The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Top Ten Pointers to the Trilogy

It’s been an exciting past week or so here for serious readers, from J.K. Rowling’s new slow-release of The Ickabog to the release of the new Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. We’ve already taken a few looks here at the new prequel, which will doubtless continue to yield further treasures upon repeated readings. If you have not yet checked out The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I hope you will, and that you will join our conversation on its many layers. One of the most interesting features is the way in which the novel uses foreshadowing for events that we, savvy readers of the original trilogy, already know well. Although set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen’s name comes out of the Reaping bowl in the well-manicured hand of Effie Trinket, this novel should only be read by those who have already completed the trilogy. Like the Star Wars prequels, with moments like Obi-Wan Kenobi chiding his friend Anakin Skywalker, “You’re going to be the death of me,” BSS  is an experience that only works if the readers know what is coming. This is a useful technique in literature and film. After all, we cannot gasp with horror when Oedipus declares that the murderer of Laius will be exiled and live in misery, unless we are familiar with the myth, so we know he himself is the man he seeks and that he will indeed be ruined and miserable.  We cannot mentally headslap people in Titanic when they declare the ship’s invincibility if we do not know that the ship is going down, along with many of its passengers and their hubris.

So here are our first “top ten” moments and themes of The Ballad of Songbirds Snakes that point to and set up the trilogy we already know, some of us quite well. This is just the start to a much longer list, one that I am sure will grow with each reading.

10. Snake Eyes–Even if it were not in the title, the image of a serpent slithers all around the text of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Lucy Gray Baird, the District 12 Tribute, has a way with snakes, and knowing that Snow, with eyes that Katniss frequently calls “snake-like” will be the Garden of Eden serpent of the trilogy, seeing all those legless reptiles, venomous or not, is a clear signpost to what is to come. We also see the 4 Lies You've Probably Heard About Black Snakes | Appalachian Magazineevolution of Snow’s preferred snake weapon: poison. Finnick Odair later states that poison was instrumental to Snow’s rise to power, which does make us wonder how much he knows about youthful Snow’s tampering with the games and with his despised headmaster’s morphling habit, and how many other poisonings lie in between these and the fall of Snow.

9. Birds and Songs—The title should again, clue us in, but this is an extremely musical novel. Loaded up with historic and original songs, Ballad is a powerful reminder of the power of song. Reading this novel not only points us to songs like “The Hanging Tree” and “The Place Where I Love You” that we hear in the trilogy, but also sets us up for how Snow will respond to those songs, even decades later. His hatred of the mockingjay, even before it becomes the emblem of the rebellion that will unseat him, is an important element in the novel, as both its father, the jabberjay, and the natural mutant mockingjay itself fly through the novel on a regular basis, predicting things to come.

8.Tigris and other Felines—If Snow dislikes birds (and he does), he loves cats, specifically the pure white cat of erstwhile club owner Pluribus Bell. Named Boa Bell undoubtedly because she sort of resembles a boa worn by a performer in a club revue, the cat’s name also brings to mind snakes. Coriolanus is quite fond of her, and no surprise, considering her pure white color should remind us of his thoughts on roses and his preference for white. The cat he most adores, though, is his older cousin, fashionista and de facto sister, Tigris. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s the sympathizer who decade later will shelter and disguise Katniss and the remains of her Star Squad, really swinging into action when Katniss declares she will kill Snow. Sixty-four years earlier, however, she’s a young woman hopeful of a career in fashion and determined to use her creativity and seamstress skills to make “Coryo” presentable. If there are more prequels between the end of this one and the beginning of the Seventy-fourth Games, it will be interesting to see how this relationship crumbles, but it isn’t hard to guess that the Games and Snow’s manipulation of them, and the government, figure large in the falling out.

