Mar 14 2012 4:30pm

From Robin Hood to Katniss Everdeen: The Enduring Allure of Marksmen (and Women)

The Hunger Games Tour PosterIn preparation for the forthcoming movie about which all the world seems to be Harry Potter/Twilight Saga/The Avengers-level excited, I have just finished rereading Suzanne Collins’s phenomenally successful YA trilogy, The Hunger Games. The first book, also entitled The Hunger Games, I had already read several times, but its sequels had only been so honored once each, upon their respective releases, and I had felt no need to repeat either experience. This was, therefore, the first time I had read the opening novel knowing full well how the closing one would end—damn you, Mockingjay!—and as I read Book 1, I got to wondering what it was, exactly, that I had so adored about it from the outset. And, in particular, why I had been so drawn to its first-person heroine, the energetic Katniss Everdeen.

As to the novel: look, there’s a lot to like. Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia is a popular science fiction subgenre to which YA has long been happily married; from The Chrysalids to The White Mountains and from Obernewtyn to The Eleventh Plague (to name but a very few), the two work well together, I think, because a world gone mad leaves a lot of scope for a youngster to be believably out on their own, in ever greater peril and defying ever greater odds. You’re not left wondering where the hell these kids’ parents are, or why Child Protective Services hasn’t stepped in long since, and that tends to make for a far more satisfying experience, I find. The fact that Collins then added to this general concept some other long-interesting elements of speculative fiction—the totalitarian regime, the vacuous ruling class, the brewing rebellion—to which she then threw in the ultimate in edge-of-the-seat adrenaline: a prize fight to the death (a la Running Man and Battle Royale), truly makes The Hunger Games a remarkable achievement—if hardly the marvelous wonder of invention that many of its young, SF-novice readers think it. (Sorry, kids, but a lot of this has been done before.)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsAs to why I had so much affection for Katniss…that was harder to figure. I mean, sure, I liked her devotion to her family, her honesty, her sense of duty and heightened protective instincts, but she was so manipulative, so indecisive and occasionally so cruel as to hardly be an ideal. I mean, I like a flawed protagonist and unreliable narrator very much indeed, but there was lacking in Katniss, to my mind, a certain…completeness, that ineffable sense of self, which conspired to make her words forgettable, even though her actions were not.

But you know what? The girl can shoot. And I find that, for some reason I can’t really articulate but I bet you know exactly what I mean, uncanny skill with any kind of projectile weapon somehow makes me a little weak at the knees. Yes, even in a sixteen year old girl. Who doesn’t exist. (It’s okay. It worries me a little, too.)

Think about it, though. Robin Hood. Sure, there’s the rob-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor angle, plus his Forbidden Love of the aristocratic Maid Marian and his ultimate boys’ club bromance with those ye olde Merrie Men. But what aspect of his story, whether told in Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe or animated Disney fox form, is more memorable than that time he split an arrow in half with another arrow? (Apocryphally, anyway.)

Or what about in The Lord of the Rings movies? Sure, we all loved Aragorn and Arwen and their timeless cross-species love—and man, as Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen rocked the hessian-and-greasy-hair look like no Gondorian’s business—but wasn’t it Orlando Bloom as Legolas, the slender elf with the killer bow, who relentlessly drew the eye in every fight scene, blonde tresses flying no less beautifully than his arrows, unerringly hitting their targets and making him all the more attractive?

Of course, Fantasy is peopled with skilled archers—A Song of Ice and Fire (cf. Game of Thrones) has the aptly-named Anguy the Archer; Wheel of Time has (the again aptly-named) Brigitte Silverbow; The Belgariad has Lelldorin, so very etc.—and Katniss is far from being the only archer in SFF YA. Hell, even C. S. Lewis had the lovely Susan wielding a bow and arrow in his Narnia books, which made her assuredly the most interesting of all the Pevensie kids; Percy Jackson, in his eponymous, mythology-laden series, has been known to make some astounding shots when it counts (and he’s not even a son of Artemis or Apollo); and P. C. and Kristin Cast’s vampy House of Night series features the unfortunate, oft-dead Stark, whose legendary marksmanship means that any arrow he fires hits his target, except that means not whomever he is aiming at but whomever he is thinking of at the time…which you would think might make it hard for the guy to get dates, but our heroine, Zoe, loves him anyway, despite the obvious danger.

Again, the powerful appeal of the marksman wins out.

Elsewhere, comic books are full of heroes—and villains— with almost supernaturally good aim: Bullseye, Hawkeye, Green Arrow, Red Arrow, Jagged Bow (comic books have many virtues, but subtlety of nomenclature isn’t one of them), each one of whom is made unutterably more interesting by the simple possession of their impressive skill with a bow. DC Comics’ villain Bedovian doesn’t use a bow and arrow, but since he is a giant turtle who travels through the far reaches of the galaxy, sans spaceship, in order to track down his targets and then shoot them dead from quite literally light years away… yeah. He’s cool.

