The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Patricia A. McKillip
Publication Date 1998
Format Leather-bound (240 x 145 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 228
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 10
No. of Reviews 21
Frontispiece/Illustrator Pat Morrissey
Original Details
Original Publisher The Howard Morhaim Literary Agency
Original Publication Year 1976
Long ago, the wizards had vanished from the world, and all knowledge was left hidden in riddles. Morgon, prince of the simple farmers of Hed, proved himself a master of such riddles when he staked his life to win a crown from the dead Lord of Aum.

But now ancient, evil forces were threatening him. Shape changers began replacing friends until no man could be trusted. So Morgon was forced to flee to hostile kingdoms, seeking the High One who ruled from mysterious Erlenstar Mountain.

Beside him went Deth, the High One's Harper. Ahead lay strange encounters and terrifying adventures. And with him always was the greatest of unsolved riddles -- the nature of the three stars on his forehead that seemed to drive him toward his ultimate destiny.

The road that leads to fantasy winds through the glowing landscape of childhood. Some of the great classics of fantasy were published for children: Alice in Wonderland, The Water-Babies, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Charlotte's Web, hundreds of other novels, and, of course, all the fairy tales. Child hood is a time of fantasy, when all the world looks like fairyland and anything can happen, and fantasy may be the means by which the adult world teaches children how to behave. In fact, early folk tales, fairy tales, and fables were morally improving works (or aimed at frightening children against improper behavior) considered appropriate for youthful instruction, and fantasies were not aimed at adults until the publication of George MacDonald's Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women in 1858.

Since then, a number of authors of adult fantasy have begun writing fantasy for younger readers, Tolkien with The Hobbit, for instance; Andre Norton with Rogue Reynard, Roald Dahl with The Gremlins, Ursula K. Le Gum with A Wizard of Earthsea, although Le Gum had earlier published adult science fiction, Jane Yolen with The Witch Who Wasn't, and Patricia A. McKillip with The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. The movement from juvenile to adult fantasy fiction was almost opposite to the movement in science fiction; although many novels for boys were published in the 19th and the early 20th century, authors such as Isaac Asimov, Lester del Rey, Robert A. Heinlein, Robert Silver- berg, and others moved into juvenile books after first having made a reputation as authors of adult science fiction.

Patricia A. McKillip was born in Salem, Oregon, in 1948 and earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from San Jose State University before turning to a career in writing. She began by writing for juveniles. The House on Parchment Street, published in 1973, is a ghost story set in England that features an American girl visiting an English cousin; they discover an unknown priests' tunnel when they follow 17th century ghosts through a basement wall. In The St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Cathi MacRae suggests that the setting of the novel is where McKillip began writing at the age of 14.

A second novel, published the same year, involved "secondary world" creation. The Throme of the Erril of Sherill was described by Brian Stableford in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy as "comic fantasy in the manner of James Thurber." But it also involves the rebellion of the young against their elders and introduced the archetypal motifs and concern for the power of language that would become characteristic in her later work. Her "Cnite Caerles" seeks "a throme," "made of a treasure of words," that does not exist until he writes it himself and wins the hand of the princess.

McKillip's first fantasy classic was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974), which won the World Fantasy Award. David Pringle, in Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, calls it "a fairy-tale work, written in dreamy style, about an 'ice-maiden' who has inherited a collection of fabulous, heraldic beasts from her father, her grandfather, and her wizard great-grandfather. The outside world forces itself into her remote, icy castle, and she eventually is brought to love and engagement with the world and its problems. She finally frees both herself and her beasts. MacRae says, "McKillip's concern with personal power through the magic of naming dawns here in a resonant tale of love's triumph among fantastical beasts not soon forgotten."

The Night Gift (1976), a realistic juvenile novel about teenagers who try to help a suicidal friend, was followed by the series that many readers consider her masterpiece, The Riddle of Stars trilogy, which began with The Riddle-Master of Hed (1978) and was followed by Heir of Sea and Fire (1978) and Harpist in the Wind (1979). Readers of Locus voted The Riddle-Master of Hed thirteenth on a list of "All-Time Best Fantasy Novels," and Peter Nicholls called the trilogy "one of the classics of the genre." When Riddle-Master was published, Peter S. Beagle called McKillip "the best of the younger fantasy writers.... a storytelling sorceress, just now coming into her full powers."

