Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Do you read the epigraph?

At tor.com, this: Always read the epigraph

Stop!

I see you there, with that novel in your hand. Turning to page 1… Well, I’m here to tell you to turn that page back in the other direction and take a look at what you might find lurking in the front matter of the book. … I’m talking about the epigraph. The little (often italicized) sayings or quotations nestled in the very beginning, right before the action starts: right ahead of that opening paragraph on page 1 you were about to read.

And then an argument for the importance of the epigraph, which of course are those little italicized quotes or whatever that often open fantasy (or other) novels.

I’ve never done epigraphs. Well, actually, now that I think of it, once I did start each chapter of a book with a quote, but that book is unpublished. Maybe someday I’ll revise the heck out of it and publish it, and in that case, sure, I really do like the quotes I chose. I will just add that selecting neat quotes for each chapter is a fine, fine way to waste an incredible amount of time you might otherwise spend productively.

So, here is an example from the tor.com post:

Neverwhere opens with a pair of epigraphs: a short quote from a G. K. Chesterton story and three stanzas of a traditional Yorkshire funeral chant.

I have never been to St. John’s Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood red cup and the beating of the wings of the Eagle.

–The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G. K. Chesterton

I have to say, that is exceedingly evocative. I’ve got The Napoleon of Notting Hill on my shelves, but I don’t think I’ve ever read it. It sure provided an excellent epigraph …

… which I feel would be better read after the novel rather than, or perhaps in addition to, before the novel. It’s a lovely quote. Reading it before the novel sets the tone, but tells you nothing whatsoever. Maybe that is the best use of an epigraph. It seems to me, though, that reading this quote after reading the novel would provide a good finish: a sense of completion as you think, Yes, that’s perfect. Hopefully for the second time, as it would be nice to have that exact same thought as you read the last lines of the novel.

The tor.com post is specifically about epigraphs in fantasy novels, which I’m not sure I like. In a historical fantasy: yes. In a contemporary fantasy: sure. In a secondary world fantasy, using a quote from a real book as an epigraph seems very jarring to me.

Using an epigraph from a work created within the secondary world can be clever and appropriate, depending on the work on question. That’s the kind picked out in the post when discussing A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin:

We be light, we be life, we be fire!
We sing electric flame, we rumble underground wind, we dance heaven!
Come be we and be free!
We be blue electric angels

I’m not sure what I think of this precise example, but if the author creates good fictional epigraphs, I really like it. I do think it’s more suited to a story that has a historical feel to it, even if the novel is not actually based on any real historical period. Those are the sorts of novels that feel like they ought to start with quotes from important historical works, whether real or fictional.

Do you read epigraphs?

As a reader, epigraphs I may like and almost always read: Short, and poetic or evocative. Epigraphs I don’t like and probably won’t read: Long, or multiple different quotes. In the later case, I feel like, Oh, come on, let’s get to the story already! 

Here is a different post about epigraphs that I like because the author feels the same way I do about them: that they perhaps belong at the end rather than at the beginning:

[O]ne wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.

Yes, see there? You want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. Exactly!

I’ve never ended a book with an epigraph any more than I’ve begun one that way. But if I wrote the right kind of book, now I kind of want to.

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6 Comments Do you read the epigraph?

  1. SarahZ

    I really liked the epigraph in Tithe, by Holly Black: “And malt does more than Milton can/ to justify God’s ways to man.” I thought it set the tone well, without being too on the nose. As a bonus, it caused me to look up that Houseman poem (Terrence, this is stupid stuff).

  2. Rachel

    Very useful comment, SarahZ, because we have a student this semester named Terrence and I have been trying and trying to remember where I’ve heard that name before. There it is, whew, glad to have that cleared up.

  3. Megan

    I read them, generally. But I remember being annoyed at one fantasy book for including a bunch of quotes by real-world people that were at best tangentially related to the chapters they headed.

    Now, something like The Vengekeep Prophecies series, which starts off each chapter with a quote from one of the characters or someone from their world, which I think Steven Brust does as well in Jhereg, I really like. It’s a way of worldbuilding in pithy little quotes. But it has to be amusing or insightful to work. ALSO SHORT. Don’t give me a half page quote to head up your chapter.

  4. Megan

    As an example from the second Vengekeep book: “Innocence is relative, but relatives are rarely innocent.”

  5. Rachel

    I like that, Megan. Also: yes, that is the exact perfect length for an epigraph.

    Yes, I like how Steven Brust does this. It’s perfectly in keeping with the style of those books.

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