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“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” sparks an old debate: Who are human beings?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins most recent Hunger Games novel set 65 years prior to her first book, is riveting. It’s incredibly fascinating and delves into the mind of a soon-to-be tyrant. Instead of the venomous President Snow we know him to be, Collins presents our all-powerful character as the tragic but charming and witty 18-year-old boy who is still working out the world and his place in it.

In some ways, this book is actually more powerful than The Hunger Games and it’s successors – because not only do we get the same warning we do in the previous books, but we also get the reason why the Games actually came to be. And this reason, I believe, is almost too easy to understand. When I read it, it was actually like reading the mind of a real life tyrannist who believed they were doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

And, whether she meant it or not, Collins has provided a spark with this novel which has reignited a time old debate: Who are human beings?

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the 10th annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to out charm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined – every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.


The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a cleverly written novel from Collins. The amount of subtle foreshadowing combined with Coriolanus Snow’s character arc from the kind and charming moral boy he is at the start of the book to the harsh, cold and selfish one he becomes at the end shows Collins’ skill at literacy tapestry with how she wove together this story. Not to mention some of the incredible themes she touches on: chaos vs. order; the connection between love, vulnerability, and powerlessness; desperation; music; nature vs. nurture…

The real importance of the story, however, lies in its deeper message and the old debate: Who are human beings?

To put it simply, there are two schools of thought in this debate. The first is that when you strip back all of what is perceived as what a person is, their personalities, their intellect, their families, their wealth, their job, everything, then what you are left with is a person – or creature, rather – who is no better than an animal. Who would kill, who would hurt, in any effort to save themselves. That, simply, without any sense of social order, we would resort to violence to ensure we came out on top.

The second school of thought it exactly the opposite. This is the belief that when you strip everything back in a person you still have love, morality, a sense of right and wrong and the understanding that we can protect other people from harm and stay on the right side of good and evil.

The first side, in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is represented by Coriolanus Snow and Dr. Gaul. The second is represented by Sejanus Plinth and Lucy Gray Baird.

In an effort to explain it to Coriolanus, Dr. Gaul says:

“What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilisation 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.”
The idea, laid out as such, shocked him, but he attempted a laugh. “Are we really as bad as all that?”
“I would say yes, absolutely. But it’s a matter of personal opinion.” Dr. Gaul pulled a roll of gauze from the pocket of her lab coat. “What do you think?”
“I think I wouldn’t have beaten anyone to death if you hadn’t stuck me in that arena!” he retorted.
“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.”
– Suzanne Collins, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

To her, the Games are a representation of who human beings are, which, to her, explains why there is a need for the Games in the first place – to remind people of this and at the same time to keep them in check. During the course of events that happen in the book, we see Coriolanus start to take up on that belief as well. At the end of the novel he says:

“We credit children with innocence. And if even the most innocent among us turn into killers in the Hunger Games, what does that say? That our essential nature is violent.”
– Suzanne Collins, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

With this line of thinking, we can see exactly why he continues the Games when he becomes President of Panem.

Then enter Sejanus and Lucy Gray.

When he tried talking out this line of thought with Lucy Gray, she took the opposite look, despite having been in the Games herself. She said:

“You know what I won’t miss? People,” Coriolanus replies. “Except for a handful. They’re mostly awful, if you think about it.”
“People aren’t so bad, really,” she said. “It’s what the world does to them. Like us, in the arena. We did things in there we’d never have considered if they left us alone.”
“I don’t know. I killed Mayfair, and there was no arena in sight,” he said.
“But only to save me.” She thought it over. “I think there’s a natural goodness built into human beings. You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.”
– Suzanne Collins, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

She believed, more than anything, that people had a moral compass inside them even when you stripped everything else back. And still, despite everything, believed people were really good at heart. Sejanus did too, when he stepped up and said that in situations like that people were driven to protect one another and believed that’s what everyone should be doing to help those children in the Games – because, in the end, a mother’s instinct is to protect their young.

Sejanus. Sweet, kind, loving Sejanus, who wanted nothing more in the world than to help other people, was the complete opposite to Coriolanus in every way and he suffered because of it. In a world ruled by tyrants there is no room for people with compassionate and empathetic hearts.

However, no matter what side of the debate you lie on, one thing remains clear as shown in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: what our governing body believes human beings are leads to the type of governing they will enforce on us.

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