Archives in Fiction: Uprooted
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
In Naomi Novik's 2015 novel Uprooted, Agnieszka is chosen by the Dragon, a powerful wizard who protects the villages of the valley from the oppressive and dangerous Wood, to live with him in his tower for ten years. It's a tradition of the valley, a means of ensuring their continued protection, but Agnieszka soon realizes her tenure with the Dragon is far from common compared to the others that came before her. A natural witch, Nieshka is drawn into the fight between humans and the Wood. The stakes are high, but the sides are tenuous as Nieshka realizes she must slough off the romanticism of childhood and face the grim reality of a world at war.
As a reader of fantasy and science-fiction, it's pretty much a given that a library or reference materials show up since characters often need to get their information from a source of some kind. In most cases, archives are not necessarily referenced, but they're often lumped in with libraries as a form of shorthand. Uprooted, however, shows some nuance when it comes to how information is utilized and where that information is stored.
The Dragon, Sarkan, resides in a large tower that, of course, has a large library where the wizard reads, researches, and experiments with magic. In Novik's novel, magic is as malleable as it is ancient. Spells aren't necessarily set in stone and wizards spend as much time discovering how to wield their magic as they do using it. Early on in the book, Nieshka's best friend Kasia is abducted by creatures of the Wood and infected by it's evil influence. Desperate to find a way to save her friend, Nieshka is at the end of her rope when the Dragon presents a special artifact:
...he took a small gold key and unlocked a closed cabinet of black wood on the far side of the room. I peered into it: it was full of thin flat sheets of glass in a rack, pieces of parchment pressed between them. He took one and brought it out. "I've preserved it mostly as a curiosity," he said, "but that seems to suit you best." (p.116)
Throughout the book we find, along with Nieshka, how obsessive Sarkan is about spellcraft, particularly how he can utilize it to fight the Wood. The books he collects contain notes, his and others, as well as examples of marginalia. That he preserves ancient spells once used by the original residents of the valley is hardly surprising. Ledgers are also referenced as a means of showing how much the Wood has grown in power and in what capacity.
It isn't until Nieshka finds herself in the capitol city of Kralia, neck deep in the politics of royals and wizards, that archives are actually mentioned. When she arrives in the city, Nieshka is taken to the Charovnikov, the Hall of the Wizards, which is both a research facility as well as a library for wizards and wizards-in-training - similar to the Dragon's tower only on a larger scale. Later on, while searching for books that might present a similar earthy feel of the valley, and therefore magic she wields with ease, she's told by Father Ballo, a wizard monk, that what she sees among the shelves isn't the entirety of the Hall's collection. He says:
A book need not to be magical to be of value...Indeed, I would have liked to move them to the University's collection for more thorough study, but Alosha insisted on their being kept here, under lock...However, I do believe the University archivists, who are men of excellent training, might with the proper instruction and a rigorous scheme of oversight have been entrusted with the safekeeping of lesser -- (p.272)
So, we have a special collection of "lesser" works locked away because they're considered too dangerous for anyone who isn't a trained wizard or witch. We also have a university archive and an all male group of archivists who're trusted even less with the ability to keep those tomes out of the wrong hands. I guess it begs the question: why doesn't the Hall of Wizards have an archive of its own? Or, why isn't the Hall of Wizards considered an archive? Most likely, it's a level of detail unimportant to the narrative, but the delusional and distrustful nature of the Hall of Wizards regarding outside institutions is considerably important to the story and how the Wood manages to outmaneuver humans through the exploitation and manipulation of their paranoia.
Whether or not the Wood's long-term game works out is for the reader to find out, but Uprooted is a fantastic, beautifully realized adult fairy tale world. That some form of archive even exists within the narrative so I have the ability to write about it gives me an immense amount of pleasure. So, enjoy the ride and remember...anything can happen in the Wood.