I’ll argue tomorrow that Katniss’ ‘Meadow Song’ is the theme of the Hunger Games trilogy and that the reference to it in the epilogue ties the finale into the series, but today I want to open a thread here about ‘The Hanging Tree’ and its multiple occurrences in Mockingjay. It is the heart of the finale and a key to its most profound and challenging meaning. Let’s look at the song, where it shows up, and what it means to Katniss before beginning that discussion.
‘The Hanging Tree’ has twenty-four lines organized in four stanzas of six lines each. The rhyme scheme is a-b-b, c-b-b. The stanzas are identical except for the third line which changes in each
Are you, are you Coming to the tree Where they strung up a man they say murdered three. Strange things did happen here No stranger would it be If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.
Are you, are you Coming to the tree Where the dead man called out for his love to flee. Strange things did happen here No stranger would it be If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.
Are you, are you Coming to the tree Where I told you to run so we’d both be free. Strange things did happen here No stranger would it be If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.
Are you, are you Coming to the tree Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me. Strange things did happen here No stranger would it be If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.
Katniss sings the song to Pollux the Avox on the trip she takes with Gale and a film crew to District 12 as part of their episode in the ‘We Remember’ District 13 propo-ganda campaign (chapter 9). The physical location of her singing is by the lake beyond the fence where Katniss and Gale had fought after Katniss’ return from the first Games about whether to run or stay and fight (Fire, chapter 7). The pair are angry with each other here, as well; Katniss is furious that Gale had not told her about the Peeta propo aired the previous night and he is upset that she cannot understand why he decided not to say anything.
‘The Hanging Tree’ is mentioned again in chapter 15 during Katniss’ time in District 2. Haymitch tells her that the rescued but hijacked Peeta recognized the song when his restoration team showed him the propo made with Katniss singing it. He remembered her father singing it in the bakery when he was a small boy. “It’s the first connection to you that hasn’t triggered some mental breakdown, Says Haymitch. “It’s something, at least, Katniss” (p. 219).
We hear the last verse of ‘Tree’ during the last battle inside the Capitol, when the Celebrity Squad has been caught filming a propo and hit with a manually activated “black wave.” Boogs is dead and Katniss has taken command. Peeta has just insisted their best next move is to kill him lest he kill another member of the squad because of his re-programming. He argues that leaving him behind isn’t an option either, if they care for him, because the Capitol will capture and torture him.
Katniss thinks (chapter 21, pp. 290-291):
Peeta. Back in Snow’s hands. Tortured and tormented until no bits of his former self will ever emerge again.
For some reason, the last stanza to “The Hanging Tree” starts running through my head. The one where the man wants his lover dead rather than have her face the evil that awaits her in the world.
Peeta insists on receiving a Nightlock pill, named for the berries he and Katniss used in their first Games. Katniss refuses.
The last time we hear the song is in Tigris’ sub-basement the night before the surviving five members of the Star Squad head out for the final push on the President’s mansion. Because Peeta is still “unpredictable,” Gale and Katniss urge him to stay behind and wait for the end of the battle in hiding. He agrees that he’s to much of a risk to stay with the group but decides “he’s going out on his own,” that he “might still be useful” by “causing a diversion” (chapter 24, p. 335).
Gale is worried about Peeta’s being captured and gives him his nightlock tablet. He has to assure Peeta that, if he is captured, he is capable of killing himself or that Katniss will kill him if he can’t manage it.
The thought of Peacekeepers dragging Gale away starts the tune playing in my head again…
Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
“Take it, Peeta,” I say in a strained voice. I reach out and close his fingers over the pill. “No one will be there to help you.” (p. 336)
What does the song mean to Katniss? It’s important to her for a variety of reasons.
First, I think, and always is the song’s association with her father. He taught it to her on one of their days in the woods and she sings it “softly, sweetly, as my father did” (p. 122-123). She claims that the reason the song is “irrevocably branded into my brain” is because her father said mother “just wanted me to forget it” (p. 126). Something about her young daughter making nooses out of rope scraps bothered mom.
Dad liked the song, though, and before mom yelled at him to stop, he used to sing the song in shops. Or maybe just in certain shops, like the bakery.
Mother Everdeen had another reason not to like ‘The Hanging Tree,’ though. Katniss clues us in to this when she says she hasn’t sung it “out loud for ten years, because it’s forbidden, but I remember every word.” It’s against the law to sing the song so of course mom doesn’t want her husband or her daughters singing it in public. She gets enough healer business from the whipping post without having to treat her own husband’s back-become-mincemeat.
Given Katniss’ contrarian Mockingjay Abernathey-esque spirit, I’m guessing that the reason the song is illegal is probably why she has it written on her heart.
We are not told in the narrative line why the song is forbidden though Katniss explains a good deal of it, most notably how the song’s four changing lines clarify in each stanza who is talking and to whom he is talking. ‘The Hanging Tree’ is the invitation in song of a murderer to his true love; the dead man asks the beloved “to flee,” by which he means to join him in death “at midnight in the hanging tree,” her wearing a “necklace of rope” alongside him.
