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"Example is the best precept."
Aesop (620-564 BC)
"I am reminded of how Joe Queenan once suggested that if mediocre books were going to preface with quotes from great literature, how great literature could return the favour by prefacing themselves with quotes from Tom Clancy explaining the technical specifications of a military helicopter."
MightyGodKing on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The quotation of a line, excerpt or poetry done at the beginning or (more rarely) at the ending of a work, segment or chapter. Frequent in Literature, shows up occasionally otherwise.

In Speculative Fiction, it is often used to do an Encyclopedia Exposita. Can also be used for an As the Good Book Says... effect. See also Pretentious Latin Motto.

Examples of Epigraph include:


Anime


Comic Books

  • Each chapter of Watchmen ends with one of these, which is alluded to in the title of the chapter.
  • In the collected editions of The Sandman, each story arc is preceded with two quotes. The first one reads as something deep and profound; the second a pithy, less serious comment on the same topic -- from the story itself.
  • The three issues of Neil Gaiman's Black Orchid had quotes from Omar Khayyam, Lou Reed, and E. E. Cummings on the back covers.


Fan Fiction


Film

  • The Hagakure is quoted throughout the gangster flick Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai starring Forrest Whitaker as a gangster hitman, using title cards.
  • Kill Bill quotes "Revenge is a dish best served cold" which is (falsely) attributed as being an old Klingon proverb.
    • Which is parodied in AMV Hell 3, which starts with "At least I have chicken"...still credited as an old Klingon proverb.
  • The ending of Tears of the Sun, a movie centering around Navy SEALs helping a group of refugees escape genocide-ridden Nigeria, has a quote attributed to (but probably not written by) Edmund Burke before the ending credits start: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
  • The beginning of Conan the Barbarian has Nietzsche's quote "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
  • To bring context to the brutality that is about to be shown, The Passion of the Christ brings us this abbreviated quote from Isaiah 53: 5 "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed"
  • The opening credits sequence of The Breakfast Club includes a four-line quotation of the song "Changes" by David Bowie.
  • The recent film version of True Grit begins with Proverbs 28:1, "The wicked flee when none pursueth."
  • The Tree of Life opens with a quotation from the The Book of Job:"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"


Literature

 "The surface on which you work (preferably marble), the tools, the ingredients and your fingers should be chilled throughout the operation..."

(Recipe for Puff Pastry in I.S. Rombauer and M.R. Becker, The Joy of Cooking.)

    • Consder this, one of the two epigraphs from Cat's Eye, which makes the way the story is constructed make far more sense:

  "Why do we remember the past, and not the future?" (Stephen Hawking, "A Brief History of Time")

  • Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint - and most of her novels - has one
  • T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land has one. Somewhat notable in that it's a poem and that the epigraph is an important clue to what is going on.
    • His "The Hollow Men", a shorter poem, not only has an epigraph, but the section in his Selected Poems containing only "The Hollow Men" has one as well. If you look up "The Hollow Men" on the web you'll probably find the two given one after the other; they're both relevant to the poem's meaning.
  • Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows quotes from Aeschylus's Libation Bearers and Penn's Fruits of Solitude.
  • Each book of the Twilight series begins with a different quote. Twilight has the Bible, New Moon has Romeo and Juliet, and Eclipse has the Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice."
  • The chapters in Annie Dillard's The Writing Life each begin with an epigraph.
  • The chapters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants begin with epigraphs.
  • City of Bones, the first book of Mortal Instruments, has quotes from Julius Ceasar and Paradise Lost.
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty and it's sequels each begin with excerpts from poems, namely "The Lady of Shalott" in the first book, Paradise Lost and "A Dream Within a Dream" in the second and "The Rose of Battle" in the third.
  • Lamb the Gospel According To Biff begins each segment with a related quote about God or Jesus.
  • Most chapters of American Gods start with one, often foreshadowing later events in the chapters. They range from Robert Frost to e. e. cummings, Sondheim to Tom Waits.
  • Perhaps in deference to the opening quote, Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao takes its epigraph from Fantastic Four #49, penned by Stan Lee.
  • Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials makes use of this trope in two of its installments: The Golden Compass/Northern Lights begins with a quote from Paradise Lost, and The Amber Spyglass, along with giving almost every chapter a short quote, uses Walt Whitman's America, a Prophecy and two other poems to set a very poignant mood. Less seriously, Spring-Heeled Jack starts off every chapter with quotes, including chestnuts such as "It was a dark and stormy night" and "Meanwhile, back at the ranch...."
  • The Secret Life of Bees begins each chapter with some small, pithy note on bees and their life.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby opens with a wonderful epigraph (which almost provided the title), by "Thomas Parke D'Invilliers" - actually a fictional character in Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise.
  • Most Dorothy L. Sayers novels begin each chapter with a quotation, often from poetry.
  • Ann Radcliffe's novel The Italian quotes several works of Shakespeare, lines from Milton's Paradise Lost and other writing from before her time, making this Older Than Radio.
  • Don Quixote begins with a note from the author, explaining that he despaired of finding a suitable epigraph for the book, until his friend suggested making shit up.
  • A novel called Black Horizon took its title from the epigraph, an anonymous eighteenth-century poem. In the author's book on how to write, he admitted he thought of the title first, then made up the poem.
  • Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels with Literary Allusion Titles often began with an epigraph containing the relevant portion of the poem invoked by the title.
  • Cornelia Funke begins each chapter of all three of her Inkheart novels with quotes from numerous other works of literature that hint at or relate to the plot of the chapter, including everything from The Princess Bride to Salman Rushdie.
  • Mary Janice Davidson opens every one of her books with three to four epigrahs. Of these, two are serious and the last one is outright silly. (In the Betsy the Vampire Queen books, the last one is usually Betsy herself.
  • Carl Sagan's novel Contact has so many quotes at the beginning of the parts and chapters that it looks like an anthology of quotations.
  • Studs Terkel's collection of interviews, Working, begins with four quotations on the subject of working, from the Bible to a Nixon speech and an ad.
  • Parodied in Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures series, which includes gag quotes attributed to famous real or fictional characters. Most are invented ("In times of crisis, it is of utmost importance not to lose one's head. -- M. Antoinette), but occasionally a legitimate quote is used to preface a chapter whose contents make it funny in context.
    • Russian Alternate History novel writer Vladimir Sverzhin does exactly the same thing (such as musings on running being good for your health attributed to the original Marathon Runner).
  • The Master and Margarita begins with a highly appropriate quote from Goethe's Faust:

 "I am part of that force which wills forever evil and works forever good."

