Questions and quests

An imaginary city by Albrecht Durer

Patricia A McKillip: The Riddle-Master’s Game
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976);  Heir of Sea and Fire (1977);
Harpist in the Wind (1979)
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2015 (2001)

Explicitly inspired by — but no slavish imitation of — The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s trilogy is an epic fantasy that stands on its own merits rather than in comparison with Tolkien’s work. Yes, it starts with a very domestic scene before exploring from one end of a continent to the other, and, indeed, the main protagonist is reluctant to embark on his quest, but in reality the whole feel and mood of McKillip’s narrative is far removed from Tolkien’s, not least because it gives almost equal prominence to a female protagonist. On top of this, the author was only in her late twenties when she began her very mature epic when compared to Tolkien, who was in his sixties when the final volume of LOTR appeared.

The first part begins portentously enough:

“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”

In one sentence we are introduced to many of the main themes that run through the trilogy. Morgon, Prince of the small island principality of Hed, the High One who has (or rather had) suzerainty over all the lands, the subtle undercurrent of music (the author is apparently an accomplished pianist), the passing of seasons and the routines of social intercourse that will be so rudely disrupted. The young ruler, who had studied and attained high honours in the arcane discipline of riddling, will find not just his heritage challenged as he is plunged into dangers that will threaten the lives of countless peoples. Will he have the strength of will to overcome those dangers, and what part will Raederle of An have to play in the upheavals to come?

The core precept of much fantasy — and what can potentially put off readers allergic to the genre — is the idea of predestination, of prophecies that have to be fulfilled by the end of the tale. The Prince of Hed rails against this — “I’m not going to follow the path of some fate dreamed up for me thousands of years ago, like a sheep going to be fleeced,” he declares early on — but of course he won’t be able to fend off the inevitable; fantasy owes much to mythology and religion where fate holds such strong sway and where balance must be struck between sacrifice and redemption. So Morgon fights against destiny, because it’s what’s expected and because narrative feeds on tension, but we know he will at last accept his allotted role.

The gnomic titles of the three parts tell you all you need to know: The Riddle-Master of Hed is about Morgon, Heir of Sea and Fire describes the part Raederle has to play, while Harpist in the Wind hints at the final resolution to all conundrums, involving both music and the elements. The trilogy structure also emphasises the tripartite nature of this world’s riddling: the question, the answer and the meaning or ‘stricture’ to be drawn from the form. Thus it is that we initially have queries about what exactly is going on, we then start to have solutions in the second part, and by the end of the third we’re given some insight into what it all means.

Clues to the destinies of this world reside in (you’ve guessed) three objects — a crown, a harp and a sword — which presumably represent the stability of land-rule, the pervasiveness of a traditional culture and the responsibility that comes from power. All these trios are closely bound up with the three stars which Morgon wears like a mark of Cain on his forehead, not a brand or tattoo but perhaps a birthmark of some sort. What do they all mean? What it all amounts to is that Morgon is the reluctant culture hero who has to restore all the realms from the wasteland that they turning into, what with dead spirits wandering at will, powerful shapeshifters who ambush the Prince, and a High One whose rule has been usurped.

Morgon cannot do it on his own. He has to rely on others who are bound up with the rule of their own lands, and particularly he must depend on Raederle whom he has seemingly won by successfully answering a riddle. Here’s where McKillop differs significantly from Tolkien in that females are well to the fore: as well as wielding real power, with that power they prove to be more proactive. Raederle in fact proves to be a significant ally to aid Morgon in his impossible task.

If you are one of those who, like me, come all over faint with the plethora of invented names epic fantasy specialises in, fear not: a glossary of people and places is included. To orientate yourself there is of course a map, though Kathy McKillip’s four-decades-old original is rather tricky to read in paperback format without a magnifying glass. Imagine Middle-Earth turned clockwise 180 degrees, Hed near where the Grey Havens lie and Erlenstar Mountain in the equivalent position of Mount Doom. Or perhaps it’s a reverse image of the West Coast, Hed around Oregon (where McKillip lives) and Erlenstar Mountain standing in for Mount Rainier. Or perhaps neither of these. What’s clear is McKillip’s debt to Welsh traditions in her choice of names and motifs, so maybe the world of the Riddle-Master is a sort of mirror image of this ancient Celtic land.

The Riddle-Master trilogy is eminently readable, with moments of prose poetry, suspense, twists and turns in the plotting and, of course, strong characterisation for the principal characters. The sense of natural magic, especially that linked to the land and living creatures, is strongly evoked, and while the secrets that Morgon is seeking are strongly hinted at it may be that the reader may not realise them till the actual denouement. If you like mysteries to go with your magic and questions to go with the quests then this may be just the thing for you.


Variously known as Quest of Riddlemasters, Riddle of Stars, Riddle-Master and The Quest of the Riddlemaster, this combined edition of the three parts of the trilogy was first published by Gollancz as The Riddle-Master’s Game in 2001 in their Fantasy Masterworks series

8 thoughts on “Questions and quests

  1. This does seem like a trilogy I would enjoy greatly. The theme of setting out from the ordinary to the extraordinary comes into many genres, not only the ones with quest themes, and generally works well. It is refreshing that both male and female have strong roles here. There is a tendency to focus on a particular hero or a heroine (when I did the latter it was to take up the challenge of maintaining interest in a ‘perfect’ girl), as I find I have tended to do. Add the lures of riddles and music, and you have me hooked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you may well enjoy this work, Leslie, for the reasons you mention. As for the riddles and music, for the former it’s the formulaic feel that McKillip captures more than its witty punning (precious little humour here, unlike The Hobbit for example); and as for music it’s the hint of mood and memories that is evoked rather than the technical aspects, which both you and I would appreciate.

      Still, don’t let any of that put you off — it’s certainly masterful stuff as epic fantasies go! And the shift of focus from one figure to the other, before they join for the third part, definitely maintains the reader’s interest over a few hundred pages.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Invented names can certainly be tiring, Lynn, especially when authors seem more in love with the names than with elementary things like plotting or characterisation! Doesn’t your heart sink when the back cover blurb goes something like “When Gwhrot Lord of Hirmwb is sent to Prbxh to retrieve the Relic of Ryrnt from Dridjc and defeat the forces of Jefjtb and Xytbxj …”? Mine does! At least here McKillop invents names that could easily be Welsh or Old English, even if a couple or so are so similar as to confuse.

      Glad you enjoyed the review — hope it wasn’t too analytical and indigestible . . .

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly! To be honest, that kind of thing has put me off reading more than one book in the past. I do admire George RR Martin for his choice of names. The Starks at least have almost British names – Robb, Jon, Eddard – and others such as Margaery and Ygritte are close enough to familiar to sound comfortable on the ear, easier to remember, as you’ve said with McKillop’s character names. More pleasant for us English speakers at least.

        Your reviews are always an interesting read, Chris 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I suppose if Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses then his choice of names is not so surprising. As his Game of Thrones series continues to be flavour of the moment, and as I have a mild antipathy to following whatever’s currently popular, I’ve avoided anything GoT up to now — if anything, I’d rather read up about that 15C civil war than get stuck into fictional dynastic quarrels, but that’s just me. No doubt I’ll sample the epics when all the brouhaha dies down. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I sort of know what you mean, Nikki, though I was initially more struck by Morgon’s personal angst through the first book and onwards. The dream-like quality is certainly there in the shapeshifting sequences and descriptions of seasonal change.

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