We all actually know what these are. We just forget what they’re called, because really, how often does this come up in conversation? So while an epigraph can be the inscription on a monument, for writing purposes, an epigraph is a quote from another author that one finds at the beginning of a chapter, story section or work.
You find them at the beginning of Frank Herbert chapters, at the beginning of T.S. Eliot poems, at the start of Stephen King novels. Depending on the author, they can serve different purposes. They can set tone. They can anticipate or illuminate theme. They can refer to another work in a way to link or compare the two. Sometimes it’s even a mini-foreword from the author. Many times we skip over them, sort of blurp through them as one might an unpronounceable name. We want to get to the story, right? Why should we read them?
It’s not mandatory, of course. More often than not, we’ll understand the story just fine without the epigraph. Why, then? The author is trying to share something with us, a hint, an illumination, an added depth, a humorous counterpoint.
One of my favorite epigraphs is from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/ To mould me Man, did I solicit thee/ From darkness to promote me?”
The quote from Paradise Lost sets the tone and at the same time subverts the narrative since the POV character is the creator in the story. It gives you a window into the author’s intent.
In science fiction and fantasy, we have the wonderful addition of fictional epithets – poems and passages from fictional people in the author’s world. (So the author wrote the passages in the guise of a ficitonal novelist or historian and gives them back to us to illumaite what the author wrote – gets a bit meta, doesn’t it?) But we’re all familiar with it and accept it. The One Ring poem from Lord of the Rings. The passages from fictional histories and speeches and memoirs in Dune. I freaking love these when they’re well done because it gives us greater omsoght into the authors world at large, gives us hints at things to come and explanations of things that were without doing an “As you know, Bob…” passage.
Anyway. Epigraphs. That’s what they’re called. Read them, savor them. ‘Cause epigraphs are cool.