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12/04/2014 04:00 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

What Was the Meaning of the "Hanging Tree" song in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

In Mockingjay, what was the meaning of the "hanging tree" song?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Answer by Julie Wherry

1. For reference, here are the song lyrics. The unique, non-repeated line from verse to verse is in italics.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out for his love to flee.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree.

2. Katniss's direct inner monologue on the song from the book, Mockingjay is below. While not a full analysis of the song, you get a sense of why the song is important to her.

"... We didn't sing it anymore, my father and I, or even speak of it. After he died, it used to come back to me a lot. Being older, I began to understand the lyrics. At the beginning, it sounds like a guy is trying to get his girlfriend to secretly meet up with him at midnight. But it's an odd place for a tryst, a hanging tree, where a man was hung for murder. The murderer's lover must have had something to do with the killing, or maybe they were just going to punish her anyway, because his corpse called out for her to flee. That's weird obviously, the talking-corpse bit, but it's not until the third verse that "The Hanging Tree" begins to get unnerving. You realize the singer of the song is the dead murderer. He's still in the hanging tree. And even though he told his lover to flee, he keeps asking if she's coming to meet him. The phrase "Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free" is the most troubling because at first you think he's talking about when he told her to flee, presumably to safety. But then you wonder if he meant for her to run to him. To death. In the final stanza, it's clear that that's what he's waiting for. His lover, with her rope necklace, hanging dead next to him in the tree.

...I used to think the murderer was the creepiest guy imaginable. Now, with a couple of trips to the Hunger Games under my belt, I decide not to judge him without knowing more details. Maybe his lover was already sentenced to death and he was trying to make it easier. To let her know he'd be waiting. Or maybe he thought the place he was leaving her was really worse than death..."

3. A personal interpretation

First, my interpretation of the repeated lines:

  • "Are you, are you coming to the tree": This is the singer beckoning the audience to return not necessarily to a physical place, but rather a state of mind and remembrance of purpose (to be free) and who the "real enemy" is.
  • "Strange things did happen here": This is acknowledgment of what humans do to oppress, control, exploit each other and the atrocities ("strange things", like innocents being hanged) that result when people fight against this oppression for their freedom.
  • "No stranger would it be, if we met at midnight in the hanging tree": This line after the changed line in the verses indicates that it is not unreasonable or strange to have to sacrifice your life to be free of enslavement and torture. The line indicates martyrdom given that the meeting is "in" in the hanging tree and not "at" the hanging tree. And midnight could symbolize death of a prior day and start of a new one, which messages that even if lives are lost, the fight for basic freedom continues on.

Now, for the unique lines in the verses:

  • "Where they strung up a man they say murdered three": You don't get the sense that the referenced man is actually a murderer, rather that an ominous "they" have accused a man of doing so and have strung him up. Perhaps the man in the song did murder three (or spat on 3 Peacekeepers) and perhaps he did so in rebellion; we don't know. [Incidencally, when I first encountered this song in Mockingjay, I thought this was Suzanne Collins's nod to, "Strange Fruit" which was an important song / protest against racism and lynchings during the American Civil Rights Movement.]
  • "Where the dead man called out for his love to flee": Initially, reinforces the notion that the man may be innocent and wants to protect his love, encouraging him/her to flee to safety.
  • "Where I told you to run so we'd both be free": The transition from 3rd person to 1st person suggests that the dead man is metaphor for the singer, who is likely being wrongly punished. The line indicates that the singer thinks that the singer and the audience could both be free of oppression (the singer, in death and the audience, by fleeing - either to safety, or as Katniss muses... running to the tree to fight and be free, either in victory or in death).
  • "Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me": This shift in tense seems as if the singer is saying, that they've been at the tree before, fighting for their freedoms. The singer is now making a call to action, asking the audience to join him/her, perhaps in the ultimate sacrifice of life.

4. The song as a rallying cry for the rebellion?

There are several parts in the book that suggest it is a rallying cry for rebellion against the Capitol's oppression that has meaning even before Katniss uses it for the rebellion.

  • Katniss has not sung the song aloud for about 10 years. She indicates in the book that doing so is forbidden. (Perhaps forbidden by the Capitol if it was used in the prior rebellion?)
  • Katniss's mother uncharacteristically yells at Katniss's father when Katniss and Prim sing the song as little girls. Katniss's mother is trying to protect her family, knowing that they can be punished for singing the song. This strengthened the idea for me that the song had meaning for the districts as a rebel song, even before Katniss was old enough to understand the lyrics. Katniss notes that executions by hanging were not unusual in the districts...

In the book, the filmed song could not be used as a piece of propaganda for the rebellion since it never actually aired. But it has significance given the importance of the song to Katniss and her father (and his generation) and in being a clip that Peeta sees without having adverse hijacked reactions to Katniss since Peeta remembers Katniss's father singing it at the bakery when Peeta was a young boy.

Characters familiar with the song use it as a reminder in the book to prioritize freedom for all over things such as surrender/enslavement, suicide, or revenge.

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