Tag: stories

Borrowed Words

Let’s talk about epigraphs.

As a writer, I put way too much thought into my epigraphs, although I know that many readers skim straight past them. In fact, I often skim straight past them myself when reading: unless they’re from something I’ve read or know well, in most cases I will immediately forget what they were. (On very rare occasions, however, I’ll go look up the text they’re from.)

That said, if they are from something I know well… well, let’s just say I have high standards for epigraphs, and can get annoyed if other authors aren’t following my secret set of personal rules that at some point my brain decided ought to be universal. 😅

In this post, I figured I’d outline what my secret rules — my Philosophy of Epigraphs, as it were — actually are, and then talk a bit more about the epigraphs for each book in The Butterfly Assassin trilogy. These are, I must acknowledge, my own rules for myself, and despite my annoyance when books fail to meet my arbitrary standards, they’re not actually universal. But maybe they’ll be useful for people trying to figure out why an epigraph is or is not hitting the spot for them.

In my opinion, an epigraph needs to work on three levels. The first level is the surface level: it needs to set the tone of the book, give a sense of its vibes, to the reader, even if they’re completely unfamiliar with the text the epigraph is from and the context of the chosen lines. This is sometimes as far as an epigraph goes, but to be really effective, I think it needs also to work for the reader who is familiar with that text, giving them a more detailed sense of what’s about to follow. This is where many epigraphs fall down, because they’re chosen for the vibes of that particular line, but if you’re familiar with the context, it implies something somewhat different and might mislead you about what kind of story you’re about to read.

Finally, I think an epigraph is an intertextual statement: the author is positioning their book in relation to another work, making a statement about genre, tone, history, vibes… something. Depending on the nature of the work the epigraph is taken from, this can be a simple statement about aesthetics and energies or a complex one about literary history, but it’s always situating the story within a larger cultural network of language and story. Sometimes, what we’re learning from this is what the author’s main inspirations and influences were, whether classic literature or a modern pop song; at other times, we’re learning what out-of-context quotes they’ve seen included in a dozen moodboards on Tumblr. Both are intertextual statements, though some can be more effective than others…

So, we’ve got our surface level vibes, our contextual knowledge, and our intertextual statement. Now let’s look at the epigraph from The Butterfly Assassin, and explore those layers.

(Warning: there’ll be some spoilers here.)

All of the epigraphs in this trilogy are taken from works by Anne Carson, because frankly, she’s great, and because I love a theme. This first is a quote from Agamemnon by Aeschylus:

“For there lives in this house
a certain kind of anger,
a dread devising everrecurring everremembering anger
that longs to exact vengeance for a child.”

What does this epigraph tell us?

On a surface level: this is a story about anger, revenge, and harm done to a child. The reference to this house implies said anger and harm is occurring within a family, although that’s not unambiguous. We know immediately that this is not a happy story, and that we’re dealing with somebody who has been wronged.

With contextual knowledge: this quote is from a Greek tragedy about Agamemnon. Agamemnon is a man who sacrificed his own daughter to achieve his military aims (winds to sail to Troy); eventually, he is killed for this. This is not the start of a cycle of violence, but the continuation of one that plagues the line of Atreus, and which will continue into the next generation: Clytemnestra will kill Agamemnon, Orestes will kill Clytemnestra, the Furies will pursue Orestes. This book is therefore a tragedy about what happens when a man (Ian Ryans) values his military aims (profit from arms dealing) over the life of his daughter (Isabel); he will eventually face retribution and die for his actions, but the cycle of violence will not be broken by this act. It’s a story about violence within a family, and the suffering inflicted on the next generation by the actions of their parents.

Intertextually: this is a tragedy, and therefore it’s probably not going to end with everybody skipping away into the sunset. This is just one story of many (Aeschylus is not the only person to have written about Agamemnon; Anne Carson is not the only person to have translated his work; Isabel is a symptom of a broken city and not its only failure). And Agamemnon is only the first of the three plays that make up the Oresteia: this is act one of a trilogy, and it will get worse from here.

It’s like an onion. It’s got layers.

But what about The Hummingbird Killer?

Once again, we’re back with Anne Carson — this time, her essay ‘Tragedy: A Curious Art Form’, which opens another of her collections of translations, Grief Lessons.

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

On a surface level: this is another tragedy, and it’s about anger and grief. Those who remember the first book will know why grief is relevant; they’ll understand what Isabel is angry about; they’ll know to expect destruction.

With contextual knowledge: this is the first line of an essay that then goes on to talk about headhunting and decapitating your enemies, about moments of extreme violence, and about the catharsis of tragedy as a way of safely experiencing the depths of human darkness without having to go there yourself. We might then know to expect that this book’s body count will be high, that we’ll see moments of extreme violence, and that we’ll be going deep down into the human capacity to do awful things in moments of grief, rage, or sheer bloody survival, prompting us to reflect on our own darkness.

