A Note on Epigraphs

Joshua Derrick
5 min readMar 15, 2021

Epigraphs help insert books into a larger literary conversation

The Epigraph for the Lions of Al-Rasan

I’ve only personally seen epigraphs in books that are attempting to be literary. Maybe that’s literary snobbery, after all some books that claim to be “literary” are little more than the author preaching through flimsily constructed mouthpieces (I’m looking at you Atlas Shrugged). However, despite their various flaws I think literary books do all attempt to engage with a larger set of ideas. Which is, to quote GRRM out of context “is their great glory and their great tragedy.” All literary books, without strong enough characters or plot, run the risk of turning out like Atlas Shrugged.

Epigraphs are a way to begin this discourse by citing and suggesting an expansion or a response to the ideas put forth in previous work. Citing your sources, as you will. Epigraphs suggest that the author has done their due diligence and read widely, and usually the book is better for it (guess which book does not have an epigraph :) ). Oftentimes however, the epigraph kind of gives away the chase: it can make the point of the book VERY apparent, although perhaps I am speaking with reread bias. Let’s take a look at a couple examples.

The celestial spheres endlessly resound.

But an instant is invincible in memory.

It comes back in the middle of the night. Who are those holding torches

So that what is long past occurs in full light

-Czesław Miłosz

This is an epigraph from Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest book A Brightness Long Ago. The text of the epigraph itself is from a Czesław Miłosz poem called “The Master”. The poem is about an old musician/composer remembering some sinful event from his past, and remarking on how clear it seems and how he is glad he remembers in it. In A Brightness Long Ago, the main character Danino is also stuck in the mists of the past. He is old, serving on the council in Seressa (analog of Venice) as an important noble, but it is this event from his youth, the meeting of two mercenary leaders who engage in a struggle that ends up being pointless, is the thing he remembers. This epigraphs tells us that it is this act of memory that we should be focusing on: the how he remembers, and the why, not the what.




Joshua Derrick

Every honest man puts his name to what he writes. Language learning, literature and biology. Blog transitioning to substack: https://deusexvita.substack.com/