Pretty gruesome, I suppose, but why would the Capitol make singing the song a punishable offense? Here’s my guess based on two popular songs from the 50s with related imagery.
- Southern trees bear strange fruit,
- Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
- Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
- Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
- Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
- The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
- Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
- Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
- Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
- For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
- For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
- Here is a strange and bitter crop.
More to the point of Ms. Collins’ reference, though, is the country-western song, ‘The Hanging Tree,’ that was the hit title song for a popular Gary Cooper cowboy movie in 1959. Here are those lyrics::
I came to town to search for gold
And I brought with me a memory
And I seem to hear the night wind cry,
“Go hang your dreams on the hangin’ tree
Your dreams of love that could never be
Hang your faded dreams on the hangin’ tree!”
I searched tor gold and I found my gold
And I found a girl who loved just me
And I wished that I could love her too
But I’d left my heart on the hangin’ tree
I’d left my heart with a memory
And a faded dream on the hangin’ tree.
Now there were men who craved my gold
And meant to take my gold from me
When a man is gone he needs no gold
So they carried me to the hangin’ tree
To join my dreams and a memory
Yes they carried me to the hangin’ tree.
To really live you must almost die
And it happened just that way with me
They took the gold and set me free
And I walked away from the hangin’ tree
I walked away from the hangin’ tree
And my own true love, she walked with me!
That’s when I knew that the hangin’ tree
Was a tree of life, new life for me
A tree of hope, new hope for me
A tree of love, new love tor me
The hangin’ tree, the hangin’ tree, the hangin’ tree!
This song is sung by a man who has at least been to a gallows of the make-shift, arboreal kind and is about true love and the re-union of the almost hanged man and his “own true love.” If you could graft in the message or spirit of Strange Fruit to this country-western setting, I think you’d have the heart of Ms. Collins’ ‘Tree’ and why it plays the role it does in Mockingjay.
Fruit is a poetic indictment of the lynchings of African-Americans in the United States. Though the photograph which is supposed to have inspired it was taken at a hanging of two black men in Indiana, the song is aimed about the practice as it existed in southern states. A Holliday signature, it became a Civil Rights movement anthem in the late 50s and 60s.
I suggest ‘The Hanging Tree’ of Mockingjay was also a “movement” song or anthem and that the meaning of the lyrics were not as important as what it may have come to mean to the rebel miners in terms of what caused the Capitol to make it illegal.
My best guess for what is means, the foundation of its use as a rebel tune, is that the “murderer” who was executed, the man on the tree singing for his love to join him, wasn’t a criminal but a revolutionary. His murders were not homicides committed in passion, then, but the shooting of Capitol Peacemakers or Mining Company thugs. His public execution was punishment, but, as important, an effective way to deter anyone thinking of joining the freedom fighter/terrorist’s cause. Capita l punishment, the death penalty, here is Capitol punishment, a means to make the districts fear the consequences of resistance more than they hate their masters.
In essence, ‘The Hanging Tree’ calls on the living who love freedom to join the martyred freedom fighter in putting this cause above concerns for their individual lives. It is an invitation to revolution, i.e., to risk death in the hope of a greater life. Mr. Everdeen isn’t singing it because it’s a simple catchy tune; he’s expressing his revolutionary beliefs as openly as he dares and asking others to join him. Mrs. Everdeen, it turns out, was right to be terrified by her husband’s boldness. It’s probably safe to assume that he and Gale’s dad died in a mine explosion that was set by the Capitol to kill men known to be plotting against the regime.
I’m confident this is what Ms. Collins’ version of “Hanging Tree’ means because it is such a match for Katniss, the Mockingjay. She becomes the lightning rod for resistance to the Capitol when she sacrifices herself to save Prim at the Reaping and by her actions in the arena, most notably, her love for Rue and Peeta and her defiant willingness to die for her friend rather than conform to the Hunger Games’ rules. ‘The Hanging Tree’ is the Mockingjay’s song well before Katniss sings it to Pollux, a man who was tortured by the Capitol and would sing the song to the rebels if he could.
Peeta hears this song, and, though he is more than half-mad consequent to his having been ‘hijacked’ and reprogrammed, he identifies with its message and with Katniss. ‘The Hanging Tree’s call to death before demeaning slavery resonates in that remnant of the revolutionary artist’s soul left in Peeta and begins his revival.
Katniss thinks of this song twice after she sings it, both in the context of Peeta being in the Capitol and the dangers he faces. The first time, when Peeta asks for a poison pill, appropriately named ‘Nightlock” after the berries he and Katniss used to defy the Capital in the 74th Games, she remembers ‘Tree’ and refuses his request. The second time, he asks permission to “create a diversion” for the four of them going to the President’s mansion to kill Snow; she insists here that he take a Nightlock tablet.
What’s going on?
In the first instance, Peeta is offering to kill himself rather than be a risk or a burden to the surviving Star Squad. He wants the pill because he is afraid of being re-captured and tortured. It is not a hero’s death he is asking for but a coward’s suicide. This is not the message of the Mockingjay anthem, ‘Hanging Tree,’ so his request for nightlock is refused.
