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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Christian themes in Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy

I should begin with two acknowledgments:
1) I am grateful to Patricia A. McKillip, who has written a body of work that I have enjoyed. Sometimes I've had trouble understanding what was going on, which was probably my fault, but I've never had trouble understanding that I'm in a world of fantastic fiction, where things don't work quite as they do here in the real world.
2) I'm grateful to Elliot, of the Claw of the Conciliator blog, for posting an annotated list of important authors of fantastic literature that show evidence of a Christian world-view in their work. I commented on this, and suggested, based especially on her use of the theme of turning away from vengeance, that McKillip might belong on his list. Then, I decided to go further, examining McKillip's longest work, the Riddle-Master trilogy, for Christian themes. I'm not sure that I would have ever done this if I hadn't read Elliot's post.

I now add a disclaimer. I have never read anything suggesting that McKillip is a Christian, other than her novels. A list of "Famous Science Fiction/Fantasy Authors," written in 1999, and updated in 2006, which gives the religious affiliation of all of these authors, does not mention her. This implies that the person who prepared this list did not consider that McKillip belonged on it, in spite of the awards she has won, and the value of her body of work, and really says nothing about her religious affiliation.

Now, to Christian themes in the Riddle-Master trilogy. (See previous post for my plot summary, and bibliographic information.) Here are some of the ones I have found.

Rejection of vengeance. Deth led Morgon to Ghisteslwchlohm, without warning him that he would be subjected to months of mental torture, or that Ghisteslwchlohm was not the High One, when he understood both of these full well. So Morgon had motivation to kill Deth. In fact, he followed him through An, wanting to take vengeance on him. However, when he finally caught up with Deth, he did not kill him. Here's an exchange between Morgon's sister, Tristan, and his companion, Raederle:
"He's changed. Once he was the land-ruler of Hed, and he would rather have killed himself than someone else Now --"
"Tristan, he has been hurt, probably more deeply than any of us could know . . ."
She nodded a little jerkily. "I can understand that with my head. People have killed other people in Hed, out of anger or jealousy, but not -- not like that. Not tracking someone like a hunter, driving him to one certain place to be killed. It's -- what someone else would do. But not Morgon. And if -- if it happens, and afterwards he goes back to Hed, how will we recognize each other any more?" p. 301. Ellipsis in original.

Morgon finally realizes that Deth is the High One, and marvels that he did not destroy Ghisteslwchlohm. He had reason to, and could have.

See Romans 12:
19: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (ESV)

A fuller treatment of this them in McKillip's writing is here.

Redemption through death. The core story of the trilogy is that the High One, the supernatural ruler of the realm, needs to die, so that evil, in the person of the shape-changers, can be conquered. Deth, the High One, willingly dies, allowing himself to be killed, so that this may be accomplished. (His heir, Morgon, will be able to conquer the shape-changers, but couldn't, of course, be his heir as long as the former High One was still alive.)

See Colossians 1:19-22, and other passages:
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, (ESV)

Unselfish love. This, of course, is epitomized in 1 Corinthians 13. I wouldn't say that such agape love is a main theme of this trilogy, but it is at least an underlying one. Deth says that he didn't expect to love Morgon, and Morgon certainly didn't expect to come to love Deth, even though Deth betrayed him to Ghisteslwchlohm. There seems, also, to be affection amounting to unselfish love, for Morgon, from two of the land-rulers, Har of Osterland and Danan of Isig Mountain.

Forgiveness. (See Matthew 6:7-15) At least one example, of course, is that Morgon forgave Deth for betraying him. This took some time -- he pursued Deth in order to kill him, first -- and wasn't easy.

Maintenance of the material world. Colossians 1:16-17 says this:
16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (ESV) While McKillip's land-law does not seem to include creation of rocks, soil, water and organisms, it does have aspects of control, knowledge, and maintenance:
The High One, from the beginning, had let 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. (p. 109)
"Eliard was out in the fields when it happened. He just said he felt that suddenly everything -- the leaves and animals, the rivers, the seedlings -- everything suddenly made sense. He knew what they were and why they did what they did. He tried to explain it to me. I said everything must have made sense before, most things do anyway, but he said it was different. He could see everything very clearly, and what he couldn't see he felt. He couldn't explain it very well."
p. 262. Tristan of Hed, Morgon's sister, explaining the passing of land-law from Morgon to her brother Eliard.
The High One knows the land of the entire realm. The six land-rulers (see previous post) are responsible for the land-rule of their own kingdoms. Different land-rulers seem to have somewhat different powers. For example, there is no mention that the land-ruler of Hed controls anything (although the books don't say that he or she doesn't).

See the first three principles in this page for more on this topic.

Control of natural forces. This could be considered as part of the land-law, but I prefer to mention it separately. Jesus is called the master of wind and wave in Matthew 8:23-27, and parallel passages. In the Trilogy, Morgon becomes the master of the winds, so as to use them to control the shape-changers.

God appearing among humans. Christ was incarnated as a human being, and lived as one until He died, and there are a few instances in the Old Testament which may also be examples of this. In the Trilogy, the High One masquerades as Deth, the High One's harpist, a human servant, for centuries, and shows no evidence of supernatural powers to those who know him.

Powerful supernatural beings making a choice. The Bible doesn't say much about it, but many believe that the angels had a choice, long ago, perhaps even before the material universe was created. Some of them rebelled to follow Satan, but a majority didn't. In McKillip's trilogy, the Earth-masters and the Shape-changers were apparently one and the same kind of being, until the High One decided to take care of the earth and its creatures, while the Shape-changers decided to use it for their own ends. Not much is said about this division. (See Wikipedia article on Evil Angels, or this web page on Angels.)

This story, of course, is not a perfect parallel to the gospels. For example, Deth, the old High One, doesn't resurrect himself. There are other differences, but that is the main one. Nonetheless, I submit that there are important Christian themes in this trilogy. Does that make it Christian fiction? That depends, of course, on your definition of Christian fiction.

Thanks for reading.


Rob Rumfelt said...

Thanks for an interesting blog! Was never sure what fantastic literature was before. Ready to start some George MacDonald (Princess and the Goblin). I'll be back!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. I'm still not sure what it is, but MacDonald is a great place to start reading.