Today’s student offering returns to the theme of the American Monomyth and its understanding of the modern messiah in pop culture. Our guest author is Tessa Duncan, a second year student studying for a Bachelor of Commerce and majoring in Accounting and Information Systems. Tessa hopes to qualify as a Chartered Accountant after finishing her degree, and would like to work in auditing or corporate finance. She took our Theology 101 Bible and Popular Culture course because she thought religion would be a fascinating area to study (she’s right!), and the course interested her in particular because as a Christian, she was keen to discover how a text that has been so important to her personally has influenced and been influenced by popular culture. Tessa chose to explore the messianic qualities of a figure who is currently very in vogue within both contemporary literature and film: Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. So, whether or not you’ve read the books or seen the movies, sit back and enjoy.
Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Messiah
By Tessa Duncan
The word “Messiah” causes many to immediately think of Jesus. After all, Christians believe He was the original Messiah. But Messiah figures have appeared in cultural texts across the centuries, and have taken on a new life in current popular culture. These figures traditionally tend to be male, following the traditional Judaic expectation, but there are many female Messiah figures and one, for me, stands out above the rest: The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. In this essay, I will discuss the American monomyth and the characteristics it gives for a popular culture Messiah. I will use these, and a small discussion on the Christus Victor theory, to discuss why I think Katniss makes for a great example of a pop culture Messiah.
Bruce David Forbes (2005) talks briefly on Christ figures in films, giving examples such as E.T., Neo from The Matrix films and Superman. He notes that these allegories tend to have a similar plot structure that was first introduced by Joseph Campbell as the classical monomyth, in which a hero “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This plot structure may have been applicable to popular culture long ago, when it included the stories of Ulysses and St. George and the dragon, but doesn’t have much relevance to popular stories and films today, and definitely doesn’t relate to The Hunger Games and the story of Katniss Everdeen. Fortunately, this was a view shared by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence. They developed the idea of the American monomyth to describe a plot structure that is pervasive in popular culture today. Their monomyth is of “a community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity,” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). They admit that there are a multitude of variations on this basic plot structure, and The Hunger Games is no exception – I don’t think anyone would describe Panem as “a community in harmonious paradise” – but it does give some useful criteria for identifying a Christ figure in pop culture. Their monomythical hero is someone who is selfless and “impassively gives his life for others,” avoids temptations, carries out the task at hand that culminates in a victory for the good guys, and then fades into obscurity. This makes, in my opinion, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen a near-perfect Christ figure.
The first characteristic of the pop culture Messiah figure is selflessness. Lawrence and Jewett list it as the first criterion for their monomythic hero, and David Fillingim (2010) goes so far as to describe “a theme of voluntary self-sacrifice” as “most essential among all Christ-figure characteristics.” Throughout the Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen shows herself to be incredibly selfless. In order to keep her family from starving, she chooses to accept a small amount of oil and grain from the Capitol in exchange for entering her name in the reaping pool extra times, resulting in her name being entered 20 times, as opposed to the minimum of five times for 16 year old citizens of Panem, and thus greatly increasing her chances of being picked for that year’s Hunger Games (Collins, 2008).
And we can’t talk about Katniss’ selflessness without talking about the fact that she volunteered to take her sister Prim’s place in the Hunger Games, absolutely convinced she wouldn’t return. In Mockingjay, when deciding how to use Katniss to inspire the rebels of the districts, Haymitch Abernathy asks everyone to think of one time where she had genuinely moved them, and her volunteering in her sister’s place is the first example given (Collins, 2010). In Catching Fire, when Katniss figures out she will have to go back into the arena with one of the only friends she has in the world, she immediately goes to Haymitch to ask him to do all he can to keep Peeta alive, again knowing this would be at the cost of her own life. Katniss demonstrates time and again that she would willingly give her life for others, meeting our first criterion for a pop culture Messiah perfectly.
Lawrence and Jewett’s monomythic hero is also “marked by sexual renunciation” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). The media greatly played up the love triangle aspect of the films, but the Katniss portrayed in the books is very much uninterested in love and romance, having decided a long time ago never to get married, for fear of watching her children being picked for the Hunger Games. Katniss has two love interests in the series, her fellow tribute Peeta Mellark and her best friend Gale Hawthorne. Very soon after we are introduced to Gale in The Hunger Games, Katniss tells the reader explicitly that “there has never been anything romantic between Gale and me,” (Collins, 2008). However, in Catching Fire, Katniss realises that she does, in fact, have feelings for Gale. She says, “Gale is mine. I am his. Anything else is unthinkable,” (Collins, 2009) but never acts on these feelings, scared of what the Capitol would do to him given that everyone believes she is madly in love with Peeta and this is the only thing preventing a full-on rebellion. Katniss’ entire relationship with Peeta was simply a means of keeping them both alive during their first Hunger Games and of convincing the districts that their refusal to kill each other in the final minutes of their Hunger Games was an act of love, not rebellion. Peeta, though, makes it clear that for him, it isn’t just an act. When Katniss does begin to share his feelings in the Games’ arena in Catching Fire, she again chooses to ignore them, knowing they wouldn’t both make it out of the arena a second time and chooses to focus on keeping him alive instead. Katniss spends the entirety of the series ignoring her romantic feelings to protect the men involved, only being able to admit her feelings for and begin a romantic involvement with Peeta in the final lines of Mockingjay (Collins, 2010), and in doing so, she meets another key criterion for being a pop culture Messiah.