  1. Roses—I’m not writing in my nice new hardback copy, but once I have a paperback to annotate and circle all the mentions of roses, I’m sure there will be a garden full. The roses grown by Grandma’am Snow figure prominently in the novel, and they should remind us of President Snow’s obsession with the flowers, whether using them to conceal the smell of blood on his breath, to torture Katniss by leaving one in her house or dropping dozens on 13, or lurking amongst them in his greenhouse, awaiting the execution for which he will wear the white rose Katniss selects. Images of roses also abound, pointing us to the trilogy. Most interesting is the compact that belonged to Coriolanus’s mother, and whose rose-scented powder is replaced by poison to be used by Lucy Gray Baird in the arena. The compact’s cover is in the shape of a silver rose. Not only does this image create a cold, sterile rose image that lines up well with the Snow we’ll know in the future, but the image previews one that may have seemed unimportant when we first read Mockingjay: the inlaid silver flowers in the cheeks of Plutarch Heavensbee’s assistant Fulvia Cardew. That detail might have been completely meaningless without one of the last thoughts we overhear from young Coriolanus in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. As he ponders the fact that he doesn’t like being in love and will choose, if he marries, a woman he actually hates so that he won’t be hurt by her, he lights on one of his classmates and fellow mentors, a girl he dislikes very much, Livia Cardew. We have to wonder then, if Plutarch’s assistant, who defects with him to 13, is, like Tigris, a Snow family member who has grown to despise him.

6. Familiar names—Cardew isn’t the only name that points to the trilogy, of course. Gamemaker Plutarch’s               family, the Heavensbees, are clearly scions of the Capitol, as the Hall at Snow’s school is named for them,                 and one of his classmates is also a Heavensbee. Caesar Flickerman’s predecessor, and possibly father, Lucky           Flickerman, is the weather personality and amateur magician who hosts the broadcasts, while ill-fated                      Gamemaker Seneca Crane’s family name is attached to equally ill-fated student mentor Arachne Crane,                    whose taunts provoke a tribute into slitting her throat.

5.    Food—Just like the trilogy, the prequel puts a heavy emphasis on food, partly due to young Snow’s genteel poverty and wartime childhood that limited his family food supply. The first thing we see Coriolanus do is prepare boiled cabbage to keep his stomach from growling and revealing his constrained means. As the tributes of the tenth games are essentially starved even before the event begins, we cannot help but wonder if the policy of fattening them up beforehand will be a result of Snow’s influence. There are plenty of interesting and horrible foods in the novel, but a few serve as clever points to the trilogy, in particular, that dried plum and lamb stew that impresses Katniss makes an appearance, as well as cookies frosted with beautiful flowers, echoes of Peeta’s artistry to come, and apples, the fruit of temptation with echoes through the trilogy. We also see the way Tigris enjoys nibbling raw meat as she cooks, a habit that will develop into her preference for raw meat when the Star Squad shelters in her shop. And of course, there are the blackberries and katniss roots Snow eats in 12, and which we will see there again.

4. Love Stinks—One of the major plot elements of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is young Coriolanus Snow’s infatuation with Lucy Gray Baird, who may or may not be manipulating him by the strange end of their relationship. No matter what actually becomes of her, the only other female victor of District 12 before Katniss Everdeen, her fascination for Snow, his frustration with her freedom, and his anger at both his weakness for her and at her possible other lovers drives him to follow her and eventually to convince himself that she has tricked him, that she deserves to die. He is really eliminating her as a witness to his murder of her rival, Mayfair, but his ability to rationalize even his most appalling decisions allows him to believe he is the victim.  His experience with her can certainly be seen in his cynicism as the elderly President Snow and in his treatment of Katniss Everdeen, whose romance with Peeta he finds unbelievable. Surely seeing the footage of her kissing Gale only confirms his suspicions about humanity in general and women in particular, and his perverse attempts to twist Peeta into a weapon to kill Katniss are a direct result of the conclusions about love that he makes by the end of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

