01/23/2012 07:52 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

The Power Of Ritual In The 'Hunger Games' Trilogy

Based on the enthusiastic squeals of the teenagers in our church youth group, I read Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy. I received it at Christmas, and soon after New Year's I had devoured all three. When we find a good story, we almost feel held captive by the words. We will tell a friend or co-worker, "I stayed up SO late reading! I just couldn't put it down!" We have to know how the story ends.

The mesmerizing story of Katniss Everdeen, who embodies the ever-changing role of miner's daughter, pawn, killer, victor, actress, idol, friend, sister and profound griever, absorbs us and we follow her journey as fast as our eyes can read. Only 17 years old, she bears the physical, emotional and mental scars of war and its legacy of violence and fear. The losses she sustains, the horror she absorbs, the cruelty she observes and inflicts can threaten to overwhelm. As I neared the last pages, I found myself fatigued; exhausted by her story of loss and death. I struggled with how to make sense of it all. As I took a reading breath, I realized that the story needed to be married to a ritual that would both acknowledge the reality of all that had happened but also bring hope for how life could carry on. In the first two books, that ritual quickly and persistently makes itself known, but we have to wait to the very end of the third for a new, transformative ritual. (SPOILER ALERT: My analysis after this paragraph may be a spoiler to those who have not read the books or who are waiting to dive into the upcoming movies.)

My thoughts on the power of story and ritual are shaped by reading "Might Stories, Dangerous Rituals" by Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley. They stress that ritual and story gain greater power when married because our stories become embodied and thus transcend our words while paradoxically publicly referencing them so that there is both personal and communal comfort and challenge. Drawing on the work of John Dominic Crossan, they define the two key elements that an embodied story or ritual must contain in order to be authentic and potentially transformative: myth and parable. They stress that, though opposing in aim, myth and parable provide a realistic and paradoxical tension that needs to be kept in all stories and rituals in order to maintain a level of honesty that will result in authentic meaning. They explain the diverse roles of myth and parable far better than I can on pages 15 and 32:

"Mythic narrations comfort us and assure us that everything is going to be all right; parables challenge and dispute the reconciliation that our myths created. Myths allow us to dream and to believe in a future better than the present; parables disallow us from living in a dream world, call us to confront the present, and deter us from trusting in any hope that does not face the hard reality of the present. The irony, is that these are complementary narrative forms, and human beings need both of them ... Parable keeps us moving toward the edge, so that we can discover and chart a better tomorrow. Myth, on the other hand, establishes equilibrium and generates sufficient hope so that we can move on and explore that edge."

The comforting and challenging role of story and ritual begins early in the "Hunger Games" after Katniss volunteers to take the place of her sister, Rue, at the annual reaping. As Effie Trinket encourages the crowd to clap for Katniss' sign of bravery on page 24:

"...not one person claps ... I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong. Then something unexpected happens ... At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love."

Katniss sees in this ritual the story of her people that both comforts her as an individual but also rallies the community to remember their humanity in an act of rebellion against the Capitol. Katniss remembers this sign of remembrance and unity when one of her competitors and friends in the arena dies. At the death of Rue on pages 236-7, Katniss struggles with how to mark this loss:

"I want to do something, right here, right now ... to show them that Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I. A few steps into the woods grows a bank of wildflowers ... I gather up an armful and come back to Rue's side. Slowly, one stem at a time, I decorate her body in the flowers. Covering the ugly wound. Wreathing her face. Weaving her hair with bright colors...

'Bye, Rue,' I whisper. I press the three middle fingers of my left hand against my lips and hold them out in her direction..."

Although her acts in the arena are personal, they quickly become a communal act of defiance. In "Catching Fire," Katniss and Peeta travel on a "victory" tour to each deceased opponent's Districts. As Katniss speaks an improvised eulogy for District 11's Rue on page 61, she concludes by thanking them:

"'Thank you for your children. ... And thank you all for the bread.' I stand there feeling broken and small, thousands of eyes trained on me. There's a long pause. What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends to me."

Her action is now both a comfort and a call to rebellion. Peeta builds on the power of this ritual act when prior to the Quarter Quell in "Catching Fire," he too co-opts her act of remembrance and transforms it into an act of defiance as he paints a picture of the flower-colored Rue during his private audition with the Game Keepers.

As I came to the close of the final book, "Mockingjay," I felt at sea without a ritual to ground the story of so much loss. Then finally on page 387, a new ritual of remembrance and honor emerges. After Katniss returns home, without her mother, without her sister Prim, lost in fits of grief and horror she finds a way to cling to sanity by formally remembering each deceased person in a memorial book:

"The page begins with the person's picture. A photo if we can find it. If not, a sketch or painting by Peeta. Then, in my most careful handwriting, come all the details it would be a crime to forget ... my father's laugh ... the color of Finnick's eyes ... what Cinna could do with a length of silk ... We seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well to make their deaths count..."

In making concrete lists of things that are good and worthy of memory, Katniss learns to survive. Through my work in hospice care as well as through the interviews with grieving people I am doing now, I see how we learn to make sense of life in the midst of death and loss through moments when our stories become embodied in ritual. A song, a way of making bread, the repetition of a psalm, or the twist of a bead can mythically help us transcend the harsh reality of the words forming our current story while honoring the parabolic truth of what has happened in a way that allows us to hope that we can survive another day.

To read more from Amy Ziettlow or to learn more about the "Homeward Bound" project, visit