Parents often record their child’s first words; entire books compile famous last words or last words of famous people. In John Green’s book, Looking for Alaska, the main character fixates on famous last words; most people can recognize the opening line “Call me Ishmael” whether they’ve read Moby Dick, and those who have read it will know that this is not the true opening line: “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.” As this post is about first lines, perhaps this is as much a point in favor of my thought, since only around 3000 copies of the book sold while Melville lived; perhaps if the novel actually opened with “Call me Ishmael,” his book might have had more commercial success in his lifetime. But I grossly digress.
I am currently rereading The Fellowship of the Rings and I’ve just reached the point where the Fellowship is about to head out from Rivendell. Up to this point, the Dwarf, Gimli, has not spoken in the book. If your only point of contact with this epic tale is in Peter Jackson’s movies, this may seem confused; in that movie, Gimli impulsively speaks up at the Council of Elrond: in response to Elrond saying the ring must be destroyed, Gimli says, “Well, what are we waiting for?” while jumping up and bringing an axe down on the ring. It should come as no surprise that much in the movie changed from the book, but none so much as the characters of the Fellowship members.
Gimli’s first words in the movie reveal who he will be in Jackson’s rendition: a hot-headed warrior whose first instinct is to strike. But Gimli’s first words in the book reveal a sturdier companion. In response to Elrond warning the party that no one should vow to follow the ring-bearer all the way since none can see how dark the road will be, the following exchange is made:
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.
“Maybe,” said Elrond, “but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”
“Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli.
“Or break it,” said Elrond
Let’s put this in perspective, because without context, we might think Elrond a coward and Gimli a stalwart and brave friend. Elrond is ancient. The only person at the council older than Elrond is Gandalf, and that’s cheating because Gandalf is a maia, the Middle-Earth equivalent of an angel. But even that is a soft comparison, because Elrond was born ages before the name Gandalf was ever spoken. Elrond saw the fall of Gil-Galad, he saw Ilsildur cut the ring from Sauron’s hand, but well before that, he knew Sauron before Sauron revealed himself as a servant of Melkor.
Elrond is ancient and wise; he remembers darkness and evil that would make an orc’s stomach churn. So when he warns the Fellowship not to vow themselves to the end of the task, he’s trying to highlight their complete lack of context for how bad things are going to be. From an Elven perspective, Gimli is being a hot-head.
A character’s first words in a story should be important, more important than your own first words. A toddler saying “Mama” or “Dada” or “damn the bourgeois capitalists” is only interesting to the child’s parents; the audience of a story won’t care what the character’s first spoken words were (except for that last one; I’d read a story that started with, “To his parents’ chagrin, his first words were neither ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’ but ‘damn the bourgeois capitalists,’ and frankly, they should have been more concerned.”)
If a character’s first words in a story are “Oh, excuse me,” then I expect that character to be a pushover or at least the target of shenanigans for the rest of the story. Arthur Dent’s first words could have been “Oh, excuse me,” and the story would have worked fine. As it was his first spoken words are, in context:
Arthur lay in the mud and squelched at him.
“I’m game,” he said, “we’ll see who rusts firsts.”
The argument could be made that Arthur’s first word in the novel is passively thinking, “Yellow,” several times as he goes through his morning routine, but as well as that proves the idea, I’m focusing on spoken words here.
So when you are reading or hearing a story, listen for the first and last words a character speaks. The last words are more difficult to track and may only be found on the second time through the story, when you can experience it more critically.