  1. Numbers Game—Some readers are noting that, in a departure from the trilogy, Ballad is not organized into three sections of nine (three times three) chapters each, for a grand total of 27, or three cubed. However, the numbers game is still important, and the threes are certainly being foreshadowed. This novel has three sections of ten chapters each, for a total of 30. Ten plus three equals thirteen, for a tip to the conclusion of the trilogy and the mirroring of District 13 and the Capitol. In District 13, Katniss and her family are housed in compartment 307, and three plus seven is ten. The real trick here is that Collins is using the three, which we’ll see woven in, over, and through the trilogy, paired with 0. That 0, or letter O, is a set-up worth following. In the trilogy, an O is often a tip-off to a connection to the Capitol, which is, of course, spelled with an o, not an a, and which confines Tributes in a circular prison, the Arena. In case we don’t catch on, Collins has carefully avoided using the letter o in the names of Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, or Haymitch Abernathy. “Primrose” has one, but only Effie, speaking for the Capitol, calls Prim that. Characters with the o in their names are either clueless Capitol flakes (Octavia), mirrors of the Capital (Coin), morally compromised (Gale Hawthorne, Johanna Mason), used by the Capitol (Finnick Odair), lapdogs (Cato, Clove), or unabashedly immoral, like Snow himself. To make sure we get it, Snow’s full name, Coriolanus Snow, has three (count ’em three) Os, even when shortened to “Coryo,” as does his signature phrase: “Snow lands on top.” So Collins is not departing from her theme, but is really pointing to the “three is a magic number” motif of the trilogy.

2, The Lakehouse—The lake in the forest outside 12 is where young Peacekeeper Snow hangs out with Lucy Gray’s musical family, and where he later tries to kill her once he realizes he doesn’t have to flee, as the murder weapon with his prints is stashed in the one remaining structure on the site. It’s a site that will loom large later in the trilogy. This is the lake where Katniss’s father teaches her to swim, where she meets Gale and tries to convince him to leave the District, where she meets Bonnie and Twill, and where Gale later takes the survivors of the bombing of 12. While Katniss swims in the lake, fishes there, or collects katniss roots, at the bottom of that lake are the remains of a bag containing the Peacekeeper rifle Coriolanus Snow used to kill Mayfair and in his (possibly successful) attempts to kill Lucy Gray.

  1. Game on—Perhaps the most pervasive pointers to the trilogy are the many hints about the way this strange summer of the tenth Games influences the way the Games have evolved by the time of the seventy-fourth Games. The well-oiled machine that processes Katniss and her fellow tributes is not in play in the tenth games, but we can see the seeds at work. Snow and his fellow student mentors test drive the delivery of gifts to the tributes, and their idea about gambling on the games proves to be a huge hit. Snow sends his mother’s compact with Lucy Gray, along with the useful hint about using it to carry rat poison. Thus, he may have both instituted the practice of Tributes carrying tokens and the need to inspect those tokens, like Glimmer’s poisoned ring, to ensure they cannot be used as weapons. Since Snow is moving into position as a Gamemaker, planning future Games, by the end of the novel, it can be assumed that his concerns about driving up viewership will shape the future, just as surely as it is his idea to reward the Victor’s district and to create the Victor’s Village. His mentor, the chilling Dr. Gaul, is also clearly the instigator of using muttations in the arena, after sending in the colorful snakes, and her influence undoubtedly leads to the monsters that later menace Katniss and her allies. There is also the distinct possibility that the explosion that kills and injures both Capitol students and tributes is not, in fact, a bomb by dissidents, but part of Gaul’s plan. It would explain much about the bombing at the end of Mockingjay. In any case, we can see that the Games as Katniss knows them are largely shaped by a certain young Gamemaker.

I hope you’ll continue along with us as we continue to explore the treasures of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.


  1. Thank you, Prof BAIRD Hardy, for this wonderful list, which I’m sure will be something of a touchstone for future readers and re-readers!

    I guess the next project is to go back into the trilogy proper and read the Snow scenes to look for moments in which his youthful experiences with Lucy Baird are echoed in his exchanges with Katniss Everdeen, the District 12 songbird who must fascinate him as something of a ghost figure.

