Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 16, 2015

With One Word

If you sat down to write an immortal epic that would endure for a thousand years, what would be the first words you would write?

Ask even a beginning student of writing: openings matter. No agent, editor, publisher or reader will hang with you past the first few pages — perhaps not the first paragraph — without something to grab their attention. Masterpieces, then, must start really strong.

In 2010 I wrote about some famous first lines of poems, HERE. As for fiction, one could compile a list of scores or hundreds of memorable opening lines. Some of my favorites are probably familiar to you:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ….”

“Call me Ishmael.”

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

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“For a long time I used to go to bed early.”

“One day when Pooh Bear had nothing else to do, he thought he would do something ….”

(I list the authors and titles below, in case one stumped you.) I’d like to hear from you about your own favorite first line of a book or poem.

Strong openings have a long history, from the uttermost beginning of written English. Here is the first word in pretty much the earliest thing written in English:


“What?” you ask.

I answer, “Yes.”

“Yes what?”


Before this becomes an Abbot and Costello routine, I’ll explain that hwæt is the first word of Beowulf, and it has provided endless (and ongoing) challenges to translation into modern English. Keep in mind that the single original copy of Beowulf that survives was written down in about the year 1000, but it records a spoken poem that may have been around since 650 or so. Here are the first lines of that ancient, worn, burned and unique manuscript now in the British Museum (click on the photo for a larger image):

Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius_A_XV_f._132r - first word

Hwæt is Old English for “what.” The word would have been pronounced to rhyme with “pat” or “hat,” and it’s generally accepted that in this context it’s an exclamation to get the attention of a group, letting them know that a story or performance was about to begin.

Imagine you’re an itinerant bard in Britain in the year 900. There is, outside of the monasteries, essentially no literacy. Poetry and information are primarily passed along orally. That’s what you do; your livelihood depends on entertaining anyone who will give you a meal or a place to stay, preferably both, and you do it with the spoken word, via stories, songs, poems and even passing along the latest gossip. On this night, you have a pretty good gig; you’re in the hall of a local chieftain, and his thanes have gathered for a big feast. They’re rollicking around, quaffing the nut-brown ale, pulling the usual locker-room style gags on one another, and the host is starting to cast his eye in your direction, wondering when you’re going to do something to earn the tasty meal of venison, bread and turnips you’ve just consumed and distract this gang before they start breaking the benches over one another’s heads. It’s showtime!

Your first task is to get the attention of this rowdy horde so that you can start your tale: no easy task. These guys are well into the mead, and need something to get their attention away from kidding old Childeric over there about his less-than-stellar performance in last week’s skirmish with the Danes. These aren’t men who have a great deal of patience, and they’re armed with swords, knives, cudgels, maces and they have more weapons stacked outside.

You take a deep breath, get into performance mode, stride into the middle of the floor, and give a loud clap of your hands as you cry,


And you begin your tale.

Did you really mean “What?” Or did you mean “Hey!” or “Dudes!” or something else?

Each translator of Beowulf (and there are a couple hundred published translations) has faced this challenge. I took an hour this week to look at few, just to see what variety of representations we get. Here are only a few.

In 1895, William Morris and A.J. Wyatt stuck to the literal and put it as “What!”

One of the most commonly adopted translators, Frances B. Grummere, has it as “Lo!” That’s how J.R.R. Tolkein did it, too, and quite a few other translators.

Another popular translator, Burton Raffel, made it “Hear me!”

Benjamin Slade, Kevin Crossley-Holland, David Breeden and quite a few others took the direct route: “Listen!”

A recent translator, A.S. Kline, rendered it, “Now!”

My onetime Professor, E. Talbot Donaldson, writing a prose version, started it “Yes, ….”

The only translator other than Tolkein most readers could name is Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, and I love his first word, which is utterly something we might say today: “So.” I think that’s wonderful.

This subject occurred to me recently as I was browsing through a bookshop. I came across a copy of an out-of-print Beowulf translation from the 1930s that was new to me, by William Ellery Leonard. His take on that first word spurred me to write this post, because it’s so of-its-time, and so purely English. He rendered hwæt as:

“What ho!”

That’s just about perfectly English, if nothing else! One has to wonder if he hadn’t been reading just a bit too much P. G. Wodehouse.

English is a wonderful, rich and inexhaustible language. Kudos to the scores of people who’ve devoted so much effort to bringing the past to life.

The sources of the quotes, in order: Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; George Orwell, 1984; Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow; Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (trans. unknown); Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (trans. S.C. Moncrieff); A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner.

What’s your favorite first line of a novel? Post a comment and let us know.

© 2015 Brad Nixon


  1. That opener from Moby-Dick always stayed with me. The author looks at YOU, points at YOU, and says “[You] call me Ishmael.” Let’s face it, that short line is a grabber. And then there’s that name. How many guys named Ishmael have you run into? Unforgettable.


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