As other Slate contributors have noted, the names in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series are eye-catchingly peculiar and often contain hidden meanings. Collins’ new prequel to The Hunger Games, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the origin story of the trilogy’s villain, Coriolanus Snow, is no exception. Mostly set in the Capitol, Ballad serves up many new names from the elite of Panem, and offers some insight into Collins’ inspirations.
First, some guiding principles. As a rule, the first names of Capitol residents in Ballad come from classical Greek and Roman culture, and the last names have a British flavor. Among the novel’s minor characters are classmates of Coriolanus’ named Felix Ravinstill and Pliny Harrington. It’s well-known that the ancient Roman games in which condemned criminals were pitted against wild animals in the Colosseum to entertain the public inspired the Hunger Games. But Ballad offers new insight into how the Capitol’s leading families viewed the rest of Panem, especially anyone “district,” like Coriolanus’ rich but lowborn friend, Sejanus. Coriolanus believes, with most of the Capitol’s rulers, that he is inherently better than Sejanus because of his noble blood, a conviction cherished by the British aristocracy. Below, we close-read the names of the new novel’s main characters.
Clemensia Dovecote: Many of the names in Ballad are ironic. For example, Clemensia—whose first name closely resembles that of Clementia, the Roman goddess of clemency or mercy and whose last name is the word for a birdhouse designed for doves—is the mentor of the tribute Reaper, and she is accused by her fellow mentors of heartlessness in withholding food and water from him until he racks up some kills.
Sejanus Plinth: Apparently named after a Roman prefect of equally humble origins, Sejanus is the opposite of his namesake, a ferociously ambitious operator who became the closest adviser of the emperor Tiberius and poisoned Tiberius’ son, Drusus Caesar, in a bid to become emperor himself. A plinth is a base for a statue, but instead of supporting Coriolanus, Sejanus’ conscience and impractical idealism continually get his friend into trouble.
Casca Highbottom: Dean of the Academy and ill-disposed to Coriolanus on account of an old grudge held against his father, Casca shares a name with one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, but given his addiction to the Panem painkiller “morphling,” his last name may be more pertinent: It’s a term used in the recovery movement to describe someone who resolves to become sober before losing such mainstays as job, marriage, and position. (The opposite is a “low-bottom” addict, someone who might lose one or all three before they hit bottom.)
Coriolanus Snow: Evidently named for the title character of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Snow, like his namesake, disdains the common folk. For most of Ballad, he’s simply trying to regain enough wealth and power to sustain what he views as his family’s rightful place in the world: presiding over the masses. The Roman general at the center of Coriolanus runs for consul, but his enemies stir up populist resistance to his candidacy. He flies into an anti-democratic rage, which gets him banished as a traitor. Although Snow will eventually become president of Panem, it seems unlikely that he’ll do so via a free and fair election. As for his last name, as we’ve noted before, the adult Snow also has a preference for white and an icy cold demeanor.
Volumnia Gaul: The psychopathic genetic engineer and true mastermind of the Hunger Games takes her first name from a fictional character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: the title character’s mother. In the play, she’s a bloodthirsty military stage mom, relishing her son’s stories of his exploits on the battlefield, but also a practical politician who ultimately persuades a vengeful Coriolanus not to attack Rome itself. Surely she will play a major role in transforming the calculating young Coriolanus Snow into a sadistic tyrant. Her last name could be a reference to an area in what is now Western Europe conquered by Julius Caesar in a brutal campaign. Caesar justified his tactics by characterizing the Gauls as savages and pointing to past invasions and sackings of Roman cities by Gallic armies, much as the Capitol blames its treatment of the districts on the First Rebellion.
Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman: The host of the 10th Hunger Games is a “clownish” weatherman with an uncooperative, mangy parrot for his sidekick. There’s likely no significance to him sharing a first name with the Roman philosopher known for espousing the materialist tenets of Epicureanism, but surely he is a relative of Caesar Flickerman, who hosts the Hunger Games during Katniss’ era. Perhaps Lucky is Caesar’s father? Show business must run in that family, or perhaps in the Capitol, professions are determined more by birth than by merit or affinity.
Lucy Gray Baird: At least one name in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes resonates with the themes of both the novel and the Hunger Games trilogy. A member of the Covey—a group of traveling musical performers whose collective name refers to a flock of birds—Lucy, we are told, is named after the title character in a poem by William Wordsworth, and her last name is an alternate, Gaelic form of bard, the term for a singer or poet. “Lucy Gray” was published in a collection, Lyrical Ballads, that contained work by both Wordsworth and his close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Hugely influential, Lyrical Ballads helped turn English literature away from classical modes and forms derived from Greek and Latin poetry and towards the rural folk culture of the British Isles, particularly ballads. In his introduction to the collection, Wordsworth denounced the artificial “gaudiness and inane phraseology” of the time in favor of simpler, more sincere verse in which readers could find “a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents.” The belief that working-class people in the countryside of the districts (songbirds) are more authentic and virtuous than the fancy, devious city dwellers (snakes) is a pervasive idea in the Hunger Games books.
Finally, surely some of Collins’ character names are motivated by pure, Dickensian fun. The moniker for fashion designer Fabricia Whatnot makes a worthy follow-up to the frivolity of Effie Trinket, and the classical references in Crispus Demigloss seem less material than the fact that it’s the simply perfect name for a history teacher at a tony private school.
For a spoiler-filled discussion of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, listen to the Slate Spoiler Special podcast.