The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Three Notes on Hunger Games Prequel

I have written a great deal here about the work of Suzanne Collins, from her much neglected Gregor the Underlander novels and When Charlie McButton Lost Power, to her Hunger Games trilogy and even the children’s picture book she wrote post fame and fortune, Year of the Jungle. My exegesis of the Katniss Everdeen books in various HogwartsProfessor posts ran to close to 60,000 words and I regret never turning the three principle Mockingjay posts — The Spiritual Allegory, The Literary Alchemy, and Katniss’ Apotheosis — into a proper book. I think so much about her that this week last year I wrote about ‘Whatever Happened to Suzanne Collins?’

No surprise, then, that I read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes on the day of release. You may be surprised that I have not shared my thoughts on the subject until now, in great contrast with the weeks following publication of Mockingjay, the trilogy finale. I plead “full-time job in ‘essential business,’ being overdue on a thesis chapter, and, most important, perhaps, that I have not reviewed the Hunger Games series and re-read Songbirds and Snakes in light of that review.” I have scandalized Potter fans in the past by saying that I think Collins’ achievement with Mockingjay was at least on par and perhaps greater than Deathly Hallows; her work deserves better than a flip newspaper review.

Having said all that, I do want to share three spoiler-free points about the prequel just released to encourage those on the fence about reading it to purchase a copy immediately. Elizabeth Baird (!) Hardy has already posted her first thoughts and I hope point by point discussion of the book and its relationship to Collins’ oeuvre can begin here, if not next week then next month. I’m hoping that Elizabeth and Prof Lana Whited, editor of Critical Insights: The Hunger Games Trilogy, will join Katy McDaniel and myself for a podcast discussion, too, at Reading, Writing, Rowling.

My three points are (1) the most important paragraph to read is the opening of Collins’ acknowledgements at the back of the book, (2) the departure from Collins’ heretofore locked in story structure in this novel, and (3) some thoughts about the title and Collins’ signature presentation of front-and-back.

The Acknowledgements Paragraph:

If you pick up the new book and read the cover flaps, you know it is the story of Coriolanus Snow, the Lord Voldemort of sorts of The Hunger Games. Reading the book is a little like watching the ‘first’ three Star Wars films knowing that the hero is going to turn out to be Darth Vader. That’s the big spoiler of reading the book, frankly, and you have it right in front of you at the start: the hero is a bad, bad man, watch out.

That’s as far as I want to go, too, with respect to story plot points. It’s masterful story telling, because, believe me, you’re going to be rooting for Snow and his family along the way even knowing what you do from the start.

But in terms of ‘what the story is really about’? For that, skip to the back of the book and read the first paragraph of Collins’ Acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank my parents for their love and for always supporting my writing: my dad, for teaching me about the Enlightenment thinkers and the state of nature debate from an early age; and my mom, the English major, for nurturing the reader in me and for all those happy hours around the piano.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a treatise in story about whether man is by nature evil or innocent and whether the state is necessary to prevent great injustice and arbitrary violence being the rule of human group existence or whether the state is the agency of the greatest injustices and systematized violence. What Collins did in The Hunger Games with respect to war, both its necessity and its inevitably great price in human death and mental illness, she explores in this prequel about the balance of Human Being and Citizen.

Collins is a big game hunter, believe me, and she bags her beast again, I think, in a morality tale that is nothing like a one-sided Jeremiad or partisan Philippic. Readers of Locke and Rousseau and students of American history and current events are going to have a lot to chew on here because Collins does not give you easy answers to the big question involved.

The Collins’ Structure Change

Ballad  breaks with Collins’ tried and true story formula for her novels. Each of the six Gregor books and the Games trilogy were three part novels with twenty seven chapters, nine chapters in every part. The story turn in each takes place in the fourth, fifth, and six chapters of those books and often features a circular image (my favorite is the whirlpool in the second Gregor novel). Beginning and end latch up nicely, if not always pain-free for the story characters. I’m not sure I’d call Collins a ring-writer but her work demands a formalist reading because of its structure and an Estecean interpretation because of the alchemical and Christian symbolism and the transformed vision and experience of her characters.

Ballad is a story of thirty chapters and epilogue in three parts, with, as you’d expect, ten chapters in each part. The story turn is right where you’d expect it, in chapters five and six of part two, and the finish does not disappoint, either structurally or in character transformation.

Why, though, the switch from nine chapters in each part with twenty seven total to ten chapters in the three parts for thirty all together? I think the difference is the one you’d expect in which story structure parallels and reinforces meaning and experience. Twenty seven is three cubed, nine is three squared, which gives the Gregor and Everdeen hero’s journey and character divinization experiences a Dante-esque touch. The Coriolanus Snow prequel is metric, in great contrast, a humanist rather than supernatural trinitarian structure, and the scientistic ‘moral of the story’ is a match with that story-scaffolding.

The Title and Front and Back Artistry

Collins credits Scholastic editorial director David Levithan with thinking up the title for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and I want to suggest that she made up the name ‘David Levithan’ herself (between the David and Goliath resonance and the near Leviathan surname when the book in question might have been co-written by Hobbes, well, whatever). Whoever made it up, it’s quite good. Collins gives the definition of a ‘Ballad’ within the novel and you need to note when the Katniss-character, Lucy Gray Baird, or her little sister sings a song she calls a ballad in light of that definition.

