The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, First Thoughts on a Sad, Familiar Song

When I first started using The Hunger Games in my college English 111 courses, it was an obscure little book, and I was the only one in any of my classes who had read it before the first day. But times have changed over the past Hunger Games': All about the new 'Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes'decade. I still use the book in my classes, mainly because I have not found anything else that works so well. In that time, movies have been made(with some of my students as extras), popularity has swelled, and my students who don’t pay attention to my constant harping on the importance of the number three in the trilogy (they are confused by four films), keep saying they want a “fourth” book. Instead of spoiling the beautiful symmetry of the original trilogy, the master Gamemaker herself brings us a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which is both its own special sort of creature and a perfect companion to the original trilogy.

If you haven’t yet read Suzanne Collins’s just-released prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, fear not, spoilers won’t crop up until after the break, but, if you have read the novel already, or don’t mind the spoilers, join me for a quick round-up of first thoughts, using the three major elements of the title, Snakes, Songbirds, and Ballads, but in reverse order (why? There are many reasons, actually, but I may fall back on the old excuse that I am an ornery mountain woman with excessive book learning). There will be many more posts to come, but we’ll start the dance here.

Snakes? Why did it Have to Be Snakes?

Indiana Jones may not think much of snakes (with good reason), but they are a powerful symbol that Collins used in the original trilogy and employs beautifully in this prequel. Like the Star Wars films, these books should be enjoyed not within the chronological order of their world, but in the order that they were released (I am quite the stickler for this sort of thing, as my heated arguments about the appalling re-ordering of the Narnia books will attest).  Thus, theMistaken Identity: Recognizing the northern water snake ... chilling echoes Collins so carefully creates will have their desired effect, and none so much as that wily serpent. Like those Star Wars prequels, this novel invites us into the early life of a character we have known as an adult villain, and while Darth Vader has a much more redemptive arc than Coriolanus Snow, they are both characters whose youthful stories prove both fascinating and portentous.

President Snow, as we know him in the Hunger Games trilogy, has always been presented to us through the lens of Katniss Everdeen, the trilogy’s narrator and Snow’s nemesis. When she first encounters Snow up close at the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss specifically describes his eyes as being “as unforgiving as a snake’s.” The snake imagery continues into the first chapter of Catching Fire, as Katniss is startled by the appearance of Snow and his “snakelike eyes” in her house. That image continues to be used for him, whether describing his chilly stare or his propensity for poison, to which Finnick Odair credits his meteoric rise and to power and lengthy stay at the top.  In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the snake images start quickly, but interestingly, not with Snow at first. His other prominent trilogy symbol, the rose, jumps out in front in the first chapter, as eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow, hopeful of restoring his family fortunes by mentoring a winning Tribute in the 10th Hunger Games, is paired with the female Tribute from District 12. He not thrilled by the assignment until the Reaping broadcast shows that Tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (yes, I know. Perhaps Mr. Wordsworth and I can each claim her). Before she mounts the stage and gives a rousing musical introduction, Lucy Gray’s first act in the book is to drop a live snake down the dress of her rival, the Mayor’s daughter. Snakes continue to figure prominently in the story: bizarrely colored mutations, whose keen senses of smell cause them to spare Snow and attack his classmate because only his scent is on an assignment they supposedly wrote together (a plagiarism detection tool that really works!); those same snakes used as punishment and weapons in the arena; and Snow’s own powerful and misunderstood encounter with a serpent that seals his transformation from ambitious youth to cold-hearted future dictator.

9 Powerful Snakes from History and Mythology - HISTORYCollins effectively uses the snake symbolism to remind readers of what we know will become of fascinating young Coriolanus, but it also serves to allude to even deeper connections, reminding us, with Snow’s roses, those prominent serpents, and apple appearances reminiscent of the 74th Games, of a certain wily reptile in a certain garden with certain forbidden fruit.

O, the Cuckoo, She’s a Pretty Bird

From our earliest discussions here about The Hunger Games, we’ve noted the value of birds as practical and symbolic elements in the novels, and Collins delivers the feathery goods in this prequel as well. Literal birds are inMockingjay (bird) | The Hunger Games Wiki | Fandom abundance, from the pathetic parrot of Caesar Flickerman’s predecessor (and perhaps father?) to trees full of both jabberjays and their hybrid offspring, the mockingjays, who have yet to take on the central importance they will in Katniss Everdeen’s story, but which disgust and annoy Snow from his first sight of them.