In the heart of the Capitol, though, after Katniss’ kiss, he has again become Peeta the Selfless Warrior sufficiently that he is thinking only of his friends and how he can protect and help them. He has no thought of the consequences of his actions in terms of the risks he is running for death or capture and torture. This resonates with ‘Tree’ so much that, in an echo of her decision in Games, she forces the nightlock tablet into his hand to protect him from being tortured if captured.
We learn in the final chapter that Peeta shadowed Katniss to the Mansion and was burned horribly in the same blast that killed Prim and made the Mockingjay a Phoenix, the girl on fire. Though she does not mention the song, perhaps it is Peeta who hears it after Katniss assassinates President Coin; he prevents her then from taking the nightlock tablet in her Cinna Mockingjay battle-suit for much the same reason that she would not give him the pill in his fear. The Mockingjay cannot die that way.
Why not? For that you have to go to the symbolism of the Mockingjay as the Phoenix and resolution of contraries.
(1) When a writer puts a symbol or a poem or story into the narrative line, it is a very good bet that understanding this image, poem, play, or prose piece is a key that unlocks the story-line. Think of Nabokov’s Pale Fire for an over the top example of imbedded poetry or of the ‘triangular eye’ symbol and ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As I explain in ‘The Seeing Eye’ chapter of The Deathly Hallows Lectures, Ms. Rowling is explaining via her characters’ attempts to understand the Hallows symbol and Brothers tale how to interpret the most important artistry and meaning of her book.
(2) Oddly enough, the meaning of that Hallows symbol — the bisected triangle enclosing a circle — was most profoundly explained in text not by Xenophilius Lovegood, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger (no relation), or even Albus Dumbledore. Harry shows us what it means when he buries Mad-Eye Moody’s magical eye in the shadow of the oldest oak tree he can find and carves a cross on the tree trunk (again, see Lectures). The tree is the heart of the symbol in Hallows as it is to the esoteric meaning of ‘The Hanging Tree’ in Mockingjay; as the country western tune puts it, the Hanging Tree is the “Tree of Life.”
A tree is an apt symbol of God and His relationship to the world because, like a tree, especially an ancient one,
- He is relatively immortal or timeless,
- His beginning is unknowable and invisible,
- He is a unity at His core or base
- that grows into a seemingly infinite extension at His periphery.
All traditional cultures, consequently, understand trees as natural transparencies through which any thinking person can see God, the Creator who brings everything into existence (see, for instance, Romans 1:20). ‘The Hanging Tree,’ from this understanding, is death to the individual ego and carnal concerns but the greater life and love available in God. The seeming contradiction of having to lose your life to gain it, of course, is at the heart of the teachings of the Galilean (see John 12:24-25 and Luke 17:33).
The “tree” of this song, in one word, is the Cross, the “murdered three” is a not-so-opaque reference to the three who were murdered by the state at Calvary, and the criminal calling his beloved to take up his cross is Christ.
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.” (Acts 5.30.)
“And we are witnesses of all things which he [Jesus] did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree” (Acts 10.39.)
“And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre.” (Acts 13.29.)
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness” (Peter 2.24.)
This is the Mockingjay’s song because sacrificial love and death to one’s ego is the most radical and revolutionary politics that no regime, the World, can tolerate. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Just as at the beginning of Games, when Katniss sacrifices herself to save Prim, she offers herself as a sacrifice at the end of the series to save all the Prims who will die in the revived Hunger Games if Coin lives.
Katniss, in having embraced the Pearl of Great Price in Fire, the example and teaching of Peeta the Christ figure, and committing herself to die for him becomes the sacrifice that redeems the world in Mockingjay; she answers the call of Christ on the Cross and becomes a “murderer,” executing President Coin, knowing it means her death, which, of course, means her greater life with Peeta as Christ.
This is why he intervenes at the assassination to prevent Katniss’ death. She answers the call of the man on the tree, her beloved, the light and life of the world, to join him, a sacrifice prefigured in Fire by “the lightning tree” that is her means of transcending the fallen, murderous world of the arena if she is willing to die to herself and confront “the real enemy.” Mockingjay, throughout which she and Finnick are making nooses from rope pieces as Katniss did as a child on hearing the ‘Hanging Tree’ song, is the story of her preparation to die to self and join her beloved on the tree.
I offer for your consideration that this sacrificial love and means to transcendence is also the meaning of Hunger Games that resonates most profoundly in the hearts of Ms. Collins’ readers, who with Katniss, have the message of ‘The Hanging Tree’ if not its words within them.
As I said in the beginning of this post, though, there is another Hunger Games song that, unlike ‘Tree,’ is in all three books, a song Katniss also learned from her father. Tomorrow I hope to explore the meaning of the Meadow song and how it, too, opens up the meaning and, consequently, the popularity of these books.
Your comments and correction, as always, are coveted.