Although the word “beginnings” comes from the practical OE, the more metaphysical meaning derives from ME. Thus the opening words of the first book of Genesis have both meanings in mind – God set himself to create but also commenced creating the world…
Edward Said, although a somewhat controversial figure, wrote almost the last word in his book: “Beginnings: Intention and Method”. It seems impossible that it was written in 1975 since much of the literary theory he expounds on is still new to non-literature students.
Star Wars Episode IV must have (apart from Jaws which I don’t like as much) the most famous opening in film history. It grabs us, establishes the story, lets us know the Empire is evil because none of the troops’ faces can be seen and further (brilliantly) introduces us to the droids who are loveable because they don’t have pointy heads and one of them looks like a spin dryer on legs…. Pure magic. And then back to the sonorous voice of Richard Burton and Under Milk Wood: “To begin at the beginning..”
For a beginning to have “intentions” it must surely fulfil these criteria – hardly a definitive list but think of your own favourite beginning and see if it fits into this list….Of course, then there are those who completely break the mould like Beethoven in his 7th Symphony, where it is the second movement that grabs one by the throat and doesn’t let one go. In the 5th he announces the doom from the beginning, here in the 7th the supposedly slow movement slowly burns to unbelievable power. Used in the film “The Fall” the music illustrates a story slowly growing darker and the intention of its teller becomes more sinister…
In Jane Eyre we start in the middle of the action, a particularly bad day in this tale of child abuse (amongst other things). Walks will resonate throughout the book so here it is noticeable, especially when one knows the book well, that the lack of one is the catalyst for a change in Jane’s life. Later on Jane walks into changes – walking back to Thornfield and meeting Rochester, walking towards her cousins, walking to Thornfield and finding it burnt down – the list is endless as is the symbolism…Ishmael, of course, ends up on a hell ship in pursuit of Ahab’s nemesis whilst Winston Smith’s story begins in the same month as The Canterbury Tales but is closer to The Waste Land. Note also the perjorative use of thirteen suggesting bad luck and the European version of time, not a positive here. Meanwhile in To Kill A Mocking Bird the opening sentence won’t make sense until the end but worth noting is the use of the passive tense which will resonate in the closing chapter. Superb but of course long worked on and thought about…
Bulwer-Lytton, statesman, novelist (not very good) and wife incarcerator, now notorious for inspiring this contest. Written especially for the competition there are some real corkers! Janet and Alan Ahlberg wrote a much better children’s story which keeps re-starting with the famous phrase…
Eliot’s lines from Little Gidding take us in a perpetual circle – there is nothing new under the sun, we will end in the dark but each sentence both ends and begins. We can see this too in the opening of Gladiator, where Maximus is walking in his wheat field, telling the grain with his fingers. Only in a few moments will we know that he is actually on a colossal battlefield, waiting to fight the last fight for Germania. The wheat field of the beginning will become the Elysium Fields of his end – light after darkness and pain, resolution after endless questioning miles and journeys.
Final engaging beginnings: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” Ironic and twisted – Stanley’s persona leaps off the page.“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The voice here intrigues and draws us in – what is Manderley? Why only in dreams? Who is speaking?“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Cassandra’s odd perch sets the tone for this eccentric and much-loved 1930’s story, which Dodie Smith laboured over trying to get the tone exactly right. Never out of print, the narrator’s take on her family has much to do with this.
Eliot’s words about beginnings and ends suggest perhaps an afterlife – make mine an English Garden such as Sissinghurst. However, they are completely apposite for circular plots on our spherical world, which in 1968 we discovered looked like this and we knew the place for the first time. This picture also shows the Rift Valley out of which we walked millennia ago to write and sing, walk and talk on our busy, busy world.
- Middle English
Old English- beginnan - to begin
The action of entering
The first part
to set oneself to
Edward Said, the great Egyptian academic, maintains that:
A beginning is secular and man-made
First step in creative process - an intention to create
Whereas "origin" carries connotations of mythical,
divine or organic existence....
Text carries an authorizing function – “to be set in stone” - beginnings carry weight –
they influence readers beyond the form's existence – outside the novel, poem,
E-mail or letter. They can be said to live beyond the form.
So…. A few examples of secular intention that have remained with me…
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...
Once upon a time.....
Beowulf’s first page
Intentions: to create meaning from chaos or nothing
to set the scene
to grab us by the throat
to remind us of something else
to set up a pattern
Beginnings are artificial......
One can start anywhere.
"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."
"Call me Ishmael."
They can take you anywhere.
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were
"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his
arm badly broken at the elbow."
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -
except at occasional intervals...."
Edward Bulwer – Lytton
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest: worst opening lines
2013 winner: "It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight
illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above
the silhouette of tall majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from
the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk."
It was a dark and stormy night, the
rain came down in torrents, there were
brigands on the mountains, and wolves,
and the chief of the brigands said to
Antonio, "I'm bored - tell us a story!"
"What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. .........
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. .........“
T S Eliot
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."