Always Read the Epigraph: A Lesson for Fantasy Readers

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Stop!

I see you there, with that novel in your hand. Turning to page 1 (or, given the vagaries of publishers, maybe page 3), are you? Starting with the prologue, or the preface, or good old Chapter 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. No, I’m not talking about the publication information (though I’m sure the Library of Congress would love to feel appreciated) and not even the acknowledgements and the dedication (though while you’re here, why not find out who the author loves?). 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.

Read the epigraph. Yes, exactly like the one I put up at the top of this article, why do you ask?

Now, not every book—not even every fantasy novel—is going to have an epigraph. For example, I just checked the romance novel I was reading this afternoon and it doesn’t have one. But when a novel does have an epigraph—when the author has decided to start their book with a little bit of something else—it’s well worth your time to read it. In fact, reading those little italicized words can tell you an awful lot about the book you’re about to experience.

I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. Instead, I’m going to talk to you now about two particular fantasy novels—Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels—that I think illustrate the value of epigraphs. Why these two? Because they demonstrate two opposite but equally effective ways in which an epigraph or two can really spice up a story. Just as a warning: because I’m going to discuss how these epigraphs connect to the stories that follow them, there may well be some spoilers to come, even though I start by just looking at the first page of each book.

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

 

If ever thou gavest hosen or shoon
Then every night and all
Sit thou down and put them on
And Christ receive thy soul

This aye night, this aye night
Every night and all
Fire and fleet and candlelight
And Christ receive they soul

If ever thou gavest meat or drink
Then every night and all
The fire shall never make thee shrink
And Christ receive thy soul

–The Lyke Wake Dirge (traditional)

(Ordinarily I’d provide a page number citation here, but neither my copy of Neverwhere nor my copy of A Madness of Angels actually numbers the page the epigraphs appear on).

The first thing to notice about the Neverwhere epigraphs is that they’re both really creepy. And that carries through to the novel itself. It’s not at the level where we should call it a horror novel, but the sense of foreboding these two epigraphs establish never really dissipates.

Instead, it gets reinforced. Richard Mayhew, the main viewpoint character, is confronted with a strange prophecy about his move to London in the prologue; the first chapter opens with an as-yet-unnamed character running for her life (and we’re told she’s been running for four days already), and the people she’s running from casually stab, kill, and then eat rats in the course of ordinary conversation. And that’s just the action through page 7 (in the 2001 Harper Torch edition, anyway)! It doesn’t even include the impenetrable darkness surrounding a bridge of night that causes one character to vanish, the great Beast that lurks in the labyrinth underneath the city of London, or the other major character who gets his throat slit and tossed in the river (though fortunately he keeps his life somewhere besides his body). All of which is to say that the sensation of creepiness and foreboding in the epigraphs is very much born out in the book itself.

But the epigraphs have more to offer than just atmosphere. Looking at their actual content also furnishes clues and context for what comes after. The G. K. Chesterton quote provides a version in miniature of exactly what the book as a whole produces on a larger scale: the terrifying othering of a normally safe space. St. John’s Wood is a perfectly ordinary part of northwest London. The Abbey Road studios are there (yes, that Abbey Road, Beatles and all); Lord’s Cricket Ground is just down the street; the tube stop bearing its name is barely in zone 2 of the Underground. And yet Chesterton makes of it a place of druidic terror, with an “innumerable night” concealing some kind of horrifyingly bloody ritual and a capital-E Eagle. He implies a great deal of motion under the pedestrian surface of London, and this is in turn precisely what Neverwhere provides.

Neverwhere is about a familiar London defamiliarized. We see it largely through Richard Mayhew’s eyes as he falls through the cracks from our London, called London Above, into a parallel and coexisting world called London Below, in which nothing means quite what he thinks it should—the bridge of night I mentioned above is none other than Knightsbridge, the rather fashionable side of Chelsea—and no one from his old life recognizes him anymore. And like Chesterton’s narrator, Richard too is threatened by a great, capital-B Beast—albeit one that appears more like a bull or buffalo than an Eagle.

The dirge of the second epigraph is less directly connected to Neverwhere’s plot, but its vaguely threatening lyrics about the soul connect very specifically to the difference between Richard and those around him, particularly the angel Islington. The song speaks of the afterlife, promising ( at least expressing the hope) that Christ will or should receive the soul of anyone who took pity on others, giving socks and shoes or meat and drink.

It’s worth noting here that Gaiman actually cut the song to slightly change its atmospheric effect. The original dirge includes very specific (implicitly hellbound) punishments for those who did not give the requisite items, whereas Gaiman’s selection leaves that fate eerily unspecified in a way that almost implies that the other option—if Christ does not receive your soul—is not torment but the void. Or perhaps it is simply, terrifyingly literally not being received, as is Islington’s fate, bound to the world and unable to return to heaven.