The final criteria – the hero carrying out the redemptive task, culminating in a decisive victory and fading into obscurity – are all well-demonstrated in Mockingjay. It takes some convincing, and a short list of demands on her part, but Katniss agrees to be the figurehead of the rebellion against the Capitol (Collins, 2010). In spite of the great personal risk involved, she is present at many battles in the districts and plays an active role in getting every district to turn on the Capitol. It is she who leads the first team of rebels through the booby-trapped streets of the Capitol to President Snow’s residence. In the end, she doesn’t kill President Snow herself, but that’s a decision that doesn’t really matter; by this stage, all of Panem had already turned against President Snow and he dies seconds later anyway, resulting in a decisive victory for the rebellion. With the victory a sure thing, as Katniss says, “no-one knows quite what to do with me now the war’s over.” She moves back to District 12, where she, Peeta and Haymitch try to move on. The book doesn’t make it clear exactly, but it seems they are mostly left in peace, the parts they played in the rebellion remembered, but they themselves are left to fade into obscurity. This is just another way in which Katniss fits the criteria for the pop culture Messiah figure, and by now, makes her a very good candidate indeed.
This far, I have discussed pop culture Messiahs and the criteria for what makes a character a pop culture Messiah, but haven’t yet discussed who Christians believe to be the original Messiah and similarities between Him and Katniss Everdeen. Granted, there aren’t many, but there is one worth mentioning: Both faced a great triumph over evil. Several theories try to explain Jesus’ Messiahship, and the Christus Victor theory in particular applies to Katniss Everdeen as a pop culture Messiah. The Christus Victor theory is the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection gave him the final victory over everything that holds humanity captive (Galli, 2011). There are many verses in the Bible which talk about Jesus’ victory, and many of these can be applied to Katniss’ victory. Hebrews 2:15-15 says that Jesus “shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death…and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
Katniss, like Jesus, shared in her people’s condition – oppression by the Capitol. Having experienced it all her life, it was a big factor in her decision to be the face of the rebellion. Her victory, too, allowed her people to be set free from their fear of death at the Capitol’s hands, as it was fear of being completely obliterated by the Capitol, like District 13 had been, that ensured there had been no rebellion for 75 years. 2 Thessalonians 2:8 gives a powerful image of Jesus’ final victory, saying that “Lord Jesus will overthrow [the lawless one] with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.” By the time the fight reaches the Capitol, President Snow is already defeated. But the only reason the rebellion caught on was because of powerful propaganda films made by Katniss and the rebels at District 13. It was Katniss’ words that gave strength to the rebellion, and she overthrew the Capitol with the breath of her mouth just as Jesus overthrew the “lawless one”. Taking a look at the Christus Victor theory allows us to draw parallels between Katniss and Jesus, and lends strength to Katniss’ position as a pop culture Messiah.
The idea of American monomyth gives us a very clear and distinct type of hero; one who, among other things, is selfless, resists temptation, carries out a redemptive task to return their world to a paradisiacal state, has a decisive victory and fades into obscurity. The Christus Victor theory expands on the characteristic of a decisive victory by comparing said victory to Jesus’ triumph over death. The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen shares all these characteristics, and we can see strong parallels between her and Jesus’ respective victories over their enemies, and it is for these reasons that I believe she makes a great pop culture Messiah.
All references to Biblical texts are from the New International Version, 1985
Collins, S. (2008). The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press.
Collins, S. (2009). Catching Fire. Scholastic Press.
Collins, S. (2010). Mockingjay. Scholastic Press.
Fillingim, D. (2010). When Jesus was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias. Journal of Religion and Film, 14(1).
Forbes, B., Mahan, J. & Chidster, D. (2005). Religion and popular culture in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from:
Galli, M. (2011, April 7). The Problem with Christus Victor: An increasingly popular view of the atonement forces the question: What are we saved from? Christianity Today.
Lawrence, J. and Jewett, R. (2002). The myth of the American superhero. Eerdmans Publishing.