Kylie Broderick is a Ph.D. candidate and Mellon Fellow in modern Middle East history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is also the managing editor of Jadaliyya and a Co-Editor of the Resistance, Subversion, and Mobilization page. At the National Humanities Center, she teaches the Introduction to the Modern Middle East course. Her interests are in the political economy of the Middle East, as well as histories of gender, social mobilizations, and socio-economic class construction in Lebanon and Syria. Kylie is also a life-long video game player and a Nintendo Switch aficionado.
For many, video games are escapist. Yet, video games also often shed light on anxieties, hopes, and traditions we carry in the real world. Fantasy games, in particular, reflect the things we may fear and desire in reality—with a supernatural twist. Much like in life, fantasy games require me to negotiate with the people around me, even if the people I speak to are orcs or elves. I confront problems that I must solve, but they are supernatural puzzles. I visit the library to gain knowledge, but game worlds offer books containing underlying arcane power. Fantasy combines the recognizable with the fantastical, and so the library is more than a place of mundane literary discovery in video games; it is rendered symbolic by its inevitable association with magic—a Janus-faced symbology that combines the wonderful with the horrifying.
The fantasy genre, above all others, captures the anxieties and hopes we invest in books and libraries in our real world. These game objects are not, however, constrained to manifesting as mere helpful resources for the curious player. In games, libraries and books often portend dangerous places, people, and knowledge. The wondrous and threatening potential of books and libraries in video games is never divorced from the magic and monsters that shade them as threatening. As Neil Gaiman writes, “all bookshelves are magical.” But what sort of magic do they offer, and why does it matter? This essay examines the relationship between magic, books, and libraries through the many circumstances in which players and their characters tap into these arcane dimensions—as well as the ensuing fallout from attempting to control them. Channeling this inquiry through the video games Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (Monolith Soft and tri-Crescendo, 2003) and Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 2007) reveals how the real-world anxieties that are embedded in gaining knowledge and power through books—and about who is really in control—are mediated and exaggerated in those fantasy worlds. I argue that the efforts to access magic these video games depict—always in libraries, always through books—inevitably backfire, an analogous metaphor for our fears about their potential effects on us in our world, both as spiritual and secular objects. We sense books carry a dangerous and helpful magic of their own, of which we are aware and suspicious—a kind of knowledge/power nexus that, in a Foucauldian sense, is capable of surveilling, transforming, and disciplining us. It is in this perpetually anxious space between helpful and harmful that books, libraries, and the magic associated with them reside.
Histories of Magical Books and Libraries in Our World
Books have a deep-rooted relationship with magic, which is, broadly speaking, anything exterior or in opposition to the mundane. Perhaps magic is most directly embedded in religious traditions—from Abrahamic religions; to non-institutional traditions like Hoodoo, which use the Bible to conjure (Chireau); to Dharmic religions like Hinduism, where some followers use Vedic texts to catalogue magical formulas (Cohen).
Like in games, executing magic in reality is often channeled through books that claim to contain an inherent magic themselves. According to scholars, however, the use of magical tomes is not immediately accessible to beginner practitioners and requires tutelage. Due to the intensive study magic entails, “ceremonial magic [has] long been an elitist branch of magic and one requiring literacy. It is rare to find a magician, in history or fiction, without an accompanying magical book” (Butler, 125). For nineteenth-century British adepts, books like grimoires, spell tomes, or even certain books others might consider to be mundane (such as poetry) could be repositories of genealogical arcane memory and instruction manuals for casting spells. Knowledge in this case is quite literally power. However, grasping for magic often creates unintended consequences. Many naturalistic practical spell books warn that spells may turn on their spellcaster. One such example argues that “it is unethical to remove wild plants [to cast spells] … whatever power they may possess may backfire on you” (Illes, 181). Likewise, religions like Judaism and Islam contain traditions where spiritual books act as magical channels/talismans—but practitioners are warned that using them incorrectly can bring harm. For instance, the Qur’an can only become a magical object if the teacher’s directions are observed exactly: “… Islamic orthodoxy … considers the Quran to be only healing if the guidelines of the text are followed” (Galal, 176). If one blasphemes these directions then seeking magical help can damn the user.
