Knowledge is Magic: The Library of The Neitherlands from the Magicians
The Magicians is a five-season series adapted from Lev Grossman’s trilogy of the same name. The show tells the dark and visceral story of a group young people in their twenties discovering and honing their magic at the graduate school Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy in hopes of becoming a master magician someday.
I love this show. It is satisfying to watch because the plot development and characters fit so well together. The characters bear the consequences of their actions. Sometimes they make conscious choices to make sacrifices; sometimes they make selfish decisions; and sometimes they underestimate the consequences. All in all, they still do what they do and face the consequences at the end, which is what I like to see in popular culture. But today, I want to focus on one thing – The Library of The Neitherlands.
The Library of The Neitherlands
The Library of The Neitherlands is the institution of library in the multiverse of the magical world of the show. It does what a library in our world does – information organization, information usage, circulation, and repository. It has an impressive collection – all the books ever written in both the magical world and the mortal world and the books about the entire lives of everyone in the multiverse. The Library is essentially the central library and the magical legal repository of the multiverse! There are branches and drop-off outlets. There is even a branch in the underworld because why not? It is a magical world after all.
What are the books from the magical world about then? Well, magic, of course. There are books across languages and cultures about magic spells and rituals, magical flora and fauna, magical illnesses, magical artifacts and devices, history of magic, and even statistics of magical circumstances. There is a magical counterpart for each mortal subject matter! When the university or personal collection cannot provide the magicians the knowledge they need for their shenanigans, they go to the Library of The Neitherlands. And I became mesmerized with the show because that is a fantastical analogue to how dedicated libraries in our world are to collection development in order to satisfy users’ diverse information needs.
At the Library of The Neitherlands, there is a section called Poison Room. The air inside is toxic and prolonged exposure is lethal. But the poison in the air is not even the real poison; it is just the failsafe to contain the real poison in Poison Room. Then, what is the real poison? What is so toxic that calls for such desperation?
It is the knowledge that is deemed by the governing council of the Order of the Library to be too dangerous to be known by anyone. Because the governing council believes some knowledge enables harmful magics, it removes certain books from society to prevent the destruction of the magical world and the mortal world.
The governing council may have started this out of genuine concern, but its censorship of knowledge is later discovered to have been abused by a member of the governing council. This person studies from the banned books on how to pilfer magic from the pipes that are pumping magic from the source to the world where it becomes ambient magic meant to be shared by all magicians, so that he could hoard enough magic for himself in secret to become a new god while others go to extreme lengths to beg for a scrap of magic.
The Fascist Machine
Under this person’s leadership, the Order of the Library becomes his fascist machine. This becomes quite obvious in the later seasons as the slow and gradual fascism becomes an overt suppression of the magicians who are not in the privileged class of the powerful families. Hedge witches may be the ones who suffer the most. Hedge witches are people who are magically adept but do not have any formal and classical magical education. They know magic exists, but they are deprived of the means to learn magic, so they are already desperate for any knowledge on magic before the fascist machine becomes the new social order. When the magic fascism comes into light, hedge witches are persecuted as they are deemed not worthy of magic. The fascist machine let tempered magic batteries circulate in hedge witch circles, so that when hedge witches draw magic from the batteries to cast magic, they will be badly hurt or even die. The only remedy is to get a magical tattoo that stops them from casting any magic. Die doing magic or live stripped of magic? Neither are real choices; both annihilate freedom of expression.
Since the fascist scheme is a quiet progression, the other members of the Order of the Library, i.e. the keepers of the Library of The Neitherlands, who are mostly the librarians of the Library, do not see it coming until it is almost too late. They are supposed to be the guardians of knowledge of all kinds and they believe in the value of their mission, but now they realize what they have been doing maintains the access inequality of knowledge and the literal flow of ambient magic and they have to keep doing so if they want to stay alive. This is a brutal reflection of how deceptive fascist schemes can be and make people not see or question what they do in our real world.
But there is one librarian – a librarian of the Library of The Neitherlands who questions. Her name is Zelda Schiff.
Magic for Good?
Zelda is the Head Librarian and a member of the governing council of the Order of the Library. She has read most of the books at the Library. She is also a master magician. She wields magic like it is the most naturally thing to do. I would like to think of her great magical power as a metaphor for the political power she does not know she has at the Library of The Neitherlands. Throughout the show, her back story is sprinkled here and there and looking back now, I realize that Zelda is a nuanced and fascinating character.
She is torn between wanting to believe that what the Order of the Library does is justified and seeing the pain it afflicts on others. She has been in this emotional and moral turmoil ever since the Library assumes fascist control of magic. When some of the characters confront her about the Order of the Library’s actions, she hears the plea behind the rage in their words. Her immense knowledge and mastery of magic eventually uncover the secret ploy of the leader of the governing council to become a god at the expense of all others; her deep compassion beacons her to use her power for the right reasons. Above all, she owns up to her mistakes and misguided actions and offers her knowledge and power to undo the damages as much as possible. Zelda is powerful and compassionate, but she is not perfect and that makes her human and a relatable character.
Is Magic Good or Bad?
The Magicians tells a story of a person’s abuse of magic behind the façade of the Library of The Neitherlands. Using the institution of library as the plot device is a bold choice as it is often perceived to be a trustworthy institution in the public eye of the real world. I do not think this subversion of expectation is a cheap or convenient plot device to create incendiary drama. Rather, I interpret this as a cautionary tale of unchecked power and abuse of trust enabled by exclusive access to information. Knowledge itself is neutral, but people’s thoughts and actions enabled by their knowledge is not and they can be harmful and dangerous without guidance – just like magic.