Because it’s not just accuracy with a bow and arrow that I admire and find all kinds of sexy; guns, though they trouble me in real life, can be hot, hot, hot when in the hands of a fictional someone who really knows how to use them. Well… maybe not so hot in the hands of an evil, star-spanning giant turtle, but then again, he is an assassin, and assassins are weirdly appealing, aren’t they—especially considering what they do for a living and the moral objections we must all surely have against it?

Happily, we also have the less ambiguously iniquitous—though sometimes not by much—state-sponsored assassins who come in several different guises, and of whom we usually have less cause to disapprove. Perhaps they’re snipers, like Bones’s Booth (David Boreanaz) and NCIS’s Gibbs (Mark Harmon); or spies, like La Femme Nikita’s Michael (Roy Dupuis) and Burn Notice’s Michael Westen; or even gunslingers, like Justified’s Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Deadwood’s Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant; the man can just do no wrong with a holster around his hips).

Indeed, the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota, was apparently a Mecca for marksman from all across the burgeoning land of the free, and it seems that the enduring legend of most, if not all, Wild West heroes rests almost entirely on their skill with a six-shooter—from Billy the Kid to Wild Bill Hickock, and from Annie Oakley to Calamity Jane (I loved that Doris Day musical as a kid, and as much for “Calam” and Hickock’s shooting contests as for their tempestuous courtship and all of those catchy songs), their names live on because they could shoot stuff really, really well.

Military heroes, also, are big ones for the bullet-driven bullseyes, especially when it comes to their appearances in romance novels… and sometimes it’s even a military heroine who steals the scene on the gun range. For example, in Suzanne Brockman’s Troubleshooters series we treat with a squad of Navy SEALs whose best marksman is a woman, the exhausting Alyssa, whom I would probably find completely tiresome were it not for her way with a reticule.

(Side note: to Historical Romance fans, the word “reticule” undoubtedly signifies a small handbag that dangles from the wrist. In artillery terms, however—at which, if you are like me and also a Military Science Fiction fan, you may have had cause to wrinkle your brow—a reticule is the sight through which a shooter aims when using a rifle. The English language is Messed. Up.)

So, why is good aim such a striking quality? Is it something as simple as confidence? We all know how compelling that can be in a person, and a certain level of Zen-like calm and general self-sufficiency is definitely a prerequisite for any kind of advanced aiming ability. Or is it perhaps that, on some unconscious level, we feel that someone so deadly, but who works from a distance, is somehow, well, safer? I mean, I find swordfighters and ninjas and the occasional Scottish Laird with a giant claymore universally awesome, but there is a menace to them, an inherent threat of imminent, visceral violence that would, if I were thrust into the thick of their kind of fighting, make me very uncomfortable. Not that assassins and the like don’t often also enjoy other martial proficiencies, but I really think that I would take a precision sniper over a brawny foot soldier-type any day, because a bullet hole delivered to an enemy several hundred meters away keeps said enemy, and their blood, away from me. Furthermore, I would take an archer over anyone with a gun, because arrows don’t tend to go quite so boom.

Also, archery is just so… elegant, isn’t it? It’s Robin Hood, splitting that arrow. It’s Paris, hitting Achilles on his troublesome heel. It’s Katniss, facing down the Gamemakers. It’s just downright cool. And I think that goes to the very heart of why anyone with a quiver on their back tends to make me… er… quiver.

(Yep, English: Messed. Up.)


Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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Liz Fielding
1. Liz Fielding
I was turned on by Robin Hood as a kid and was making my own bows and arrows by the time I was eight. That archery thing never leaves you. :)
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
Rachel, you put into words what I hadn't even realized--yes, Legolas is beautiful, in a beautiful fey boy kind of way, but when he shoots, he's lethal, and ever so much more attractive.
Let's not even talk Timothy Olyphant's two roles, because I will melt.
Quiver-inducing! Thanks for this.
Liz Fielding
3. Jessn1017
I have had a thing for archery ever since I was a volunteer leader at my brother's Boy Scout summer camp the summer I was 18. I have been attracted to archers in many books and movies since then, from Orlando Bloom's Legolas to Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in the upcoming "The Avengers". I truly think that is one of the reasons I am so in awe of Katniss and am drawn to "The Hunger Games". I have seriously been considering getting into archery and bow-hunting (which, fortunately, since I live in Texas, is not that difficult to get into down here). I think I will have a new hobby coming up shortly...
Vanessa Ouadi
4. Lafka
Wow, amazing article! And you're so right! Marksmen are so sexy, probably because when you see them so focused, so calm and collected, it somehow ignites a primitive reaction of dread, thrill and arousal, all mixed up in one fascinating package.

