Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

An Edifice of respectable size should certainly contain a library, perhaps the most mysterious and magical part of the structure and often carrying a whiff of sadness. This may stem from the author's wistful desire for such a private collection – when young, George MacDonald catalogued the library of a great house in Scotland, and the image of library-as-Threshold haunts his work. Deeper sadness is associated with the fragility of accumulated knowledge. The burning of the library at Alexandria echoes through history as a shocking crime, even when reworked humorously in Terry Pratchett's Small Gods (1992). It is not surprising that the fiery destruction of his books unhinges Lord Sepulchrave in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan (1946), and in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980; trans 1983) the library-Labyrinth's blaze reeks of apocalypse.

A more modern and topical pathos arises from the awareness that Books already contain far more than any single human mind can assimilate. James Branch Cabell's The Silver Stallion (1926) features a lifelong search through an infernal collection where amid endless trivia only one ironic truth appears: that time ruins everything. The crushing weight of accreted information is most felt in Far-Future libraries like those of the Museum of Man in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (1950), which lacks a master index, or of the Citadel in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which may extend underground far beyond its city. Jorge Luis Borges provides a definitive perspective with his gedanken experiment in "The Library of Babel", which includes all possible book-length permutations of letters and is thus finite (though not containable in our physical universe), completely exhaustive, and useless. David Langford's "The Net of Babel" (Interzone, 1995) demonstrates that computerizing such a library for instant access would merely heighten its futility. The above-cited Eco and Wolfe novels nod to Borges's profession and infirmity by including a blind librarian.

Certain fantastical libraries are mainly of interest for their fictional Books, as in Cabell's Beyond Life (1919) or Neil Gaiman's homage to this in Sandman #22 (1990), whose Library of Dream also contains "every story that has ever been dreamed". Wizards' libraries, like Prospero's, tend to be small, perilous, and strong on grimoires (see also Prospero's Books [1991]); the dangers of handling these are amusingly spoofed in Pratchett's accounts of Unseen University Library on Discworld. Other thematic collections are the Library of Cocaigne in Cabell's Jurgen (1919), devoted wholly to erotica; the library in Bernard King's The Destroying Angel (1987), which holds only books on Lost Lands, notably Ultima Thule; and Death's archive of self-writing biographies in Pratchett's Mort (1987). Further genre libraries include those of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, famous for its locked collection of Cthulhu Mythos texts; of Chrestomanci Castle in The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) by Diana Wynne Jones, which is magically ordered and compressed; and of Castle Banat in Lucius Shepard's The Golden (1993), a broad and mile-deep circular stair lined with book-shelves. [DRL]

see also: Babel.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.