Libraries often feel like magical places, the numerous books on every shelf holding the ability to transport their reader to new and wonderful worlds. In the words of Terry Pratchett: “They thought the library was a dangerous place because of all the magical books…but what made it really one of the most dangerous places there could ever be was the simple fact that it was a library.” Libraries in particular seem to have an enchanting power for writers: in many novels, the multiple possibilities that a room of books holds is transformed into literal magic, with libraries becoming doors to infinite other worlds. As the navigators of these boundless realms, fictional librarians are often also given magical powers, as the only ones who can truly understand the library’s mystical ways. We have compiled a list of our favourite magical librarians, whose powers go beyond their intellectual prowess:
1. The Librarian from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s Librarian, who manages the library at the Unseen University, is probably one of the most famous fictional librarians. Once a human wizard, the Librarian found himself turned into an orangutan by a wave of reality-altering magic: something which helped him in his role, as opposable toes are useful for sorting and re-shelving books. Aside from his accidental change of species, the Librarian is notable for being a member of the Librarians of Time and Space, meaning that he can access and navigate the L-Space, an inter-dimensional zone which links all libraries and all books. He can go back in time to see when certain books were stolen, or save priceless texts from being destroyed in ancient fires.
2. Irene from The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
Irene is a librarian, which in Cogman’s universe makes her half-rare book collector, half-spy. Working for the inter-dimensional Library, she must go into numerous parallel universes, collecting rare books that are unique to that world, at whatever cost. Armed with the Language, a magical form of universal speech that can alter the reality around her, Irene performs her duties, not for the power, or the ability to change the courses of the worlds she enters, but because “the deepest, most fundamental part of her life involved a love of books.”
3. The Cheshire Cat from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde
The world of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series revolves around books—Next goes from being a Literary Detective in her world, maintaining the peace between the warring Shakespearean scholars, to working for the Great Library in Jurisfiction, which polices unruly fictional characters, dangerous plot holes, and outbreaks of the Mispeling Vyrus. While she is not technically a librarian, it is the Cheshire Cat (or the Cat Formerly Known as Cheshire, or Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat) who acts as her guide in the 52 levels and 26 basements of the Great Library, helping her find the books she needs to jump through in order to maintain order between genres. Presumably, the ability to appear and disappear anywhere at will is both useful for navigating this gargantuan, ever-expanding building, and for reaching the highest shelves.
4. Lirael from Lirael by Garth Nix
The Library of the Clayr in Garth Nix’s Lirael is a dangerous place, a repository not just of books but numerous untold evils: “fell creatures, old Charter-spells that had unraveled or become unpredictable, mechanical traps, even poisoned book bindings.” Upon their recruitment, librarians are given magical daggers and instructed to keep a whistle on hand, to call for help if they ever find themselves incapacitated by the library’s hazardous denizens. Lirael herself braves numerous monsters in her capacity as a librarian, such as the strange, insect-like stilken. Lirael is also notable in her relationship to the library: it is the place that she finds sanctuary and acceptance, and where she finds her closest friend, the Disreputable Dog. The library is her way of escaping the pressures of her life at the Clayr, finding the wisdom and strength among the stacks that unlocks her true destiny as a Remembrancer—someone who can access living memories of the past.
5. Dewey Denouement from The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
While Lemony Snicket’s Dewey Denouement doesn’t have magic of his own, he hordes arcane knowledge, such as the mysterious sugar bowl, in his library, which is hidden under the pond outside the Hotel Denouement. He has lived his life according to library science, honoring his namesake by organizing his hotel according the Dewey Decimal system, and building a library catalogue of evidence to hold against every villainous member of the mysterious VFD (including a record of the 27 cakes that the dreadful Count Olaf has stolen).
Authors gravitating towards libraries as a setting for their work seems natural, given their obvious love of literature. But the portrayal of a library as a mystical place of dangerous, reality-bending secrets, and librarians as spies, warriors, and inter-dimensional travelers shows not just a love of words, but a longing for the places they can take us—and untold secrets they hold. The library, and its often magical qualities in fiction, literalises the idea that knowledge is power (or, as Pratchett words it: Books = Knowledge = Power = (Force x Distance^2) ÷ Time).
Featured image credit: “The Librarian from Discworld” by Martin Pettitt. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.