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.


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.


The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip

UK Paperback

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.

Del Rey PB, art by Darrell K Sweet

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.

Hardback, art by Michael Mariano

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.