The following contains spoilers for Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Read our spoiler-free review here.
At first glance, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes features only one character from the original trilogy: Coriolanus Snow, 64 years before he will be the villainous President of Panem and Katniss Everdeen’s nemesis. However, while the book takes place several generations before Katniss’ story, it includes the blueprints for all corners of Collins’ post-apocalyptic world: how the Hunger Games evolve and who has a say in shaping them; the first stirrings of unrest in District 12; and even an explanation for how the series’ most iconic song came to be.
Read on for an explanation of what sends Coriolanus Snow on the path to becoming President Snow, complete with mockingjays, serpents, and one plucky District 12 tribute with an unforgettable voice.
What Does “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” Mean?
While not an actual ballad sung in the book (though there are plenty of meaningful songs), the title is a whimsical way of summing up one year in the life of 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow, through his interactions with District 12 songstress and tribute Lucy Gray Baird. Both animals play significant roles in the novel, from Snow’s utilization of the voice-mimicking jabberjay to betray his best friend, and his subsequent hatred of the mockingjay as a symbol of chaotic evolution rather than submitting to the control of the Capitol; to Lucy Gray’s affinity for snakes, which saves her life more than once. Whether tossed into the Hunger Games arena or lurking by District 12’s lake, snakes are an omnipresent reminder that a life can end in just one strike.
How Does Coriolanus Snow Become President Snow?
While Coriolanus moves through a number of social classes in just one year, it is still only one chapter in his life, and does not conclude with a clear path to Panem’s presidency. Then again, his Grandma’am tells him from a young age that he will someday be President, so even when he is at his lowest, he has that unlikely dream to cling to. What Snow fails to appreciate enough are the efforts of his cousin Tigris, who acts as caretaker and confidante. (That’s the same Tigris as the surgically-altered stylist who helps hide Katniss and her friends when they infiltrate the Capitol in Mockingjay.)
The more relatable mantra young Coryo reminds himself of is that “Snow lands on top”: no matter if he loses his social standing, his fortune, his goodwill, he will still somehow win. Over the course of the novel, he adopts many roles: Orphaned son of a war hero, riding on his good name even as he is penniless in his family’s penthouse, due to all of the Snow fortune getting nuked in District 13. Poor-student-turned-Hunger Games-mentor who needs his tribute to win so that he can secure a free ride to University. Peacekeeper, forced to conscript after he helps Lucy Gray Baird win the Games by cheating. Officer, a promotion that tears him away from his tribute-turned-love. And finally, University student (having been honorably discharged from the Peacekeeper corps) and aspiring Gamemaker.
In these multiple lives, Coriolanus finds himself forced to take three human lives. First there is Bobbin, a Hunger Games tribute that Coriolanus kills in self-defense when he is forced to enter the arena himself. Then Mayfair, daughter of the District 12 mayor, when she threatens to reveal the rebel plot that would endanger Lucy Gray. Finally, Coriolanus betrays his friend Sejanus Plinth, a rebel sympathizer, leading to the latter’s hanging in District 12. Each death instills in Snow a greater compulsion to follow Panem’s rules of order, lest he or others descend into the chaotic, violent states that he and his teachers believe define all humans.
While the older President Snow has a number of villainous signifiers, the only one explored in this novel is his affection for roses. That he inherits from the Grandma’am, who stubbornly continues to grow her acclaimed collection of roses on their penthouse roof even as the Snows slide closer to poverty. She bestows various colored roses upon Coriolanus as he conducts his mentorship, and he appreciates the significance of each treasured bloom.
In the original Hunger Games trilogy, President Snow’s roses act as a distraction from the taste of blood on his breath; his mouth is full of ulcers, from ingesting poison from would-be assassins. Curiously, while Snow is bitten by a snake in the novel’s climactic scene—what would seem to be a natural first poisoning—it is revealed to be non-venomous.
What does cement Coriolanus’ villainous arc is his last murder in the book: Casca Highbottom, architect of the Hunger Games and dean of his school, who bears a grudge against young Snow due to a falling-out with his father. After Dean Highbottom’s sabotage sends him away from the Capitol and Snow’s brutal behavior allows him to claw his way back, he discovers why Highbottom wants to see him fail: Casca came up with the Hunger Games as a brutal thought experiment, never intending them to actually be carried out. Coriolanus’ father, Crassus Xanthos Snow, brought Casca’s ideas to the higher-ups and set this horrific tradition into motion. Highbottom turned to the drug morphling to cope with his awful legacy, which is how he dies at Snow’s hand, thanks to—you guessed it—poison.
Snow lands on top.
Who is Lucy Gray Baird?
Although Lucy Gray Baird’s name gets called in the reaping, she is not technically part of District 12. As a member of the Covey, a traveling troupe of performers, she does not have one particular home; they just had the bad luck to get stuck in District 12 after the Dark Days. When a falling-out with her lover and the mayor’s daughter Mayfair results in her name getting picked, she becomes the District 12 tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games. But at least she makes a killer first impression, tossing a snake down Mayfair’s dress and belting out a song on the reaping stage in her rainbow-colored dress.
