A random thought just came to me in the car a short time ago. I think everyone in the world knows the expression “Famous last words,” and that got me thinking, what about famous first words? Or, in simpler terms, are opening lines of great literary works just as memorable as the words the story ends with? I can think of a few examples of first words that I’ve read that are still with me.
“The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.” (Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel)
“The primroses were over.” (Watership Down, Richard Adams)
“The age of a thing is in the feel of it.” (The Clockwork Dynasty, Daniel H. Wilson)
I ended up double-checking the Wilson quote since I read that book most recently, but I wrote these all from memory without really needing to look back at where each came from. I could sit here all night trying to quote first passages, but that’s boring, even for me.
What I’m wondering about is if a work of literature becomes famous, or even a classic, what exactly sticks in the reader’s mind, and why? It is difficult to quote something verbatim unless you’ve read it more than once, or it’s a simple quote. That’s part of the reason I think I remembered those quotes without reading from the text and then copying it down – they’re relatively simple, and I’ve had to reference these books before and have read some of them more than once.
What exactly makes those first words so significant? Do they always have to build up to something else, set the scene, or can they have a different type of – for lack of a better word – magic to them? Sure, they are there to start building the story, but can there be more? Can they communicate more?
Let’s look at Adams’ quote to analyze this idea. “The primroses were over.” When I read that line for the first time, I honestly immediately thought of a beautiful green field full of flowers and that was it. If we analyze it a little deeper, though – they were over – I’ve read that that is actually trying to communicate the sense of dread one of the main characters feels shortly after the story begins. And, looking at it in that light, those first words can be multilayered. Of course, everyone’s reading experience will be different – not everyone is the same so they don’t react the same way – but the phrase in the context of the book has a much more significant role than it would seem.
To me, those first words set the stage for the opening of a story, which is why I don’t believe they are just words. They are an opening taste of what the reader will experience in reading the story. They may try to set a mood, convey a message, or introduce a character. They are the doorway to the world of the story being read, and I think that’s why I’ve grown to appreciate them as much as I have.
Anyway, this is just food for thought on a late Saturday night. Just something to think about.