The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: A Taste of Venom

Featured Image: Murray Close, Lionsgate

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*Minor Spoilers Ahead*

It’s 2020, and the breath of life has been resurrected. It has filled the lungs of the most successful Young Adult dystopian series along with its fans, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. From the narrative of the original trilogy’s antagonist, Songbirds and Snakes invite us to submerge within Coriolanus Snow’s young mind before the presidency and as a mentor for the 10th annual Hunger Games. 

By chapter one, Collins wastes little time for the reader to uncover a new side of Snow besides the priority he has of his image, a fragile picture to maintain in its frame due to the secret decline in wealth of his family since the passing of both his parents and the war:

“If Tigris’s (cousin’s) revamped shirt was unwearable, what was he to do? Fake the flu and call in sick? Spineless. Soldier through in his uniform shirt? Disrespectful. Squeeze into the red button-down that he had outgrown two years ago? Poor. Acceptable option? None of the above.” (pg. 6)

Upon Snow’s tightening grip of what’s left of the Snow name through his clothes, plastered smiles, and naturally charming conversations that he pours into the spotlight for the public, the reader is let in the backstage. His thoughts lacking sympathy but brimming with fiery ambition, intelligence, and inferiority are what echos through the mould of his character, of what would be familiar to his elderly form as president later on. What feelings start to blossom within Snow’s head not even halfway through the book, though, is where somewhat of a character shift is felt, where a small aspect of Snow turns to lay askew amongst his other qualities. He falls for the girl, doomed to a destiny created in the name of ancient gladiator pits, the girl from District 12 and his assigned mentee and tribute, Lucy Gray Baird. 

At first, the reader sees Lucy Gray appear to Snow in his mind as an opportunity when she gains the public’s favour after her reaping. By her lively, kind personality and her singing, she becomes the star of the Games before ever entering the arena. Winning with Lucy Gray as a tribute from Twelve, of all places, that was capable of enthralling spectators would grant the young Snow publicity, credit, and personal restoration to his family name. It’d mean earning the scholarship to university for the winning tribute’s mentor. It’d mean an open door for Snow to bring his cousin and grandmother out of their current circumstances and provide them with the success and lifestyle they once had — that wasn’t a chance he was going to pass up. Lucy Gray was Snow’s ticket, his jumping-off point into shifting his ambitions into gear. That’s all she was until he realized she was a literal human being, likely to die.

“But he had thought about her more as his contender. His filly in a race, his dog in a fight. The more he had treated her as something special, the more she’d become human.” (pg. 68)

“His girl. His. Here in the Capitol, it was a given that Lucy Gray belonged to him as if she’d had no life before her name was called out at the reaping. Even that sanctimonious Sejanus believed that she was something he could trade for [another tribute]. If that wasn’t ownership, what was?” (pg. 172)

Snow is her mentor first before her eventual lover. He’s in charge of offering advice, earning sponsors, and providing the food she eats to survive. He’s been handed the rails of Lucy Gray’s life the moment she was reaped from the masses — the power in their dynamic lies heavily in Snow’s hands. This leaves Lucy Gray dependent on him on whether she will live or die in the Games, a weighted responsibility that could easily tip sideways. Ultimately, Snow has the capability of also deciding whether Lucy Gray is useful to him or something he can easily abandon if she wins or loses. This is still the case between the two even when his affection for her seems to grow serious, this part of his character that seemed off and out of place to actually be genuine. 

For Snow, Lucy Gray is the exception. An exception from her class label of “district”, people that the citizens of the Capitol look down on, a belief rooted in irony and stupidity, considering that the twelve districts all supply the luxury the people of the Capitol get to relish in and wouldn’t get to without them. Unfortunately, with no surprise, his grandmother displays her prejudice for people from the districts for a moment when she speaks to Snow:

“‘To feed her is one thing,’ She said. ‘To dine with her suggests that you consider her your equal. But she isn’t. There’s always been something barbaric about the districts. Your own father used to say those people only drank water because it didn’t rain blood. You ignore that at your own peril, Coriolanus.’” (pg. 77)

Still, Snow views Lucy Gray as different, as the only person to look after from the pools of faces living the same life as her back home, the only one to care about and save. That’s the problem, though. Save from Lucy Gray, Snow still views the districts and their people as inferior and the Capitol as a necessity even though its foundation is based on oppression. This is proven through Snow’s character foil, Sejanus Plinth, a boy originally from District Two who has the constant inability to gloss over the injustices the districts face, something expected of the residents in the Capitol. The Plinths are rich and affluent, features that gained their Capitol status and what the Snows were a long time ago. The fact that Sejanus is district primary pushes Snow’s inferiority, envy, and distaste towards him further, even if they’re considered friends. Snow says this about Sejanus as the Plinth pours breadcrumbs over the dead body of his tribute, a tradition from Two:

“If you needed proof of the district’s backwardness, there you had it. Primitive people with their primitive customs. How much bread had they wasted with this nonsense?” (pg. 224)

Snow and the Capitol’s current beliefs and values in this prequel translate into the future of the original trilogy’s timeline when the rebellion is sparked by Katniss in her first Games. We see President Snow placing his values on the network that benefits the Capitol’s opulence and disadvantages every other citizen of Panem. As president, he sculpts the persistent illusion that reapings, hangings, floggings, violent peacekeepers, poor living conditions, no healthcare, and little to no food is needed and should be enough for the people they routinely disempower.

The way Snow views people from the districts won’t change, but it will just for Lucy Gray because he has feelings for her and not because he sees the obvious problems with how the people outside of the Capitol are treated and that they have a right for better. By the end of the novel, it’s evident and tragically predictable that Lucy Gray was never the exception to Snow, but rather the rule.

So, one of the themes Songbirds and Snakes demonstrates well is the fact that although an individual can have no role to play in creating a broken system, they have the power to enforce it with what they do. And, if privileged, they could reason with the option to never seek reformation or abolition since the broken system directly benefits them. We see Snow as a young man, but the choices he makes, the thoughts he develops, and the person he becomes ultimately enables the unjust world Katniss would eventually fight against. Throughout the novel, Snow phases in and out of favour of the Capitol until he comes to the conclusion that without the order it places, survival wouldn’t be possible in Panem. Without their control, the districts would bring down the blood rain that they’ve been thirsting for.

As a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was met with a stark contrast in opinions from the fanbase. Some questioned if it served any purpose to the original trilogy, that Collins chose the wrong character to write about, or if another story was even relevant since the series ended years ago along with its movie franchise. Some admired the novel for strengthening the world-building, for the new perspective, or to be able to connect it to Katniss and the characters around her time. Collins was capable of expanding President Snow’s character quite well through it, but if a 500-page novel was needed to do so, then it could be reasonably said that his development in the trilogy was lacking. But, together with its flaws, Songbirds and Snakes was also a nostalgic, familiarly written piece of work that I think still has a place near the trilogy that so many late fans had fallen for. Bountiful with sweet easter eggs and references to the original books, I came to adore every single one of them and more.