  • Foucault's Pendulum features plenty of somewhat obscure and bizarre epigraphs, some of them in other languages. All or most of them still manage to be relevant, though. The majority is taken from a wide variety of occult literature, but there are also things like a musing on the physics of a hanged man.
  • All of Jasper Fforde's books (Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series) have an excerpt from a fictional article or book at the start of every chapter.
  • Fictional examples are used in The War Against the Chtorr, ranging from newspaper articles and quotes by Solomon Short (a newspaper columnist) in the first two books, limericks in the third book, and quotes from The Red Book in the fourth.
  • Each chapter of The Club Dumas begins with a different quote, several of which come from Alexandre Dumas's works. Interestingly, the well-read will see chapter five's quote and will logically come to an early conclusion about who is the Big Bad. This is a Red Herring that the supposed Big Bad will later call the reader out on.
  • Luke Skywalker And The Shadows Of Mindor starts off with a Luke quote which actually turns out to be from that very book. (It got quite meta at the end.)
  • Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson begins every chapter with two quotes from "The Calendar of Pudd'nhead Wilson."
  • J. Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans
  • Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart famously takes its title from William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming;" the stanza containing the "things fall apart" line is quoted as the epigraph.
  • The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar, being a historical novel about a famous Russian poet and polyglot, has short relevant lines from poems or songs in different languages at the beginning of every chapter but the last (by which point he dies).
  • Ciaphas Cain chapters have fictional epigraphs that are written in-universe by the author.
  • Two of Ken Kesey's novels are prefaced with quotes that each book's title came from. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest used the children's rhyme "Wire, briar, limber-lock/Three geese in a flock/One flew east, one flew west/One flew over the cuckoo's nest"; it's also used later in one of Bromden's flashbacks. (Some scholars later speculated that the geese are supposed to represent Ratched, Mc Murphy, and Bromden.) Sometimes a Great Notion quotes the folk song "Goodnight, Irene": "Sometimes I live in the country/Sometimes I live in town/Sometimes I have a great notion/To jump in the river and drown".
  • Gerald Durrell does this at the beginning of every chapter in some of his books.
  • In the war novels by Sven Hassel, every chapter begins with a short section of prose, often unrelated to the novel but showing events in the wider war.
  • All but the first two Inspector Morse novels by Colin Dexter use epigraphs at the top of every chapter. As Dexter's chapters tend to be fairly short, that's a LOT of epigraphs. Not that the research fazed Dexter one bit - if he couldn't find a suitable quote, he simply made one up and credited a non-existent source. This happened a lot.
  • Both used and parodied in several of Steven Brust's novels, as when each chapter of Teckla is presaged by an excerpt from the protagonist's laundry list.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin is fond of this trope. Quite a few of her books have epigraphs:
    • A Wizard of Earthsea and The Other Wind both begin with in-universe epigraphs, "The Creation of Ea" and "The Song of the Woman of Kemay" respectively.
    • The Telling begins with a line from The Mahabharata.
    • The Lathe of Heaven uses epigraphs, many from Taoist thinkers, at the beginning of each chapter.
  • "Behind every great man, there is a crime." -Balzac
  • Frank Herbert's Dune books begin every single chapter with an epigraph, always from an in-universe source.
  • Brandon Sanderson likes doing this with his fantasy works - at the beginning of each chapter is a quotation form an in-universe source. In The Final Empire, the epigraphs are from the diary of Alendi, the supposed Hero of Ages, whose packman Rashek killed him and became the Lord Ruler. In The Well of Ascension, the epigraphs were written by Kwaan, the man who first announced Alendi as the Hero of Ages, and gives some hints into the prophecies behind the Hero of Ages. In the third and final book, the epigraphs are written by the Hero of Ages, Sazed, after he takes in both Ruin and Preservation and fixes the world, detailing what he did and how he did it as Harmony.
    • It gets even more complicated in The Way of Kings, the first book of the Stormlight Archive, because the epigraphs are from different sources. In Part 1, the epigraphs are cryptic quotes from people just before their death, which are being collected by Taravangian. They are supposedly the first glimpses of the world beyond, having started seven years before the story starts, roughly when Gavilar first investigated the Shattered Plains, and at least one is a quote from the Lost Herald. In Part 2, the epigraphs are from a letter, probably (but not certainly) written by Hoid and addressed to an unknown person, almost certainly a Shardbearer, in which the writer begs whoever the recipient is to end his neutrality and help him in the coming war against Odium]]. This letter gives hints as to the workings of the Cosmere at large, talking about the Shards on Sel (and how Odium killed them) as well as talking of Odium's ally Bavadin and a mysterious group called 'The Seventeenth Shard. The epigraphs in Part 3 are notes from Jasnah's research on the Voidbringers. Part 4 returns to the quotes from the dying, and Part 5 doesn't have any epigraphs, but considering the massive amount of reveals in those chapters, it doesn't need any.
  • Coraline begins with a paraphrase of a quote from G. K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
  • A Darkling Plain, the last book in the Mortal Engines quartet, has the last stanza of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach as its epigraph.
  • Rudyard Kipling frequently supplemented an epigraph to both poetry and prose, up to a short poem before a novel. Some of these either add a twist or are plainly ironic when compared to the text.
  • The Novelisation of the decidedly camp and blockbuster The Avengers film begins each chapter with a more-or-less 'relevant' quote from The Tempest. That particular play might have been chosen because the villain of The Avengers is a man who can control the weather.
  • Rudyard Kipling's "The Three Decker" opens with a quote claiming the three-volume novel is extinct.


