I am currently reading a series of novels in which the importance of an old, lost book cannot be understated. I have often been intrigued by the importance of books in fantasy, and this often goes in hand with the importance of history in the genre. Most conflicts in fantasy are the results of ancient conflicts come again; it seems to be a genre trope. Things old and forgotten, especially books that contain hidden and/or lost knowledge, are often vital to the heroes overcoming in the end.
So, as a motif, how does this work? What is symbolic or thematic about old books? Notice, I am focusing here on old books, not new ones, for no one ever goes seeking after a newly-written tome of hidden knowledge. This is, in many ways, an interesting inversion of the facts of the modern world in which we live, for we tend to prize new knowledge over old. Old things–books in particular–don’t have the same cultural relevancy and importance as they used to. The men and women of the Renaissance, for example, saw themselves as direct heirs of the Roman Empire, and held themselves as one and the same people. That is a bit simplistic, but it is a far cry from the modern world in which we worship change and the New, rather than honor tradition and history and roots. We see ourselves as very different people than those who fought in WWII, let alone those who lived over a thousand years ago.
Modernism & Archaism
But that is what old books give us. They give us tradition, history, roots. They tie us to the past. In our modern world, if you pick up a new history, you will find the writer questioning just about every assumption an historical author made of his own time, or the past of which he was writing. We, in the modern world, assume we know better the minds of the Renaissance man than the Renaissance man did. But the pre-modern mindset of such foundational authors as E.R. Eddison, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis laid the groundwork for a genre that cherishes the past in the way men of earlier generations did.
Old books and their importance in fantasy literature is inextricably tied to this longing for and respect of the past. Eddison, Tolkien, and Lewis lived during a time of great upheaval in the twentieth-century, and they saw many things that showed the depths of human depravity. It is often written of E.R. Eddison that whereas authors of his time such as Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others sought to embrace the new world and craft a new literature suited to its dissonance, he saw the present as an outgrowth of a past that not only could not be ignored but which must be embraced if the present is to make sense. He did not reject the traditions of his fathers but rather made them his own, internalizing them, and then melding them with the present. The modernists said the past is of no value; the “archaists” (like Eddison, Tolkien, Lewis et al) said the past is of the utmost value.
The Value of the Past
Thus we arrive at the importance of old books in fantasy. Books speak of the value of the past. Even though the typical modern person considers something from the 1990s to be old–even ancient, if you’re young enough–quite the opposite attitude is prevalent in fantasy. I have often lamented how in fantasy novels events of 3,000 years past are more relevant in an author’s world-building than events of 50 years gone, which shows a distinct lack of understanding of history. But this is also tied to the old books question. The older something is, under the logic of the pre-modern world, the more valuable it becomes. It is simplistic, again, but it is about all the modern mind can comprehend, it seems. A book from the World War era, by this way of thinking, is of far lesser value than the Bible.
And there we arrive at another parallel of fantasy to our own world: religious texts tend to be venerated for their antiquity, whereas scientific books are venerated for their newness. As science usually has little role in fantasy, it is the former aspect that is drawn on by authors, as many conflicts are couched in religious or quasi-religious terms. A Dark Lord, for example, is often presented in a Satanic light, and his (often) earlier defeat recorded in the old book is again reminiscent of a Paradise Lost-type of religious framework. The parallels need not be overt, but they are almost always there if you look for them.
The Old Books Motif
I realize I have rambled somewhat off topic, so I must bring the discussion finally back to the question of how old books act as a motif. Symbolically, old books are often representative of the past and of knowledge. Often the old book contains some vital piece of information needed to defeat the Dark Lord, information that cannot be found elsewhere. Thematically, old books likewise speak of the past, but of its importance to understanding the present; also, old books represent truth, or the search for it. Truth is a touchy subject in the modern world, yet so many of our fantasy books seek to arrive at it within the context of the imaginary world. Very seldom do you find a fantasy world that is as utterly subjective as our modern philosophers claim our real world to be. This, I believe, demonstrates our deep longing for something we can hang our shirts on and call Truth, and I don’t think that such a quest is at all a bad thing.
The question, ultimately, comes down to the value of those old books. In a world in which newness is valued over antiquity, we subjectivize everything because we hold the opinions of our fathers worth little weight. Thus I think it beautifully ironic that in our literature, though not in real life, we still value old books and the knowledge they give us. It represents a longing, I believe, that every human has for the past, an inbred nostalgia that we like to deny having but which is part of our makeup as sentient and rational beings.