Known in his day as Queen Elizabeth I’s conjuror, the enigmatic Dr Dee (1527–1609) was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character Prospero, the sorceror in the Tempest. He has fascinated writers ever since. Dee scoured Europe to assemble the most remarkable private collection of books in England at the time. Sadly, the library and his laboratory were ransacked whilst he was away traveling, but about a hundred of his books ended up in the exhibition I saw.
So that got me thinking: what are the greatest secret libraries of all time? Here (in no particular order) is my top 10:
1. Lost Library by John Dee
The exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians includes many books with Dee’s distinctive hand written notes, including his famous Monas Hieroglyphica. On display, too, are several of his magical artefacts, including a crystal given to him by the archangel Uriel and his black scrying mirror. Not to be missed.
2. The Fellowship of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
The first of several fictional repositories of secret knowledge is from JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. In the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf journeys to the fortress city of Minas Tirith, in Gondor, to discover the history of the One Ring. In the secret archives there he finds the account of Isildur, the last king of Gondor, who cut the ring from the Dark Lord Sauron’s finger.
3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Set in a remote Benedictine abbey in Italy, Umberto Eco’s classic story revolves around the abbey library – a fortified tower called the aedificium. The library turns out to be a complex labyrinth, whose secret only the librarian and assistant librarian know, and which contains a forbidden – and deadly - book written by Aristotle.
4. The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett
The Unseen University is the school of wizardry in Terry Pratchett’s brilliant Discword series, and predates Hogwarts. A pastiche of the Bodleian in Oxford, the library contains a number of chained volumes, including the Octavo, the most powerful book of magic ever written. In true Pratchett style, the librarian is transformed into an orang-utan in the second novel, the Light Fantastic.
5. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell by Susanna Clark
Gilbert Norrell jealously guards his collection of magical books in Susanna Clark’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Norrell, one of the two magicians who emerge during the Napoleonic Wars to revive English magic, is not the sharing kind. At his house at Hurtfew he has a large hoard of magic books that he has spent many years collecting for his own use. At first he offers to mentor Jonathan Strange, but when he discovers Strange is a more gifted magician, he prefers to lock his books away.
6. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
Who can forget the restricted section of the Hogwarts library? A part of the library closed off by a rope, it is where the books containing powerful Dark Magic never taught at Hogwarts are kept. In the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is searching for information about the alchemist Nicholas Flamel. He wonders whether it might be in the Restricted Section. As the plot develops, the Restricted Section is a constant source of useful information.
7. Star Wars by George Lucas
In the Star Wars story, the Jedi Archives in the Great Library of Ossus contain the galaxy’s most priceless and ancient texts, which are sacred to Jedi scholars. For centuries Ossus thrived as the home of Jedi wisdom, until the Library was raided by Exar Kun, the Dark Lord of the Sith, who stormed the Chamber of Antiquities. In the film it bore a striking resemblance to the Long Room of Trinity College Library in Dublin.
8. Silence in the Library by Steven Moffat
The size of an entire planet, The Library appears in a 2008 Dr Who episode called Silence in the Library. In it, the Doctor, played by David Tennant, and his companion, Donna Noble played by Catherine Tate, visit the greatest library in the universe. The Library turns out to be infested with carnivorous aliens and is controlled by the imagination of a young girl on Earth who thinks she’s watching television.
9. The Bodleian, Oxford
With more than 12 million books, Oxford’s famous research library is the second of the real-life secret libraries in my top 10. Older than the British Library, dating back to John Dee’s time and earlier, these days it is open for tours but still manages to evince an air of secrecy. When I was invited to do an event at the new Bodleian building recently, I found a quote on the official website: “Many people believe there is a maze of tunnels underneath the libraries.” I hope so.
10. The Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt
This brings us to the most iconic and mysterious library of all – the Great Library of Alexandria, in Egypt. The daddy of all secret libraries, it is the third of my historiacally factual repositories of knowledge. Even though (or perhaps because) it was destroyed centuries ago, the library enjoys a legendary status. I use it as the background to the Archie Greene story. Alexander the Great founded the city in 331 BC. When he died his successors built the library next to a Greek temple called the Musaeum (House of the Muses -- from which the word museum comes.) The Library was tasked with collecting all of the world’s knowledge – now that’s a library!
11. Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret by DD Everest
(Well I had to include my own library!) The magical library in Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret is hidden under the ancient streets of Oxford. When Archie Greene receives a mysterious book on his 12th birthday, he is drawn into the exciting world of the Flamekeepers of Alexandria, a secret community tasked with protecting the world’s most magical and dangerous books. But as Archie soon discovers, only he can protect the world from the seven most deadly books of all – the Terrible Tomes – and save magic.
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