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  • Margaret Mahy:Librarian of Babel
  • Catherine Butler (bio)

In 1982, Robert Phillips interviewed the English poet Philip Larkin about his life and work for the literary magazine Paris Review. At one point, Phillips unwisely asked Larkin, who was the university librarian in Hull, whether he knew of any other contemporary poet of note who was a librarian—apart, of course, from Jorge Luis Borges. Larkin, typically, replied: “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?” (60). It didn’t occur to either man to mention Margaret Mahy, whose first novel, The Haunting, was published that year. It is hardly a surprising omission: writing for children in New Zealand, Mahy was even further beyond Larkin’s horizon than Borges, writing for adults in Argentina. Yet Mahy had already published poetry in addition to the children’s fiction for which she would become increasingly famous, and was, just as importantly, a librarian in Christchurch. In this article I will (with some assistance from Borges) consider what it means—and more particularly what it meant to Margaret Mahy—to be not only a writer but a librarian too. How did her day job affect the form of her wider preoccupations and of her writing?

Libraries and librarianship hold a significant place in Mahy’s work. As late as 2006, more than a quarter of a century after she had left the profession, she made a library a central locus in her post-apocalyptic novel, Maddigan’s Fantasia, and its librarian the founder of the travelling circus that gives that book its name. However, I will concentrate my discussion on some of the texts Mahy produced around the turn of the 1980s, the point at which she left the library and began to make her living as a full-time writer. These include her 1978 story “The Librarian and the Robbers” and the novels The Haunting (1982), The Changeover (1984), and The Catalogue of the Universe (1985). I will argue that many of Mahy’s characteristic concerns—notably with the relationships between order and chaos, containment and release—are profoundly influenced by her dual vocation as writer and librarian. [End Page 129]

According to her biographer, Tessa Duder, Mahy was not always ambitious to be a librarian. Rather, she saw it as the least bad choice from the restricted set of possibilities available to a woman of her class and education in 1950s New Zealand (81). Nevertheless, Duder quotes as evidence of the young Mahy’s precocity a poem about the destruction of a library by fire, written when she was sixteen, which in retrospect hints at an early interest in some of the perplexing aspects of librarianship Mahy was to explore in her adult work:

Dante with Defoe and Dekker fell;No Virgil came to guide him through the Hell;See how he mingles ashes on the floorWith Homer, Hardy and Sir Thomas More.

(“The Burnt Library,” ll. 15–18, qtd. in Duder 71)

Dante, Defoe, and Dekker fall, but at least they fall in alphabetical order: if Virgil didn’t guide them, perhaps the spirit of Melvil Dewey did. In this early vision Mahy is already fascinated by the mingling of order, exemplified by the library and the books it contains, and the power of nature to reduce all human efforts to ash. What is certain is that, despite feeling no early vocation for librarianship, Mahy came in time to love and value her work. Perhaps the most important reasons for this were the human ones—the opportunities it gave her to meet people and books and introduce one to the other. This article, though, will consider a more Borgesian aspect of Mahy’s work, one that reveals the library as a place of paradox and mystery, and the librarian as the Janus-faced gatekeeper of two worlds. Mahy once declared: “I am here to assert that librarians stand dancing and pivoting on the tenuous ridge that separates chaos from order” (qtd. in Duder 82). Mahy’s assertion will be our starting point, as we join her for a while on that tenuous ridge.

The Marriage of Chaos and Harmony

More than most professions, librarianship has acquired a number of stereotypical associations, many of...


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