Lucy Gray is equally unforgettable in the arena, thanks to her natural charisma and Coriolanus’ shrewd strategy. She sings for her supper, acts haughtily above it all due to not actually being part of the districts, and bides her time by slowly poisoning her competitors with rat poison that Coriolanus helps her sneak in. She becomes the victor of the 10th Hunger Games and returns to District 12 with little fanfare, to pick her life as a songstress back up.
As she later explains to Coriolanus, all members of the Covey take their first names from ballads and their second names from colors, but Lucy is special in that both came from the same place. Her ballad is an adaptation of William Wordsworth’s 1799 poem “Lucy Gray,” about the ghost of a young girl lost in a snowstorm. The imagery is particularly apt to this story, with lines about how Her feet disperse the powdery snow, / That rises up like smoke.
When she goes missing, her parents lament how their search for her footprints in the snow ends abruptly:
They followed from the snowy bank
Those footprints, one by one,
Into the middle of the plank;
And further there were none!
Yet, in the manner of all ghost stories, people say that they still see Lucy Gray:
O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.
Not surprisingly, Lucy Gray Baird undergoes a similarly ambiguous fate, as you’ll see in the District 12 section below.
What is the Future of the Hunger Games?
The 10th annual Hunger Games bear little resemblance to the 74th, the first for readers of the series. In comparison to the sprawling arena in which Katniss and Peeta must fight for their lives, with Gamemakers able to control the weather and insert various genetically-engineered muttation threats, these Games still take place in the same weathered arena that once housed the circus.
This year, the Gamemakers decide to try something new: mentors to help coach the tributes not only in how to fight their fellow children but also in how to win over the citizens of Panem. The Gamemakers fear that people in the Capitol have become complacent and forgotten why the Games were established in the first place—so they go the reality-TV route, drumming up emotional investment in the competitors. Local weatherman “Lucky” Flickerman steps into the role of emcee, to varying success; his descendant, Caesar Flickerman, will wind up building on Lucky’s themed makeup and other dramatic flairs.
Although fans of The Hunger Games will recall that mentors are past tributes, this first cohort is made up of Coriolanus and his fellow students. As a twisted sort of senior project, they brainstorm new ways the Games can innovate, all of which become cemented as part of the Games’ canon: the sponsorship program, the financial incentive of placing bets on tributes, even a joke about putting the player’s stats up on a scoreboard for easy viewing.
Compared to later iterations, the 10th Games also prove that the scaffolding around the Games themselves is in need of restructuring. A combination of out-of-touch mentors harassing their tributes, a rebel bombing, and Dr. Volumnia Gaul’s meddling leads to the maiming and/or death of a number of tributes and mentors before the Games even start. What’s more, the bombings create tunnels within the arena, expanding the Games territory but also making it easier for tributes to hide away from the Capitol’s cameras. To flush them out, the sociopathic Dr. Gaul sics her latest experiment on them: multicolored snakes whose venom produces pus in lurid colors.
The Games become both easier and harder to play. While no one formally coins the phrase “May the odds be ever in your favor,” there is enough talk of odds that no doubt Snow will find a way to copyright that phrase before the next reaping.
By the end of the book, Snow is a University student and Gamemaker-in-training. The scandal of the 10th Games were erased, literally: There are no copies of the footage, save for what exists on Dr. Gaul’s computer. Snow’s summer in District 12 inspires him to come up with a solution as to how to get the districts invested in the Games: the victor’s win will benefit their home district with extra food rations, an influx of money, and the cachet of living in the newly-established Victor’s Village. Rather than develop any sympathy for the district folks, he learns the best way to exploit them for a lifetime’s worth of Hunger Games, until the 74th one changes everything.
What Happens in District 12?
While Coriolanus is forced to enlist as a Peacekeeper to save face after cheating in the Hunger Games, he requests an assignment in District 12, in the hopes of reuniting with Lucy Gray Baird. The last time they had seen each other, it had been a kiss goodbye before she entered the arena; in District 12, they pick up where they left off, albeit with her a victor traumatized by the killing and him as a part of Panem’s police force.
At first all is idyllic, with Coriolanus training during the week and spending Saturday nights at The Hob (the local market and gathering space) watching Lucy Gray and her Covey bandmates perform country ballads for the locals. The two become entwined in each other’s lives and begin to ponder a future together.
Then a malcontent named Arlo Chance tries to shut down the mine. His subsequent hanging galvanizes the district’s rebels, which includes Lucy Gray Baird’s ex-lover Billy Taupe and Coriolanus’ unwitting best friend and fellow Peacekeeper trainee Sejanus Plinth. Though Snow consistently looks down on his peer, who jumped social classes from District 2 to a life of wealth in the Capitol, the 10th Hunger Games throws them together over and over, from Coriolanus having to save Sejanus after he sneaks into the arena to the two of them enlisting in order to avoid bringing shame down on their families.
