Literacy and Education in The Year of the Red Door

      They sat for a long time, not speaking, with Robby glancing at her line as often as she glanced at his pen. When he reached the end of a sheet and turned it over, she lifted her pole and baited her hook with another lure and tossed it back out.
      “So what is it yer so busy writin’?” she asked.
      “I’m just copying. Some old verse from one of Mr. Broadweed’s books.”
      For a long moment, Sheila looked at her line where it met the water.
      “So ye can read as well as do the writin’?”
      “Why, yes. They sort of go together, you know.”
      “An’ yer a fair reader an’ a fair writer, too?”
      “I would say fair. But I like reading better than writing. My writing is not as neat and pretty as I wish it could be.”
      “An’ ye learned all this at Mr. Broadweed’s schoolhouse?”
      “A good bit. My parents gave me lessons, too.”
      She watched her line, studying the rings that fanned out from it.
      “It must be purty hard,” she then said. “An’ take years an’ years to learn it all.”
      “Oh, well, it’s not that hard, else they wouldn’t teach children, I suppose. It takes a little work and some practice. Like anything else. But once you get started, you sort of start learning on your own.”
      “An’ can ye do the numbers, too?”
      “Yes. I have lots of calling for that since I help out at the store.”*

Although The Year of the Red Door is a work of fantasy, my approach has been to treat it more as a work of historical fiction. So, with many exceptions, I’ve tried to keep things within the realm of the plausible. As readers will see, the world of The Year of the Red Door is not an ideal place. However, being fantasy, one of the remarkable aspects of the world of The Year of the Red Door is how many characters know how to read and write, that people value and own books, and how many people have some schooling.

Education is somewhat hit or miss. As far as Robby is concerned, mostly miss, since he discovers that he is ignorant of much that he ought to know about, especially given the problems that he is suddenly faced with. His education, up to the point where the story begins, might be rather poor, but it is a far sight better than what is available to most. And his education has been a great deal better than that of his girl friend, Sheila. Until she met Robby, no one had the patience to teach her about letters and words, about reading and writing. She’s curious about it, as the above excerpt indicates, and the story reveals that being illiterate deeply troubles her. As the reader may notice, a premium is placed on the ability to read and write, and it is a skill that people are proud of when they have it. The implication is that it is something relatively uncommon, and the inability to read and write is a cause for shame among some. Certainly Sheila feels this, and wants to learn. Another character says, “An’, to make me shame all the greater, I am the only one among all of me family who is of age an’ cannot read.”*

In the Reader’s Companion, it is revealed that County Barley did not always have a school. In fact, it was the late Mayor Greardon and Harrald Bosk (Billy’s grandfather) who organized a school for the county and brought in Mr. Broadweed to be the schoolmaster (even though he is not a “trained” teacher). And it was Harrald Bosk, Laird of Boskland, who insisted that all his workers must send their children to school to protect children from accident and injury before they were strong enough to work, and also to ensure that in future years those children would be better workers, craftsmen, and foremen.”** He met with stiff resistance by reluctant parents when he tried to enforce this rule. But when those children who were the first required to go to school grew up, they knew the value of having some education, and by the time Robby was born, most children were attending Mr. Broadweed’s school.

Mr. Broadweed’s goal, and his mandate from the county that paid his salary, was to teach reading and writing primarily. He also taught arithmetic and a little bit of history. With a room full of various ages and abilities, teaching the basics alone was challenging. But if a student learned enough, and was hard-working, and if the parents had the means, it was possible for Broadweed to award a student with a letter of recommendation to a school of higher learning. At the outset of The Bellringer, we learn that Robby was supposed to have already gone away to Glareth for further schooling.   Robby’s visiting cousin, Ullin, asks about it:

      “The last time I came through, I was told that you had just finished your letters with the local schoolmaster. I thought you were to go to Glareth to continue your studies there.”
      “Yes, that was the plan.” Robby shrugged and went on. “But one thing and another has put me behind. For one, I had to take care of the shop for about a year while my father traveled back and forth to Colleton on trade business. By the time that was all settled, I had missed two terms. Then, on top of that, I decided to wait for a friend of mine to finish his letters so that we could go to Glareth together and take the entrance examinations together. Only he’s taking longer to get his papers from the schoolmaster than I hoped.”*

 Robby does not say what school he was aiming for in Glareth, but we can assume he meant Glareth Academy (first known as the Royal Glareth Academy, and then as the Glareth Sea Academy). That was originally the place where Glareth’s navy trained their officers and other personnel, but it grew and began offering courses of study for Glarethians (or anyone else) who were not interested in a maritime career.

