Name Meanings in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: From Covey to Capitol
Within Lucy Gray Baird’s “Covey” (a flock of birds), as is mentioned in the book, all are named for a ballad and a color (several double as jewel colors, suggesting preciousness). These ballads are English and Scottish, nodding to the old world of books and traveling players (several are Child ballads) as well as the Celtic culture that contrasts with the Roman one.
Lucy Gray is for the Wordsworth poem, as described. Her last name, Baird, suggests her bardic profession. “Lucy Gray” indeed sees the girl die and haunt the forest like a ghost, merged with nature and filled with its energy. It ends with a touching mystery:
Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.
Over rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.
This echoes Snow’s final thoughts of her: “Lucy Gray’s fate was a mystery then, just like the little girl who shared her name in that maddening song. Was she alive, dead, a ghost who haunted the wilderness? Perhaps no one would ever really know. No matter — snow had been the ruination of them both. Poor Lucy Gray. Poor ghost girl singing away with her birds.”
Lucy Gray takes the second name from winter — a parallel to Snow, emphasizing their connection. It’s also a depressing time of oppression and starvation she must fight to survive, echoing names like Gale and Everdeen (Evergreen).
Barb Azure is named for “Barbara Allen” and the serene color of the sky. In the ballad, a rich young man pleads for her love on his deathbed. However, she haughtily refuses, pointing out how he has slighted her. He dies, and finally she dies of grief. A thorn grows on his grave and a rose on hers, linking them forever.
Maude Ivory is named for “Maude Clare” and the ivory of a piano. This is the color of white but a little off for imperfect innocence as the district’s troubles spill over to her. Likewise, this parallels Snow’s old, off-white shirt at the beginning — she’s the voice of innocence within that he loses in the Games. “Maude Clare” by Christina Rossetti features a beautiful young woman watching as her ex weds a less-fair bride. She pointedly returns all his gifts and their memories, dumping him in a delightfully assertive voice. While Maude Ivory is too young for romance, her independence makes this an excellent namesake poem.
Tam Amber: Tam Lin (Child Ballad 39) is a very famous ballad of the queen of the fairies abducting a young man and human Janet, a property owner pregnant with his child, wrestling him away from the queen of the fairies. While not much of Tam’s personality is seen, he’s named for this very feminist tale. His foundling aspect is also suggested as he’s a baby “stolen by the fairies.” Amber is a sunny color, though it’s actually made from tree sap, linking him with the forest.
Clerk Carmine: Carmine or cochineal is a deep red pigment for brightness and theatricality. “Clerk Colvill” is Child Ballad 42. Clerk Colvill ignores the advice of his lady and finds a mermaid, who seduces him. The mermaid curses him for his infidelity, and he dies. Like “Tam Lin,” this story poises the hero between fairy and mortal women and worlds.
Billy Taupe: Taupe is grey-brown, a color of murkiness, even dirtiness in contrast with Maude Ivory’s innocence. “Billy in the Darbies” by Herman Melville, an American, doesn’t fit well with the others, but neither does Billy Taupe. In it, the main character wonders about people’s inherent cruelty and willfulness rather than the wide-held belief at the time that people were naturally angelic. As such, these themes tie heavily into Collins’ novel. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” by Billy Joel likewise doesn’t fit the origins of the other poems, but since it’s about an outlaw, it might be an inspiration too.
The female goat named Seamus is surprising in itself. Of course, one must predict that it follows the naming pattern of the humans in the family. The Ballad Poetry of Ireland has one, “The Boatman of Kinsale” by Thomas Davis with a chorus of “Righ Seamus, Righ Seamus, go bragh.” As the lyrics add: “The wind that round the Fastnet sweeps/Is not a whit more pure/The goat that down Cnoc Sheehy leaps/Has not a foot more sure.” This, like the others, is a love song, but this love remains faithful (perhaps suggesting that goats don’t betray people).
Many ballads feature faithlessness and betrayal in love, but it must be noted that basically everyone’s ballad except Lucy Gray’s is this sort. Likewise, many feature love triangles between people from two worlds in particular. Lucy’s has a different image, of the wandering ghost, but her being surrounded by these stories symbolizes both her past with Billy and future with Coriolanus.
