I was surprised some while back to learn that Patricia A. McKillip’s The Riddle-Master Trilogy was marketed as young-adult fantasy when it was first published. I don’t think I’m particularly backward in terms of understanding what I read, and I was in my thirties when I first read the books (which have earned an unchallengeable place on my “reread frequently” list), and I knew there were things I was missing — let’s just call it challenging, even for a fairly sophisticated reader. Even in a recent re-reading, the trilogy is a complex, subtle and evocative story that lends itself to much deeper examination than one might expect.
Morgon, the Riddle-Master of Hed, is the Prince of a sleepy little island that produces wool, mutton, plough horses and beer. Morgon is unusual in that he studied at the College of Riddlery in Caithnard, the first Prince of Hed ever to do so — in fact, he is one of the few ever to leave Hed. Hed, like the other kingdoms on the Realm of the High One, created its own laws and traditions during the years of Settlement. Its rulers have always embodied the peace and quiet — and lack of curiosity about the outside world — that is the essential quality of the island’s land law, that indefinable rapport, sensibility, that something that binds the rulers to their kingdoms and keeps the kingdoms healthy, all under the aegis of the High One, whose only concern, it seems, is the land itself.
Morgon is also marked by three stars on his brow that somehow seem to be tied to a destiny that he has neither sought nor desires, although events seem to push him in the direction they want him to go. His path begins when the three stars are noticed by Deth, the High One’s harpist, come to Hed to pay condolences on the untimely deaths of Morgon’s parents, lost at sea on the short trip from Caithnard to Hed only six months before. Deth also discovers that Morgon has won the crown of Peven, last king of Aum, one of the three portions of An, in a riddle game that lasted all night. As they are on their way to announce that fact — Mathom, King of An, has vowed that whoever won Peven’s crown would have the hand of his daughter Raederle as well — their ship sinks under mysterious and terrifying circumstances and Morgon is washed up on a beach in Ymris. It seems that Morgon’s path is now set — whatever he decides, something seems to push him inexorably toward Erlenstar Mountain, home of the High One, where he hopes the riddle of which he is the center can be answered. He does reach Erlenstar Mountain, to find that the High One is not at all what he expected.
Raederle’s own story is the center of Heir of Sea and Fire, the second book. Morgon has been missing for a year. Mathom is in the middle of a furious argument with his land-heir, Duac, about summoning his second son, Rood, back from the College; as usual, Mathom sees no need to give reasons for his decision. Cannon Master, a farmer of Hed, arrives with the news that Morgon is dead — the land-rule has passed to his brother, Eliard, under strange and puzzling circumstances. Raederle volunteers to make the journey to Caithnard to bring Rood back, and once there, she decides that she will herself go to the High One to demand some answers, although her father has done the same, flying off in the shape of a crow. Rood doesn’t believe that Morgon is dead because, as he says, Morgon was after answers, and death was not one of them. So Raederle, with the help of Lyra, the land-heir of the Morgol of Herun and captain of her Guard — and, as it turns out, Morgon’s sister Tristan as a stowaway — hijacks her father’s ship to head north, all the while becoming more and more aware that she also has a destiny linked to a heritage that she cannot accept. There are tales of shape-changers who have tried to kill Morgon, who seem to be kin somehow to Ylon, a former king of An, son of a queen of An and a shape-changer: Raederle has inherited his power, and she is only starting to learn the consequences of it.
Harpist in the Wind is a rather magnificent resolution of the multifaceted puzzle McKillip has constructed throughout the story: who are the shape-changers, what do they want, why is the High One silent, who is this man who calls himself Deth and has lived for a thousand years, and who, in fact, is Morgon with his three stars? These are the questions that are finally answered in a climax that is powerful and poignant.
On the surface, the Riddle-Master Trilogy is a fairly forthright coming-of-age story, marked by McKillip’s characteristic poetic style and romantic vision. Both Morgon and Raederle must learn to accept their new power, the power of maturity, and to accept as well the things that have made them what they are.