Intertextually: this is an essay about tragedy that warns us of the violence to come. This book is, like the first book, a tragedy, but it’s self-aware — we’ve been here before, and we know what to expect. We are, after all, still grieving from the last time around the cycle. The essay is bound in the same book as four plays by Euripides, each of them dealing with lives in crisis and violent destructions of the self; the epigraph stands outside of the tragedy, and heralds it, and says, this anger is born of grief.

And finally, Moth to a Flame.

This epigraph was the hardest to choose. I knew I wanted to use another Anne Carson quote, to complete the set of three, but I wasn’t sure what to chose. It might have been nice to use a poem, or another essay; something that moved us further away from tragedy. But in the end, I realised we needed to complete the cycle we were in. So we’re back with the translations again, this time from Euripides’ Herakles:

“Theseus: Stop. Give me your hand. I am your friend.
Herakles: I fear to stain your clothes with blood.
Theseus: Stain them, I don’t care.”

On a surface level: we know this will be about blood-drenched friendship. About reaching out a hand to somebody who has done something awful despite the risk of being stained by it.

With contextual knowledge: Herakles begins with Herakles in the underworld; he hasn’t yet come back from his journey there. He is dead, his people think, until he shows up again. Maybe this is a story about returning. Maybe it’s about coming up from underground. It’s certainly not a story about finding peace when everything’s over — far from it. Herakles kills his own family, so once again this is a story about what happens when children die, when children are hurt. It’s a story about consequences. But it’s also about a friend who reaches out to help shoulder the burden of those consequences.

Herakles himself enters gloriously upright but is soon reduced to a huddled and broken form. His task in the last third of the play is to rise from this prostration, which he does with the help of Theseus. Euripides makes clear that Herakles exits at the end leaning on his friend. Herakles’ reputation in myth and legend otherwise had been that of lonehand hero. Here begins a new Heraklean posture.” (Anne Carson, Grief Lessons, p.16)

We are in the last third of this trilogy now. Our huddled and broken heroine is faced with the challenge of rising from this position of defeat and loss; she has been alone for a very long time; she will not be alone this time.

Intertextually: Herakles, Anne Carson writes, is a tragedy about outliving your own myth. Herakles has been to hell — what more is left for him to do? He can’t be a tragic hero unless he can die, and so he brings the genre down around him.

If you stay you will see Herakles pull the whole house of this play down around himself, tragic conventions and all. Then from inside his berserker furor he has to build something absolutely new. New self, new name for the father, new definition of God. The old ones have stopped. It is as if the world broke off. Why did it break off? Because the myth ended.” (Anne Carson, Grief Lessons, p. 14)

We were, until this point, occupying a very specific narrative world: the city of Espera, with its closed gates and high walls. We had our myths — the inescapable power of the guilds, the Moth, the complete separation from the outside world. And now we are outside of that world, and the story is no longer easily labelled as speculative fiction, because it’s suddenly much closer to home. Isabel is outside of her own myths, and she’ll have to learn how to rebuild herself. This is a tragedy-after-tragedy, aware of the genre conventions and walking away from them. This is changing the now-familiar structure and story, and doing something different. This is breaking the cycle of the first two books, and knowing that the world of that myth can’t survive the breaking.

But perhaps the heart of this epigraph lies in its surface meaning: I am your friend. Despite the blood and despite the violence. Give me your hand. We have seen the taking of hands repeatedly in this trilogy. We’ve seen Emma’s outstretched hand, and we’ve seen Ronan’s, too, and the bloody bargains that come with it. Whose hand will Isabel be taking this time? Who will be pulling her back to her feet?

We return to the context: Herakles, down in Hades, down in his own darkness, brought Theseus out with him when he returned. And it’s Theseus who remains with him when the darkness follows.

“Herakles: You pity me although I killed my children?
Theseus: I weep for your whole changed life.”

What does it mean to be a friend to a monster? To trust in your love to bring them back from the brink of their monstrosity? What does it mean to help a friend once, and be changed by it, and for them to keep faith with you afterwards?

Perhaps, like Herakles, it’s to destroy your own myth and your own tragic genre and make something new out of the pieces.

“Herakles: So I, a man utterly wrecked and utterly shamed,
shall follow Theseus
like a little boat being towed along.
Whoever values wealth or strength
more than friends
is mad.”

These are my epigraphs, then, and this is a glimpse at some of the thought processes that went into choosing them and the effect I was trying to achieve by selecting these specific passages. Perhaps this was a classic case of me overthinking everything; I strongly doubt any readers have spent nearly as long thinking about them as I did! But I hope that even their simplest and most surface-level interpretations added something to the reading experience, even if it was only a clue that these were probably going to be sad (and violent) books.

I’m curious: if you’re a writer, do you use epigraphs? How do you choose the quotes that you use, and what are your Secret Rules and criteria for choosing them? If you’re a reader, how much attention do you pay to epigraphs? Can you think of any that really stood out to you, either for being super effective, or for being all wrong for the book?

Drop your thoughts in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

The Butterfly Assassin and The Hummingbird Killer are available now; Moth to a Flame will be published on 23rd May 2024, and is available to pre-order.