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Marginalia (A Story about Stories)

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In the village of Arabel's Raven in Oxfordshire, just a short walk from the train station, there is an overgrown private garden off the high street that is guarded by a rusted gate. The gate looks as if it hasn't been opened in decades, and it hasn't been--not by Muggles, at least. But if you are fortunate enough to have a wand, you can tap it lightly on the lock, open the gate, push past the vines and rose bushes, and walk though the garden, until you find yourself at the intersection of two narrow streets lined with ancient, half-timbered buildings. The wizarding village of Arabel's Raven isn't much to speak of, just a few shops, houses, and a pub, all hidden behind opaque glass panes and a thick layer of dust. But at the end of the high street, where you might expect to find the spires of a church or a cathedral, there is a second rusty iron gate leading into another overgrown garden. Every witch and wizard in Britain knows what lies beyond: a building known simply as the Library.

No one knows exactly how old the Library is, but legend has it that its oldest books once belonged to Rowena Ravenclaw herself. The Library’s gargoyles jeered at Nicholas Flamel when he first visited; its dragon genealogies are the lengthiest and most complete in the world. Its shelves hold books detailing every known spell and curse, encyclopedias of magical plants and creatures, treatises on magical ailments and their cures, histories of wars and rebellions, and, last but not least, all the most noble tales of magical courage and wisdom and love.

This is not one of those stories. Some would say that this is a story of a desecration; others would say it is a story about madness. The Ministry would deem the damage done a crime worthy of a sojourn in Azkaban. Having witnessed the event itself, however, I have chosen to remain silent, despite a vow that my family and I have taken to protect the Library and its contents. You shall tell me, at the conclusion of my story, whether you think I have made the right choice.


There are three characters in our story, the first and most important of which is the Library itself, an enormous octagonal grey stone building covered over with a thick veil of ivy. Only a dozen narrow, barred windows and a heavy wooden door suggest that it might be anything but impregnable. Two dozen gargoyles perch on the roof and hiss and spit at passersby. Any trace of magic in your blood will afford you entry, but once you are inside the building, just as your eyes begin to adjust to the gloom, someone will stop you and kindly ask you to explain what you need. The Library is one of the most highly guarded places in the wizarding world, and it doesn't share its secrets with everyone.

The Library, you see, is a magical structure, one that not only houses its ancient volumes but shelters and protects them for future generations. It is guarded by series of charms and curses, a staff of Librarians trained in the Darkest of the Dark Arts, and a small army of house-elves who care for and protect the collection as they would care for the oldest of Britain’s wizarding families. Many of the Library’s family genealogies are accessible only to those with the purest of blood; the touch of a half-blood will cause the volume to dissolve. Most of the encyclopedias of the Dark Arts are cursed, and the most restricted volumes of all have pages laced with poison, which must be read with dragonhide gloves and a goblet of antidote to hand.

And yet the Library is also a place of enchantment, beauty, and profound revelation, something which is evident even before you enter the building. The Library, you see, sings its stories, one book at a time, one chapter at a time, one line at a time, in a sweet, high-pitched child’s voice that is audible as soon as you pass through the second iron gate. No one knows the charm behind the song, but it seems to be centered on an ancient oak lectern placed next to the long Reader’s Table. The book placed on the lectern is the book whose contents are broadcast to the world, and when the Library finishes with one volume, another, elsewhere in the building, will begin to glow, so that a house-elf can find it and bring it to the lectern and the Library can begin singing again.

Inside, the Library is never silent; the song rises above the rustle of turning pages and scratching quills and the long groan of shelves shifting as the house-elves access the older books and parchments. Many of our Readers are distracted from their tasks by the profound sense of beauty that permeates the building. Indeed, the Library’s song is so exquisite that every once in a long while, someone will visit for whom the call of the Library is so overpowering that they never leave the premises again. That is how my mother came to serve here, almost forty years ago, when she first heard the Library’s song while searching for the documents that specified the ownership of a small cottage at the edge of her family’s estate. I was born here several years later, the songs of the Library already running in my veins, one of a long line of servants who have kept the Library’s secrets and helped Readers discover its magic, decade after decade.


The beauty of the Library is not what attracted the other two characters in our story, however. I remember the date of the event clearly: it was three weeks ago Thursday, at the end of June, shortly after the conclusion of the Triwizard Tournament. The Ministry had just issued its latest decree affecting our day-to-day operations, one that prohibited any Reader from inquiring after books on the last war. Ever since The Boy Who Lived had proclaimed He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s return, we had endured one decree after another, restricting access to various patrons or parts of the Library without explicit Ministry permission. When the decree arrived, Ptolemy, the supervising house-elf, grumbled that caution was fine, but this latest decree went one step too far, for how could anyone assess the accuracy of the Boy’s claims, if they couldn’t read about his first victory?

