Harpist in the Wind by Patricia McKillip

UK paperback

The final book in Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy, Harpist in the Wind (published in 1979), begins seven days after the ending of the previous novel, Heir of Sea and Fire. Morgon and Raederle have now had a book apiece in which to come into their power and learn something of who they are — enough to be a little wary of themselves. But there’s still a lot to know, as Morgon sums up near the start of Harpist:

“I asked a riddle two years ago, and now I am trapped in a maze of riddles, hardly knowing how to begin to find my way out.”

All he does know for sure is he has two deadly enemies, the mysterious shape-changers who keep popping up in the form of dead people, and the Founder of the School of Wizards at Lungold, Ghisteslwchlohm (whose name I long gave up trying to sound, even in the privacy of my readerly mind).

For much of Harpist, we still don’t know what’s going on. In that way, it’s very unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings, where we pretty soon know what Sauron is trying to do (take over the world), and what the protagonists have to do to defeat him (destroy the One Ring). Morgon and Raederle set out on a quest with the vague idea of finding Ghisteslwchlohm, while also basically being on the run from him and the shape-changers. Like the first book in the trilogy, Harpist is a series of relatively calm periods of travel or rest, punctuated by sudden, violent encounters that leave the characters reeling, and often not much the wiser. This is a book that keeps its revelations, and the unravelling of its riddles, till the end.

Which, for me, brings up inevitable comparisons with another book that leaves its revelations to the end, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there are other similarities between Lindsay’s book and McKillip’s trilogy, from the naggingly intriguing (both narratives start and end with their main character climbing a supernaturally-charged tower, for instance), to broad-stroke generalities (in both, the protagonists form a companionship with a figure later revealed to be something like a god). Both books are about their main characters working their way from a state of deception and confusion towards an understanding of their true nature and the world they live in.

HB cover, art by Michael Mariano

But it’s not an easy comparison to make. The Riddle-Master trilogy feels like a very different sort of reading experience, particularly in terms of prose style. Lindsay’s approach is to present the weird sights, characters, and events in his novel with the straightforward prose of an objective, unaffected observer. For him, such wonders should be left to speak for themselves. McKillip’s is a much more poetic style, though not the evocative, mock-archaic poetry of, say, Lord Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith, which creates its never-never worlds through (as Smith has it) “a sort of verbal black magic”. McKillip’s is something more modern, more compressed and sparse, with almost too light a touch for such blatant magics and wonders. It’s much closer to, say, Alan Garner’s style. The plot, characters, and world are equally poetic, in that I don’t feel they’re an attempt at realism (as genre fantasy usually is). They belong wholly in the imagination, and are meant to exist only in the realm of language.

I think this is best illustrated by looking at how magic works in the world of the Riddle-Master trilogy. If I have one test for what I — entirely arbitrarily — think of as genre fantasy as opposed to something else (“literary fantasy”, perhaps, though I don’t mean either term pejoratively), it’s to ask whether it could be turned into a role playing game. Magic is a clear case in point. There’s no sense, in this trilogy, that McKillip’s magic has a system. You don’t have to learn spells, or expend energy. You don’t even have to learn the true names of things (as in Earthsea). Rather, it’s as though the characters reach out and take the writer’s pen for a moment, writing their magic into the narrative, not as a physical effect, but a poetic one. Some of the quieter moments of magic are exactly like creative thinking, where you go inside yourself and seek through all the half-formed ideas, notions, and feelings for something that seems to be offering enough of a shape that it can be worked on:

“He let his thoughts flow into the stone, seep through marble, amethyst, and gold until he touched something like the remnant of a half-forgotten dream. He explored farther; he found no names, only a sense of something that had once lived.”

When the magic gets more spectacular, as at the battle between wizards and shape-changers at the city of Lungold, the result reads more like poetry than combat:

“Morgon gathered a memory of the fabric of energy out of his thoughts, fed it with a power he had never tapped before. He let it build through him, eating at all his thoughts and inner movements until it spat away from him, humming a high, dangerous language. It crackled luminously toward the source of power within the walls, disappeared within them, but it did not detonate. It reappeared before it struck, shooting back at Morgon with the same deadly intensity. He stared at it incredulously for a split second, then opened his mind to absorb it back. It imploded into darkness within him.”

