Great First Lines

Anyone who writes knows how hard we work on the first line. It’s not that we are trying to live up to all the great first lines. It doesn’t matter how many best of times-worst of times stories we write, we can never conquer Dickens in this. And how do you beat Jane Austen?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

There it is: brilliance. Yet it is universally acknowledged that it isn’t true! It certainly isn’t what Jane Austen believed–who really believed that anyway? Darcy and Bingley weren’t looking for a little lady, were they? And yet, they were “in want” of a wife, both of these men. And the reader is left to wonder if they find themselves wives because of good fortune, or despite it. The double play on the words “fortune” and “want” is so very insightful. Subsequent writers are left only to pay homage to the great first lines, or to parody. This is the best I can do:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the man in possession of a good wife must be in want of a fortune.

That’s not bad actually. And certainly a more acknowledged truth than Austen’s prophetic line. Stereotypes now plunder my imagination.

But, I digress. Tolkien launches the magnanimous Lord of the Rings trilogy with the word “eleventyfirst” hidden in a mundane first line. And there’s Mark Twain, George Orwell, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf.

Harper CollinsThere is also C.S. Lewis. One of his first lines is, I think, world class:

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

After that great beginning, some might wonder whether The Magician’s Nephew–the prequel to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and written second last in the series–is a bit of a misstep. Lewis writes:

This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child.

At first it looks shortsighted. After all, it happened before my grandfather was even born! But I think it shows a couple of things. First, Lewis didn’t see himself writing a “classic”–a book to add to the canon of great literature, or even of great children’s book. We have done that to him; he didn’t presume it.

Second, we see that “voice” of the storyteller, the Narnian conversation with the reader, with the child. J.K. Rowling begins Harry Potter this way, though that voice is lost I think. Lemony Snicket greases his literary wagon wheels based on “the voice.” I’ve also tried to do it. Neil Gaiman names this device in Narnia as an important part of his own artistic journey:

“It was the first time I ever realized that somebody was really writing this stuff. He’d do things like parenthetical asides, put these things in brackets…. I wonder if I could be an author one day”  (see the video here or below).

Most of the Narnia chronicles begin as fairy tales should, in a “Once Upon a Time” kind of way. Intriguingly, it is the other Eustace book (like Dawn Treader) that deviates from the trend:

“It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym” (The Silver Chair).

out of the silent planet by c.s. lewisBefore the fairy tales, Lewis wrote his first science fiction book, Out of the Silent Planet, in the tradition of H.G. Wells. His first line to the Ransom trilogy, however, sounds more evocative of John Bunyan:

“The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road.”

Exchange “Pedestrian” for “Pilgrim” and you’ll see what I mean. Another science fiction short story is much closer to Wells:

“The Monk, as they called him, settled himself on the camp-chair beside his bunk and stared through the window at the harsh sand and black-blue sky of Mars (“Ministering Angels”).”

One of Wells’ most famous stories was The Time Machine. Not one to avoid turning Wells’ upside down, Lewis begins an unfinished Ransom novel negating the very idea of The Time Machine:

‘Of course,’ said Orfieu, ‘the sort of time-travelling you read about in books – time-travelling in the body – is absolutely impossible (“The Dark Tower,” circa 1938).

Perelandra by CS LewisIt’s a pity we don’t get to see where that story goes.

I’m ambivalent about Perelandra, the Ransom novel that follows Out of the Silent Planet, and one of his best books:

“As I left the railway station at Worchester and set out on the  three-mile walk to Ransom’s cottage, I reflected that no one on that platform could possibly guess the truth about the man I was going to visit.”

I like the sense of mystery, but I don’t think it’s the best opening he’s accomplished. The final Ransom book, That Hideous Strength, has a first paragraph that is so incredibly offensive to the reader of modern sensibilities that the first line is worth including here:

“Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,” said Jane Studdock to herself, “for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.”

That Hideous Strength by CS LewisJane Studdock is reflecting here back to the last time she was in church, at her wedding some months before. The quote is from the Book of Common Prayer–from the 17th century, that is. What makes the line great is that the book really is about the clash of that world with this, of the old age with a certain kind of age to come. There is some irony in the words that come immediately before, in the chapter title:

I. Sale of College Property

It seems there is humour hidden in many of Lewis’ first sentences.

Not always, perhaps. C.S. Lewis’ only real novel, Till We Have Faces, captures the voice of the protagonist in the first few words:

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.

Like Pride and Prejudice, though, the intelligent reader of this retold myth will see through this first line. There are at least two lies hidden within it (though these lies are not universally acknowledged).

Signature Edition, HarperOneStill, even in Lewis’ most intellectual books, his so-called apologetics books, it is hard to know how serious Lewis is really being as he launches in. Here is how he begins Miracles:

In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost.

What follows is 200 pages of analytical philosophy.

Perhaps Lewis does this accidentally well. His personal outworking of doubt and mourning in A Grief Observed was, perhaps, never meant for human consumption. As it appears, though, it is still very good:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

The Problem of Pain weeping CS LewisI’ll end with what some might call a cheat. If we count that which comes after a colon as part of the same sentence, we can see how Lewis’ The Problem of Pain (1940) contains a shocking, intriguing, and grammatically offensive opening line:

Not many years ago when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me, ‘Why do you not believe in God?’ my reply would have run something like this: ‘Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if every one of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a by-product to the power that made the universe. As it is, however, the scientists think it likely that very few of the suns of space—perhaps none of them except our own—have any planets; and in our own system it is improbable that any planet except the Earth sustains life. And Earth herself existed without life for millions of years and may exist for millions more when life has left her. And what is it like while it lasts? It is so arranged that all the forms of it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms this process entails only death, but in the higher there appears a new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended with pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. In the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. It also enables men by a hundred ingenious contrivances to inflict a great deal more pain than they otherwise could have done on one another and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonised apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering. Every now and then they improve their condition a little and what we call a civilisation appears. But all civilisations pass away and, even while they remain, inflict peculiar sufferings of their own probably sufficient to outweigh what alleviations they may have brought to the normal pains of man. That our own civilisation has done so, no one will dispute; that it will pass away like all its predecessors is surely probable. Even if it should not, what then? The race is doomed. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will sometime be a uniform infinity of homogeneous matter at a low temperature. All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to Great First Lines

  1. How about” “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” — Charles Williams, “War in Heaven.” Or how about: “Call me Ishmael.” 😉

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    • I’ve used “Call me Ishmael” in the last novel I wrote. But I also acknowledge Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., calling my character Jonas (like JOhn, or Jonah). I meant to work in Virginia Woolf’s Marys, but forgot.
      That’s a brilliant line from Williams. It’s on my fall list.

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  2. ReGi McClain says:

    The first line of A Grief Observed is goose-bump-inducingly amazing. I haven’t read that one yet.

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  3. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Ever thought about what the man Clive Staples Lewis was expressing (resentfully? ruefully? but of course humorously) about the moniker he himself had been saddled with, those two names he reduced to initials and covered up with the lifelong nickname “Jack”?

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  5. elusiveguanaco says:

    Two openers that always stuck with me:
    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” (Stephen King’s The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger)
    “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House).

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  6. Bill says:

    It’s been a while since I read The Problem of Pain, and I did not remember that beginning. How interesting to see that someone with an amazing gift for apologetics had the talent to apply that gift, compellingly, to the defense of atheism, had he chosen to do so. More reason, it seems to me, to be thankful for the writings of Mr. Lewis.

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    • Makes me wonder, in the “accident” of history, had Lewis been as committed to atheism as Richard Dawkins. Or, in reverse, if Hitchens or Voltaire had been passionate believers or even disinclined to speak.

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