If the Librarian of the Unseen University, whom we met last time in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the best known librarian in fantasy fiction he is also unique not just because he is the only librarian with arms that reach the floor, eats only bananas and peanuts and is in short an irascible, bad tempered orangutan but also because apart from the odd catastrophe caused by random outbursts of malevolent magic he is a librarian with no immediately obvious predators and sufficient strength to see them off if there were. Other librarians are not so fortunate. Elsewhere librarians may be slightly greater in number but those numbers are persecuted by ruthless and merciless predators determined to drive them to extinction forcing those remaining to find sanctuary wherever they can but we don’t have time to talk about the real world of local council budget cuts as this week we are talking about the fantasy world of the Edge; on the other hand the similarities are remarkable.
The Edge not unlike Discworld is a huge chunk of rock floating in space and again like Discworld has so far managed to remain undetected by those offensive creatures on Earth and so spared the fly-tipping of their malfunctioning space probes. The Edge is also the setting for The Edge Chronicles, the marvellous fantasy creation of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell which despite a target audience of pre and young teens are a bit less flippant than the irreverently comic tone of Terry Pratchett’s novels. The dangers to which the inhabitants of the Edge are exposed are considerably greater than on Discworld. The Gloamglozer, Rock Demons, Hoverworms, Muglumps and a variety of vindictive gnomes and trolls are amongst many lurking terrors that are to be avoided at all costs as are the most frightening of them all the dreaded Shrykes, who instil the same cocktail of terror and loathing achieved only in our own world by the Gestapo, The Spanish Inquisition and for at least half the world population apparently, Marmite.
In the world of the American fantasy comic the world would be protected from those terrors by an army of superhuman mutant heroes able to destroy any threat to civilization when their awesome supernatural strength, agility, speed or weapons grade martial arts skills are automatically activated as a soon as they slip into a garish lycra outfit. In The Edge this task is delegated to librarians. But the people of The Edge needn’t worry because these are not just any librarians, these are Knight Librarians; the authors clearly attracted by the comic dissonance of a name that has the same oxymoronic plausibly as poet-footballer, ballet dancer-accountant, or philanthropist-banker.
Part of The Edge is being destroyed by a deadly stone sickness and the Librarians are part of an alliance with The Guardians of the Night (pay attention because there is a lot of this to take in) to try and save their world. Unfortunately tactics were never a librarian’s strong point and whilst they researched the problem collated findings and called meetings to agree solutions the rest of the Guardians led by the unscrupulous and ruthless “evil usurper” Vox Verlix decide it is a simpler solution to blame the librarians and drive them into exile. Vox Verlix appears to be an early prototype for the Chair of the most current council councils with a remit to destroy libraries but whereas the Chair has strictly limited legal powers Vox Verlix maintains an army of goblin mercenaries solely for the purpose of hunting down Librarians. The forces of darkness, like some local councillors, fear scholarship and hate those who promote it and protect the fruits of its research, which pretty much means The Librarians. As Vox Verlix says in his best Ernst Blofeld voice “That’ll show those accursed librarian knights … they think they are so clever with their books and learning.”
Outmanoeuvred by The Guardians of the Night the hunted and persecuted librarians have been driven into exile in the Great Storm Chamber Library otherwise known as an underground sewer that serves Undertown one of the tougher neighbourhoods of The Edge; a bit like Victorian Whitechapel but not quite so safe. In the Great Storm Chamber Library it is a constant battle to keep out the rainwater and damp as it seeps down the walls playing havoc with the lighting, the books and the arthritis of older librarians. Older librarians in theb real world will instantly recognise the similarity with many early Polytechnic libraries which were housed in old factories, converted Nissan huts or leaky extensions to faded stately homes; public librarians will recognise this as a description of any newly built library described as innovative, award winning or ground breaking.
In the Great Storm Library the apprentice Librarians continue to look for a solution to the stone sickness studying the great barkwood scrolls of the Library each housed in large and unwieldy wooden lecterns suspended by what appear to be large helium balloons left over from someone’s birthday party presumably to protect them from the damp floor. When they are consider ready the apprentice librarians make the next stage of their development. They are sent off on a journey to the Librarians’ Academy at Lake Landing in the Freeglades in the heart of the Deepwoods where they can and seek more solutions and if they are successful become fully fledged Knight Librarians. The delightfully sounding names of course give you no clue to the insurmountable obstacles that have to be overcome before they can achieve their goal. They are confronted at every turn not only by that menagerie of fantastically deadly creatures and shadowed everywhere by Guardian spies but more dangerous of all they have to avoid those fearsome menacing and deadly Shrykes. Shrykes are six foot tall birds of prey in full body armour with a huge, vicious raptor beak and 8” talons as sharp as stilettos and wielding a sharp and very deadly weapon. So they are best avoided ; if it helps try to imagine the bloodthirsty and sadistic big brother of the Gruffalo. Shrykes combine the murderous brutality of the Stasi with a merciless slave trade business and a ruthless extortion racket that would make a Mafiosi smile in admiration thanks to their control of the only route across the dreaded Mire and which will be familiar to travellers across the Severn Crossing or the M6 toll.
Even worse it turns out that Vox Verlix was a pussycat compared to Orbix Xaxis who overthrows him (I told you there was lot to keep up with). Orbix Xaxis harboured a pathological hatred of librarians in fact he hated them so much that he simply slaughtered as many as he could using his favourite method of lowering them in a cage to let the Rock Demons tear them apart which might cause real world librarians to reflect on just what unseen and long lasting psychological damage they might be inflicting on young readers when they give them a hard time for putting the books back in the wrong place. But the result is that last stage of the Librarian qualification is a bit like sitting your Finals but with a sword and hunted by a pack of psychopathic monsters.
So it’s a good job that the young trainees have spent their time in the Great Storm Library developing the skills and knowledge needed for such an ordeal giving them a firm grounding in the librarian martial arts of classification, cataloguing and putting the books in order as well as the rudiments of hand to hand combat and piloting skyships, skills that could usefully be added to the real world librarians’ curriculum just in case it ever comes to a last ditch defence of The Last British Library which it might
The young librarian hero of this strand of The Edge Chronicles is Rook Barkwater and of course the novice Knight Librarian succeeds even if like many of us who became chief librarians he succeeds without really understanding how it happened. Unlike the rest of us in the real world however young Rook even gets to rescue a maiden in distress and he gets to utter the immortal words after the style of the great super heroes “I am a knight librarian I’ve come to rescue you.” Despite the fact that she has been captured by and is guarded by those terrible Shrykes he surprisingly gets a positive response and not as you might imagine a dismissive “Thanks but at the moment I am trapped in a dungeon guarded by birds the size of a grizzly bear with 8” talons and I’m waiting for a real superhero in a tight lycra outfit to help me. I’ll call you when my books are due back.”
 I am eternally grateful to my former colleague Sandy Forster who brought The Edge Chronicles to my attention
 It is not surprising that Chris Riddell as the current Children’s Laureate has made the defence of libraries and in particular school libraries, one of the major themes of his tenure. He is the illustrator of The Edge Chronicles and obviously of all the illustrations I have taken the liberty of including here.