Music

  • Several of Doctor Steel's songs have epigraphs, some sampled from old Public Service Announcements such as "Duck and Cover", others deliberately done as a parody of such announcements.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica has quotations preceding each of its five movements. These are sometimes recited. (Which is wrong, because the composer explicitly instructed that they should be printed in the programme to be read silently by the listeners, and because recitation destroys the attacca transition into the fourth movement.)


Web Originals


Live Action TV

  • The Wire has an epigraph to each episode, always a quote from later in that episode, usually with an ironic subtext in hindsight.
  • Criminal Minds usually begins and ends with an epigraph read by whichever character the episode focuses on.
  • Each Andromeda episode begins with a (fictional) quote.
  • The first episode of Darkplace cuts to a King Lear quote about 5 minutes in. In the middle of a scene. For no reason.
  • Iron Chef always begins with a quote from French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."


Manga

  • Bleach starts each tankubon (bound volume) with a small illustration of a character and a short poem that seems to be written in the voice of that character. And Kubo Tite's poetry is surprisingly good.
  • Monster is epigraphed by a passage from Revelation which coincides with the plot.


Theatre

  • The published script of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millenium Approaches begins with this one:

In a murderous time

the heart breaks and breaks

and lives by breaking.
—Stanley Kunitz, "The Testing Tree"
    • And part two, Perestroika, begins with this one:
Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "On Art"


All The Tropes


Video Games

  • Common in Interactive Fiction.
  • Tales of Phantasia: "If there is evil in this world, it lurks in the hearts of men."
    • Tales of Hearts opens with the in-universe "Sleeping Beauty" nursery rhyme.
  • Too Human used the Nietzsche quote "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one" in its advertising material. Not sure if it's used in the game itself.
  • In Famous has these on loading screens that come up, usually when the day changes.
  • At several points in Final Fantasy XII, there will be a quote from a book written by the character Ondore, who also functions as a narrator upon the larger plot of the game. This also extends to its setting prequel, Final Fantasy Tactics, which feature quotes from a Saint Ajora Glabados, the inspiration for the game's Corrupt Church.
  • A variation of sorts exists in some Call of Duty games: upon most player deaths, the game usually displays a quote about warfare.
  • Deus Ex has one for each ending. For example becoming a Deus Est Machina results in the Voltaire quote "If There Were No God, It Would Be Necessary To Invent Him.".
  • Occurs several times in The Elder Scrolls": The first (The best techniques are passed on by the survivors) and the third (Each event is preceded by prophesy; but without the Hero there is no event).
  • Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri" uses Genesis 3:24 over the opening movie to great effect
Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden. He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
—Conclave Bible, Datalinks
    • There's a video here.
      • Then there is Civilization IV in which every technology has a quote with it from The Bible to Oscar Wilde to Sputnik. Narrated (mostly) by the man.
      • Alpha Centauri also has quotes for each tech and facility. Most of them are fictional quotes from the faction leaders, while there are literary or other references sprinkled in.
  • Before the title screen, Eternal Darkness has the first stanza from "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe.
  • Eversion begins with a quote from H.P. Lovecraft referring to the character's eponymous power.
  • Uncharted opens with a quote from Sir Francis Drake, and the second game continues the tradition with a quote from Marco Polo.
  • The Total War series tends to feature epigraphs in its loading screens.
  • Every time you boot up an X Universe game, you're treated to a quote from somebody like Arthur C. Clarke or Albert Einstein.
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