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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Critical Thinking

First off, you're supposed to be spending time with your friends and family. What are you doing here?

Oh. It's Friday? And you're avoiding the crowds? Fair enough.

As I write this on Wednesday night, listening to Maj Tom and the Creature playing Wii, my thoughts turn to the obscene amount of food we will ingest tomorrow. Which makes me think about holidays. And holidays in novels.

The most immediate that comes to mind is the titular event of the Hunger Games Trilogy—probably because I just finished it, for the second time, yesterday. The series is centered on an annual "game" wherein two children from each district are taken to an arena and left until only one remains alive. "The Capital" hosts the event, calling it punishment for a revolution that occurred seventy-four years prior. It's a combination of Big Brother and gladiator fights, if an eleven-year-old girl can be considered a gladiator.

Anne McCaffrey used social events quite a bit in the Pern books. Gathers are periodic open-air markets where people can meet and sell and buy. When a clutch of dragon eggs are set to hatch, dignitaries are flown in from around the world to watch. The commission of a new lord is also a social affair. All of these events are great plot tools. People who don't normally interact are thrust together. Characters have the opportunity to spy and sneak in new places. Deals can be made and broken, and carry the plot along nicely.

JRR Tolkien was a bit more traditional. Bilbo Baggins's birthday is an elaborate affair that serves to reintroduce Gandalf and allow Bilbo to disappear. Similarly, the children in CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe receive their gifts from Father Christmas.

I think holidays in stories, whether made up or traditional, need two essential elements: they must be organic to the culture and relevant to the plot. Gathers are essential to the social structure of Pern because the relatively small population is held hostage by the thread of thread—silvery ribbons that fall from another planet and eat all living things they came in contact with. Hatchings are a genuine celebration because more dragons mean the planet is better able to fight thread. The hunger games are directly linked to the culture as a way for the Capital to continue to suppress the districts. Of course, the games are also relevant to the plot because the story is that of a girl who goes through the games.

I'm not sure about Bilbo's birthday. It certainly covers several points, including Gandalf's arrival, Bilbo's vanity, and the Hobbits' penchant for celebration, but do those points deserve the weight of the huge birthday celebration? It's possibly justified by the fact that the LOTR is such a saga, which gives it more permission to go off on tangents. Santa in TLTWTW is less weighty and yet more relevant to the story. The points of Santa's coming are to show the witch's hold on the weather is slipping and grant the kids' their necessary weapons—weapons they would use throughout several books. But the scene is short and remains in the context of their flight from the witch.

How about you? What comes to mind when you think of celebrations and holidays in novels? Who has done it well? Who hasn't? How would you change it?

For more, check out the video here.

And Happy Thanksgiving!
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