    I can only think of one lame parallel to add to your wonderful TOP TEN exegesis. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss feels betrayed by Gale’s realpolitik allegiance with Coin and his co-operation with the Resistance scientists to overthrow the Capitol by all means necessary. Lucy Baird and Sejanus Plinth are betrayed by Coriolanus and this may be an inverted telling of Gale’s story.

    Or not! Great post, Deputy Head Mistress!

  2. Lana Whited says

    This is a great start to the important work of aligning Songbirds and Snakes in the larger Hunger Games universe.

    It occurred to me that the name Lucy Gray BAIRD also has no “o.”

    Another small element of foreshadowing is the appearance of the trident, which I associate with Finnick.

    I look forward to continuing the discussion!


  3. Elizabeth says

    Well spotted, Dr. Whited! Of course, I noticed at some point that Elizabeth Baird Hardy is also O-free! 🙂
    Sejanus Plinth has no O, but his father, Strabo, does, of course.
    Is anyone surprised that horrible Dr. Gaul’s first name (only mentioned once) is Volumnia? It has an O, and it is also the name of Coriolanus’s mother in Shakespeare’s play (more on that nasty business in the future)!

  4. Kathleen Van Every says

    trying very hard to not read any comments with spoilers! I have a huge backlog of books finally coming in to the partially open local library which will impede finishing TBSS.. I bought the hard copy and I am reading it slowly, maybe one chapter every day. I think I read bk 3 in the trilogy in 1 day and it was too much. Since then I have read them umpteen times and I understand and like the 3rd book better(although I felt she tried to do too much in it at too fast a pace). I like this slower approach. It allows me to think for myself first before reading other’s thoughts. Looking forward in a month or so to reading all the juicy morsels of insight.

  5. Kathleen Van Every says

    Snow’s middle name is Xanthos, so he has 4 Os in his name. The other thing I noticed, in direct contrast with Katniss, is tha Lucy appeals to her audience on a number of levels, she tires to connect with them from the beginning as a means of preservation. Granted she is oblique and guarded with unsure meanings to her lyrics, but she is manipulating them Katiniss, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with the audience, wants to share nothing personal, and just wants to focus on saving who she can save. Although as she matures she learns more and more how to manipulate.

  6. Kelly Loomis says

    I have just read the original trilogy and prequel in the order you recommended. And yes, the trilogy MUST be read first! It was a pure delight reading the prequel (except for the horrific premise of the games themselves).

    I think there is another tie to the trilogy. I am feeling almost certain that Katniss is related to someone in the covey. She and her father both are songbirds who stop people in their tracks when they sing. Katniss’ mother – a townie – fell for her father over Mr. baker, Peeta’s dad. Peeta fell for Katniss when their teacher asked her to sing for their class. This is much like Lucy Gray and Maude Ivory do with audiences. Could Lucy Gray have influenced the next generation in her care of Maude Ivory? Or could she have survived and been Katniss’ grandmother? The fact that Katniss and her father seem to be the only people to know of the lake and cabin, Katniss’ knowledge of the hanging tree song (and the This is when I love you song) from her father, the role the hob plays in Katniss’ life and her family’s survival all point to a covey connection. I may be reading more into this than is there, but I really hope for two more books to see the connections.

    I am also hoping for two more prequels to show how Coriolanus goes from Dr Gaul’s apprentice to president at what they said in the trilogy was such a young age. I’m sure the Plinth influence and his cunning will be major factors. As mentioned above, the decline and dissolution of his relationship with Tigris should be spelled out. Her heart was so much purer – like Lucy Gray’s and Katniss – compared to Coryo.

    How many others found themselves picturing a young Coriolanus as the actor who played Percy Weasley?? I could just see him standing straight up and brown nosing as Percy did throughout the HP series.

  7. Just read about this announcement this morning:

    Not much, but it least it has a green light to move forward!

Speak Your Mind