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.
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.”
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.