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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Invisible in plain sight: a recurring theme in the works of Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip is a solid craftswoman of fantastic literature, and has been for over three decades. There's no sense of the occult in her works, and, seldom, great works of wizardry, causing disaster, or the reverse. Her characters usually face situations they don't fully understand, and the reader often feels that way, too. If that's the case, what makes her a great craftswoman? She uses words well, she knows how to create an atmosphere, and she knows how to describe life-changing experiences in her characters.

I have previously argued that rejection of vengeance is an important theme in many of McKillip's works. Another theme that occurs in some of her work is the importance of musical artistry. One of her books is named Harpist in the Wind, another Song for the Basilisk. These titles aren't accidents. Nor is that of "A Matter of Music," the longest story in her collection, Harrowing the Dragon. (New York: Ace, 2005). Another theme that occurs more than once is strange ancestry. In "A Matter of Music," even though the Jazi despise the Daghian people, some of the Jazi are part Daghian. In the Riddle-Master trilogy, Raederle is part Earth-Master. There are other examples of this in McKillip's writing.

It was while I was reading this collection that another of McKillip's themes occurred to me, that of the title. Her characters are often in plain sight, yet invisible to those around them. In "Ash, Wood, Fire," (in Harrowing) a kitchen helper in a castle is so invisible that the other workers in the kitchen have no name for her. Finally she leaves the kitchen. "Cooks, Sauces, Bakers milled bewilderedly, betrayed, calling, "Fire! Fire!" and never seeing her, while beside the door a young woman stood watching . . ." (185) This story is similar to the description of Saro in McKillip's The Book of Atrix Wolfe. In "Transmutations," a wizard's apprentice hasn't seen his female co-apprentice in her other life as a servant at a tavern, even though he goes there all the time.

But it isn't always fellow workers who don't see McKillip's characters. In her "The Snow Queen," also in Harrowing, a man doesn't see his wife, who loves him deeply. He sees another woman: "To his eye she was alone; the importunate young lapdog beside her did not exist." (154) He leaves her, and she blossoms during the separation: "For a moment he did not recognize her; he had never seen her laugh like that." (172)

In another story in the same book, a destructive villain is destroyed and dissuaded because someone sees aspects of him that no one else has ever seen. ("The Stranger")

On reflection, some of McKillip's other works have this same theme. In her Riddle-Master trilogy, some wizards hide in plain sight for centuries. Nun is a pig-herder, Suth a wild animal, Aloil a tree. And the most important character, the High One, masquerades for centuries as harpist for a false High One.

This theme is important, because we have the same problems. Probably all of us have been invisible to someone else, even though we are in plain sight. And, worse, probably all of us have overlooked a co-worker, a spouse, a store clerk, a neighbor, when we should have seen them for what they are. I'm afraid I have.

Thanks for reading.


Kate said...

I enjoyed this post, especially as I am interested in literary analysis and have read some of Patricia McKillip's books. However, I got to the end and was hoping for more of an analysis...perhaps there is a post following with more than this one paragraph?

Martin LaBar said...

Sorry, kate. I'm more of a muser than a literary analyst. I have written more about McKillip -- click on The Riddle-Master Trilogy in the post -- it's a link.

Thanks for your comment.

Arevanye said...'s been a really, really long time since I read the Riddle-Master trilogy. I think it's about time for a re-read. Thanks for this post!

Martin LaBar said...

April 19, 2008: McKillip usually improves with re-reading, in my experience.

Thanks for the comment.