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Monday, April 02, 2007

Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy

Patricia A. McKillip is one of the masters of fantasy literature (see here for Wikipedia article) and has been for over three decades. She was fifth in a list of "Great" female fantasy writers. She has won more Mythopoeic Awards than any other author. Here's my web page (not blog) on McKillip, mostly on one aspect of her fiction, namely the rejection of revenge by important characters in her works.

Most of my posts on fantastic literature attempt to steer away from giving away the plot. However, I will attempt to outline the plot of her longest work in this post.

The Riddle-Master trilogy consists of The Riddle-Master of Hed (New York: Ballantine, 1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (New York: Ballantine, 1977), and Harpist in the Wind (New York: Ballantine, 1979). The trilogy has been re-published as Riddle-Master (New York: Ace, 1999), with a new introduction by McKillip.

The best reviews/summaries of these books that I have seen are by Geoffrey Prewett. These may be found here, here, and here.

So how to summarize this trilogy? Here's a fairly short version:
Morgon is the heir of Hed, a small island close to other more important parts of the realm of the High One. He was born with three stars on his forehead. He has been to the School for Riddle-Masters, the only scholar ever to go there from Hed. Ohm is one of the masters of this school. Morgon meets the High One's harpist, Deth, and gradually develops a deep friendship with him, and also learns more and more about him, as the trilogy progresses.

A central feature of the trilogy is land-law. Each of the six main parts of the realm, Hed, An, Ymris, Osterland, Herun, and Isig Mountain, is ruled by a person who is deeply concerned about the care of their land, and the people and organisms that live there, and has intimate knowledge of all of these. A land-ruler is somehow aware of each leaf, each insect, each stone. Each of them has a land-heir, who will suddenly acquire this same intimate knowledge upon the death of a land-ruler. The system was developed, and presumably made possible, by the High One, who supposedly lives in the realm, but outside of the six areas named above (I'll call them kingdoms, although that's too simple) in Erlenstar Mountain.

"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 (from Heir of Sea and Fire) Tristan of Hed, explaining the passing of land-law from Morgon to Eliard, to Raederle, Who is supposed to marry Morgon.

Morgon eventually learns that the High One was one of a race of Earth-Masters, beings with great power, who were capable of changing and destroying the land, and the organisms and people on it, almost without limits. The High One had allies from among the Earth-Masters, but also had a group of powerful opponents from among them, the shape-changers. The Earth-Masters are a very long-lived race, and the system of land-rule has been in place for at least several centuries. He also learns that another set of powerful entities, the wizards, humans with great powers, appeared some time after the kingdoms were established. A great wizard, Ghisteslwchlohm, founded a School for Wizards at Lungold, in the realm, but outside of the six kingdoms. There he taught the other Wizards, but, Morgon learns, he also limited their powers, and learned how to control them.

Morgon goes to see the High One, at the urging of Deth, the High One's harpist, who supposedly has no special powers of his own, but acts as the emissary of the High One throughout the realm. When he gets there, he discovers that Ghisteslwchlohm has taken the place of the High One, and that he is also Ohm, from the school for Riddle-Masters. Ghisteslwchlohm holds Morgon captive for months, probing his mind for a secret. Morgon learns later that the secret he is trying to find is the identity and location of the High One. During this time, Deth plays his harp, and Morgon comes to hate this harping, and the harpist who has betrayed him.

The second book develops the character and role of Raederle, daughter of the ruler of An, who is promised as bride to Morgon. She, it turns out, is part shape-changer, and has their abilities.

Deth allowed Morgon to be captured by Ghisteslwchlohm because it would strengthen Morgon. The mind-link that the wizard forged was two-way. It eventually gave Morgon enough knowledge of the wizard that Morgon broke his control and escaped, and, in doing so, set the other wizards free.

The High One, it develops, is Deth himself, and, at the end of the trilogy, he tells Morgon, who has forgiven him, and loves him (although he doesn't understand why) that Morgon is land-heir to the High One, and will take over the land-rule of the entire realm when he, Deth, is dead. Deth has hidden because he was not able to stand against his old enemies, the shape-changers, but Morgon, with Raederle, will be able to do so. At the end, Deth allows himself to be killed by Ghisteslwchlohm and the shape-changers, but this sacrifice destroys Ghisteslwchlohm, and gives Morgon the power of the High One, which allows him to isolate the shape-changers in Erlenstar Mountain, where they cannot affect the rest of the realm.

There is more. Morgon's family, the various land-rulers and their land-heirs, and the wizards, are all characters with personalities, well-drawn by McKillip. There are fine descriptions of various kinds of crafts, of commerce, and of the land and the living things upon it. There are many turns of plot that I have not included in the summary above. McKillip has some gift for naming, and there are many well-chosen names for her places and characters (A couple of them are quite long. Besides Ghisteslwchlohm, there is El Elrhiarhodan*, the Morgol, female land-ruler of Herun. Most of McKillip's names are shorter.) She says that she was influenced by Tolkien, and some of that shows through, but the trilogy is certainly much more than a shadow of The Lord of the Rings. It holds up well on its own.

My next post considers biblical themes in this trilogy.

Thanks for reading.

*This name reminds me of that of El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies, from Richard Adams' great Watership Down.


Catez said...

Very interesting martin. Some of the names seem a bit too difficult for me - like Ghisteslwchlohm. But the outline gets my attention - I find the land-law part intersting because so many cultures have something like that intrinsic to how they view the world and their responsibility.

Also - in case I don't find your email addy - something on my blog for you today.

Martin LaBar said...

I did find it. Thanks!

Thanks for reading, and commenting. My next post is also on McKillip.

Fernandopoo said...

I have always loved the name "Ghisteslwchlohm". I don't know that I ever learned how to correctly pronounce it, but I believe each syllable rhymes with the phrase "This Dress'll bomb". I finally (finally! after 20+ years) have my wife reading far she seems to like it!
I can't wait to read your biblical points in the next post.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Fernandopoo.

I don't know how to pronounce it, either. I guess McKillip does.