Teaching and Fantasy Literature: The Hunger Games and the SAT
The cheap shots are kind of tempting — analogies, or allegories even, about the SAT as a form of gladiatorial combat. Some of my students do experience the test that way. Certainly the SAT has become a fasting ordeal, now that it’s four hours long and still allows only one break long enough for scarfing down an energy bar. But I’m not enlisting the aid of Katniss Everdeen to fight the College Board over its test. Odd as it sounds, there are some admirable, humane aspects to the SAT in its current incarnation. I’ve just started using the Neo-Roman culture of Suzanne Collins’s Panem setting to work to take the fear out of Latin-derived vocabulary words.
One of the pleasures of the Hunger Games trilogy for adult readers is the subtle thread of Roman influence on the world-building. It’s completely lost on the narrator, who has been raised in extreme poverty and educated only far enough to serve a dictatorial state. Since Katniss can’t comment on the classical echoes, and doesn’t need to understand them to navigate her world successfully, teenage readers who haven’t been offered much history earlier than 1776 can get by all right, too. They hang on in the wake of Katniss’s enormous personality and follow her through fire and storm to the end of the last volume. My students do get all the big themes and moods of the story, and all the wild action. The little grace notes that genre readers smile over, well, left to themselves, my students just shrug and treat them as non-specific markers of Panem’s otherness.
Consider the Cornucopia.
Last week, a student stopped me mid-pontification about how much the test writers for the College Board love to use a particular parenthetical comma trick in the spot-the-error section of the SAT. Once you know to look for the trick, you’ll see how copious parenthetical commas are, and…
“Wait! What does copious mean?”
I held off on the Latin roots, though she had been working hard on etymology for weeks. “You’ve read The Hunger Games. Remember the Cornucopia?”
“Are you about to tell me Cornucopia is a real word?”
So I gave her the world’s shortest version of the story of Hercules battling the river god Achelous and ripping off his horn. “You’ve seen pictures of cornucopias every Thanksgiving. You’ve probably understood just fine what they represented. You just didn’t know the word.”
“OMG. I have one in my living room. I never knew what to call it.”
“So, how does Suzanne Collins use that word to increase the overall awesomeness of The Hunger Games?”
“Oh! I get it! The characters have been kept starving their whole lives, and when the government of Panem finally gives them a cornucopia, it’s full of weapons and death. That’s so…twisted!”
We got to spend a chunk of time talking about Panem and Rome, and how Collins mixes roots and prefixes to make words like avox, for characters who have lost the ability to speak. As a bonus, we got to clear up what irony actually is.
Katniss gets set up for an ordeal, and instead of being used by it to further the goals of institutions that don’t care about her as an individual, she uses the ordeal to become a person capable of overcoming all those institutions. That’s irony, in the literary sense. It’s also the SAT analogy I didn’t mean to find.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.
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