Some authors write to entertain, others write to mentor.
Suzanne Collins is a mentor writer. But I almost forgot this while reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Many Hunger Games fans were irate about Collins’ plans to tell the childhood story of President Snow. Fans listed dozens of characters and time periods that they would love to have, but… Snow?! The evil terrible tyrant guy? Ugh! Tweet after tweet and review after review followed this dtrend. Collins could have followed in the footsteps of Marvel and Star Wars and made a massive franchise with her cinematic universe (for the record, I have enjoyed both).
She didn’t. Instead she did the largely unpopular story. This begs the question: Why?
The 3 Categories
It’s very interesting to look at what she did do:
- It’s a strangely meandering story. It has moments of excitement and intensity—like in the original trilogy—but then it usually seems to fall flat. And the story just sorta continues on. It’s mostly just Coriolanus living his life.
- The literary style isn’t as deep or rich as the originals. It’s mostly straightforward, simplistic. The big moral quandaries, the questions, aren’t really there. Not much is left for the reader to grapple with.
- She picked President Snow as her main “hero” character. She’s doing a villain backstory. She’s “humanizing” this horrible man with some childhood sob story (as many reviews stated it).
I was reading along, underlining a few things, writing a few notes, and looking for the intrigue found in the trilogy. The further I read the more I began to realize I didn’t like it as much as the others, it almost seemed “against the rules.” This is part of the iconic Hunger Games series. I’m supposed to love it! I was expecting to be amazed. A good friend of mine messaged me, disappointed, with a great analysis on points A and B above. I was just finishing it myself and was wondering a similar thing. I was about to respond to my friend that I agreed; but then I remembered: this is Suzanne Collins. She is a purposeful writer.
So, I started digging.
One of the first places I knew would reveal a lot was in the names of her characters. Ballad (I feel it fitting to shorten the title in this section about names, but I’m still talking about the same book) proved to be a treasure trove—just like in the Hunger Games Trilogy. You’ll notice that those from the Capitol have first names from ancient Greek and Roman stories while their last names have British origins. The way that Collins takes these rich historical stories and interweaves them into her character’s is astonishing. Sejanus was the right-hand man to the Emperor Tiberius, but was later executed on suspicion of conspiracy. Lucretius was a Roman philosopher of Epicureanism. Crassus was a very rich Roman who helped turn Rome from a Republic to an Empire. Casca was one of the assassins of Julius Caesar and fought with the Liberators, and was believed to have committed suicide during the defeat at Philippi. Clemensia is the Roman goddess of clemency and mercy.
She takes all these ancient characters and weaves them into her story. This is an impressive literary feat in and of itself! Now the parallels are more like Shakespeare’s Macbeth to real history–the story and actual history don’t align–but it only adds to the intrigue and genius. One case of this is making Clemensia ironic. Why does Collins do this? There are plenty of others she could have picked from; why is one who withholds mercy named for a goddess of mercy? Is Collins suggesting that when we withhold from others we get bitten? Or is there something to her story and lore that I’m unfamiliar with? A wolf in sheep’s clothing comes to mind. Or the “forked tongue” of those who cry for humanity and forbearance, but their acts are savage.
Why does her last name mean “a home for doves”?
Especially as we consider it jointly with her first name. She often changes the spelling away from the ancient names, Clementia is the Roman goddess, clemensia is a genus of moth. This has many Biblical and literary meanings as well.
A Plinth is a base for a statue. Does Sejanus represent the foundational base for good, morality, idealism? Or is she playing on the irony that he, like his namesake Sejanus, was not a dependable base for emperors?
Why Snow? What about Flickerman? Or that of Gaul (a possible play on “gall” as well??)? …Gaul is a curious one. It could be foreshadowing the future relationship between Coiriolanus and Clemensia–Caesar versus the Gauls.
Volumnia is the mother of Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s play. She is his support and guide in many ways. She also holds him back from utterly destroying Rome in vengeance–more foreshadowing?
Which brings us to Coriolanus.
In short, he was one of the greatest Roman generals, was exiled, gathered an army, and then besieged Rome. I had a lot of fun studying all these rabbit holes and brushing up on my ancient Roman and Greek history—and of Gaul. Reviewing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was fascinating, but as I dug deeper into the historical context of the play I was stunned.
