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.

The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)

Stepping from the Shadows by Patricia McKillip

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls Stepping from the Shadows (published 1982) ‘an interesting naturalistic novel about the making of a fantasy writer’, which immediately piqued my interest. It is, then, a Bildungsroman — a novel about the formation of an individual. And, though it’s not a fantasy novel (certainly not in the sense that McKillip’s earlier books, like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy), it’s very much about imagination, and not just idle daydreamery: its young narrator has a strong imaginative life, one that threatens, at times, to unbalance her.

The book starts with an interesting narrative approach that won me over immediately. The first person narrator (a young girl, seven years old in the first chapter) is constantly accompanied by ‘Frances’, a dreamy soul apt to be lost in stories, reveries and idle distractions, often at the most inconvenient times, like when Sister Thomas Augustine is asking her a question in class. It’s obvious Frances and the narrating ‘I’ are the same person, but one is the inner self, the dreamer, the storyteller, while the other, the narrating ‘I’, is the one who has to deal with the moment-by-moment realities of life. Frances is annoying but rewarding. It’s she who decides the cacti they pass on the way to primary school in this small America town are in fact the fingers of Hell-Giants, poking out of the ground; it’s she who provides the magic, imagination, and deeper meaning in the narrator’s life.

Each chapter is a leap forward in age. In chapter two, Frances-and-I are in Germany, and in chapter three they’re in England, following her military father’s various postings. The England chapter is my favourite, a wonderfully evoked autumn and winter in which Frances’s sensitive nature blooms into at first poetry, then full-blown imaginative vision, as a stag she sees transforms into something both magical and startlingly real, a man with antlers:

‘I wanted to cry or yell at Frances for waking something like that out of the past around us, putting it into my mind. Now that you’ve got him, I wanted to shout, what am I going to do with him? Most of all, I wanted to run. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. After a while, I stopped wanting to run.’

As in Alan Garner and Susan Cooper’s books, the stag-horned man represents something deep and true coming from the primal realms of the imagination — but also something troubling and potentially dangerous. Here, it represents the true awakening of Frances’s creative life. Having seen it, she’s compelled to follow this striking vision (in the secret, private stories she writes) to try and solve this ‘unsolvable problem in quest of an answer’. The narrator, though, struggles with the sheer peculiarity of her suddenly over-alive inner life:

“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!”

But, impossible as it is to live with this constant, impossible companion, it’s worse trying to live without the vital inner link he represents:

‘…the Stagman was part of my own shadow, or my dreams, to be endlessly pursued, endlessly challenging, forcing the best of strength, creativity, passion from me.’

Even when Frances seems to have understood the Stagman creatively (it passes almost unmentioned, but in the later chapters, she has written about him, and got published, giving her the money she needs to drop out and find herself) he changes, as all such tricksy figures do: suddenly, he takes on a new aspect, representing Frances’s sexuality, as she starts seeing the Stagman all around, in the young men she’s both attracted to and terrified of.

Stepping from the Shadows is set mostly in the 1960s. While Frances is at school, President Kennedy is assassinated (she also overhears a conversation two fellow pupils are having: ‘What’s a hobbit?’, one says). Later, at high school, she’s involved in various political demonstrations. The novel reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, another Bildungsroman about a divided protagonist on a creative quest, and both books, I have to say, have slightly disappointing endings. But the thing is, how can you end the story of someone’s quest for what is, in essence, a beginning — both McKillip’s Frances and Hesse’s Demian are in search of themselves so they can start on their proper lives. Their ‘happily ever after’ is an inner event, a moment of certainty, of commitment, a moment of finding oneself, a moment when things begin. In a film, you’d end with them walking off down a road towards some hopeful future, and the camera would lift up, leaving them to find new adventures; neither McKillip nor Hesse find the literary equivalent of that lifting camera, so both peter out a bit (though in different ways). But it’s the journey to reach that point that counts, not the actual moment of ending, so that’s what these books should be judged upon.

A poetic book about the formative years of a sensitive, imaginative soul, Stepping from the Shadows is more engaging than The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, whose main character I found a bit aloof. Frances, here — or her narrator-I self — is so much more directly engaged in the very difficult task of being and becoming a whole human being (as Eld’s super-cool, powerful Sybel wasn’t) that the novel feels, moment by moment, so much more alive.