Candlekeep and the Politics of Knowledge

Monday, 19 April 2021 6-minute read

Published earlier this year, Candlekeep Mysteries is a supplement for Dungeons & Dragons published by Wizards of the Coast. It is an anthology of adventures by different writers, each story based on a specific book found in the eponymous library in the setting. Candlekeep, inviting comparisons with the Library of Alexandria, is imagined as a repository of knowledge like no other, maintained by an order of mystical monks who have dedicated their entire lives to the preservation of knowledge, in a fortress-like library town overlooking the sea. The setting has a wealth of lore and intricate textures that characterise it as a dream for any bibliophile. But reading between the lines of such romanticisation of a library yields some intriguing questions regarding the commodification of knowledge and the politics of its ownership and stewarding, making this an interesting thought experiment on the political and ethical issues that attend to the workings of institutions of higher learning.

Gatekeepers and Hierarchies

The community in Candlekeep is deeply hierarchical with clear structures of rank and status: the mystical order of the Avowed, who are the custodians of the Library, are led by the Keeper of the Tomes. They have the power to make personal appointments to the council of eight Great Readers who run Candlekeep, the additional First Reader who presides over the Council and works to expand Candlekeep’s collections, and they also appoint their own successor. Everything about this system is self-serving, lacking any form of transparency, independence, or accountability. On the surface, this reflects a rather disappointing lack of imagination on the game designers’ part, that they cannot conceive of a society of learned people run in any way other than institutionalised hierarchies of universities today.

What is more interesting, however, is speculating about diegetic reasons within the setting for why Candlekeep is organised in such hierarchies. If the library is as expansive as the story suggests, then it would inevitably contain books on political theory that address questions of power, hierarchy and corruption, and it would have scholars studying it. There would be manuscripts by monks from monasteries run as communes. The fact that Candlekeep is organised in such a manner is not because there is no knowledge of an alternative form of organising a society, but the political will of the people running the system is motivated by maintaining their power, prestige and position.

The Cost of Entry

Entrance to Candlekeep, not just the library but the town itself, is predicated on exclusion. The society has two dedicated gatekeepers: one to protect the outer gate from people who cannot afford the entry toll, and one to monitor the inner gate leading to the library to bar those not yet granted the privilege to access the library itself. In order to enter the keep for a period of ten days, visitors must pay a steep entry cost of a book or edition not already contained in the library (which, considering how expansive the library is, would be nigh difficult to do). Then to access the inner ward, visitors would need to be granted special dispensation by one of the established readers.

Now none of this is inherently dubious or questionable: this is very much part of how copyright libraries work in the United Kingdom, as one would, for example, need to jump through analogous hoops when accessing the British Library or National Library of Scotland. But libraries such as these, with their restricted access, make them fundamentally different from public lending libraries. Fundamentally, this opens up questions on who such libraries are for: Candlekeep, being like a copyright library, is for scholars and learned folk, not a wider public. But that means the wealth of knowledge that is held in this library is for the benefit of a select few. Knowledge is no longer a resources for the wider public, but only a small, self-selecting community of people who elect their own members.


Moreover, it is up to the Readers of Candlekeep, a sequestered community of archmages indulging in solitary research in the towers of Candlekeep, to decide at their discretion whom they deem ‘worthy’ of entering the library. This merely ensures that those outside the narrow circle of scholars and sages are systemically excluded, or those whose research diverges from the priorities of the current readers. The basis on which these judgements are made would further embody existing class prejudices (both socio-economic class and the wider role-playing category of character class). While it is easy to assume that the party Wizard with an Intelligence score of 20 might be deemed worthy, and the Bard with a Charisma of 20 might sway someone to grant them permission, it is unlikely that the Fighter with an 8 Intelligence would be allowed in.

Furthermore, the setting goes into such elaborate detail about the sages and scholars who live and research in Candlekeep. But it does not mention or acknowledge support staff. Where are the janitors, administrators, caterers, and other categories of staff whose work in running the library and the residences here is vital?

Acquisition and Colonialism

Finally, there is the much bigger question of how the library became so big in the first place. On the surface, it is through donations and purchasing of texts from very far afield. But when the terms of these acquisitions are fundamentally unequal, it calls into question the integrity of this library’s foundation. Donations are effectively coerced as a condition for entry in a system that is designed to gatekeep. Furthermore, the practice through which Candlekeep has grown is deeply coded with the language of colonial acquisition:

The Avowed transported the towers of the Great Library piecemeal from other locations and painstakingly reassembled them, creating a skyline of bristling spires in a panoply of architectural styles.

Candlekeep Mysteries

The terms by which books are acquired are thus far from innocent. Given the ways in which the books are only used for the benefit of a few researchers rather than a wider community, such artefacts of knowledge are a prestige commodity rather than a resource for the collective good. Moreover, what of the communities that produced the knowledge? Expropriating these texts from the communities of their origin seems to suggest that the benefit of the intellectual labours of the authors are felt by an elite coterie of scholars rather than the communities they were writing for. These contradictions present fascinating terrain on which to explore these questions of colonialism and acquisition, and a space to imagine radical alternatives to the way these institutions can be structured.

Candlekeep Mysteries was part of a recent trend in Wizards of the Coasts’ publication cycle that sought to redress many of the issues of racism and coloniality in D&D. The book marks a welcome step forward in the way game designers from marginalised positions were commissioned to write adventures, many of which added depth and nuance to some of the themes in the game that remain controversial, such as Asian spirituality, religion, and martial arts. However, its publication was met with immense controversy surrounding the problems within the company’s editorial process, leading to he introduction of colonialist language in direct contravention of the intent and wishes of the author. It is perhaps unsurprising though that, given the lack of anticolonial imagination presented here, that the book’s objectives seem to be mired by existing structural barriers within the company. Thus the setting of Candlekeep is an interesting allegory for the unspoken barriers of colonialism beneath the surface in an esoteric community run by a bunch of wizards on the coast.