The play itself is an interesting one, but what caught me off guard were the critiques and reviews of the play. I am not joking when I say that the reviews and critics of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, past and present, bring up points A, B, and C above. Some of the commentary is almost verbatim what you find people saying about Ballad. It was uncanny! Why were these two stories centered around Coriolanus both receiving exactly the same type of “bad” press?
Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus was one of his later works. He knew how to write a rich and complex play. It’s challenging to reconcile the play’s seeming dullness with what we’ve come to expect. We find a parallel analysis and criticism of Collins’ famous trilogy when compared with this fourth installment. For Shakespeare’s and Collins’ critics to say nearly the exact same thing in the three categories listed above with little else said outside of those is incredible. Could this be coincidence? What if Collins wrote it by design that way, or was following Shakespeare’s lead?
Shakespeare and Collins are mentor authors. There’s something more here I wanted to find.
Let me reiterate that I don’t disagree with the criticism that the original trilogy is much more artistic and deep. It paints a picture of the glamor, the pomp, the celebrity created around the horrendous games and its tributes. The messages of the story are coded in more emotional brush strokes rather than in frank, drab declarations. The original series is almost all “show” and very little “tell.”
Contrast this with the Ballad and it is almost the opposite. It appears to be nearly all “tell” and only a little artistic “show.” We see the creation of the first Hunger Games. It is grotesque, it is crude, and it is not celebrated.
There is so much in this simple comparison of how the games began in such fashion as compared to what they became some 75 years later. This tool of manipulation and of dominance was blunt and straightforward at first; there was no attempt to hide what it was they were doing: Murdering children for gain and pleasure. In order to stomach it, to gain better widespread support, and to douse uprisings they had to be gussied up. The games had to be turned into entertainment with great fanfare. In a sense, the games had to be made to appear more humane for society to accept it.
Another curiosity comes to light as we continue this comparative investigation. Nobody seemed to like the games or really support what was happening. This was true of both the citizens of the Capitol and of the districts. Why was no one rebelling? Why was no one fighting back? Why was no one willing to rock the boat, to put an end to it?
The unfortunate and real answer? Historical cycles.
There are many names for it and great books mapping it out, but they all break down a similar 100-year cycle—give or take a couple decades. Strauss & Howe in their book The Fourth Turning, called the time when Katniss lived during a “Crisis” era, or a Fourth Turning, while Snow’s youth in Ballad was a “Founding” era, or a First Turning. His parents had just come out of a great war and struggled through a Fourth Turning. With the war over and the people going back home, they were broken, tattered, and in a slump. The energy, the heart, the fire within to rebel and to fight, was no longer there. The war had gone the way it had gone, and the new powers were rising to define the culture of the new society. People were happy to have someone coming forward to “fix” things and set things “right.” And they didn’t have it in them anymore to draw a hard line in the sand. They were ready to unify, ready to compromise, ready to build the new future and get on with their lives.
Those who win the war and are allowed to create the culture of a new Founding era determine the course and type of society for the next three to four generations, or approximately 100 years. Those we see creating this new society in Ballad were at a critical point of human history that cycles time and again. The Crisis era of a Fourth Turning is key to determining a FreedomShift—where society increases in the protection of equal rights, equal opportunity, and widespread prosperity—or a ForceShift—where society’s elites gain power, control, and wealth while the masses tend to lose in each area—for the next cycle; but it’s the first decade of the First Turning that establishes the new societal culture and rules.
Collins wrote her original trilogy to a society that was just about to enter the dire events of a Fourth Turning. We have since lived through a major financial recession, COVID-19, supply chain shortages, soaring inflation, refugee crisis, culture wars, looming war with Russia and China, and possibly others that cannot be foreseen. She was writing about the importance of standing on the right side of the current power struggle; to live by conscience, not by greed.
Her next installment took a very different approach. She adjusted her tone, the era, the characters, the society, the questions, and the struggles. In Ballad she was now addressing a First Turning struggle rather than a Fourth. She was looking forward to the Founding as opposed to the Crisis. Society needed to live through the current Crisis—as the time to prepare has passed—and look towards preparing for the next steps in the coming historical cycle.
Collins showed us what it looks like to have a ForceShift First Turning. And what follows through the Second Turning (The Awakening) and the Third Turning (The Unraveling) to produce the next Fourth Turning when Katniss could become the girl on fire and spark a new revolution. The Hunger Games shows us how to live through a Crisis era and establish a FreedomShift, even when it seems the odds are all against us. They never really are. I hope you can see that.