However, over the years and through many re-readings, I’ve become convinced that most of this story is not on the surface. There are several fascinating subtexts that seem to be implicit in the narrative, the most obvious of which is the nature of love and the ways in which it proves itself as one matures. McKillip’s incisive dissection of romantic love is best summarized in a scene between Morgon and Raederle, in which he asks her how, after all the desertions, danger and discomfort of their journeys, she can still stand him; she answers that no other man has ever said her name the way he does. We see their love grow from a fairy-tale kind of thing, through Morgon’s memories of Raederle with sun in her hair, laughing after a footrace as they were first becoming aware of each other, and Raederle’s memories of a farmer’s son from Hed who held a shell to her ear so she could hear the sea, and through the sacrifices they make for each other and the loyalty they show toward each other as events become desperate and courage and resolution are the only things that can pull them through, until it becomes a fundamental part of each of them.
There is also the love that they both feel for Deth, even though he is a puzzle — Morgon likens him to a riddle himself — sometimes a threat, sometimes a reassuring presence. McKillip’s portrayal here is tied to a fascinating interplay between “self” and “other.” Raederle, no matter how much Morgon loves her, will always be something of a mystery — she is other, as women must be to men (and men to women), which is an essential part of the fascination. Deth, on the other hand, is someone with whom Morgon can identify himself, someone from whom he begins to learn who he is, and, as it turns out, someone from whom he will inherit — he is Deth’s heir, not only in the overt terms relayed in the story, but in a much deeper sense, as each of us is heir to those who came before: we can see the same qualities of courage, intelligence, and gentleness in both. Morgon is heir not only to Deth’s power, but also to his wisdom and compassion, and, indeed, to many of the qualities that make him who he is. And yet, there is also a little bit of “other” to Deth, as well, which is what makes him a mystery that Morgon must at least recognize, if not completely understand. And, what is “other” for Morgon in Deth is “self” for Raederle: Deth is one of those whose powers Raederle has inherited, and makes it possible for her to accept her power by the realization that power, as everything else, has two sides, and she can choose which side she will follow.
The whole trilogy reeks of magic, although one searches in vain for a wizard or sorcerer. (There actually are wizards, but they don’t really take part in the story until the last book, and their power is, like Morgon’s and Raederle’s, an automatic thing, a talent to be educated and controlled, like roller skating. They’re not all that powerful, all things considered, and are treated as just another variety of person, no more significant than a king or a pigherder.) McKillip treats magic as just another fact of life. It is implicit in the land law of each kingdom, in the power of the shape-changers, and in the power that both Raederle and Morgon inherit, but it is an assumption and not really an element of particular significance. Her treatment of talking pigs, the wraiths of the dead of An, talking stones, mysterious towers that no one can climb is so matter-of-fact that one just walks casually into a magical world as though it were the next room.
One thing I have always admired about McKillip as a writer, and that makes Riddle-Master so easy to come back to, is her diction: elliptical, direct, it is highly poetic, but it is a poetry of implication, a poetry of things left unsaid, connections only tenuously made, of rare images that shine out from their surroundings. She handles it so deftly that one is continually taken by surprise — which, after all, is what poetry does, if it is any good. She is also funny — the first book opens with a family argument between Morgon, Eliard and Tristan that eventually involves flattened rosebushes and a pitcher of sour milk poured over the combatants. Dialogue is sharp, humor is dry, and the ease with which McKillip balances the absurd, the outrageous and the emotionally compelling is awe-inspiring.
There is more. There is much, much more: the role of riddlery, a metaphor and device that McKillip has constructed to center the story; the deft, rich characterizations and narrative passages, in which the realm and its people become living things; the contrast between the laws of men and those who recognize no law whatsoever — call it humanity and the natural forces of the universe, which most of us barely understand — are all an integral part of the tale. There are characters and places that merit essays of their own, sketched with enough definition to bring them alive, but with enough left to our imaginations that we continually find something new about them.
Thinking about it, it is a book that you should buy for a teenager, a rich and romantic story that they will, more than likely, come back to for years. I’d advise, however, that you buy two copies — one for yourself. Just to avoid squabbles.