The Girl Who Was On Fire (Part One)

Katniss Everdeen is a Phoenix. There. I’ve said it. Now I just have to show it. Let’s start with some prelimiaries. Fire is an important symbol in the Hunger Games.

Fire is a symbol of something that devours and consumes. Fire eats things. The fires of the temple and tabernacle devour the sacrifices, which is symbolically the same as saying that God eats the sacrifices. God is described as a consuming fire, a refiner’s fire. God’s fire is not evil fire or hellfire, but purifying fire, fire that transforms His people, eats away the chaff but leaving the permanent things. Fire in the Bible, in short, is alchemical fire. We are put into God’s crucible and burned, heated, smelted, purified and reborn from the alchemical flames of the Spirit (coming on Pentecost), reconstituted into new men. Jesus died, descended into Hades, was raised on the third day and was enthroned in Heaven with the power to send the fiery Spirit back to the earth in tongues of flame. Jesus was resurrected to become the Heavenly Firemaster, the Divine Alchemist.

I mentioned in my last post (here) that the central element to the Hunger Games is the transformation of Katniss, and this is accomplished, I will suggest, by way of alchemical fire. Fire in the Hunger Games is a purifier. The trials which Katniss must traverse are hard, they are fiery and dangerous, but ultimately transformative. Considered abstractly, the Games themselves are a metaphorical “fiery trial,” but they are also filled with many fires and burns. But the fire begins long before. On page 5, a “fiery” electrified fence keeps dangerous animals away from town, and we find that hunting is illegal but the government’s rulers turn a blind eye because of the temptation of fire-roasted meat (5-6). Katniss’s father dies in a fiery mine explosion.

More significantly, Peeta is a commander of fire. He is a baker’s son, skilled in baking bread in fire. As Katniss notes, “Peeta’s a whiz with fires, coaxing a blaze out of damp wood,” (321). His first encounter with Katniss, he risks his mother’s wrath to bring the starving girl bread that has been “burnt” in the fire, and as Katniss clutches it to her chest, the “heat of the bread burned into my skin,” but she presses it tighter, “clinging to life,” (31). The loaves “were fine, perfect really, except for the burned areas,” (31). Given the alchemical overtones of Katniss’ being “burnt” by things in the novel, it should be noted that “a golden glow spilled out the open kitchen door” of the bakery (29), indicating a foreshadowing of her perfection in the Games and the final “burning” confrontation at the golden cornucopia. The bread is in some way a symbol or metaphor for the Philosopher’s Stone, the bakery the crucible which produces the golden result of the alchemical transformation, the elixir of life. The bread having been purified in the refiner’s fire, the dross burnt away from the bread, Katniss returns home with the still-warm bread and sits her family down to a sacramental meal of breaking bread together. Katniss “scraped off the black stuff and sliced the bread,” (31). This serves as a miniature reenactment of the novel as a whole; Katniss is the bread who will be purified by the baker’s fire, her burnt dross scraped away, leaving only wonderful bread, the choicest portions of bread.

Peeta himself is the agent of Katniss’ transformation within the Games; he is, wittingly or not, the baker burning Katniss, scorching her with love and purifying her, scraping away her burnt bits and leaving only perfected bread. As I noted above, he is already associated with fire, and the link is only strengthened. He, of course, is paired to Katniss, and emerges in the opening chariots as the “boy who was on fire” along with her. His love is a fire that keeps him alive in the Games, that makes him pursue the selfless course which changes Katniss. Peeta is also contrasted with Gale in the first pages, and Gale comes off for the worse. Gale says, “‘Look what I shot,” and “holds up a loaf of bread with an arrow stuck in it.” The bread is “real bakery bread,” (7). The fragrance of fresh bread “makes my mouth flood with saliva.” Katniss concludes that “fine bread like this is for special occasions.”

We must see past the appearances and contemplate the connections we have already made. Bread is already connected to Peeta (as baker) and Katniss (as bread itself). Noting this connection, and in light of the overall point of the book, Gale is behaving like one of the Careers, someone who kills and enjoys it. Where Peeta affects transformation by baking the bread, Gale sees the bread as nothing more than a target, something to destroy rather than create or build up. At the end of the novel, Gale is also the wedge or “arrow” that drives Katniss and Peeta apart, divides bread and baker. While I have not read the next two books in the trilogy, it appears as though Gale is a divisive force while Peeta is the male counterpart of the alchemical couple, the “couple that was on fire.” There are a few more details to notice, as well. Katniss’ mouth waters at the smell of the bread and concludes that bakery bread (Peeta bread, if you can forgive the pun) is “for special occasions.” What occasion is more special for the Capitol, of course, than the Hunger Games. We see already the foreshadowing of Katniss’ and Peeta’s love in her attraction to the bread, and that Peeta will also be chosen to go with her into the Games. I suspect it may have a deeper meaning that will span the books and reveal Peeta as the one who completes and perfects Katniss. How that plays out remains, for me, to be seen (no spoilers either!).

Cinna, Katniss’ designer for the games, says they will focus “on the coal.” And “what do we do with coal? We burn it. . . . You’re not afraid of fire, are you, Katniss?” (66, 67). She and Peeta are “petrified of being turned into human torches,” (68). As they enter the opening ceremonies, they “seem to be leaving a trail of fire off the flaming capes,” (70). These are purifying fires, not destructive flames, and it is almost as though they have been transfigured in glory like Christ upon the Mount: they are “more attractive but utterly recognizable” (70). In fact, for every public appearance they are dressed in fiery apparel.

Once they enter the Games, fire seems everywhere. Even Katniss’ backback is a bright “fiery” orange color that will “glow in the dark” like a beacon or torch (153). Her first days in the Games are suffused with the sun, which we are told is “overly bright,” (165), “even more searing than the first two days,” (169). The purification begins: Katniss feels “like an old piece of leather, drying and cracking in the heat,” (169). She has a symbolic death in the fiery crucible, concluding, “This is an okay place to die,” (170). As she gives up and dies, at least metaphorically, she finds water, complete with “yellow [golden] . . . lilies,” (170). But where white lilies are traditionally the flowers of death, these are golden lilies, a symbol of Katniss’ resurrection in her immersion baptism into the lake, crawling through the golden lilies “into the pond,” (170).

Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow.

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