What I want to note in this spoiler-free post on the books to give you a push to read the novel if you haven’t already (or to guide your attention on your second trip through it?) is that the Songbirds and Snakes are polyvalent and mirrored images within the story. Lucy Gray is a songbird certainly, as are the Jabberjays and their Mockingjay offspring. Coriolanus, too, though, in his relation to these singers, turns out to be something of a bird as well.

And the snakes? There are the natural snakes with whom Lucy Gray has a unique relationship (and uses brilliantly to reveal others as much as to attack) and then there are the Capitol snakes whose unique muttation quality is attacking whatever they do not know and recognize. Coriolanus, as you might expect giving what he becomes, is something of a poisonous snake as well, but be careful to note his relationship with Lucy Gray and her weaponized view of art, song, and conscience. 

All that to say that Collins’ imagery at first glance seems a transparency, even an allegory with obvious correspondents in human qualities, vices and virtues. That one-sided presentation and easy interpretation would be a much greater break with Collins’ artistry and use of symbols than we have seen in her previous works (noting that a few of the Gregor books were painfully tired portrayals of political realities in the world today); she specializes in the challenging tale well told that does not provide easy answers (‘No War!’ ‘Hurrah for war!’) but a brilliantly highlighted exposition of the question at hand.

Yes, I think what Lucy Gray does with song is what Suzanne Collins does with written stories — and that the fate of each and how they are used and misused by the Gameskeepers is an embedded story within this story.

But that discussion will have to wait until you all have had a chance to read the book and we can begin a proper discussion, Elizabeth Baird! Hardy’s first post being our ahead of the curve starting point! Let me know when you’ve read Ballad by leaving a note in the comment boxes below and I’ll clue you in here when the Reading, Rowling, Writing Ballad podcast is up!

Comments

  1. I’ve just read it and it is brilliant. It definitively parallels THG narrative structure and develops an intellectual debate around human nature. It’s the story of the downfall of a man and that’s not often that we can see that in litterature. It’s perfect in nowadays context and I invite everyone who loved THG to read it, it vas a great résonance with what happened in the third book. I loved it and I’m waiting so much for the alchemical and Christian analysis because the book serves a powerful meaning.

  2. Wayne Stauffer says

    I reread the trilogy then read BSS and have a few initial observations. I’m reviewing my notes over the summer to prep for teaching the trilogy in a college lit class this fall.

    Interesting that Collins shifted the narrative voice from 1st person of the trilogy to 3rd person, but still kept the PoV with young Snow (a la Rowling’s 3rd person narrator with Harry’s PoV…an owl on Harry’s shoulder and a mockingjay on Snow’s shoulder…?) Not sure that it means anything but curious.

    I don’t see BSS as a post-modern attempt to make Snow more sympathetic as much as I see it as background into how Snow’s psychopathology developed–the roses, the blood and roses, his ambition crowding out his ability to empathize with others, and so on.

    Snow’s infatuation with Lucy seems spot on for an older teen who did not have much previous experience with Love, but his sudden bolt away from Lucy in the last chapter really doesn’t add up for me. Maybe we’ll get more in the next one. Lucy’s sudden disappearance in the last chapter is also jarring, even anticipating it from the song earlier and Maude’s explanation of it. Also hoping for resolution in the next one.

    Having taught high school students, I thought the Academy seniors-as-mentors group project seemed to also get the way those usually work–some do a lot of the work, others slack, others gripe about it but sling something together just to be done with it. It also showed the common short-sighted nature of older teen decision-making and not thoroughly thinking through consequences of off-hand suggestions. The Privilege was overwhelming.

    I liked the references (not exactly foreshadowing since the trilogy was written before) to the roses, District 12, the lake and the concrete house, the mockingjays, Tigris, the really spare way tributes were treated and other ways the games were so primitive compared to the trilogy, the Capitol-as-arena, the Katniss, the origin of the Hanging Tree song, and others.

    Dr. Gaul was truly creepy and evil. Maybe Snow can figure out how to … um… “deal” with her by the end of the next one. Even he didn’t like her and saw her as dangerous.

    I’m also curious that Collins does not seem to have any characters with a perspective that any sense of Control is an illusion. I know she’s writing about Just War Theory and politics (which is about power dynamics), but so far I haven’t seen any character express the side that efforts at control go wrong or fail and those who pursue it are bound to fail. Also maybe more on this in the next one.

  3. Great comments, Wayne!

    You suggest more than once that you expect a sequel to the prequel, which is the first I have heard of this possibility.

    Is this your ardent hope or something you have read elsewhere is in the works?

    Curious John

  4. Wayne Stauffer says

    I do not have inside info on additional books, but…we do have a 64-year gap before Katniss and Peeta to account for. The 3-act play structure worked for the HG trilogy, so why not use it for another three-story arc about Snow? Besides, Snow is only just starting his rise to power…readers want more…
    On the cynical side, the HG trilogy was a cinematic success as well, so why not work that angle, too? Both the publisher and studio could use a boost in their franchises. Wouldn’t be the first 3-book or 4-film contracts for guaranteed revenue.

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