But the metaphorical birds are the real stars of the show. Lucy Gray is a singer, musician, and songwriter who creates and performs songs Hunger Games readers have heard before, as well as actual traditional songs and originals. She lives with her stage family, called the “Covey,” a word that is generally applied to groups of birds, like quail, but which also has slang uses from the 18th and 19th centuries, primarily when used by the lower classes or criminal elements of society. “Covey” or “’Cove” can be used like “fellow” or “dude” (It is the term with which the Artful Dodger first addresses Oliver Twist), but, according to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a “covey” can also refer to “a collection of whores.” All of these meanings are wrapped up in Lucy Gray’s band/family, who dress in bright colors that often include feathers, and who all sing and play, like songbirds. In addition, they represent a lower echelon of society, regarded as lower-class, even in District 12, and the possibility that Lucy Gray might sell more than her songs is one that rankles at a jealous Coriolanus.

Embracing her songbird status, Lucy Gray sings frequently throughout the novel, even using her lyrics to convey covert messages, but she is not the only singing voice we hear. One of the journal questions I give my students asks them to ponder the sound of the Capitol anthem, which Katniss mentions often but never describes or transcribes. In this novel, we may still have to guess at the music (at least until the inevitable film adaptation), but the lyrics are right here, and the song is performed by no less surprising a songbird than Snow himself, who has learned it from his uber-patriotic Grandmother, the family matriarch, and thus is called upon to share at funerals and other State events.

Although he is charmed by songbird Lucy Gray at the novel’s outset, Snow’s discovery, late in the novel, that perhaps he doesn’t actually like music at all, is a brilliant twist that lines up neatly with the uses of music in the original trilogy and makes us wonder now, more than ever, what odd thoughts might be going on in Snow’s bitter mind as he plays his mind games with Katniss, a girl whose Cinna-designed clothes echo the lurid colors of the Covey, who may even be a descendant of one of the band members, whose singing must put him in mind of Lucy Gray (especially when she sings to dying Rue), and whose emblem, the Mockingay, is the songbird he most loathes even before it spells doom for his empire.

“Happy Stories Mostly Ain’t True”

At its heart, this prequel is exactly what is purports to be, a ballad. In a technical sense, a ballad is simply a narrative song, a song that tells a clear story, with distinct characters. Unfortunately, the term is sometimes misapplied to any slow pop song, regardless of structure. A pop song can be a ballad (“A Boy Named Sue,” “Living on a Prayer,”  “Ode to Billy Joe,” etc.), but ballads also come in types: popular/folk, broadside, and literary.Bluegrass Messengers - 6. Berkshire Tragedy (Cruel Miller ...

The popular, or folk, ballad is the oldest type, and it usually revolves around stock characters, like Fair Margaret, the False Knight in the Road, and the House Carpenter. Its themes are generally love and death, and it is usually serious, although there are a few humorous ballads, like “The Farmer’s Curs’d Wife.” These ancient songs often have a range of variant versions. “Barbry Allen,” whose protagonist gives her name to a member of the Covey, probably holds the record, clocking in at around 158 documented versions.

The Broadside Ballad is based on real events, re-told in the sensational format of a catchy tune. Very often, these events involve a murder, so often that broadsides are sometimes also called murder ballads. More often that not, the murder is of a young woman; “Little Omie Wise,” “The Banks of the Ohio,” and “Tom Dooley,” all follow that theme, although the actual, historical events are greatly altered by artistic license. Broadside composers frequently took just enough of an actual story to get credibility, and then created a completely fictional narrative. Such is the case of “The The Ballad of Frankie Silver" by Sharyn McCrumbBallad of Frankie Silver,” which is written as if from the point of view of Frances (Frankie) Stewart Silver just before she was hanged, right up the road from me, in 1833 for killing her husband with an ax (and cutting up the body, which was not found all at once. Charlie Silver famously has three graves).  Frankie Silver wrote no such thing. The best-researched account of the story is The Ballad of Frankie Silver, by the incomparable Sharyn McCrumb, who gives the doomed Frankie, whose crime was almost certainly committed to save herself and her child from a drunken abuser, one of my favorite lines in all literature: “Happy stories mostly ain’t true.”