The Riddle-Master novels are set on a stretch of land 800 miles from north to south and 400 miles from east to west, and Morgon is the young ruler of the modest, agricultural island of Hed, just off the east coast of the mainland. The special circumstance of this world is that the rulers are spiritually involved with the lands they rule, understanding it intuitively even more than they know it rationally. It is this difference between ways of "knowing" that shapes this world and gives the novel its title. Knowledge in Riddle-Master is not categorized into subjects but, as Nicholls describes in Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, "as a labyrinth, a kind of riddle. . . ," and Riddle-Masters teach the way the world works by means of "riddles and paradigmatic fables, often incidents from the lives of past rulers and wizards. . . When properly understood, every riddle has a 'stricture,' or a synopsizable content, an adage that gives a pattern for living in the present."

Morgon, moreover, has a riddle emblazoned on his forehead, three stars, whose meaning propels him through the trilogy until he finally discovers the answer and his fate. "Although the quest and the 'mysterious destiny' are familiar ingredients of high fantasy," Nicholls observes, "the elusiveness of this tale is something new. With McKillip's writing, the meaning of things is seldom clear; the trilogy is itself a riddle of the same kind as the riddle it describes, and the reader must be a riddle-master himself."

One of the themes of Riddle-Master is the shapechanger, which Nicholls considers central to the novel: "it is a metaphor for the insubstantiality of things, and it erodes all the moral certainties tradition ally associated with epics of this sort. Good and evil shift and merge; one cannot be sure which is which. .. ." And later, "The central metaphor of the shape-change is linked directly to the metaphor of the riddle, since to understand a riddle (so the subtext softly argues), it is almost necessary to change shape. The shapechanger, by abandoning the imperatives of his human structure (and, by implication, the rigid ities of his mental imprinting), can feel his way into the alien mazes or riddles that constitute other modes of being."

McKillip returned to the naturalistic novel with Stepping from the Shadows (1982), which describes the development of a fantasy writer. "How the writer unites opposite sides of herself is a compelling and heartrending story, surely somewhat autobiographical and flawlessly executed in lyrical prose binding worlds seen and unseen," MacRae writes. McKillip ventured into science fiction with Moon-Flash (1984), The Moon and the Face (1985), and Fool's Run (1987), but returned to fantasy with The Sorceress and the Cygnet (1991) and The Cygnet and the Firebird (1993). Her 1994 novella Something Rich and Strange, which deals with powerful and sinister sea-spirits, won the Mythopoeic Award. Her recent publications have been The Book of Atrix Wolfe (1995) and Winter Rose (1996).

But it is to McKillip's Riddle of Stars trilogy (also known as "the Star-Bearer trilogy") that every reader returns. Of it Nicholls wrote: "McKillip's achievement has been to restore life and vigor to this withered tradition. The Star-Bearer trilogy works wholly within the rigid, generic constraints of high fantasy, yet, miraculously, all the elements of the tale are as fresh as if they were being used for the first time." And Nicholls concludes his summation of the trilogy: "it is a work of great originality, written in a flexible and subtle prose that twists and weaves its extraordinarily bright and precise images with great confidence; it is always surprising in its refusal to accept the stereotypes of fantasy... Patricia McKillip's myth is fleshed out, alive, and formidable." MacRae says, "McKillip has mastered the literary form that transmits her message that magic bridges 'the con fusing distance between things,' and that we must use our power to keep all things connected." And Stableford says that McKillip "is one of the most accomplished prose stylists working in the fantasy genre; she always brings a keen and refreshingly idiosyncratic intelligence to her employment of its motifs."

The paths of fantasy may wind through childhood, but eventually they emerge into the harsher light of maturity, wider and better for their earlier passage.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas
February 4, 1998