Certainly, everyone in the Capitol has Roman names, as the Capitol echoes Rome with the Districts its badly-treated outside empire. The original trilogy further took most of its names from Shakespeare’s Roman plays (which were often inspired by the characters in Plutarch’s Lives), as I explore in Katniss the Cattail. This set is less directly taken from the life of Emperor Tiberius (symbolized by Coriolanus Snow) and the men and women closest to him. Of course, the names were not chosen randomly, but to make deliberate allusions:
Crassus Xanthos Snow is Coriolanus’s distant father. Marcus Licinius Crassus helped found the Roman Empire. His power came from crushing Spartacus’s slave rebellion, thus paralleling him logically with the man how defeated the Districts. He was also in a famous alliance, the first Triumvirate, which eventually fell apart, like the Dean’s friendship with Crassus Snow. He’s famous for his wealth, as Snow’s was, though his reputation doesn’t match the reality. Xanthus was the god of the River Troy, under siege by many invading tribes, much like the Capitol itself. There were several others of that name in Greek myth, mostly famous for their epic deaths. This too is this man’s main effect on the novel.
Fabricia Whatnot, “a woman as ridiculous as her name” is Tigris’s boss is in fashion, so her name clearly references fabric. A whatnot can refer to a number of sewing implements as well as the cabinet that keeps them.
Remus Dolittle — neighbor and future gamemaker whose father got him the post. His surname seems to reflect his uselessness more than the famous fictional veterinarian. His first name is from one of the mythic founders of Rome — but the one who was killed by his tougher brother Romulus. His future in the games doesn’t bode well.
Pontius and Venus — gawking kids won over by Lucy. Venus was the goddess of beauty, most often admired rather than looking at others. Pontius Pilate was a governor of the Roman province of Judaea, under Emperor Tiberius, so the timing fits. He’s most famed for condemning Jesus to execution, but this one is fortunately kinder. Both distant authoritative names here emphasize the gulf between the Tributes and the Capitol dwellers.
Pluribus Bell, seller of black market goods, has a name that means “many.” It could refer to his many products or the many personalities and costumes he brings to his shows. The surname suggests music. Pluribus has the cat Boa Bell. Cats enjoy playing with both of these, suggesting playfulness and theatricality. This cat of course also nods to Buttercup. His dead partner Cyrus was a musician.
Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman is clearly the father or other relative of host Caesar Flickermen. A “Flickerman” is a dramatic documentary about someone’s life, echoing this job interviewing the contestants. His nickname is echoed in several mentors’ names which all mean happy or fortunate. Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. Lucretius’s scientific poem “On the Nature of Things” inspired many future works like the Aeneid. Likewise, Flickerman’s broadcast in this shapes the future games.
Lepidus Malmsey is the reporter reporting on the Tributes. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate alongside Octavian and Mark Antony. This required being a rather silent partner between the two stronger personalities as well as switching sides in the complex political arena. The reporter has similar challenges.
Dr Voluminia Gaul, head gamemaker is named for the mother of Caius Martius Coriolanus in William Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus. This figure urges her son to become more violent, and he’s easily swayed. She encourages him to succeed in the military and then to take political office. When he’s exiled from Rome, she channels his aggression onto the path she desires. Likewise, Dr, Gaul quickly becomes Coriolanus Snow’s chief mentor. Her last name is the Roman-era name for France — the equivalent of the Districts. Perhaps she’s more of an outsider than she reveals.
Dean Casca Highbottom created the Games. In history, Publius Servilius Casca Longus was one of Caesar’s assassins and a main character in Shakespeare’s play –most characters of which starred in the original trilogy.
Satyria Click — Coriolanus’s mentor in chapter one. Her first name evokes a satyr. The second may be another film reference or a nod to being in a clique — you’re part of the group or not.
Hippocrata Lunt is school counselor. Since Hippocrates is the father of medicine, this makes sense.
The gymnasium mistress is Agrippina Sickle. Agrippina the Elder historically wedded Emperor Tiberius’s heir to unite the families. She was mother to Caligula, suggesting that this gym mistress has raised selfish and violent Capitol children. A sickle is like death’s scythe, an ominous image though also one from agriculture.
History professor Crispus Demigloss apparently glosses over their people’s failures. Flavius Julius Crispus was a leader in victorious military operations against Gaul and Germania, and then went on to become Caesar. Since his namesake joined history by conquering the equivalent of the Districts, the more modern character is indeed likely to “gloss” over District accomplishments and tell a one-sided story.
For the tributes and mentors, check out https://medium.com/pop-off/name-meanings-in-the-ballad-of-songbirds-and-snakes-tributes-and-mentors-9bf442a33b29
Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and other pop culture works.