Hello, excuse me. I hope you are dressed up for this post, because you are in the presence of royalty.
Meet His Royal Highness, the Snuggle King, Peeta Mellark.
Spoilers for the Hunger Games series follow.
Listen, I love Katniss, the hero of The Hunger Games. She’s tough, resourceful, and relentless. She cares much more about doing the right thing than about her own prestige. She does not traffic in the politics of likability to which so many women, and so many fictional heroines, bow. The world needs more people like Katniss.
But it needs more people like Peeta, too. Peeta isn’t good with a bow and arrow. He hasn’t grown up feeding his whole family. Peeta’s superpower is his kindness. Also, the aforementioned snuggling.
To Katniss, Peeta is a constant source of nourishment, both physical and emotional. He bakes bread for her and does his best to care for her. He provides emotional solace Katniss doesn’t get anywhere else. Katniss has been caring for her mother and sister more or less alone in the years since her father’s death. But when she and Peeta enter the Hunger Games together, he isn’t just her ally; he puts her needs above his own.
After the games, Katniss is plagued by trauma, stress, and worry. For reasons even she can’t articulate, she is only able to sleep in Peeta’s arms. (This, of course, is the point when I coined the Snuggle King moniker.) The romance between them is not yet genuine, but the sense of security Peeta provides to Katniss is very real.
Part of why I love Peeta so deeply is because I see him through Katniss’s eyes. Cynical and willfully detached from her emotions, Katniss does not realize she has fallen deeply in love with Peeta until long after the fact. Katniss takes no rosy view of anyone’s behavior. Her narration is far from a prime example of the teen female gaze (although Peeta is an ideal subject for it). So Katniss, the narrator, cannot always tell us how staggeringly gentle and selfless Peeta is. It’s up to Peeta to show us through Katniss’s narration.
And Peeta does show us, over and over. Katniss does not care about being liked, and puts no effort into endearing herself to anyone. Nevertheless, Peeta adores her. And Peeta lays down his body and his life for Katniss routinely, as a matter of course. In their first direct interaction, Peeta takes a beating from his mother in order to steal bread to feed a starving Katniss. In their first Hunger Games, he forms alliances with the goal of protecting Katniss. In their second Games, he plots to sacrifice his life so Katniss can survive. And when Peeta becomes a prisoner of war, it takes torture and brainwashing to turn him against Katniss. Even that doesn’t hold for long.
Katniss is rarely vulnerable, with Peeta or with anyone. Her preference for sleeping in his arms is the one concession Katniss makes to acknowledging the way he makes her feel safer than anyone else can. And Peeta reciprocates with vulnerability in spades. He never holds his cards close to his chest. Katniss always knows exactly how he feels about her, because Peeta is always telling her. He is unselfconscious in these professions of love; they are simple statements of fact. Peeta’s love has no ego. He would never violate Katniss’s consent, but he also doesn’t need her ready reciprocation of feelings in order to love her.
Peeta is gentle in a way that often gets misinterpreted as fragility. In her narration, Katniss constantly frets over his safety. She fears that the same thing that she loves about Peeta puts him at risk: Peeta wants to believe the best in others, especially Katniss. But Katniss can’t help but want to live up to Peeta’s vision of her. Katniss is capable of heroism and bravery often specifically because Peeta insists that she is capable of heroism and bravery. Peeta’s heart is so pure that even Katniss can’t help but acknowledge it, and that alone is enough to make her a better person. Together, they are the kind of team that can save a civilization.
In my eyes, the alleged love triangle in these books is a nonentity. Gale is never a viable option for Katniss. He mostly serves to illustrate why Katniss needs Peeta specifically. Gale is more practical than he is empathetic. His talents lie not in painting and baking, like Peeta, but in hunting and military strategy.
In essence, Gale is too much the mirror of Katniss’ worst instincts. It’s why they understand each other so well. Like Katniss, he’s inclined to believe the ends justify the means. Peeta makes Katniss second guess that instinct, and consider the real costs of difficult decisions that affect human lives. Unlike Katniss, Peeta has tremendous emotional intelligence; it’s what makes him a gift orator and artist. Without Peeta’s influence, Katniss is all momentum and fury. She is undirected and ruthless.
“I want a relationship where we make each other better” is one of those platitudes that’s thrown around so often that we might as well paint it on wooden boards in the wine mom font and hang it up in kitchens and bathrooms across the nation. But Katniss and Peeta genuinely do make each other better, and arguably, Peeta is doing most of the heavy lifting. Katniss protects and educates Peeta, yes. But Peeta inspires Katniss and models for her a kind of active empathy she doesn’t see from many others.
Katniss worries constantly about all the debts she “owes” Peeta. Peeta gives to Katniss unthinkingly. His love for her is like water rushing into void. For him, it’s simple equilibrium. His entire worldview is that fundamentally different. That’s pietas.
Peeta’s fundamental goodness is improbable in the bleak context of his narrative and his culture. We as readers are just as aware of this as Katniss is. His government is dedicated to extinguishing his life; his entire family is annihilated. And yet Peeta holds onto his kindness. He is like a bloom in toxic soil. His very existence is almost miraculous. And it takes that kind of miracle to convince Katniss to persevere in the face of devastating losses and staggering odds.
You don’t have to be the hero of the story to be heroic. Humility can be part of pietas, too: buoying up someone else with unconditional support and affection. That’s what Peeta shows us.
Featured image: Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, © Lionsgate