the mockingjay symbol from the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I read the Hunger Games trilogy myself in deep, thirsty gulps to find out what happens next. I’ve read it to my youngest children and shared their dread and excitement. I’ve taken my soberverse name from it, calling myself after the character Primrose, whom the trilogy’s heroine, Katniss, sacrifices everything to protect. because I wanted to model myself on a strong, fierce female warrior, open to learning how to handle danger and new experiences, whilst growing in the abilities to recognise and defeat her true enemies, and to accept and live with her own feelings.

the Hunger Games books are crammed with symbolism. and geekier people than I have come up with all sorts of analyses of those. but I’m just going to look at the symbol of the mockingjay itself as an example. and if you know this passage, or if you don’t care ๐Ÿ˜‰ then feel free to skip it! This is Katniss, early in the first book:

‘At the last minute, I remember Madge’s little gold pin. For the first time, I get a good look at it. It’s as if someone fashioned a small golden bird and then attached a ring round it. The bird is connected to the ring only by its wing tips. I suddenly recognise it. A mockingjay.’

She describes how mockingjays are an unwitting consequence of the crossbreeding of the Capitol-originated jabberjays, spy birds capable of repeating rebels’ conversations, wit the native mockingbirds, resulting in birds that repeat back songs to a singer. She continues:

‘My father was particularly fond of mockingjays. When we went hunting, he would whistle or sing complicated songs to them and after a polite pause, they’d always sing back. Not everyone is treated with the same respect. But whenever my father sang, all the birds in the area would fall silent and listen. His voice was that beautiful, high and clear and so filled with life that it made you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I could never bring myself to continue the practice after he was gone. Still, there’s something comforting about the little bird. It’s like having a piece of my father with me, protecting me. I fasten the pin on to my shirt, and with the dark green fabric as a background, I can almost imagine the mockingjay flying through the trees.’

so as she pins the brooch onto her shirt, she evokes the tyranny and treachery of the Capitol, the victory of nature over their efforts, the happy days in the forest with her father, and her own love for him – all in one small piece of jewellery.

later Katniss herself as The Mockingjay becomes a symbol of rebellion, used sometimes against her will to inspire others to action… ok, that’s probably more than enough about the Hunger Games!

I wrote a blog post just over a year ago now (cripes) titled ‘why the idea of Wolfie is working for me’. this post is probably an extension of my ideas in that post, with another year’s sober experience under my belt.

what I continue to be fascinated by is symbols. how they came to exist in our human society. what purpose do they serve, and how we can understand and use them to our benefit?

the American literary theorist Kenneth Burke’s Definition of Man includes the description of humankind as follows: ‘the symbol-using animal’. essentially he defines humans as distinct from other creatures by nature of their use of symbols to communicate, something no other creature does.

this premise was extended by a book by the neuroscientist Terence Deacon, ‘The Symbolic Species’. in it, he argues that

the emergence of symbolic capacities unique to language were a key factor in the evolution of the human brain, and are a key to distinguishing human from animal forms of communication, ways of learning and brain structures.’

in an extract in this article, he says:

‘Though we share the same earth with millions of living creatures, we also live in a world that no other species has access to. We inhabit a world full of abstractions, impossibilities, and paradoxes. We alone brood about what didnโ€™t happen, and spend a large part of each day musing about the way things could have been if events had transpired differently. And we alone ponder what it will be like not to be. In what other species could individuals ever be troubled by the fact that they do not recall they way things were before they were born and will not know what will occur after they die? We tell stories about our real experiences and invent stories about our imagined ones, and we even make use of these stories to organize our lives. In a real sense, we live our lives in this shared virtual world. And slowly, over the millennia, we have come to realize that no other species on earth seems able to follow us into this miraculous place โ€ฆ’

we don’t have to go very far along this path before we get entangled in semiotics (not, apparently, what happens when you chop an otter in half, but the philosophical study of signs and symbols) and that is considerably beyond the scope of this blog and indeed the brain of this particular bear.

but I am enthralled by the idea that the structures of our brains and our societies have co-evolved to use symbols. that we are all floating about in this symbol-soup, which has arisen in our society as an effective and efficient way of communication and of social norms.

and because fair words butter no parsnips, what does this all mean for getting sober, Primrose?

well. three things. there are usually three things. HUGELY symbolic, the number three ๐Ÿ™‚

firstly, it can help us understand our own behaviour around alcohol.ย as a society and as individuals we have endowed alcohol with incredible symbolic powers. it symbolises pretty much everything to someone – fun, romance, escape, freedom – even, as in the movie ‘Ice Cold in Alex’, survival itselfย (trigger warning…)

and unpicking that symbolism is an vital part of early sobriety. and it helps me in doing that to know that is because that is how my brain is designed to work.

secondly, it can help us understand others’ behaviour around alcohol. for example, I was at an event last night at which upon arrival I was unexpectedly handed a glass of Prosecco which I somewhat clumsily handed back with a “not for me, thanks…”ย to which the poor waitress replied, “Are you sure?”

when what I could have done was to appreciate the symbolic gesture of hospitality that I was refusing and to add “…but is there any possibility I could have a glass of tonic with lime?” which would have enabled her to say, “why, yes, of course!” and the symbolic hospitality offer and acceptance would not have been abruptly terminated. of course,ย the key always with this approach is to make the non-alcoholic alternative sound like the most delicious thing one could possibly imagine. the sort of thing you would like to lick off Hugh Jackman’s naked chest (phwoar warning…)

thirdly (and this may well be one of my longest ever posts so apologies!) we can use symbols to help us in our sober efforts. naming Wolfie is one way – another is the use of tangible objects as symbols of our new lives. I am on my second ‘Stay Here’ bracelet having worn the first one out! and it gives me enormous help in the sober battle. came across a fantastic description of how this actually works recently in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Wintersmith’. Pratchett is always great on witches: of course they can and do use magic, but much of what they do is ‘headology’, an understanding and use of how peoples’ minds actually work. here he is on wands:

‘Every stick is a wand, every puddle is a crystal ball. No thing had any power that you didn’t put there. Wands were like… shovels and knives and spectacles.ย They were like… levers.ย With a lever you could lift a big rock, but the lever didn’t do any work.

I’ve been thinking about how I go into 2015, what my aims will be. and on one day several things happened: firstly mishedup started me thinking about choosing a word for 2015. then Lucy posted about choosing yourself sober treats. ย and it all came together and I am choosing my new word and my new symbol. I hope they will be a lever for me for next year and on into the future.

the word is peace and the symbol is this dove necklace.

and I was particularly tickled to read both Mishedup and Anne’s comments on my earlier suggestions of what my words might be – which I read after deciding on ‘peace’….

“when the right word comes there is some peace”…. you couldn’t make this stuff up ๐Ÿ™‚

so, what are your sober symbols?

and what could you add to help you leverage your sobriety?

thanks for getting this far – hope you enjoyed! Prim xx

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