The literary ballad is an artistic creation, and it can be a poem, like those Lucy poems of Wordsworth’s or Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” or a song, like those pop songs. It can imitate the broadside or folk ballad, but it has an author and is a work of the imagination. In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, all three types of ballads make appearances, from actual historical songs that are folk ballads (“Barbry Allen” and “Tam Lin” are just two of the songs whose title characters provide names for Covey members) to the literary comic ballad of “Clementine.” Of course, all the songs that Collins herself created for this novel or the original trilogy are literary ballads, as she wrote them, but, within the context of the books, particularly this one, they have specific roles. Songs like “Down in the Valley,” which was likely composed in the early 20th century have, in the novel’s distant future, morphed into folk ballads. Since I have spent the last ten years claiming that this was the “Valley Song” that Peeta tells Katniss he remembers her singing on the first day of school, winning his heart,  I feel very vindicated in my claim after The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.  We also see the composition of literary ballads that function as broadsides, as Lucy Gray crafts her own story in “The Ballad of Lucy Gray,” and as she is revealed to be the creator of the haunting “Hanging Tree.”

Even more than the pieces of actual ballads that are woven throughout the novel, its ballad theme is clearly revealed in its plot elements that are pure ballad stock. Just a few of the pieces that are straight from the standard ballad prop-house:

  • Snow’s roses are not just his symbol; they appear in countless ballads, enforcing those themes of love and death. Two of my favorite uses are in two of my favorite ballads: the aforementioned “Barbry Allen” (a rose 12 Moments From 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2' Trailer ...grows from the grave of broken-hearted Sweet William and twines with the brier that grew from the grave of his cold-hearted lover Barbara) and “Tam Lin” (breaking a magical rose summons the lost-lost Tam Lin, who has been spirited off by the Fey).
  • Snow. It isn’t just the man’s name, but it is a popular symbol in ballads. Horses, ladies’ hands, and dead people are not just pale; they are “snow white,” “white as snow,” or “snowy white.” Coriolanus keeps telling himself that “Snow lands on top.” It lands in a lot of ballads, too.
  • The false-hearted lover. This standard ballad element is a crucial one that is essential to the plot of the prequel. Whether people are falling in love, out of love, or dying for want of love, love, like death, is a ballad standby.
  • Ballads love a good hanging, whether it’s poor Frankie Silver or Tom Dooley(incidentally, Tom Dula, real name, was really hanged, but not in a lonesome valley from a white oak tree!). Three people are hanged in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, because three is the magic number.
  • Snow, either directly or indirectly, murders three people in the novel (one of them is one of the hanging victims, of course). Murder, actual, fictional, or fictionalized, is quintessential ballad fodder. His methods, bludgeoning, shooting, and getting someone unjustly hanged, all turn up in classic ballads.
  • Hidden crimes. While many ballads feature the idea of “murder will out,” with the killer plagued by ghosts, the devil, or his own guilty conscience, these sordid song characters often try to cover their crimes. A surprising number of ballads feature unwary young women murdered by their lovers, often to conceal an illicit relationship or unwanted pregnancy. When the relationship of Snow and Lucy Gray takes its dark but expected turn for the worse, those Panem children of the distant future are playing out motifs as old as the hills of District 12, Appalachia. Interestingly, when Snow attempts to erase his crimes by sinking the bag of evidence in a lake all trilogy readers have seen before, the imagery is reminiscent of that in a number of ballads in which a lover’s body or incriminating evidence is sunk in a river or lake. (I am partial to “The Banks of the Ohio,” which uses this image, and which was playing on the radio when my husband picked me up on one of our first dates decades ago. I often say that was when I knew he was the one for me).
  • Not a happy story. We know, of course, going into this story, that Coriolanus, for all his charm, will become a monstrous tyrant; we know from the moment we meet her that sweet cousin Tigris will become maimed by body modification, trodden down by life, and so embittered toward her dear “Coryo” that she will aid his assassins; we know that Haymitch is the only District 12 Victor left alive by the time of the 74th Games. So we know, this will not be a happy story. Ballads rarely are.

Encore?

Collins has not yet revealed if there will be additional prequels or other Panem novels. While she sticks to most of her triad-structure tricks in this prequel, she also deviates from it at times, perhaps indicating that this novel will be a stand-alone (which it can do just fine) rather than the start of another trilogy.  Whether or not this will be her last foray to the fascinating and horrible world of the Capitol and its Districts, this prequel, like an old song, will demand repeat readings, revealing more each time.

 

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Comments

  1. Louise Freeman says

    I knew when I saw all the singing that you would be delighted, Elizabeth. I, too, enjoyed the book, and found it fascinating how different the Games were at the start, and how many of the more showbiz aspects of the Games we knew that Snow himself directly or indirectly invented.
    I was disappointed we never met Mags, but otherwise I really enjoyed it. Looking forward to more discussion!

