Book review: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”

You bet I started reading the Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins the day it came out. I read Hunger Games back in high school, and was exhilarated to revisit the post-apocalyptic world of Panem. The names harking back to ancient Rome (Festus Creed, Coriolanus Snow, Sejanus Plinth, Hilarius Heavensbee, Voluminia Gaul), the elaborate clothes and food of the Capitol, all described in such detail, the barbaric practice of turning the murder of children into a spectator sport.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions readers of The Hunger Games has is, how did it get this way? How could a society get so low that this is accepted? This are the kinds of questions that prequels allow authors to explore. Collins doesn’t rewind the clock so far back as to show the transition between the America today and the war-devastated future of Panem. But she does rewind 65 years back to the events of the 10th Hunger Games, when Panem wasn’t ruled by President Snow. President Snow was a student, just getting ready to graduate the equivalent of high school. The 10th Hunger Games means the events that sparked their existence– the war between Districts and Capitol– is more fresh in everybody’s experience and memory. When reading the Hunger Games, the rhythm of the annual games give you the feel that these games haven’t changed with time. But, perhaps a minor spoiler, they weren’t always administered in the same format. How they became what they were in Katniss Everdeen’s day is determined in some of the pivotal experiences of young Coriolanus Snow.

I don’t intend to give any plot spoilers in this review, but I will mention some themes and literary structures that Collins uses in her book. Don’t read further if you don’t want to stumble on those.

Philosophical teeth

Before reading chapter 1, the reader finds several quotes from various philosophers and writers– William Wordsworth, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and particularly relevant, Thomas Hobbes. From The Leviathan:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

There were already clear hints that Collins was doing a little fictional play with political philosophy in The Hunger Games, but The Ballad makes it explicit. If you know Hobbes, you would know he was a pessimist. We humans are no noble race. Left to our own devices, we would be slaughtering, pillaging, and raping each other, and it’s only by investing a strong government with the threat of force to keep us all in line. In the words of a recent book I serendipitously just finished. Ten Books That Screwed Up the World:

Imagine waking up one morning and feeling quite suddenly that someone has removed all the burdens of conscience, all your subterranean naggings and hesitations. You are now entirely relieved of any inner contradiction to each and every desire… Completely without conscience. No recognition of right or wrong, good or evil, light or dark… If no one is around to make us feel guilt, this all seems inviting, liberating, exhilarating. Until you realize– as your neighbor carries off your wife and your newspaper boy smashes your windows (aided by the sheriff, who then proceeds to strafe your house with bullets, trying to write his name on your aluminum siding)– that everyone else woke up just as you did, entirely relieved of all their burdens of conscience… It then hits you like a brick. Or rather, as a brick just flew through the window and hit you, you immediately apprehend that “to this war of every man, against every man, this is also consequent; that nothing can be unjust.”

This is the philosophy on which the Hunger Games are based. These are the assumptions of Human Nature that caused them to be crafted. I am going to quote one character here from the book here, the evil mastermind Dr. Voluminia Gaul, and her thoughts on human nature. You’ll find they sound exactly like Hobbes:

What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. How quickly civilization disappears. All your fine manners, education, family background, everything you pride yourself on, stripped away in the blink of an eye, revealing everything you actually are. A boy with a club who beats another boy to death. That’s mankind in its natural state.

Are we really as bad as all that?

I would say yes, absolutely. But it’s a matter of personal opinion… You can blame it on the circumstances, the environment, but you made the choices you made, no one else. It’s a lot to take in all at once, but it’s essential that you make an effort to answer that question. Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing we need.

She’s definitely right about that last part. What assumptions you make about mankind will determine how you choose to arrange the state. Or, as The Federalist Papers put it so eloquently, If men were angels, no government would be necessary. I’m sure the Founding Fathers read their Hobbes, and it’s a good thing too– this passage is used to explain the need of checks and balances in the new federal government. But I don’t think they fully agreed with Hobbes’ state of nature. They would agree on the need of institutions to channel and shape human nature, but they wouldn’t be so dismissive of them as Dr. Gaul is here. Our institutions have the power to make men virtuous, as Aristotle argued in The Politics. In this sense The Hunger Games has some political teeth, showing what kinds of governments can arise when you start with bad assumptions.

Backstory

The Ballad fills the readers in with a lot of details they may have been wondering about. But it also makes you re-evaluate some of the events in the later books given the new information. Collins is a master of these inter-textual allusions. It left me wondering: how much of this was planned, and how much was made after the fact? There are some surprising twists, but I’ll just leave this one here:

Tigris

Role of music

The title of the book already alludes to music, but it does play a very important role in this book in particular. The haunting melody from the movies gave life to this one from The Hunger Games:

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

The backstory of this song is explained, along with several new ones. Music, as we learn, causes trouble. Music can’t be controlled. You can’t pin down a single meaning to a song. There may be an innocent enough interpretation on the surface, but a song can also relay a hidden message or be a call to rebellion. A beautiful continuation of this theme in the prequel.

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