It’s obvious that by this point Morgon has changed from the princeling of a farming island he was at the start of the first book. As he says of himself:

“I am branded with stars on my face, with vesta-scars on my hands. I can take nearly any shape that has a word to name it. I have fought, I have killed, I intend to kill again. I have a name older than this realm, and I have no home except in memory.”

Del Rey paperback, art by Darrell Sweet

In both the previous books, it was pointed out that gaining power has a tendency to draw you away from being the person you once were, and to make you strange in the eyes of the people who know you. But what’s made clear in this book is how important it is to resist letting go of those old connections. When Morgon is at the height of his new powers, he’s at first at the mercy of those powers, till he recalls the most personal and domestic of his links with who he once was, his young sister:

“He saw Tristan come out onto the porch at Akren, shivering a little in the cold wind, her eyes dark and fearful, staring toward the tumult in the mainland… He got to his knees and then to his feet, with all the enduring stubbornness that small island had instilled in him.”

Throughout this trilogy, a small handful of words are used again and again, with an almost riddling significance. “Name” is one (as Morgon says, “I was born with power that leaves me nameless in my own world”), “shape” is another (being linked to both the shape-changers, and to Morgon and Raederle’s developing abilities to assume different forms). A third is “binding”. “Name” is linked to destiny, but also one’s identity (“she was turning away from her own name—the familiar heritage in An that had defined her from her birth”); “shape” is about other people’s ability to understand you (“Maybe somehow I will find him, hold him to some shape that I can understand, and ask him why”); “binding”, though, is about setting limits to one’s changeability and power. As Morgon says at one point:

“You saw the falcon’s flight… its beauty and its deadliness. If such power were bound to no law, that power and the lust for it would become so terrible—”

If you give yourself wholly to power, you risk becoming someone with “no law but power”, and so nothing but a vessel for power, no longer human but “lawless, destructive, loveless”, like the wizard Ghisteslwchlohm. The essence of this idea is to be found in the trilogy’s notion of “land-law”, that inner link between a ruler and their land which means the land isn’t so much ruled by the ruler, as that the two are one. Power over the land becomes inseparable from care for it. It’s not a top-down hierarchy, but a two-way relationship.

The Riddle-Master trilogy isn’t an easy read (nor was it an easy write, apparently, as it took McKillip twelve years, after which she at first resolved never to write another fantasy — see this interview). It has a strangeness that’s easy to be wrong-footed by thanks to its familiar-feeling genre-fantasy setting. But it’s dealing, uncompromisingly, with some of the profundities of human nature: identity, the process of becoming yourself, the self-alienating effects of power, and those foundational relationships that make you who you are.

And, to address the question I set out to answer in my review of the first book in the trilogy, “Is the Riddle-Master trilogy itself a riddle?” I’d say, it’s about the essential riddle of the self — the process of discovering one’s “name” (destiny), one’s “shape” (identity), and one’s essential “bindings” (relationships). Perhaps these are the three stars on Morgon’s forehead.

^TOP

The Hole of the Pit by Adrian Ross

Bookship eBook cover

First published in October 1914 (shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, which can’t have helped sales much), The Hole of the Pit is the only novel by Adrian Ross, and aside from a short story (“By One, by Two, and by Three”, published in 1887), his only work of weird fiction. But when it was reprinted for the first time in Ramsey Campbell’s anthology Uncanny Banquet in 1992, Campbell wrote: “Only its extreme rarity has prevented it from being acknowledged as one of the first masterpieces of the novel of supernatural terror.” Its base-under-siege main plot, romantic subplot, and first person narration in a 17th century style recall William Hope Hodgson, while the novel itself is dedicated to M R James. (Whom Ross — real name Arthur Reed Ropes — knew, both of them being dons at King’s College, Cambridge, at one point. By the time he wrote The Hole of the Pit, though, Ross had given up his academic career and had been working for over two decades as a lyricist and producer of musicals in London. He’d also translated fiction for the Oxford University Press’s for-schools imprint, Pitt Press, collaborated with his sister on a children’s novel, On Peter’s Island, and written poetry.)

The Hole of the Pit is set in 1645, shortly after the Battle of Naseby, when Cromwell’s forces have defeated the King’s. The narrator is Hubert Leyton, a 27-year-old scholar and gentleman who has avoided taking any part in the Civil War, siding with neither “the ravaging rakes of the King’s army or the slaughtering saints of the Parliament”. (And a passing acquaintance with Cromwell means he has been mostly left alone.)