  2. anonymous says

    SPOILER ALERT:

    After reading BSS and thinking about it for a few days, I think I understand beyond Lucy Gray’s memory why Katniss seemed so dangerous to Snow. Snow believed that at their heart all humans were horrible beings who would destroy each other unless an all powerful force like the Capitol kept them in check. The very root of his moral claim to power was based on humanity being terrible. He viewed the Hunger games as a way to give the rebels what they wanted once a year, by allowing innocent children to create the state of nature that he believed would result from the Capitol’s demise. He thought what happened in the arena was “humanity undressed.”

    Then came along Katniss. From her very first moments in THG, volunteering for her sister, she suggests that humanity is good at its core. Her first kills in the arena were noble, launching a nest down to people threatening to kill her, while having the decency to warn Rue of the risks. This warning went against everything he thought humanity was, and so did Peeta saving Katniss. This wasn’t what humanity looked like in the arena. Furthermore, she allied with Rue to protect the child, which also went against his very understanding of humanity. Her one direct non-mercy kill in the first games was in protection of Rue, and then she sang and gave her funeral rights. This was dangerous, because it showed a decency which limited his claim to power.

    So he announced the rule change, so everyone would see Katniss as a terrible person. She would either leave a wounded Peeta to die, showing her selfishness, die in protecting him, showing decency wasn’t awarded by humanity and must be protected, or if they were the final two she would kill him, revealing a true monster. All was going according to plan until the Feast, when Thresh let her go, moved by her decency to be decent himself. Her view of humanity as decent was catching fire inside the arena. This is when Katniss became truly dangerous to him. Once Cato killed Thresh, he ordered Foxface close to Peeta and Katniss, hoping to show her brutality by making her kill a starving girl, but the berries destroyed his plan.

    Then came the final confrontation with Cato. Peeta’s leg was harmed during the climbing, leaving him with a dire wound which would let him die without Katniss having to kill him. This was dangerous, and Snow’s best hope came with Cato took Peeta, giving Katniss the chance to win alone. But instead she fired a non-lethal shot which saved Peeta, showing her decency again. President Snow could only hope that Peeta would die first, then Katniss would take a revenge shot on Cato, showing her anger. However, her tourniquet kept Peeta alive, and he ordered the mutts only toy with Cato until Peeta died, giving him the chance to create his narrative. Then she fired a mercy shot, leaving Peeta alive. The only thing to do was revoke the rule change and let Peeta die. Then she pulled the berries, showing the true root of humanity was self sacrificial love, blowing up his claim to power.

    The only response could have been that she was so infatuated with Peeta, that dying would be better off for her than living without him. This was a stupid story and he knew it, and one which probably wouldn’t work, but he had to give Katniss a chance to suppress it herself. She could not, and killing her would only have made her a martyr, so he did the only thing he could think of. He had to destroy her as a symbol of decency. That’s why she was sent back into the arena.

    Living for dead she was a problem, but if he could show the districts she was a horrible, selfish, person, it would restore order. That’s why Haymitch’s advice wasn’t stay alive, but to remember the enemy. The worst thing she could do wasn’t die, but show herself to be a bad person. It was become That’s also why she wasn’t killed at the sound of the gong. He needed her to destroy her own image. Several times she got close. And if Brutus and Enobaria had died in their assault, she would have attacked everyone in the alliance to save Peeta. Which is why Plutarch stopped the assault to keep the alliance by spinning around the cornucopia.

    The hijacking was largely an attempt to show the world who Peeta was at his core, but ultimately he was able to fight it, showing Snow was wrong. The Hunger Games weren’t a mirror for humanity but a distortion. In fact, the only time Katniss didn’t kill for self defense, protecting the weak like Rue or Wiress, or allowing a chance for enemies to escape was the tracker jackers was when she killed Coin, which he greeted with laughter, since Coin achieved what he never could.

  3. Kelly Loomis says

    My son has been telling me read these books. Should I begin with the original or with this prequel?

  4. Kelly Loomis says

    Sorry – I didn’t mention I didn’t read this article past the jump.

  5. Louise Freeman says

    Kelly, I would start with the original trilogy!

  6. Elizabeth says

    Definitively start with the original. I throw the Star Wars connection around a good bit, but it is true! The resonance is much more powerful when you know how these threads will develop into a fabric.

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