Tag Archives: The Edge Chronicles

Librarians on the Edge

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 first of the Edge Chronicles featuring the Knight Librarians

The first of the Edge Chronicles featuring the Knight Librarians

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[1], 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.”

The Great Storm Chamber Library - award winning and innovative... and damp

The Great Storm Chamber Library – award winning and innovative… and damp

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.

edge-shrykes

Shrykes – don’t be fooled by their appearance; they are much more evil than they look

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[2]

Rook Barkwater - don't be fooled by his appearance - he's a Librarian

Rook Barkwater – don’t be fooled by his appearance – he’s a Librarian

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.”

 

[1] I am eternally grateful to my former colleague Sandy Forster who brought The Edge Chronicles to my attention

[2] 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.

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Goalkeeping librarians and librarians on the Edge

Personally I blame Humphrey Bogart. Ever since he chose the Acme Bookstore as a vantage point while he waited for Geiger to arrive back at his illicit publishing business in the Big Sleep and met Dorothy Malone’s seemingly spinsterish and bookish shop owner. “You might have to wait a while…and it’s raining she says”. “ You’re right I’d much rather get wet inside” he replies being quick on the up take “Hello!!” he says seconds later in a tone that says much more  as she takes off her glasses, lets down her hair and pouts. He has already been warmed up by the good looking blonde at the Hollywood Public Library, “You don’t look like a man who would be interested in first editions,” so what will they do to kill time as she turns the sign to say CLOSED. What indeed!  But we never see him admiring her calf bindings as this is prim and proper 40’s cinema and the camera pans across to the wet streets! Ever since then apparently frumpish, bookish bespectacled females especially  librarians have had a special place in the male fantasy catalogue as examples of the deep passions that they believe lay hidden behind thin veneer of cardigan and heavy spectacles.

It is an enduring frustration for the library profession and particularly for women librarians that they are either portrayed as Rosa Klebb[1] or as a porn star masquerading as Miss Marple. It doesn’t work in quite the same way for men. I am not aware of any female fantasy that involves finding George Clooney behind the unassuming disguise of a short fat bloke in a tank top. Usually beneath the short fat bloke in a tank top is a short fat bloke who would love to take his tank top off to display the powerful heart beneath but it would only expose the shirt stained with last week’s meals.

Rosa Klebb. Any similarity to librarians living ot dead is entirely coincidental; apart from the standard library issue knuckle dusters obviously.

Rosa Klebb. Any similarity to librarians living or dead is entirely coincidental; apart from the standard library issue knuckle dusters obviously.

Part of the reason for the enduring fantasy is perhaps that for a profession that is overwhelmingly populated by females it is notoriously difficult to find examples of famous librarians that are female and who can project a quite different image. Although Lynne Brindley did become first female Director General of The British Library and has been made a Dame for her efforts and a librarian did for a while become a university Vice Chancellor they don’t really have the same conversation stopping effect of reminding someone that Chairman Mao and Casanova were librarians . Perhaps the most visible female librarian ever was Laura Bush wife of former US President George W Bush but not only was she kept very firmly in the background during his presidency presumably because she was too bright and would show him up, she also became tarnished by association with possibly the most mocked President in US history. Almost the only example of a powerful and positive female librarian role model that you can find anywhere in the literature is Barbara Gordon a US public librarian who features in countless publications, web sites and blogs about libraries and women as librarians. We’ll look at Barbara next time when we will also find out about a goalkeeper librarian.

Barbara Gordon; librarian, congresswoman and campaigner. She also likes a bit of fancy dress

Barbara Gordon; librarian, congresswoman and campaigner. She also likes a bit of fancy dress

Any self-respecting football or quiz team nerd will be able to tell you the names of the very small club of famous people who were football goalkeepers in their early days. For those of you saying “no don’t tell me I know this” I will be very sensitive and not immediately tell you the names so that you can have a few moments ponder the answer. For those of you already bored with this the answer is in the footnotes[2]. What even the quiz nerd will probably not know is that there is an even more exclusive club of librarians who were also football goalkeepers. I won’t waste your time asking you to try and name them but one of them is me obviously, and the other is the Head Librarian of the Unseen University. Despite this early similarity our narrative arcs as both librarians and goalkeepers have taken startlingly different trajectories.

I was a goalkeeper, much earlier in my career of course, although I continued to play well into my 30’s for a university staff team. I eventually retired from that role to play either an occasional midfield powerhouse, usually in wild daydreams, or more usually a crude but effective full back if we had too many precious academic who all wanted to be the elegant midfield playmaker. Unlike the distinctly unprecious composer Gavin Bryars, then a lecturer in our Polytechnic’s School of Performing Arts, who was an effective and dominating centre half making as few concessions to opponents as he now makes to his audiences. The Head Librarian of Unseen University has no previous experience of football and was chosen as goalkeeper on the perfectly sound premise that it is a considerable advantage to have a ‘keeper capable of standing in the middle of the goal and reaching either side of it without moving. I was chosen because no one else wanted to do it and as a goalkeeper I could only dream that one day I would have a football moment like the Head Librarian, arcing gracefully through the air to pull off a stunning save and in one movement hurl the ball almost the length of the pitch to the striker who had only to beat the last defender before driving the ball past the despairing opposition ‘keeper. By contrast I, at just barely 5’7” and of rather rotund build, was the wrong shape for a goalkeeper in at least two dimensions and I decided that I needed to find an alternative role to goalkeeper after a disturbing incident on Leicester’s Humberstone Park. After conceding three more goals in another dismal defeat, I was accosted by two young lads on their bikes as I trudged back to the dressing room. “’Ere are you the goalie” asked the larger of the two smart enough to recognise the significance of the bright orange jumper I was wearing when all the rest of the team were wearing green and black stripes. “Yes”, I replied pleased that at least someone was talking to me, “Oh he said…you’re fat for a goalie

The similarities between me and the Librarian from the Unseen University don’t end there. He was also in a magical rock band, The Band with Rocks in which he played a mean and pretty destructive keyboards but more culturally he also played lunchtime organ recitals though of distinctly atonal music in the University’s Great  Hall.  I was and suppose strictly still am in a band but there is nothing magical about our music and in any case I play guitar provided the song only has three chords and with modest aspirations as a singer but as Churchill once said about Atlee I have much to be modest about. Apart from those minor details the similarities are striking so we will tell you more about our goalkeeper librarian over the next few weeks.

Library Wars

Library Wars

We’ll also meet the Librarians on the Edge not ones driven to the edge of distraction by over boisterously cocky young undergraduates, pompous over important lecturers or the tiger parents of toddlers all fighting for the final copy of The Gruffalo but librarians who do actually live on the Edge and carry swords and rescue people: coming too there is also the unlikely sounding Library Wars from Japan and the even stranger librarians in the imagination of Audrey Niffenegger including the distinctly sinister Mr Openshaw and finally we won’t leave this series of posts without letting you make the acquaintance if you have not already done so of the librarian of Gormenghast Castle. I hope that has piqued the interest of a few of you at least for the next series of posts.

[1] A character in what is considered by many to be the best of the James Bond films From Russia with Love, played by Lotte Lenya she was a ruthless hatchet faced assassin with a pair of shoes that produced poisoned stilettos from the toe if you upset her. As far as I know, though, she has no previous convictions for being a librarian

[2] Luciano Pavarotti, Pope John Paul II, Julio Iglesias, and Albert Camus

 

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