First HB edition

One day he’s visited by Eldad Pentry, a self-appointed Puritan preacher from Marsham, the closest village to the castle of Deeping Hold. This is the seat of the Earl of Deeping, who happens to be Leyton’s cousin, though a very different sort of man. After spending years involving himself in wars on the continent, and building up a crew of hard-bitten soldiers, the Earl returned to England to fight for the King, but fled when things turned against them at Naseby. Now he’s holed himself up at Deeping, and is demanding the people of Marsham provide him with enough supplies that he can withstand the inevitable siege when Cromwell comes looking for him. (Deeping Hold is built on an outcrop of rock in a treacherous salt marsh, so it’s unlikely to be assaulted.) The people of Marsham can’t provide what he needs without impoverishing themselves, but the Earl has said if they don’t, he’ll simply take it, and with violence. Normally, the villagers would have appealed to the Earl’s wife, but she has recently died under suspicious circumstances. Pentry, then, wants Leyton to appeal to the Earl on the villagers’ behalf.

It so happens Leyton has just discovered, in his library, an old rhyme about that branch of the family:

When the Lord of Deeping Hold
To the Fiend his soul hath sold,
And hath awaken’d what doth sit
In the darkness of the Pit,
Then what doth sit beneath the Hole
Shall come and take him body and soul.

Leyton goes with Pentry, and after witnessing how the Earl and his men have already assaulted the village (among other things, blowing up Pentry’s house, upon hearing he’d gone for help), sets out alone in a boat to reach the castle. On the way, he passes directly over the underwater “Hole” of the prophecy:

“There was nought to frighten a man, save the evil odour; and this seemed to rise from a certain grey glistering slime, whereof streaks and patches lay on the thick water, or coiled lazily towards the side, and now and then a bubble rose and hung long ere it burst. To one so near the water as I was, the blackness of the Hole did not so much appear as from the height above; but even there I could see that it made a round of some eighteen yards across, as I judged.”

He finds his cousin the Earl a doom-haunted man, alternating between bouts of dangerous vivacity and forlorn despondency, and seeming at times to see his dead wife (whose death he obviously feels guilty for). With him at the castle, as well as forty or so soldiers, is an Italian woman, Fiammetta Bardi, who joined him and his men some years back after they rescued her from a mob that had just killed her father, a reputed wizard. Perhaps the book’s most interesting character, Bardi combines Machiavelli and the Borgias in one, with an added dash of black magic. She’s constantly trying to manipulate the power-play on even so small a stage as Deeping Hold, has an evident knowledge of poisons, and in the novel’s most explicitly supernatural scene, performs a rite to summon a devil to get advice on how to deal with their desperate situation. Also at Deeping Hold is Rosamund Fanshawe, a gentlewoman and cousin to the Earl’s late wife, who soon comes to be Leyton’s only real ally once he finds himself trapped at the castle — for, as soon as he arrives, the Earl takes him as a hostage and has his boat broken up for firewood.

David Kearney cover to Ramsey Campbell’s Uncanny Banquet anthology, where The Hole of the Pit was republished for the first time since 1914.

It’s a dangerous enough situation as it is — only exacerbated by the Earl having an enormous store of stolen gunpowder in the castle’s cellar — but there’s also the Thing from the Hole. (The title The Hole of the Pit seems a bit tautologous, but the novel uses “the Pit” as a name for Hell, so it could be taken as meaning something like “The Hole into Hell”. It’s a crude title nonetheless, and can’t have helped sales, but for a now classic work of weird fiction seems oddly perfect.) Ross handles the horror aspects of the novel well, building up the assaults of the creature (if creature it is) from the Hole subtly and gradually. At one point the narrator and several soldiers go out in a boat to bury one of their dead on a small islet among the marshes, only for that section of land to be suddenly sucked away. It might simply have been unstable ground, but Leyton noticed an odd stirring in the waters of the marshes just beforehand, as well as the telltale stink of slime. Later, a man in full armour is thrown into the Hole, only to float up again a moment later. They haul him in, but find the armour an empty shell — all but one boneless foot.

