Saturday, February 21, 2015

Title Tittle-tattle

Novels, short stories, non-fiction, articles in magazines and newspapers all benefit greatly from thoughtfully chosen titles. The title becomes a "greeter" with power to attract and draw in readers, either by clear indication of what content follows, or by shrewdly thrown poetic mist which can arouse curiosity. Choosing a title is not easy, I dare say that at times it can be more difficult than actually writing the novel or article. Authors over the years have pitted their wits against the ordinary and predictable to come up with something attention-grabbingly different, yet pertinent to content.

Some authors have leaned on work of their predecessors, extracting a nugget of wisdom from finely crafted words, found to be obliquely applicable to their own piece of work. Somerset Maugham favored this method when he chose titles for The Painted Veil and Of Human Bondage, both lifted from old texts. The former from an 1818 sonnet by Percy Byshe Shelley:
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread, - behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.

The latter was borrowed from one of the books of the 'Ethica' by 17th century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. Translated = "Of Human Bondage, or The Strength of the Emotions".

Those are both apt titles, once one is familiar with the storylines, but they presupposed a certain amount of literary knowledge on the part of the reader.

Harper Lee's famous title, To Kill a Mocking Bird came from an old proverb telling that "it's a sin to kill a mocking bird". The author used it as metaphor for the novel's storyline. It's clever, but without prior knowledge of the old proverb, or subject matter of the book, a potential reader might feel puzzled when confronted with the title on a library shelf, but it's intriguing enough to invite investigation.

A few more, old and newer, titles interestingly drawn from literature:

Band of Brothers (book and TV mini-series)

From Shakespeare's Henry V

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

No Country for Old Men (novel and film)

From Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Vanity Fair (novel and magazine title)

From The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Emerging from the wilderness, Evangelist meets Christian and Faithful and congratulates them on overcoming their obstacles. Evangelist says they will soon enter a powerful enemy city where one of them will die. The narrator identifies this city as Vanity, home of a great and ancient festival called Vanity Fair, where tawdry products are traded and Beelzebub is worshipped. (HERE)

Where Eagles Dare (book and film)

From Shakespeare's Richard III

"The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey
where eagles dare not perch".
(Act I, Scene III).

From Here to Eternity (book and film)

From Rudyard Kipling's poem Gentlemen-Rankers

We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We're little black sheep who've gone astray,
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Bah! Bah!

Grapes of Wrath (book and film)

From Battle Hymn of the Republic

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.


mike said...

I discussed a similar topic with a friend on the phone last night. The phrase, "going to hell in a hand basket" derived from heads lopped at the guillotine and falling into head-baskets, I was told. I had my doubts and they will have to remain unsatisfied:

From Wiki:
I. Windslow Ayer's 1865 polemic alleges, "Judge Morris of the Circuit Court of Illinois at an August meeting of Order of the Sons of Liberty said: "Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would ‘send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.’"

It has also appeared in the title of several published works and other media:

"To Hell in a Handbasket" is the name of humorist H. Allen Smith's 1962 autobiography.
"Hell in a Handbasket" was the title of a 1988 Star Trek comic book.
Hell in a Handbasket is the title of a 2006 book (ISBN 1585424587) by American counterculture cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, who authors a nationally syndicated cartoon strip This Modern World.
"Hell in a handbasket" was the name of an undescribed con requiring a trained cat referenced in the 2004 film, Ocean's Twelve.
"Hell in a Handbasket" is a song from Voltaire's Ooky Spooky album.
Hell in a Handbasket is the title of a 2011 Meat Loaf album
Helena Handbasket is the name of a character in the TV show Friends. It is the stage name for Chandler's crossdressing dad.
"Heff in a Handbasket" is an episode of Rocko's Modern Life.

I've read various articles over the years where people in-the-know reveal the original title to a book, song, whatever, and I usually think how awful that would have been...LOL.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"...the Shakes

Sonny G said...

hi annie and mike,,

just wanted to say I miss ya'll.. been in critical care unit for 5 days and home today..

think of ya'll a lot.


Twilight said...

mike ~ I looked in my hefty copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but couldn't see an entry for that phrase under either Hell or hand basket. It's certainly a saying that has been put to many uses, gruesome as it may be. :-) The alliteration has probably helped to keep it alive.
"Going to hell in a wheelbarrow" would not have the same ring to it.

Yes, I can imagine how bad some original titles could be.

I almost posted a pic in the sidebar, in place of a quote, of an autobiography (maybe not a real one) with the title
"Well, That Didn't Work" :-)

mike (again) said...

Sonny - !Hola! And all this time I thought you were too busy having fun. You must have recovered sufficiently-satisfactorily, if you are home after your critical care R&R...and you seem able to operate your computer and keyboard. Netflix and your three doggies will provide a boost to your health. I'm sure it's wonderful to be home...take care, Sonny.

Twilight said...

Sonny ~ We've been missing you too luv! Oh my! Do take care now and take things very easy for a while. We'll look forward to your visits, and news, when you feel fully up to it.
Hugs x

mike (again) said...

A couple of LOLs:

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ LOL! Good ones - and so true. I'm as guilty as the youngsters, even though I don't own a smartphone, have never sent a text, but the desktop computer screen has become equally addictive over the years. I wouldn't be where I am today (lol!) without it - I'd still be in Yorkshire, England. :-)