The science fiction and fantasy pantheon overflows with amazing quotes. The intertwined genres offer heart-wrenching quotes about love, inspiring quotes about courage, uncompromising quotes about hardship, and endless others. At their best, these quotes can profoundly touch the reader and leave a lifelong impact on them. Some of the most impactful quotes I’ve encountered share one notable quality: they include the word “but.” These quotes all build the reader up with a crescendo of anticipation, then pull out the metaphorical rug with a “but” and a revelatory flourish. The “but” is versatile, and it can be used to undercut expectations, give readers hints about the future of the narrative, or make you rethink your stance on a particular character. To prove this, I asked the Quill to Live writers to build a list of our favorite “but” quotes, and this is what we came up with. Enjoy!
1) “Oh, yeah. Poor bloke. Brilliant mind. He was fine while he was studyin’ outta books but then he took a year off ter get some firsthand experience….” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Rubeus Hagrid’s description of Harry Potter’s first Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher hosts one of the fantasy genre’s most iconic and prescient “buts.” For those who voraciously re-read the series, it’s a darkly playful nod to the tortured Professor Quirrell’s fate at the hands of Voldemort. To the first-years, it’s an indication that something is…off about him. Hagrid, a loyal but not-so-bright fellow, lends the quote a certain gravitas that makes it all the more meaningful. Young Harry trusts Hagrid, and his instincts are sharp enough to know when something’s amiss. This first interaction with Quirrell and the hints Hagrid drops combine to form a literary moment that sets the stage for the remainder of the series–not everyone is trustworthy, and it’s hard work separating the noble from the wicked in the wizarding world.
2) “. . . Moon-Watcher felt the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion. It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy–of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.” – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
One of science fiction’s most profound “buts” appears early in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following Moon-Watcher and his decidedly unevolved band of ape cohorts in the novel’s opening chapters provides a stark contrast from the movie, allowing the ape-community time to breathe and anchoring the novel in pseudo-human history. This “but” signals the ape colony’s ascent to a more elite and less primitive race, laying the groundwork for the millennia-spanning evolutionary space opera to come.
3) “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long passed, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.” – The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
This quote opens Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series and graces the top of the first page of The Eye in the World. It’s responsible for beckoning an entire generation of readers into the fantasy genre. For many, it is a profound quote that speaks to the nature of the story of The Wheel of Time – a cycle that never ends. It just goes on, and on, and on, and never deviates from its protracted course… until now. The “but” shows the reader that they are witnessing something special, something one of a kind. It begs the reader to demand of the book “show me why this time will be different.”
4) “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” – The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Said by Samwise Gamgee when Frodo loses his hope, this quote speaks to tenacity. The “but” encapsulates the fact that while things might be hard now, the bad times are fleeting. If we just press on and keep placing one foot in front of the other, the dawn will come. This “but” represents rock bottom and a turning point. Although today is a nightmare, tomorrow it will just seem like a dream. This “but” renews the hopes of its readers and shows you that everything is going to be okay. The night is darkest just before the dawn.
5) “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.” – The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss is known for his delightful prose, but this quote in particular always stood out to us. The line is about wisdom and how curiosity, not the sheer volume of one’s knowledge, is the foundation of a smart mind. The “but” in this instance encourages you to go deeper and think hard about which of the two qualities is better. At the same time, it helps organize the line to convince the reader that curiosity and the promise of future knowledge can be better than knowledge alone.
6) “Honor is dead, but I will see what I can do.” – Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
This is one of our favorite quotes of all time, and this might just be our favorite “but.” Declared by Kaladin right before he does something incredibly badass, this “but” serves to hype up the reader for an explosive climax that approaches at full speed. This “but” is a harbinger of awesome and a shepherd of excitement, transitioning the reader into an adrenaline fueled spot on the edge of their seat.
7) “The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
We have seen a ton of serious “buts” so far, but the “but” can also be humorous. It can serve as a straight man, as it does in this famous Douglas Adams quote, to the ridiculous. In this quote, the “but” serves as a foil to the outlandish scenario of dolphins being hyper sentient space-faring aliens, and their gratitude for all the fish we have given them in one form or another over the years. The “but” is the gateway from the normal to the absurd, the everyday to the ridiculous.
8) “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
A spectacular quote from a spectacular book shows that Le Guin knew the power of a well placed “but.” The Left Hand of Darkness is about a lot of things, one of which is growth and change. This quote eloquently states an age-old adage: it isn’t about where you are going, it’s about what you experience on the way. This “but” is a quiet and wise leader that takes the reader’s hand and shows them insight and wisdom into their own lives. It is a “but” that wants you to be happier and live better.
9) “If we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first, we’ll live.” – A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
It’s fitting that a fantasy epic so replete with death and destruction can make such a poignant commentary on the joys of life. George R.R. Martin weaves a massive tale brimming with the worst facets of humanity. Torture, murder, deceit, backstabbing, and any number of other wrongdoings fill the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, but through it all, in stark (pun intended) contrast to the woeful world surrounding them, the characters trudge forward and keep a firm grip on those small moments that make them feel alive. This “but” is a forceful commentary on the fleeting nature of life, and a call for Jon Snow and his comrades to seize the day. If you live each day fearful of death, are you really living at all? In response to that question, this “but” shouts a resounding, unequivocal “no.”
10) “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.” – Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Our final “but” comes to us courtesy of Pratchett and Gaiman and speaks to human nature. In their famous collaborative work, Good Omens, the authors toy with the idea of how circumstance and context sculpt human values and morality. In the book, the authors basically make the case that no one is fundamentally good or evil, but a product of their surroundings and choices. The “but” serves to let you in on the secret of the book and give you insight into humanity. It’s a powerful “but” and one of our favorites.
Well, that’s the full list! We hope you have enjoyed our compilation of the top ten “buts” in fantasy and science fiction. This list was compiled through a combined effort of all of The Quill to Live writers, except for Sean, who badly misunderstood the assignment. His list was undignified, inappropriate, and completely mishandled the subject matter of the piece. I doubt anyone would be interested, but if you want to see his list, you can find an article on the best butts here.
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