maybe it was as it should be. If Katniss had had the least bit of savvy, she probably would have jettisoned Peeta early on. Then where would we be? :)

  10. Hahaha! See, I did not feel that way about her at all! I thought the only thing she was really thick about was her feelings of love for Gale and Peeta. Everything else I felt she caught on super fast, and she was really in her element during the games.

  11. To be fair to Catnip, it *was* the Peeta/Gale thing that bugged me. It seemed totally natural for her to be confused by her feelings, no problem there. What drove me nuts was she couldn't see that Peeta was drooling all over her. It made me doubt her judgment, IQ, and by association, her capabilities. I mean, it bothered me a lot. I remember talking to my husband about the book and I kept referring to Katniss as the "idiot girl." LOL!

  12. oh, haha! well I can't blame you so much there :)

  13. Thank you for the reintroduction to Theseus! Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy mythology, but your comparison here rekindled my interest. Must. Read. More.

    I'm ashamed to admit it took me three readings to get through The Hunger Games, but maybe that'll teach me to start a new book when family's coming into town. (Um, no it won't.)

  14. Nate, you are welcome! Theseus snuck up on me some time ago when I started writing a book on Helen of Troy, and I haven't been able to get rid of him since. He's possibly one of the most interesting characters in Greek Myth, in my opinion, and the minute I heard that The Hunger Games was a retelling of his trip to Crete, I had no choice but to pick up a copy! For all that, it took me long enough to finally read it since I waited for the paperback :)

  15. You know, I never really looked into the Ariadne/Peeta part. I guess I never thought about that since you're right - they really aren't similar at all. (I mean, forget the gender thing.) For me, the strongest allusion came with the Games in general and the drawing lots and the tributes. Suzanne Collins credits both the Theseus legend AND "Spartacus" AND her career in TV as the main influences for THE HUNGER GAMES.

    This is a nice outline of the similarities and differences, though. And I knew you would enjoy the book! I think I liked the second one even better. Maybe. The third one sort of sucked IMHO, though. :/

  16. I will definitely give you the tributes by lot, though in the Theseus legend the circumstances and the why of it are pretty significantly different too-- Athens had to give the tribute to Crete in reparation for the death of Minos's son (murdered by the Athenians out of jealousy) and (sometimes) to alleviate a plague sent by the gods in punishment for that murder, rather than because they were subjugated exactly. But yes, that's probably the strongest allusion to Theseus. Allusion is the key word :) But I balk at "retelling."

  17. Read the other 2 books. Katniss aids in defeating the capitol.

    1. I did, actually! But the Theseus stuff I think is mostly just book one -- and for the record, I don't think Katniss suddenly turns into a jerk in the following books. She just doesn't know what she wants.

  18. I think you've overlooked some narrative elements in your analysis. The sword and rope bestowed upon Katniss correspond to Ariadne's gift to Theseus of a sword to kill the Minotaur and the golden thread to escape the labyrinth. The arena corresponds to the labyrinth. The steel structure in the central clearing has a bovine form - as do the hounds. Collins has acknowledged she used the Minotaur myth, but it's clear she doesn't really understand it. She throws these elements into the story without any regard for their symbolic meaning.
    The Theseus myth is a carefully constructed metaphysical allegory - Theseus slays the Minotaur which represents the brutish ego hidden in the labyrinth of the mind. Later, Theseus doesn't just turn into a jerk - he abandons Ariadne on the instructions of Athena, who was the goddess of wisdom. Ariadne represents a lower region of consciousness which had to be left behind - after all, she is the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae who belong to a world of lust and oppression. This is confirmed when Ariadne immediately becomes the consort of Dionysius, who makes her a goddess.
    The entire story is the hero's journey to kingship - dominion over one's lower self - and into metaphysical regions far beyond. The Greeks understood their 'gods' were created entities - and Theseus had to go beyond the domain of such beings. Collins' story contains little of this - it's been reduced to a worldly adventure.


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