Who Would Be a Better Lit Teacher: Atticus Finch or Katniss Everdeen?

by GRACE BURLEIGH '17

To have Katniss Everdeen instruct a literature class would be most teenagers’ dream come true. After all, what with Mockingjay: Part I coming to theaters on November 21st, her renown has absolutely skyrocketed. Not only will box office sales be booming, but a wider readership of the series will surely follow, building up its appeal and extensive fanbase. Yet despite all this, even the most loyal fan might not be aware that The Hunger Games was inspired by the classical ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

“Katniss is an updated Theseus,” notes Suzanne Collins, author of the popular trilogy. Indeed, the character of Theseus lives in a time when seven young tributes are sent annually to satisfy the voracious appetite of the Minotaur, a monstrous pet of King Minos. However, when he himself is chosen as an offering, Theseus launches a journey to slaughter the monster and its owner, King Minos. Sounds like The Hunger Games, doesn’t it? In times such as this, I wonder who the real mastermind is: a modern, gifted writer such as Collins, or the classical, ingenious author who actually inspired her story? In other words, I mean to call into question that widely debated idea--which is the better branch of literature: contemporary or traditional?

Before absolute panic ensues from both sides of the literary spectrum, we should first take into account the pros and cons of each. On the whole, canonical, or more traditional literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) focuses largely on the art of storytelling through character development and dialogue. Together, these propel the conflict—namely, the courageous efforts of the narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, to defend a falsely accused black man of raping a young white woman. In contrast, more contemporary literature, like The Hunger Games (2008) primarily focuses on intense action sequences of violence, fantastical settings, as well as a bit of romance sprinkled about the chapters. All of this conflict revolves about an intriguing mutiny against the corrupt government of the Capitol.

Granted, both are appealing in their own way. But when given the choice between the two, a typical teenager would probably pick up a contemporary novel rather than what most English teachers would fondly christen “a classic.” Nevertheless, in the words of Mark Twain, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

The admirable modern writers of today, such as Collins and a few of her prominent contemporaries, J.K. Rowling and John Green, followed this axiom, seeking to provide their readers with action, imagination, and poignancy. Both critics and readers alike declared their stories to be thoroughly refreshing. Consequently, their books not only became overnight hits, but were awarded with movie contracts and considerable fan bases as well. Nowadays, names such as Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, and Augustus Waters are warmly thrown about as household names, and the more excitable young ladies squeal at the mention of the last one.

Yet Twain’s adage could be used to support the opposing side, as well. One need only take a trip to the nearest book store to note that entire shelves of the young adult section are full of magical, dystopian, and vampire novels. While it is true that current literature encourages diversity, many view it as a paradox unto itself. To clarify, in its rapid search for the latest and greatest ideas, it often rules out the simplicity of sophisticated, universal themes such as love, loss, and innocence in favor of fantastical plotlines and maverick protagonists. As a result of having been sucked into these unrealistic pieces of writing, contemporary readers view canonical literature as “hard to understand.”

But is it really so? Rowling cites William Shakespeare and Jane Austen as two of her favorite authors. Furthermore, Green contends that the work of Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald were highly influential in the course of his literary career, and Collins admitted that the next book she plans on reading, The Idiot, was penned by none other than Fyodor Dostoyevsky. If these modern authors have made the effort to actually understand the work of their forbearers, I would hazard a guess to say that the latter group is rather important to the development of what we now classify as “contemporary literature.”

Nevertheless, I invite you, the reader, to make your own decision regarding my question. If you wish to express your opinion on the matter, please vote for your preferred branch of literature: canonical or contemporary. Be assured that I will return for the December issue of The Light to relay the results. May the odds be ever in your branch of literature’s favor.