We never really learn the true nature of the Thing in the Hole. (It’s never even called a Thing.) Fiammetta Bardi is the only one familiar with the supernatural, and she gives dark hints:

“There are strange things in this world we see, and in the world unseen, and yet stranger, perchance, in the world of the border.”

(Which makes me wonder if Ross had read Hodgson’s House on the Borderland.)

It’s an enjoyable short horror novel, one that would have been perfect for Hammer or Amicus, if they’d had the budget for a sea-dwelling slime-thing and the destruction of a small castle. Ross’s pastiche on 17th century prose feels spot on (Arthur Reed Ropes was a lecturer in history and poetry, after all), with small details — like Cromwell being referred to dismissively as “Noll Cromwell”, or the way Eldad Pentry doesn’t doff his hat when brought in to see Leyton — adding to the feel that this author knows the times he’s writing of, but is wielding his scholarship lightly. The slow vice-grip of the Earl’s instability, Bardi’s constant scheming, and the ever-encroaching attacks of the slime-thing, are all handled with a nice balance of subtlety and shock, counterpointed by the understated romance between Hubert and Rosamund.

Adrian Ross in 1904

Ultimately, it’s a book about moderation, particularly in regard to religious beliefs. Leyton sees both sides in the Civil War as driven by extremes, forcing everyone in the country to be polarised into one camp or the other, backed up on one side by the unforgiving nature of religious Puritanism, and on the other by the established but tyrannical idea of the Divine Right of Kings. The more practical Leyton knows that, though he may be a Christian, “the Lord has been known to let the worse cause win the field”, so it’s a man’s actions, not his beliefs that count. And those actions should tend towards forgiveness and humanity: “I have seen more than once that a man eaten up with the zeal of religion is wont to think but little of the earthly good of others,” he writes. His own secret belief is that “the infinite mercies of the Lord… are beyond the bounds of our creeds and controversies.” But to say so — to say anything, really — would be considered heresy, so he keeps quiet.

This theme is handled lightly, though, and never gets in the way of the weird yarn. Ross doesn’t have that peculiarity of outlook you find in the more classic writers of weird horror — Machen’s belief in the extremes of sanctity and sin, Blackwood’s in the technicalities of the occult, Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, or even James’s stuffy male-only academicism — which may be partly why The Hole of the Pit doesn’t have more of a reputation. But most likely it’s down to simply not being read, and it’s a book that deserves to be. The Hole of the Pit is a treat-in-waiting if you like classic weird fiction. I would certainly like to have had more in the same vein from Ross.

^TOP

Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip

UK paperback

Heir of Sea and Fire (1977) begins a year after the events of The Riddle-Master of Hed. Morgon hasn’t been heard of in all that time and, what’s more concerning to the land-rulers of this world, the High One has been equally silent. (His harpist, Deth, who usually acts as his messenger, hasn’t been seen either.) When Raederle of An, the woman Morgan was to marry thanks to his beating the Wraith of Peven in a riddling match, learns that the land-rule of Hed (that almost telepathic unity with their land that rulers are granted by the High One) has passed to his brother Eliard — which usually only happens when the previous land-ruler dies or loses their mind — she sets out to find what happened to her intended husband. On the way, she’s joined by two companions, Lyra of Herun (head of the Morgol of Herun’s guards, whom Morgon met in the previous book), and Morgon’s now thirteen-year-old sister, Tristan.

But this is Raederle’s story, and it proves to be something of an echo of Morgon’s in the first book. Like him, she has recently suffered the loss of a parent (just the one in her case); like him she leaves a very domestic-feeling (if more regal than his) home — a domesticity (like Morgon’s) mostly expressed in the fact that she, her brother, and father, bicker constantly; and like him she gains (or in her case, deepens and expands) unusual powers; and like him she starts to learn something troubling about her identity.

Unlike Morgon, Raederle has magical powers from the start, though minor ones. As in the first book, they’re introduced casually, naturalistically, and only highlighted and explained later on:

“She had left, in front of Rood’s horse in the College stable, a small tangle of bright gold thread she had loosened from her cuff. Within the tangle, in her mind, she had placed her name and an image of Rood stepping on it, or his horse, and then riding without thought every curve and twist of thread through the streets of Caithnard until, reaching the end, he would blink free of the spell and find that neither the ship nor the tide had waited for him.”