Sejanus, who was never comfortable with his change in stature, seeks to help the districts by providing the rebels with guns for their flight up north, out of Panem. Using a jabberjay, Coriolanus surreptitiously records his friend admitting to the crime, then sends the jabberjay to Dr. Gaul. He soothes his guilt by thinking that the scientist may never actually receive the message, or that the worst that will happen is that Sejanus will get honorably discharged.
Meanwhile, Coriolanus stumbles right into Sejanus’ plot one night after the Covey’s show. When Mayfair threatens to tell her father everything, which would implicate Coriolanus and Lucy Gray despite them being bystanders, he shoots her. Billy Taupe is killed by rebel Spruce in the ensuing firefight, with Spruce dying of his own wounds a few nights later.
Right when Coriolanus thinks he has tied up the loose ends with the rebels and exonerated himself and his friends, his jabberjay comes back to bite him in the ass: Sejanus is charged with treason and hanged. And Lucy Gray Baird is the main suspect in Billy Taupe and Mayfair’s deaths, as he left her for the mayor’s daughter.
In desperation, Lucy Gray decides to join the rebels fleeing up north. Despite receiving a prestigious promotion to officer training that would set his life back on track, Coriolanus decides to go with her, wanting to be with Lucy Gray above all else.
But as they prepare to flee District 12, a number of suspicious circumstances amp up his paranoia that Lucy Gray is betraying him the same way he has turned on so many important people in his life. When they stop at a house near District 12’s lake, he discovers the rebels’ store of weapons. When Lucy Gray takes a long time to go cut up some katniss plants, he convinces himself that she has abandoned him and even now is revealing the murder that will snatch away his bright future.
Coriolanus begins hunting Lucy Gray around the lake, their own private Hunger Games. When he comes upon a snake hiding beneath her head scarf, he is convinced she left it for him as a trap. It is not venomous, yet he seems to have a psychosomatic reaction, the “venom” making him stumble about and hallucinate that he sees her. The flock of mockingjays that pick up her voice singing “The Hanging Tree” and swarm him don’t help matters.
But he never finds her, and instead stumbles back to District 12, then immediately leaves for officers’ school—which turns out to be a ruse that brings him back to the Capitol instead.
Really, it’s all a justification for Snow to return to the comforts of civilization. He dislikes roughing it in even their first few hours together, and despairs of living a hardscrabble life of freedom as opposed to the opulent cage of wealth and state-mandated violence that the Capitol provides. He is clearly relieved to be rid of Lucy Gray Baird, and looks ahead to acquiring a more appropriate future first lady among his monied peers.
Who Wrote “The Hanging Tree” Song?
The murder ballad, which Katniss Everdeen learns from her father and sings as part of the propaganda efforts in Mockingjay, can be traced back to Lucy Gray Baird. She tinkers with it in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, originally drawing inspiration from Arlo and Billy (to Coriolanus’ chagrin). Snow is part of the Peacekeeper presence at the hanging, and witnesses the mockingjays picking up Arlo’s final words to his wife: “Run! Run, Lil! Ru—” The first verse reflects this eerie love song:
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
Initially the hanging tree is Lucy Gray’s spot for meeting her cheating ex Billy; their breakup leaves the song unfinished. It’s not until the rebellion continues to unfold in the district, and Billy first tries to get her back, then gets murdered by Spruce, that the lyrics fully come together, with each verse featuring a new third line.
The words that had initially puzzled and disturbed Katniss—Where the dead man called out for his love to flee—wind up describing the mockingjays carrying Arlo’s words even after his death. Coriolanus realizes that the lines Where I told you to run, so we’d both be free and Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me are meant to be spoken by Billy, pleas to Lucy that she will never fulfill now that she’s chosen Snow instead.
Bonus: Lucy Gray also sings “Deep in the Meadow” to younger Covey member Maude Ivory to soothe her—the same song that Katniss sings to Rue as she lies dying in The Hunger Games, and that an older Katniss ponders when looking upon her children at the end of Mockingjay. Clearly it sticks around in District 12!
Any Mention of Katniss Everdeen?
As the book takes place sixty-four years before Katniss’ Hunger Games, our beloved Mockingjay is not even a twinkle in her grandparents’ eyes at this point. However, at one point in District 12, Lucy Gray shows Coriolanus a lake plant with pointy leaves and small white flowers, that eventually grows potatoes. “Some people call them swamp potatoes,” she says, “but I like katniss better. Has a nice ring to it.”
Seeing as Lucy’s fate remains unclear, there is a chance that she resurfaced in District 12 at some point, perhaps living long enough to suggest to the Everdeens that they name their first child Katniss, after the flower. Or it’s just another Easter egg for the readers, a reminder of the beauty in survival.
What did you think of the ending of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and how it fits into the larger Hunger Games universe?