First published in 1976, The Riddle-Master of Hed came out the year before Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, the book Lester Del Rey fixed on for his gambit to turn Tolkienesque fantasy into a commercial genre. I don’t think Del Rey would have been able to do the same thing with McKillip’s trilogy. Though she says it was partly inspired by Tolkien’s riddle games in The Hobbit, it doesn’t have The Lord of the Rings’ realistic adventure style of narrative, but has one foot firmly planted in more literary, poetic, or symbolic fantasy tales. Most of all, to my mind, it belongs on the same shelf as Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, written as it is in the slightly distanced tone of a fable or fairy tale, while world-building in the modern style a unique setting with its own history and forms of magic. Both have that Garner-esque feel of being a work of apparently simple, but deeply artful, literary craft. And both A Wizard of Earthsea and The Riddle-Master of Hed tell the story of their main characters’ quest for individuation, making them feel at least partly allegorical, something commercial fantasy tends to avoid.
The book opens six months after Morgon of Hed has become land-ruler of his home island, following the death of his parents. Land-rule is one of the fantasy concepts McKillip quietly introduces without explaining it, though you pick up details throughout the narrative. It’s a sort of mind-connection with, and awareness of, all that’s going on in one’s homeland, a gift given to the king or queen of each land by the High One, a similarly undefined being who dwells in the far north, in Erlenstar Mountain:
“The High One, from the beginning, had left men free to find their own destinies. His sole law was land-law, the law that passed like a breath of life from land-heir to land-heir; if the High One died, or withdrew his immense and intricate power, he could turn his realm into a wasteland.”
Morgon has been keeping a secret for the last six months. At the time of his parents’ death he’d been studying at the College of the Riddle-Masters — a place that feels, to me, very much like Le Guin’s College of Wizards in Roke — and when he learned of their death, instead of heading home he went to fulfil a quest he’d set himself, of winning a riddling match with the undead wraith of Peven, a task that many others had attempted and failed. Morgon wins, and gains the Crown of the Kings of Aum, which he promptly hides under his bed. Hed is a small island of farmers, and its rulers have no need of crowns or great destinies.
But Morgon does have a destiny. On his brow are three stars, and none of the Riddle-Masters in the college could tell him what they mean. But when he learns his father, before he died, had been bringing him an antique harp with three stars set in it, Morgon starts to realise his destiny as “the Star-Bearer” is not something he can ignore, as it has very real consequences not just for himself, but for the people and lands of his world, tying into mythic events of the past, when a mysterious race of “Earth-Masters” (of whom the High One is the only survivor) were destroyed in unknown wars.
Like McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the tone is distant and refined, with none of the characters having a sense of humour, or much by way of emotion. One of the forms of magic in this world is “the Great Shout”, “a thing of impulse rather than premeditation”, which is released at moments of shock or surprise or anger, and which causes objects around to shatter. This feels like the way emotion, when it’s ignored or repressed, tends to come out in such sudden, sometimes violent, and often inappropriate, bursts (as with teenage psychokineticists such as Stephen King’s Carrie). McKillip’s whole cast of characters seems to be suffering from emotional repression.
Morgon’s narrative, meanwhile, is characterised by a spasmodic cycle of moving forward, being confronted by some new fact about the nature of his identity that he doesn’t want to face, whereupon there’s a sudden break, be it fainting, fever, or forgetfulness. It feels like a cycle of traumatic triggering, with Morgon being so unable to face any revelation about his destiny or identity that, when brought into contact with it, he retreats into a state of dissociation, a psychological fugue in which you disconnect from your feelings so as to be cut off from them and their implications. The whole narrative, then, feels overly calm and composed on the surface, with a deep and powerful instability just beneath.
What is it about his destiny Morgon is unwilling to face? In part, it’s the thought of what those whom he loves — his brother and sister in Hed — will think when they learn of the world-level, mythically-rooted narrative he’s tied up in, and the way it is changing him into something very much not the farmer-island princeling they grew up with. (In the novel he learns new powers, such as the ability to shape-change into a deer-like vesta, and he has a fever-dream in which his brother and sister reject him because it’s such a weird ability to have. This is notable because, though the “Rejection of the Call” is a standard story trope, I can’t think of any other fantasy protagonists who shy away from their destinies for such a domestic, and very human-feeling, reason.)
He also rejects his destiny/identity because it seems to be tied in with an ancient conflict that has never been resolved, which is breaking out once more in bursts of supernatural violence. And this is another surprising thing about Morgon’s character, for a fantasy hero: his pacifism. He refuses to carry a weapon. “You can’t solve riddles by killing people,” he says, and:
“If you take a man’s life, he has nothing. You can strip him of his land, his rank, his thoughts, his name, but if you take his life, he has nothing. Not even hope.”
But, in a rather in-your-face bit of reader-goading, for most of the book, Morgon is accompanied by Deth, the High One’s harpist. Although it’s pointed out that Deth’s name comes from his harping master, Tirunedeth, you, as the reader, can’t help feeling you might be expected to take this literally at some level. Is Deth, Death? It’s one of several names in McKillip’s narrative that seem to be daring you to read them as blatant signals. Morgon, for instance, is Prince of Hed. So, is that Head? As in, the intellect (he’s a riddle-solver, after all), and perhaps as in “not-heart”, too (his disconnection from his deeper nature). Deth’s name, it turns out, was directly responsible for someone’s actual death, as we learn from the riddle of Ingris of Osterland, who took the name of his guest, “Deth”, to be “Death”, and died of fright. (This is only possible in a world where no-one has a sense of humour.) But none of the potentially-significant names is resolved in this novel. It is, after all, the first in a trilogy, and ends on a cliff-hanger, after Morgon has learned something of the ancient forces still active in his world, but nothing of any real substance about what it all means.
Riddles in McKillip’s world are all about legends and stories of the past, and like her previous fantasy novel, The Fantastic Beasts of Eld, story is what thickens her world and gives it its story-substance. This is a world woven out of story-stuff, legends and myths of the past, and the legends and myths behind them. Riddles, here, have a three-part form: a question (usually, “Who was X?”), an answer (a story about X), and a stricture (a moral to be drawn from the story).
Which inevitably raises the question, is the Riddle-Master trilogy itself a riddle, consisting as it does of three parts? (Which also tie in with the three stars on Morgon’s head.) If so, this first instalment, The Riddle-Master of Hed, is the question, and its question is “Who is Morgon of Hed?” At the moment, we only know he’s “the Star-Bearer”, and not much more. For the answers, I’ll have to head on through the trilogy, to the next book, Heir of Sea and Fire.