People differ on the subject of prologues. Some consider them unnecessary and advise leaving them out. Why not start at chapter one, they ask. That’s where the story begins. My answer to that is, although the story (probably) starts at the beginning of chapter one, the book is bigger than the story. A prologue does something very different from chapter one. It sets a mood rather than a scene. It doesn’t so much begin the story as create the mood in which the story can begin.
Not all books need a prologue. That, we can all, I think, take as a given. And prologues can be done badly. Prologues are often done badly, and this is at the root of much of the prologue hatred. But because something can be done badly isn’t a reason not to do it at all. It’s a reason to do it well. Done well, prologues offer something – a mood or tone or image – that thematically underpins the following story and holds it together. They are the book in microcosm. If you don’t believe me, (re)read Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, or, if you want a more recent example, Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown. And, though I’m not really a devotee of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, he does, I think, make good use of his prologues to show the bigger picture, the story behind the stories lived by his viewpoint characters.
And yes, I like prologues and, liking them, I write them. Here’s the prologue from The Crooked Path. It’s not a necessary part of the story but it is a necessary part of the book:
Stories link together, like beads upon a chain, like dancers joining hands to form the figures of the dance: there is never a real beginning, never a simple end. This story might have begun when a man stretched out his hand to take what was not his, and did not count the price. It might have begun when a sailor set out to cross an ocean none of his people had crossed before or else years later when his daughter looked upon a black-haired stranger and loved him. It might have begun at another time, in another place, when a musician was cast out by his own people because he had an ugly face, or perhaps it began far away in the west when a potter grew bored with his craft and sought for more to fill his life. All these are beads upon a chain, all these are chapters in a tale.
This is the moment of the autumn equinox. It falls in the evening, at the time when twilight thins into starlight. For a moment light is balanced with darkness across the face of the earth. Only a moment, a sliver of time: time enough to sing a lovesong, time enough to drink a health in friendship, time enough to light a fire. All these can change the world if they are done at the right time, in the right place. All these have been done or will be done: you shall judge for yourself if the times and the places were the right ones.
One time, diverse places: this is what is happening across the world. Somewhere, the wind blows from the sea through an empty window into a room in a black keep upon a rocky shore. The walls are hung with tapestries that billow gently in the wind. Then the deepest of the shifting shadows of that room clot into a man. Naked, he looks from the window at the land and sea whilst the starlight settles on his hair.
Far away, the shadows of this same evening fall across a girl seated by a pool. She is a little more than a child, a little less than a woman. For now she is safe within a walled garden in a white city, counting out red rowan berries (…he loves me, he loves me not…) that have fallen all about her on the mossy stone. Elsewhere in that city, an old man surrounded by old books finds a passage he has not read before and lights a lamp to drive back the dark around him.
At this moment in a western land, a potter sits before his wheel, blind to all but the cold clay taking form beneath his hands as he croons a wordless song of creation and remakes a little bit of the world. And the last to tell of is a twisted dwarf, a beggar with a piebald face who leans his back against a milestone and plays a wooden pipe though there is none to hear him. But, at the balance of the equinox, he holds his finger up to feel the wind change in its course and, weary, goes his way along a road he had not thought to take again.
But, the other side of time, the dancers whirl and swirl to the music of the stars and sea, singing the song of the wind upon the water. Pale-faced, dark-eyed, with their hair streaming around them like smoke upon the wind, they trace their patterns on the empty land and their dance has no beginning and no end.