I'm particularly fond of bowmen. There is something, yes, really elegant, as you said, about archers. The posture, the concentration, the weapon in it self, which is both magnificient and impressive... So hot. In most movies, if there is one bowman, you're quite sure he'll be my favorite character : Legolas in TLOTR, Robin Hood, even Rambo occasionnaly, hahaha!
And you're right, that works out for women too : Neyriti was smugging hot in Avatar when she saved Worthington's character with her arrow! Keira Knightley was hot in King Arthur, as an archery expert Guinevere, no matter how much I disliked the movie otherwise.
For I who read mangas and watch asian dramas, there are some very hot characters who are hot mainly because they practise kyudo (japanese archery).
And it even works without visual stimulation _ just reading of archery makes me curl my toes. And it also makes me admirative, because the few times I've tried archery myself, I ended up bruised all over the left arm (the one which holds the bow), despite the arm guards.

I'm not as much crazy for guns. There are a few exceptions of course : Jude Law is very hot as a sniper in Stalingrad, Timothy Oliphant is just perfect with a gun (you didn't quote the Hitman movie, but he was hot in it too), and as to women, Kate Beckinsale (Underworld), Angelina Jolie (in most of her movies, for instance Wanted or Mr&Mrs Smith), or even Carrie-Ann Moss (Matrix)...
But I'm generally less attracted to gunslingers. They lack style, compared to archers :-)
Robbie Thornton
5. Button
To quote a pro-gun bumpersticker I read once "Smith and Wesson, the great equalizer". The same can be said of bow and arrows. I think that's why they work so well as weapons for women in literature. I know that we have all the "tough chick" novels out now, where the women are well versed in hand to hand combat, often armed with knowledge of martial arts and the like, but I find that harder to believe than a female character winning the day due to superior fire power. No matter how skilled a hand to hand fighter, brute force will still most often win the day, and when you are matching up a 5ft6in 110lb female against two or more hulking thugs, the thugs are most likely going to win. When you match up a skilled bowsman (or shooter) against a half a dozen of the same thugs, the odds suddenly shift more in her favor, as we saw quite clearly in the case of Katniss in Hunger Games. Her chances of winning the games without her bow skills were virtually nil against the competition.

What I like best about a woman being skilled at a weapon (or weapons) and not so skilled in hand to hand situations is that it gives her a chance to maintain some crucial edge for me in her femininity. After all, you can still shoot dead a dozen foes in high heels and without chipping a nail. Plus, if she inadvertantly gets into a hand to hand situation, it gives the hero a chance to be her hero and save her. As plot lines go, I like it better than the "tough fighting chick" scenerio. That's just my own preferences though.

As for men who shoot bows, none beat my love for Legolas. I'm not a big TLOTR fan, and watched the movies because my husband wanted to see them, but I will say that I spent most of those long long hours waiting for the next scene he and his bow were in.

Bow and arrows are sleek and sexy in the right hands, as are other weapons, but I suppose what I like most about their use in books is the fact that the proficient use of them can even the odds when the hero or heroine (or both) are outmanuvered, outnumbered, undersized, or in the case of Katniss, all of the above.
Rachel Hyland
6. RachelHyland
@ Liz Fielding and jess1017

I am so impressed with the two of you. I love to see a bow wielded on screen or read of one being wielded in a book, but have never even contemplated physically doing so myself. Suddenly, I feel so wanting...

@ Megan

Oh, yes. Film Legolas is so very pretty, but what makes him irresistible is that he's so deadly. And, also just that right amount of unattainable -- or, at least, so the young ladies of the Woodland Realm doubtless learnt to their dismay.

@ Lafka

Neytiri in Avatar! Good one. I'll also give you Trinity in The Matrix and possibly the Angelina double-bill of Wanted and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (both awful movies) but I don't know that I'd call Kate Beckinsale's vampire Selene in Underworld much of a marksman. She pretty much just blasts away at stuff until it, eventually, falls over. (It's a great movie, though. GREAT.)

@ Button

Yes to almost everything, except that I am a fan of the tough fighting chick scenario and less of the My Hero! one. But, like you said: personal preference.
Ginny Doremus
7. FaeRhi
I'm all for the chick, and the Bow & Arrow have ALWAYS been my weapon of choice. I reenact the Civil War and I'm part of an artillary group so we get to use cannons & rifles & pistols but I honestly wish I had a bow with arrows and that I could enter contests. I'm actually quite good. I love love love it. (Especially Legolas. Mmmm.)
Here's a question:

Which Robin Hood is your favorite?
Kevin Costner (Prince of Thieves)
Cary Elwes (Men in Tights)
Kurt Russell (Latest "Robin Hood")
Rachel Hyland
8. RachelHyland
@ FaeRhi

Great question! I'd have to go Costner over Elwes (even if the latter "can speak in an English accent"). For the last, I assume you mean Russell Crowe instead of Kurt Russell, and I think, yes, Crowe over Costner, because he brings an intensity, a... vigour to the role that I think Costner lacks, and the movie itself, while not as enjoyable, or rewatchable, is certainly better, if you see what I mean.

Of all existing Hood interpretations, however, I'm going to have to go old school Errol Flynn, because you never forget your first swashbuckler.
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