Magic rebounds if one transgresses the invisible rules governing its use. Like using real-world spiritual magic, the wayward adventurer in a Baten Kaitos library or unpracticed Dragon Age mage attempting to use magic runs the risk of being harmed by the power they seek to wield.
Libraries and Books in Video Games: The Dangerous, the Wonderful
Characteristics of the terrible, wonderful world of magical libraries and books are shared across many video games, and there are re-occurrences in the kinds of arcane disasters that manifest. In some, libraries are merely conjoined to a place where magic (and disaster) happens, like Skyrim’s (Bethesda, 2011) arcane-focused College of Winterhold’s Arcanaeum. In others, libraries are merely inhabited by magical people who are feared for their dangerous potential, like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Skyhold (BioWare, 2014). At times, the library (and even its books) are possessed by magical monsters, like Final Fantasy V’s Library of Ancients (Square Enix, 1992). No matter the video game or era in which the game was published, esoteric disaster often accompanies the presence of libraries.
We can get a sense of the scope of the magical libraries trope by examining Baten Kaitos, which provides an interesting example of games representing the link between magic and books. In a future where humanity lives in the sky above a putrid Earth and magic is common, you play as an eighteen-year-old boy who journeys across the world’s five continents to find and defeat an evil god’s scattered remains. On the rainbow-crested continent of Anuenue, you visit the “Ancient Library of Magic,” a suspected location of one of the god’s body parts. The library is abandoned, inhabited by zombies, and sealed off by witches protecting the knowledge within. You must find certain books placed on unknown library shelves to proceed and you quickly discover that selecting the wrong bookcases reveals monsters hidden within—monsters that are books. These book-monsters are not merely mimics; they are actual books whose rage now manifests. Their animations include printed pages fluttering between their bindings and, like real-world unattended books, allergens infest them (including an attack called “sleep mold”). This literal embodiment of the link between magic, books, libraries, and disaster imagines that seeking power through magical books can rebound directly—magical power and the books that house them can contain or manifest dangers.
If Baten Kaitos demonstrates the link between magic and books by forcing the player to contend with the dangers of books as magical objects, then Dragon Age: Origins exemplifies the danger of libraries as magical spaces. In Dragon Age, your character must amass followers to repel an enemy horde, the Darkspawn—monsters that arise from underground periodically to devour surface inhabitants (an event called a Blight). Your character joins an elite order of warriors devoted to defending against the Blight, and the plot centers on enlisting aid from political powers. In recruiting allies, you visit the home of the mages, which also, as fate has it, is a library of sorts—the Circle of Magi. There, mages who are not yet in control of their magic are kept and trained.
In the world of Dragon Age, mages are constantly beset by demons beguiling them to become possessed, and, if mages surrender, they irreversibly transform into demons themselves (called abominations). Demons offer a range of sin-based temptations—there are demons of rage, desire, sloth, etc. A Circle of Magi is a place where mages are taught to resist the temptations of demons and take control of their magic, learning from books and elders in the Circle. Like real-world arcane traditions, magical spaces and literature in video games are didactic.
Arriving at the Circle reveals it has gone haywire—it has been sealed off because all mages inside are assumed to be dead or abominations. Although it is unclear why this happened, there are indications that some of the mages attempted to use blood magic (perhaps fearing the concurrent Blight happening in the outside world)—a taboo, powerful magic attractive to demons. Here, the consequences of mages grasping beyond their reach into power that cannot be controlled is all too obvious. As you travel through the Circle, the demons and once-human abominations attempt to kill or ensnare you into a permanent nightmare realm controlled by demons.
