"A riddle is a tale so familiar you no longer see it; it's simply there, like the air you breathe, the ancient names of the Kings echoing in the corners of your house, the sunlight in the corner of your eye; until one day you look at it and something shapeless, voiceless in you opens a third eye and sees it as you have never seen it before. Then you are left with the knowledge of the nameless question in you, and the tale that is no longer meaningless but the one thing in the world that has meaning any more."
Patricia McKillip's trilogy, The Riddlemaster's Game (1976-9), is widely seen as one of the classics of the fantasy genre. The author admits in her preface to this omnibus edition (2001) that she was inspired - as were so many - by reading Tolkien, but these books are much more than Lord of the Rings clones. For McKillip was inspired to go to Tolkien's sources, to the sagas that lay behind Middle-Earth, and the result was a trilogy redolent of the settings, themes, and smooth prose, simple but poetic, of Scandinavian and Irish legend.
He saw the harpist's face go suddenly still, as if the wind had snatched in passing its expression and breath. Then uncertainty ended in him like a song's ending.
McKillip's invented land is not unlike that which I've been reading about recently in Frank Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England. It is a patchwork of sparsely-populated, largely rural (and often combative) polities of varying size and importance, with a rich oral history. Trade centres around livestock, hides, beer and grain, agriculture is mostly subsistence, and the society's key values are hospitality, honour, memory, and reputation (in both life and death). With the disappearance of wizadry from the land many centuries before, magical power now lies within naming, music (predominantly harping), dreams and shapeshifting - together with the "land-sense" which passes from ruler to successive ruler within each kingdom, however small. The land-sense is a skill for a society rooted in - and heavily dependent upon the seasons and fruitfulness of - the land, an deep awareness of life (as it is described at one point, "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."). Above all the individual land-rulers, theoretically maintaining the balance of the kingdoms, is an inscrutable individual known only as the High One, whose "mind is the great web of the minds of those in his realm. He weaves to his own ends, threading back and forth between action and action to make a pattern, which is why his reactions to events are often unexpected.
Intellectual life in the kingdoms focuses upon the art of riddles; that is, upon knowledge of the people and events of the distant past, framed as questions that must be answered with a story, and the lessons such stories impart to the present.
"Sol was the son of Danan Isig. He was pursued through the mines of Isig mountain one day by traders who wanted to steal from him a priceless jewel. He came to the stone door at the bottom of Isig, beyond which lay dread and sorrow older even than Isig. He could not bring himself to open that door, which no man had ever opened, for fear of what might lie in the darkness beyond it. So his enemies found him in his indecision, and there he died."
To be a Riddlemaster is to have studied such history and legend intensively, and to have proved oneself able to answer even the most obscure conundrums. One such is Morgon, protagonist of the first volume (Riddlemaster of Hed (1976)) of the trilogy. He is a Riddlemaster so adept that he once defeated the (dead) Lord of Aum in a notoriously-fiendish riddling contest lasting a night and a day, winning a certain crown from him in the process. But Morgon is a young man with responsibilities, and shortly before the tale opens he has been forced to leave behind the scholarly life he adores, due to the sudden deaths of his parents and his abrupt accession to the rulership of the backwater island of Hed. Events, of course, soon disrupt even this - not least, the fact that his having won the crown from the Lord of Aum means that he is now promised to marry Raederle of An - and he sets out on a journey in the company of the High One's Harpist, Deth.
His journey takes him to the hearths of the various land-rulers, and others, all of whom offer him the hospitality of their halls. Much attention is given to the ritual of sharing food - and conversation, usually including the swapping of riddles - with guests. The broader story is teased out as Morgon goes along, the customs and side stories are equally important to the fabric of the novel; indeed, texture and theme are probably given more weight, for the most part, than story or character (characters are largely archetypes, befitting their mythic setting, although some, like Morgon and Raederle, are more fully drawn). The stories are often funny, too:
"Somewhere in here is the spell that made the stone talk on King's Mouth Plain. Do you know the tale? Aloil was furious with Galil Ymris because the king refused to follow Aloil's advice during a siege of Caerweddin, and as a result Aloil's tower was burned. So Aloil made a stone in the plain above Caerweddin speak for eight days and nights in such a loud voice that men as far as Umber and Meremont heard it, and the stone recited all Galil's secret, very bad attempts at writing poetry. From that the plain got its name."
The second volume (Heir of Sea and Fire (1977)) follows Raederle, Morgon's younger sister Tristan, and Lyra, daughter of the a land-ruler and something of a warrior princess, as they travel in search of answers to the strange incident at the end of the first book. Here McKillip is, of course, delving into something that largely escaped Tolkien: the possibilities for female protagonists in a legendary world. Without compromising the social realities of her created land, McKillip explores active women's roles through three very likeable characters. Raederle, the most completely realised of the trio, has spent much of her life knowing that her fate as a woman had been decided for her, promised away by her father to whosoever might obtain the crown of Aum. Yet within the limited freedom she possesses, she has gained considerable skill with riddles - and she begins to discover a heritage that brings its own (dangerous) power, and respect on her travels. Lyra comes from a realm ruled by her mother, whose honour guard she leads. And Tristan, young enough to still be largely free of a woman's duties, is just plain devious when it comes to evading those who would protect and prevent her.
The third novel (Harpist in the Wind (1979)) brings all the strands together for an epoch-making climax of shape-shifting, riddling, vengeance, confused identities, coming of age, and history reborn. It is here that McKillip's prose, frequently so beautiful, really comes into its own: there is a striking passage, echoing Welsh tradition, regarding Morgon's attempts to escape his pursuers through repeated shape-shifting:
He made another desperate bid for freedom then. He dropped into the wild current of the Cwill, let it whirl him, now as a fish, now a dead branch, through deep, churning waters, down rapids and thundering falls until he lost all sense of time, direction, light. The current jarred him over endless rapids before it loosed him finally in a slow, green pool. He spun awhile, a piece of water-soaked wood, aware of nothing but a fibrous darkness.
So, too, do her themes: the concerns here are twofold, and both intimately tied in to their setting. One is about meaning, identity, and naming, and how these things can be hidden, blurred, or transmuted (what are this land's riddles, after all, but the transformation of one type of knowledge to another?) - and, eventually, be revealed as something quite other than expected. The other deals with the land and all its aspects (creatures, landscape, rocks, wind) as a single living, interconnected organism, one that can be be understood by immersing oneself in it - through shapeshifting, through land-sense, or more prosaically by living in and travelling through it with all sense alert, talking to its inhabitants and learnings its ways.
I generally prefer my fantasy more high-politicking and/or steampunk'd, but there's something so charming, deeply-felt and lived-in about the Riddlemaster trilogy that I was definitely won over. In the annals of tales about farm boys reluctant to embrace their destiny, few have the authenticity, vision, and mythic resonance of McKillip's novels.
Re of Aum offended the Lord of Hel once and became so frightened that he had a great wall built around his house in fear or revenge. He hired a stranger to build it, who promised him a wall no man could destroy or climb, either by force or wizardry. The wall was built, the stranger took his pay; and Re at last felt secure. One day, when he decided that the Lord of Hel had realised the futility of revenge, he decided to venture out of his lands. And then he travelled around his wall three times but found no gate to let him out. And slowly he realised that the Lord of Hel himself had built that wall.