The trilogy shows a FreedomShift, while Ballad is a bold warning of the devastating effects of a Forceshift.
This story seems so out of place when reading it during a Crisis. But take a look at stories (books, video, etc.) that are geared to each different era. We have been living in the era of grand superheroes facing all odds in a grand battle over the earth and universe. There are arch enemies and threats that we must come together to vanquish! We need and want heroes!
However, this isn’t the case during much of the rest of time. The movie Top Gun is a good example. I recently re-watched it with Emma. It’s a fantastic Third Turning movie. Things happen….but only sorta. The drama is mostly internal. There isn’t a grand external threat to conquer. Yes, there is a great dogfight during the climax, but it’s really just a lot of posturing. It’s important to the individuals and the mission is important, but whether they win or lose will have little to no overall impact on society or in winning the “war.” It’s no grand competition against the evil Axis powers, or Thanos, or Voldemort, or Sauron, etc.
The story line in Ballad seems to be more of a series of vignettes that culminate in some common themes. The reader must work at finding the connections to the experiences, as opposed to a plot with a grand buildup of trials that the character must pass through in order to destroy the ring of power. These characters must instead face themselves. They must ask hard questions of themselves. They must choose which standard to live by, and determine whether they will be governed by selfishness and seek power, or submit to others with trust and accept community rule.
Watching movies and reading stories from other turnings when living through a Fourth Turning feels like major dissonance. Don Quixote by Cervantes has this same feel to it. The Knight of the Woeful Countenance goes on grand adventures, but it’s in such a strange meandering plot that it’s easy to feel there is no point, there is no continuity, or overarching theme that gives them all purpose. This is because they tend to be more character driven and far less about the outside events.
Especially in a First Turning Founding.
It may seem all meandering and like random things are happening, but those like Volumnia who are politicking, who are grooming a Coriolanus, who are pulling strings behind the scenes are seeking to establish their dictatorship. She is working to mold her society to her whims. Can we see through the smoke and mirrors of our own questions and struggles of Fourth and First Turnings?
Coriolanus had many opportunities to choose freedom, to choose good. The temptations, the societal culture, the Founding era creeps in on us if we are not vigilant. If during a Fourth Turning and during the early stages of a First Turning, we do not choose a standard of freedom and of virtue, then what are we left with? We have only ourselves to blame. And we get to look our children, grandchildren, and—for some of us—our great-grandchildren in the eyes and tell them that it was me, it was my fault that so many generations live under this oppression, this broken society.
When we allow “self” to govern, when we ascribe to “humanism” as our societal standard then we end up with varying degrees of socialism, communism, crony capitalism, fascism, or the like. This is the inevitable endgame of self-centered Fourth and First Turnings. Don’t fall into the same traps as Coriolanus—and society.
We must understand what it means to be as free as a songbird. We must understand the wiles of the snakes. Freedom is in the details.
Is the Book Worth Reading?
After reviewing the book and doing some research into these questions along with others, I decided I really like this book a lot. For different reasons than I liked the trilogy, but definitely a great work of literature and mentoring. The more I looked the more I peeled back. The evidence for me is clear that Collins didn’t just write a simplistic and subpar book, but that she was meticulously intentional with this work. She knows “the rules” and sought to break them in such a way that emphasizes her points.
I had to remember she is a Mentor Author.
It seems that our assessment of her more dry and blunt approach was, in part, because we missed the point in her trilogy. She came right out and told us, again and again.
Tyranny is evil—in any way, shape, or form.
Murdering children is not ok—whether unborn, little, or adults.
Education is key—success is in the details.
Good morals, character, and virtue are vital—they determine the culture and happiness of individuals and societies.
Much like with Katniss, you can’t take her at face value. We must look deeper to see the depth of character, strength of soul, and truly recognize her brilliance.
What We do Today Matters
What a powerful perspective on the outcomes of our choices in our daily meandering life! How we live our life matters. It doesn’t just affect us today, but for generations to come.
How will you decide to live through our current Fourth Turning?
How will you decide to prepare and live through the coming First Turning?
I have come to really like this book. I have found it to be a highly effective and impactful tool for mentoring adults and teens in the list above—and many other points.
What was your experience with this novel? What are your thoughts on the coming Founding?