Yet, even under normal circumstances, the Circle is a house of horrors. It is not only an institution of tutelage but a place of containment and even punishment—in emergencies, it becomes a prison where mages are left to die by their Templar captors. While it is generally accepted among non-mages that magic is a natural force with useful functions, these facets are overshadowed by a widespread paranoia holding that mages are dangerous and subversive. By tapping into the magical realm through books, mages are seeking knowledge/power beyond “normal” people’s reach. Mages are considered such threats to “normal” society that living in the Circle is compulsory. Therefore, while the Circle of Magi doubles as a library—the only one in the game—it is also a prison. Mages live under a permanent panopticon: they are never allowed to escape the oversight of templars for fear they could succumb to demons’ temptations. Mages are surrounded by books at all times, and readable notes throughout the Circle reveals that mages seek refuge in the literary world to escape their permanent captivity. In a world where magic is something natural and biological, something feared, something to be controlled, why is it that mages are provided open access to books in their library-sanctuary-prison? Perhaps it is because books are seen as a panacea even as they are simultaneously a threat to mages. On one hand, mages learn to control their magic—and their demonic tempters—through studying magical books. On the other, magical books contain the door to magic’s dark arts.
Radford et al. suggest there is a Foucauldian relationship between libraries and surveillance, one reflected in Dragon Age. They write that “unpacking the layers of surveillance, docility and agency within library sites [reveals] a richer understanding of panopticism” (685). Certainly, the seemingly endless knowledge books contain, the well-ordered shelves looming imposingly over our bodies, and the “either actual or perceived surveillance” (687) of the library engenders a fear of libraries as places that know and are more than they communicate on the surface. In Dragon Age, the panopticon is twofold. On one hand, mages in this library live under the watchful eyes of their captors, the templars. The library is a prison. On the other, as you travel through the disaster, you are dogged by the watchful eyes of the books at every step. The books are guards. Here, the fear involves more than the unintentional consequences of attempting to gain power through books that might be beyond your ability to control. It is also that books can know and control you in turn. Whether in a video game or real world, in a library, you might be surrendering yourself to their power.
Conclusion: Libraries and Books in Our Imagination and in the Real World
Even beyond video games, books habitually take on characteristics that set them apart from other objects. An example can be found within John Bierce’s Into the Labyrinth: Mage Errant Book 1 (2018), when a magical librarian warns his mage apprentices against exploring the restricted levels of the library too deeply, saying that “magical libraries tend to have a life of their own ”(45-46). The library offers the only opportunity for advancement for these juvenile mages while it simultaneously contains a threatening and obscured sentience. Likewise, these fictional representations of books show how knowledge acquisition and the possibilities libraries offer in video games are also invariably paired with suspicion: what are you accidentally rousing when you pick a tome from a bookcase? In Baten Kaitos, you are literally awakening a monster. In Dragon Age, you are entering the lair of magic-wielders perpetually on the edge of snapping into living nightmares. On the coin’s one side is knowledge and opportunity, on the other is peril and fear. Books stand in for the unintended consequences that come about when seeking power, power one often cannot control, yielding a disaster they cannot contain.
The dangers and opportunities of attempting to harness knowledge presents a bridge between religion, fictional realms such as those found in games, and our world. While in religion and in fictional representations, the danger of books come from their manifestly magical dimensions, in our world, books as mundane informational objects can upset stable and exploitative social and political realities. Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 1953) states that “books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget … The magic is only in what books say…” (63). Like in arcane practice, everyday books function as collective memorials—they are talismans warding against ignorance and forgetting. That Fahrenheit 451, unprompted, alludes to the potential magic in/of books harkens to our association between them. Yet, as Fahrenheit 451 also details, and as the concept of library-as-panopticon suggests, books are not merely helpful resources—they are objects of suspicion. Perhaps we understand that books, overtly magical or not, contain power we may not be able to harness once opened—we might even fear that this knowledge could control us. In today’s disinformation age, where it can be difficult to tell when the written world is lying to us, this suspicion is warranted. Books are not always the helpful truth-tellers they present themselves to be—consuming the wrong kind of book can bring about evil. Literature purveying various malicious conspiracies and propaganda have all provoked devastating consequences in our world, from hate crimes to genocides. Video games take this real-life paranoia and render it metaphorical: magical books can change, ruin, and kill you—and they do this just as often as they provide the power they promise.
Thank you to Yasmine Flodin-Ali, Israel Domínguez, Mekarem Eljamal, and John Kallas for editing this piece, allowing me to bounce ideas off of them, and correcting any factual errors. Thank you also to Patrick Dolan and Diana M. O. for patiently editing this piece with me through several drafts!
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