The Glareth Academy was one of the three great centers of learning in the world, the other two being the King’s Academy in Duinnor and the Queen’s Academy in Vanara. By the time of The Year of the Red Door, these were all essentially what we may think of as universities, with various schools within each for specific lines of training as well as research. These were prestigious schools, each with its own history and traditions, supported by royal grants, taxes, and other sources of funding. The King’s Academy in Duinnor was and remained primarily a military university, slowly evolving and broadening its purview over time. From its founding days, the Academy was tasked with educating Kingsmen not only in martial arts but…

“…the King ordered that all Kingsmen must have fundamental skills of reading, writing, mathematics, engineering, and geography, and be given knowledge of law and history.”**

No wonder, then, that Kingsmen were highly disciplined, or that they sometimes looked down on the members of other military establishments, especially those of the Duinnor Regular Army, which had low or no educational requirements or expectations of its officers, much less of its rank and file.

We are given much less information about the education in Dragonlands. But it was the Dragonkind who first invented writing, so it is said. And there are many examples of high levels of educational training, literacy, and culture among the desert peoples. We are given glimpses of their rich cultural heritage in the dead city that Ullin and Micerea visit, at the library in Sarapolis, and in Micerea’s richly adorned bedchamber, which contained marvelous books. Her father, Gurasa, we are told, was not only a great general, but from youth a painter, something of a botanist and naturalist, collecting insects and flora from all over the world to catalog and study, and traveling to see and paint renderings of various sights of interest and beauty. So we may assume that the Dragonkind, or at least some of them, are highly literate.

Perhaps of more importance to The Year of the Red Door and its plot are the many libraries and sources of books and reading materials. At the beginning of the story, Robby says that he borrows books from Mr. Broadweed (the local schoolmaster) to keep up with his reading. At other points in the story, libraries provide vital information to the characters. At the private library in Lord Tallin’s home, Ashlord is able to confirm certain suspicions that he has about Robby and about a mysterious guest who comes to Tallin Hall. In Duinnor, Ashlord’s colleague Raynor is not only the former head of the King’s Academy, but he is, at the time of the story, known as a tutor and bookseller. And in Vanara we encounter two libraries of great importance. None of those places can match the truly grand and magical library encountered later on in the story. Its collections are mysteriously stocked with a copy of every book and manuscript ever produced in the entire world. By our own modern standards, that might not50pcWashingtoniana6bw be very many. But in the world of The Year of the Red Door, it is still so vast a collection that it takes up an entire wing of a great palace, a wing covering nearly two acres and with shelves four stories high (ladders and stairs are provided). The same invisible hands that arrange and place each book and scroll in its place also updates the library’s catalog of materials. A librarian’s dream, and a reader’s treasure indeed.

Resources are required, though. The means to make books and scrolls, recipes for making and mixing ink and paint, methods of weaving, glass making, the architectural and engineering skills to design and build the fabulous structures around the world—all these require natural and technological resources. For example, papermaking, once done by hand, is now an industry, supplanting linen and parchment, and books can now be more or less mass-produced rather than hand-copied, and they were also being used to print ephemeral works, such as broadsheets (newspapers) and announcements. In The Nature of a Curse, we meet a character who has been ordered to produce hundreds of copies of an urgent and critical announcement for distribution all over the countryside.   The copy work has to be done by hand, and the person in charge of it all laments:

“Oh how I wish we had one of those new writing presses!  You would not believe the imbecilic way some of these ‘learned scribes’ shape their letters!  And I’ve already dismissed four who were intent on decorating each and every copy with flowery illuminations before each paragraph, each taking two hours on a single copy.  At a time like this!  School children would be better by far!”*


Duinnor, on the cutting edge of printing, is large and wealthy enough to support many competing printers, many of which specialize in daily or weekly broadsheets carrying the latest news, scandals, and announcements. For the setting of The Year of the Red Door, this is not only plausible, but should be expected. In our own history, for example, a well-made printing press of the 17th Century that was manned by experts could produce up to 4,000 printed sheets per day. Supplies of paper and ink were the chief issues, but not insurmountable ones. For example, paper made from wood began before 105 A.D., eventually moving into Arabia sometime around the Seventh Century. The art of making paper from wood was lost for many centuries, not reappearing until the 16th or 17th Centuries, just in time for industrialization.

      “I see you have quite a collection of this morning’s broadsheets. I wonder if you would send a footman for those that might be printed this afternoon?”
      “As a regular thing, I receive all and every edition of every broadsheet printed in this city.”
      “Ah. As I should have known.”*

Naturally, mass-produced reading materials (even newspapers) boost literacy not only by giving students books and texts to learn from, but by providing the means of spreading new knowledge and new stories around the world. This is true in our world just as it is in the world of The Year of the Red Door.

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* from The Year of the Red Door

** from The Reader’s Companion to The Year of the Red Door


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