The poem draws our attention to Richard’s behavior in the book—he is almost always giving, often unthinkingly, starting with his umbrella in the prologue and moving on up from there—and asks us to think critically about what that behavior means. After all, while the song clearly credits those who give and condemns those who don’t, it is also a dirge, a song for the dead, and Richard’s giving often brings him perilously close to death, most notably when Lamia almost takes his life in payment for some very minimal guide duty. And the song reminds us (repeatedly, as the middle stanza is identified typographically as a refrain) that this is a warning valid both “this aye night” and “every night and all.” Richard and the rest of the novel’s characters stand precariously at the brink of death and disappearance throughout the narrative, and what will become of them is dependent very much on who gave what to whom, from an umbrella to an old lady to the key to (a) Door.

Together, the Chesterton quote and the Yorkshire dirge prepare us for Neverwhere by giving us a glimpse of the world we are about to step into and a sense of the way people there will treat each other. The expectations and the questions they raise are present throughout the book, and our reading of the book is enriched by keeping these quotations in mind. This is what good epigraphs do: in a subtle but definite sense, they help the reader understand what, exactly, they might be getting into if they keep on reading.

Neverwhere’s epigraphs are in a sense rather traditional: they are quotations from other works positioned to help the reader come to grips with this one. A Madness of Angels’s epigraphs look similar, down to the presence of two different quotes on the page, but something that sets them apart and makes them function in a different way is lurking in the text—something the reader may not be sure of until they are well into the book.

The two epigraphs of A Madness of Angels present themselves as quotes, first from a magazine article on magic and then from a spam email:

Magic is life. Where there is magic, there is life; the two cannot be separated. They shadow each other’s nature, reflect each other’s faces, centres, and moods. The echoes of a word shouted in anger, the warmth left behind by the touch of skin, the traceries of breath, these are all parts of the lingering concept we loosely define as “magic”. And in this new time, the magic is no longer of the vine and the tree; magic now focuses itself where there is most life, and that life burns neon.

R. J. Bakker, “The Changing Concept of Magic”
—Urban Magic Magazine, vol. 3, March 1994

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

Anonymous spam email, source unknown

However, reading the book—or, as one student in a class I taught did, quickly Googling these supposed sources and coming up empty—will reveal that both of these quotes are fictional, part of the imagined world of the book itself and not taken from outside sources. This means that these epigraphs function differently from those in Neverwhere. They still give us insight into the book to come, but they do so by beginning our immersion into its world before we even necessarily realize it.

Specifically, these epigraphs introduce us to two of the most important characters in the entire book: R. J. Bakker, the antagonist, and the blue electric angels, who make up a substantial portion of the protagonist Matthew Swift. Both of these characters are hinted at in the beginning of the book but don’t make a clear first appearance for a little while: except here they are, right at the front of the book. Placing them there makes us sit up and pay attention when they are mentioned, and sets up the expectation (later fulfilled to extremes) that they will both be important later on.

Beyond that, the epigraphs also introduce us to how these two characters think. We are able to recognize Bakker’s analytical mind and obsession with the underlying nature of magic in the first selection, as well as his desire to regularize and control its practice. We see this in the content of the quote, but also in the context. Bakker is writing for a magazine that studies magic. His selection is given a citation in an academic style (no one else writes out “vol. 3”). Even the 1994 date tells us something, since the book implies a contemporary setting and was written in 2009. Taking that date at face value would make this essay fifteen years old, and would mean that Bakker has been thinking about neon, electric magic for a very long time—as we later find out that indeed, he has.

We get a similar insight into the blue electric angels from the spam email. They are disjointed, excitable beings who long for others to join them. They make what seems to be indiscriminate offers—just like a spam email—although we do learn later that there is one person to whom they do not offer themselves: Bakker. Specifically, to everyone else they make this specific offer: “come be we and be free.” Matthew Swift accepted that offer; as we will learn, Bakker hoped to make a mockery of it by taking the angels’ life force without becoming one with them.

Putting these two epigraphs side by side brings to our attention (though we may not realize it at first) that one of the central struggles of the entire book is between Bakker’s desire to define and control magic and the angels’ desire to make magic happen freely, wildly, and chaotically. This is not explicit in the epigraphs, but we can see it in their common use of “life.” The angels sing “we be life,” but also “we be free”; Bakker identifies life as magic, but he does not wish to let that magic be free.

Griffin’s epigraphs may be part of her fictional world, rather than setting it up for the reader through others’ words as Gaiman’s epigraphs do, but they do the same work. They let us know what we are getting into: what is this world we are about to enter, and how are we to understand and navigate it? I encourage you to think about other fantasy novels you may have read—or yet may read!—and the epigraphs with which they begin and let me know about them in the comments. What mood do these epigraphs establish? What do they lead you to expect from the book? If they are real quotations, how might they apply? If they are invented, what do they connect to in the later portions of the book?

Whatever you think they do, I hope I’ve convinced you not to just flip past them, because the epigraphs deserve to be read.

Philip Styrt is an academic who writes and teaches about early British literature, writing, and speculative fiction. He also writes (and occasionally writes about) sonnets at his blog. He is not on Twitter, because he fears it.

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