Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: The Prologue

119073No, I didn’t have a brain-freeze and misspell Diana Wynne Jones that badly. I’m taking a wee break from Jones to fulfill an obligation I set for myself a decade or so ago.

Back when my dad walked with the living, he also read. Profusely. Not just Scripture and Bible commentaries—he was an avid reader of Dr. Who and Star Wars, as well as mysteries cozy and hard-boiled. We often shared mysteries, even unwittingly giving each other the same books for Christmas.

This shared love spilled into shows and films, and has resulted in why on earth I’m typing this post right now.

Already a fan of the Ellis Peters books and Mystery! series Cadfael starring Sir Derek Jakobi, Dad didn’t have to ask me twice about watching a different medieval mystery. The Name of the Rose was…well, it was a bit dark for a child of single digits, but I wasn’t afraid, since James Bond the Monk just HAD to win out in the end. When I discovered it was also a book, I knew I had to read it.

Aaaand then I saw how big the book was, and decided to wait a bit.

Does sixteen years still qualify as “a bit”?


The only other experience I’d had of Eco came from The Count of Monte Cristo, where he wrote a lengthy introduction about how the novel is one of the best and worst ever written.

Perhaps not the best first impression of the writer, considering how much I adored Count.

So admittedly, I cracked open The Name of the Rose with a teeeeeeny bit of skepticism.

A prologue.

Hmph. Aspiring writers hear a lot of mixed messages about prologues. Use’em, don’t use’em. They detract, they provide an excellent spot for necessary info. I’ve personally read prologues that had more action/drama than the actual novel.

First person narration. In the second paragraph Adso, the narrator, informs us he’s old, and he’s going to tell us of “wondrous and terrible events,” which he clearly must have survived if he’s writing it all decades after the fact.

Well there goes that tension.

Sass aside, The Name of the Rose really does require the prologue. Unless you’re a medievalist—heck, even if you are—there is a LOT of historical context required to fully understand the tumult of Church and political conflict, how they amplified and worsened each other. You’ve got sects of monks being burned, a pope and an emperor trying to outfight and outwit each other. Frankly, I’m still not entirely sure how that all breaks down, but one thing’s certain: the structure of the known western world depended on The Church, and The Church was not secure. It had cracks like those of a mug knocked off the table (by two mischievous little boys, of course): the mug’s intact, you can put liquid in it and it won’t leak. But you can see the fissure-veins, and you know it won’t take much for the mug to shatter in your hand.

All right, I accept prologues are capable of contributing to the story.  Will I make use of one? Doubtful. But I will appreciate a prologue that sets the stage and lays out the players without ruining the story itself.

So far, so good, Eco. Let’s see what else you’ve got.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

22 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: The Prologue

  1. I was saddened to learn of his death. I have never finished The Rose book – it is a work to read this book, at least for me. I had the same experience with Ulysses by Jame Joyce. Fascinating, but not an easy read 🙂 At least, I didn’t give up on Ulysses 🙂 Well, it was in the 20th century, so I might start all over again 🙂

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    • Not a bad idea! I did discover a website that lists all the Latin phrases and translates them. It’s bookmarked on my phone. Otherwise, I got to admit–I’d probably be grumbling and treating ROSE like a doorstop. (Shame on me, I know.) 🙂

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      • Footnotes can be very annoying if you are not completely immersed in book. I enjoyed Ulysses footnotes … Sigh… I just guess that Rose is not important to me personally, after all…

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      • And that’s just fine. I never bothered to finish THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which drives a number of my friends absolutely batty. As you say–if the book is not important to you personally, don’t make yourself spend time on it. Focus on the books you can enjoy instead. Life’s too short to do otherwise. 🙂

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      • It is what I think too. There are some books, like Eat Pray Love, or say War and Peace, that I didn’t find neither important to me nor interesting. Neverending translations from French in footnotes… 😉 By skipping these parts of the book I probably missed the whole message, but…

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      • Ha! Then you have a friend of mine who specifically learned elvish because of LORD OF THE RINGS. I believe she’ll occasionally write in elvish to annoy her students.
        There is only so much fervor one can have for a single story… 🙂

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  2. You always make me chuckle – I have to tell you that LOVED Sean Connery in “The Name of the Rose” but I saw that film in the theater when I was young (forgot how old I was) and it FREAKED me out! I haven’t read the book, the horror, the horror. I’m so damn lazy when it comes down to it. But if anyone could inspire me to look at it, it would be you.

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    • The book IS quite the undertaking, not gonna lie. That’s why I realized I should blog about it–there’s no way in Hades I can read this AND something by Jones. There’s a website I plan on sharing later that lists all the Latin phrases from the book and their corresponding English translations. A God-send, to be sure! So, if you feel like you could crack it open, I say go for it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, no, the homoerotic element are pretty loud in the story–not so much Christian Slater, but the other hot young one. (In the novel Slater’s character gets on with a girl, and then ponders why women and sex are evil for several chapters afterward. Like…GOBS of pages of pondering. Thank God for film.)


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