Darrell K Sweet cover for Del Rey paperback

She knows there’s some of the witch Madir’s blood in her ancestry, but comes to learn there’s something far more ancient there too. She is, after all, the Heir of Sea and Fire of the book’s title, and we learned in the previous book that a primal war is being fought — and has been for centuries — between the Children of the Earth (who Morgon allied himself with) and the Children of the Sea.

Like Morgon, as her abilities grow, Raederle begins to worry how this coming into her more powerful nature will alienate her from her family and the world she knows — will, in fact, alienate herself from the person she thought she was. It reminds me of a moment from the first McKillip book I reviewed on this blog, the semi-autobiographical Stepping from the Shadows, whose narrator becomes overwhelmed by the power and weirdness of her own imagination, as symbolised by the “Stagman” who starts to appear to her:

“God damn it!” I yelled at Frances. “Nobody else has a Stagman — why should I have one? I’m trying to lead a normal, ordinary, mediocre existence!”

Raederle’s journey is not the traumatic-schismatic stop/start of Morgon’s in the first book. It is, rather, a series of conversations, and could well have been adapted as a stage play. But, particularly towards the end of the book, Heir of Sea and Fire evinces one of those shifts in mode that genre fantasies sometimes undergo — I’m thinking of the way The Lord of the Rings, for instance, starts as a light children’s adventure story, and ends as a gruelling epic. As with The Lord of the Rings, the shift is most evident in the book’s language. At the start of Heir, Raederle speaks in a lively, informal, naturalistic way:

“No king I ever heard of married Madir,” Raederle said wryly. “Yet somehow the blood got into the king’s line. Let’s see: she lived nearly two hundred years, and there were seven kings. I believe we can forget Fenel; he was too busy fighting almost to father a land-heir, let alone a bastard. I don’t even know if he kept pigs.”

By the end everyone’s talking like this:

“You,” she whispered, “bringing empty words into this house, what did you ever know of peace? You small-minded man, content in your battles, you left a riddle behind you in Anuin when you died that was far more than just a sea-colored face. You want to fight with Farr over this skull like dogs over a bone. You think I betrayed my house: what do you know of betrayal? You have roused yourself for revenge: what do you know of revenge?”

It sounds as though the book has turned into a symbolic, almost ritualistic, drama translated from some archaic language, originating from a culture whose metaphysical outlook we can only infer from the way simple words have been accorded a new significance we can only grasp at.

Michael Mariano hardback cover

The characters undergo a similar shift. They don’t have much inner life to start with, but at least act like normal people (all that bickering); but by the end of the book they’re speaking and acting more like the semi-gods and supernatural heroes of Celtic myth. This is particular true of Raederle, whose magic — using a tangle of thread to confuse those who might follow her, or blinding a shipload of men with the flash from a small gemstone — is exactly the sort that would have been related in a throwaway sentence in a myth.

I have to say, this elevated style of speech and action feels like the more natural mode to McKillip. It’s closer to her earlier fantasy novel, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, as though she set out, this time, to write something more naturalistic but was dragged back to the mythic mode by the force of her material. And I was reminded of that former book most of all when, in Heir, we learn something of what happened to Morgon. He had been locked, for a long time — perhaps a whole year — in a sort of mental combat, in which his very identity was tried to be taken from him. Although we only hear of this through a report, it immediately reminded me of the central (and most dramatic) chapter of Forgotten Beasts of Eld, where Sybel has to defend herself from being sorcerously enslaved in a way that would kill within her the very thing that made her herself.

Del Rey paperback

So, is the Riddle Master trilogy itself proving to be a riddle? If the first book asked the question, “Who is the Star-Bearer?”, now, by McKillip’s schema, we’d get the story in response to that, before the stricture, or moral, in the third book. In a way, we get part of that — we learn something of the Star-Bearer’s fate, but not the whole of it. Instead, we’re asked a different “who is” question, “Who is Raederle of An?”, the answer being this book’s title, and something of what it signifies. Like Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, The Riddle-Master of Hed and Heir of Sea and Fire present first a male then a female journey of self-discovery, bringing the two protagonists together at the end. What they do together, and how the riddle will ultimately be answered, will come in the final book of the trilogy, Harpist in the Wind.

^TOP