“Wizards can be Obliviated, but history remains,” he muttered darkly as he swept under the Reader’s Table at the end of the day and the Librarians took their leave one by one. “Hypatia,” he added, turning to me, “it looks as if the Library has almost finished with the book on the lectern. Would you stand watch tonight, to find the next one? My best guess is that it will appear within the next five to six hours. You will not miss much sleep.”

(Aha! You had assumed that I was a witch or a wizard, hadn’t you? Indeed, I led you to believe so. Would any reader would have continued with this story, had the first line read thus:

I, Hypatia, daughter of the house-elves Bitty and Pliny, would like to tell you a story about two wizards I happened to overhear during my midnight rounds?

No, of course not. Who listens, who truly listens, to a house-elf, after all?)

Ptolemy and I extinguished all the candles in the Readers’ Room and in the long halls that circled it to help me find the book once it began glowing, and he and the other house-elves retired to our quarters in the attic. By early evening I was alone in the Library, watching the sun fade through the building’s few windows. A few hours later I sat alone in the inky blackness of the Readers’ Room, listening absently to the Library sing the story of the Dragon of Holyhead.

A flicker of light woke me from my reverie. At first I assumed it was our next book glimmering, but the spark came from the hallway that led to the main entrance. I got to my feet immediately and groped for a candle, but to my amazement I heard voices coming from the direction of the front door. Had a Librarian forgotten to cast the locking spells that kept us safe? Was it someone from the Ministry, checking to ensure we had enforced their latest decree? Instead of lighting my candle, I slipped under the Readers’ Table silently.

"--really don’t believe this is a good idea, Sirius." It was a wizard’s voice, low and wary, accompanied by the sounds of footsteps on the flagstones.

"I told you, Alphard taught me the spells we need. They’ve been in the family for ages, and I’ve never had any trouble." The second wizard’s voice was louder and more carefree. "How do you think we got hold of those Animagus books, anyway? Hogwarts never had anything useful on that topic, and I don’t blame them. Who wants a castle full of children who can change into animals at a moment’s notice?"

The two wizards entered the Readers’ Room and approached the rotund Catalogue, making their way by the light of their wands. I was shocked to see the carefree wizard, a tall, thin man with wild black hair, approach the Catalogue and tap it with his wand. "The Compleat History of the Defeat of Tom Riddle, first edition," he said very clearly, and inside the vast belly of the Catalogue, the scraps of parchment began to whirl. One emerged, hovering before the wizard who had summoned it. "Here we are. Right here in the Readers’ Room, south-southwest bookshelf, top shelf, third book from the right."

The other man, the wary one, looked at his companion with amazement. "You do know that Catalogue is charmed, Sirius?" he said. "That it takes a Librarian months to learn how to use it?"

The wizard called Sirius shrugged. "Alphard always said the Black blood was good for something." He walked over to the south-southwest bookshelf, conjured a small footstool, and pulled his book from the shelf. The two sat down together and lit one of the lamps on the Readers’ Table, and I crept out from my hiding place and slipped behind a bookcase in an effort to see them more clearly.

They were seated at the Table together, side by side, the carefree, dark-haired wizard and his worried companion, both leaning over the book with an air of expectation. Sirius opened the book and leafed through, until he had reached a page he recognized.

"Peter Pettigrew, or Valour, Being a Concise and Truthfull Account of that Moste Modeste of Heroes," Sirius read bitterly. "We have our work cut out for us, Remus."

And with that declaration he pulled a quill and an inkpot from his robes and murmured a spell I didn’t recognize. I gasped out loud despite myself, and I would have thrown myself across the room in order to prevent what was clearly about to happen had not the other wizard grasped his wrist and intervened first.

"I thought we were simply going to take it," Remus said, real fear in his voice. "You can’t write in it, Sirius. Do you have any idea how many charms protect these books? Do you know what--"

Sirius pulled away in annoyance. "Nothing will happen, Remus. Nothing. I’ve done it before. You’re not a Librarian. Stop acting this way."

"My father was," Remus said.

Sirius looked at him sharply.

"My father was a Librarian," Remus said again, clearing his throat. "Until one day he reminded a Reader that there were certain books that werewolves were not allowed to access. Fenrir Greyback did not take kindly to that suggestion."

I did not recognize the name, but evidently Sirius did, because his eyes widened. "I’m sorry, Remus," he said. "I didn’t know."

"Greyback followed him home that evening. I was still playing outside when the full moon rose."

"And your father never went back?"

Remus shook his head. "He simply didn’t have the heart for it, not when he knew I wasn’t going to follow him into the profession. Our family have been Librarians for generations."

Sirius slashed his quill across the page defiantly, and I waited, heart in my mouth, to see what would happen. Nothing did.

"See?" Sirius jotted a few notes at the top of the page. Still nothing. "If we don’t do this, the truth may be lost altogether."

Remus sighed. "Fine. But if you drop dead tonight, I'm not going to be the one who explains it to Harry."

Sirius smiled and dipped his quill in ink.


Sirius wrote for hours that night, bending over the book, his hair falling over his face, his quill scratching furiously. At first I couldn’t understand why I simply watched it happen. I had expected the gargoyles to creep in and attack him, or the ink to turn to blood. I had expected him to scream with pain, or his hand to wither away as the night went on. I had never seen anyone desecrate a book before, and I had expected to be horrified. But the fact of the matter was that I wasn’t horrified at all; I was curious.

Shortly before dawn, Remus stood up and began pacing. "The first Librarians will arrive soon," he said. He waited, lips tight.

"Almost done," Sirius replied, and he was. Ten minutes later, he stowed his quill and inkpot in his robes. "Want to read it?"

Remus nodded and sat down again, leafing through the pages, one by one. When he reached the end, he ran his hand down the page and looked at his fingers. "Dry already?"

"It’s not as if I didn’t plan this out," Sirius replied. "Ink selected for this very purpose."

"You can add my name to it," Remus said, and for a moment he and Sirius smiled at one another, as if they were sharing a secret.

"Together again!" Sirius said, and he pulled out his quill, made a few quick corrections, and added a single line with a flourish. Then he murmured a concealment spell, closed the book, and replaced it on the shelf. The two walked toward the door, shoulder to shoulder.

"It’s not a prank, exactly, but it may be the best mischief we’ve ever managed," Sirius said proudly. "Our magnum opus, you might say."

"Speak for yourself, Sirius," Remus said as their footsteps retreated. "I have quite a bit of mischief left in me yet."


If you go to the Library at Arabel's Raven--with the proper permission from the Ministry, of course--you can request The Compleat History of the Defeat of Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort, on the Thirty-First of October, All Hallow’s Eve, in the Year 1981. You want the first edition. Don't be surprised if the clerk on duty can't find it on the shelf and needs to request the assistance of his supervisor, a smiling, pink-cheeked witch who will tell you that there are several other, later editions on the shelf, perfectly serviceable for your purposes. Tell her that you want to see this version, that you have been informed that it sits on a shelf in the back awaiting treatment.

She'll be unwilling, but she’s mostly concerned about the Ministry; everyone is nervous these days, with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named on the rise again. She's not a bad sort, though, and if you given her your papers and ask politely, she'll bring you the book, a thick leather-covered tome with gilt edges. If you ask her why it's not on the shelf, she'll tell you that it's been defaced. The margins of a full two hundred pages have been covered with tiny, precise writing in a mysterious permanent black ink that defies all the usual cleaning spells. It's the work of a madman, she’ll say. No one knows how it happened or why anyone would deface a book like this.

If you fill out the proper paperwork and allow the Librarian to place a tracking charm between its covers, you can take the book back to the Reading Room and see it for yourself. The story starts on page 816, on the first page of the chapter entitled Peter Pettigrew, or Valour, and it continues until almost the end of the book. The tiny black letters run up and down the margins, circling the text, jumping from the end of one page to the beginning of the next. Blotches dance across the pages, words have been struck out, and entire passages are illegible beneath thick, dark crosshatching. It appears at first to be anonymous libel, the ramblings of a madman, but at the very end there are a few last lines testifying to its veracity, concealed from view by a rather clever charm that allows a faithful reader to see the story’s conclusion:

This is our story, told in full to the best of our abilities. Ask those who were involved to corroborate our version of the tale: Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall, Alastor Moody, Emmeline Vance, Daedelus Diggle, and Arabella Figg. One day, the wizarding world will know the truth.
Sirius Black, the only wizard ever to escape Azkaban
Remus J. Lupin, werewolf

It may be the work of a madman, but it is a breathtaking story, full of love and betrayal, mistaken identity, cowardice, suspicion, anger, and cynical calculation, unlike the tales of heroism and courage that usually fill our shelves. (Yes, of course I read it; didn’t I tell you I had lived my entire life in a Library, that I had books and stories flowing in my veins?) It is an uglier, darker version of the story we learned at the end of the last War. It may contradict what we know about the heroes of 1981, but I couldn’t stop reading, and I couldn’t help wondering about the tale that unfolded before my eyes. Surely Sirius wrote his story with an honest heart. Was he, in fact, innocent after all? We guard our knowledge so closely in this world, where words are magic. How many stories never make it onto the page and languish, untold? How many of us would be turned away by the Librarians before we had a chance to know the truth?

By the time I turned the last page, I knew that I would say nothing to the Librarians about that night. Who am I to point out the names of the perpetrators, if they have not yet noticed them? It is a simple enough spell hiding the crucial information; even a humble house-elf can perform it. Perhaps a researcher will find this tale and compare it with the official version. Perhaps He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will be defeated again, and Peter Pettigrew’s lies will be exposed. Perhaps He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will emerge victorious this time, and this book will be the sole record of what truly happened at the end of 1981.

For now, I can tell you this: the book survives, and one day, if the Librarians can't manage to charm away the ink, the Library will sing this story, too.