Riddle Master of Hed. Cover by Darell SweetAs we noted in an earlier column, fantasy author Patricia McKillip passed away on May 6, 2022. This column is not an obituary; it contains some of my thoughts about her work, mostly THE RIDDLE-MASTER TRILOGY.

Many people mentioned that McKillip was their gateway to fantasy, sometimes the first fantasy book they read (in some cases, even before THE LORD OF THE RINGS). The Riddle-Master of Hed was not the first fantasy book I’d read, but it created an alchemical reaction in me—it inspired me.

The Riddle-Master of Hed was published in 1976. That November, Jimmy Carter defeated an appointee president, Gerald Ford. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War won a Hugo for Best Novel. Disco filled many spaces on Billboard’s Top Ten charts.

Feminism—capitalist feminism, focusing on rights and equality in the work-place—had grown well beyond its infancy. Earth Day had been around for six years. The country was two years into the inflationary cycle that began in 1974. We’d left Viet Nam. A president had resigned when he was caught sanctioning criminal acts on his behalf. The active turmoil of the late 1960s and early 70s had calmed. For women, things were getting better, and I (in my late teens) believed that things were getting better for Black people and other people of color. My upheaval was internal. I had a lot of choices and no idea where I belonged or what I wanted to do. My faith in many things I had taken for granted was shaken. That was good—things were changing. It was still unsettling.

Into that personal zeitgeist came the Riddle-Master of Hed.

The book was like nothing else I could remember reading. For one thing, the world was filled with magic. It was in the earth, the water, the stories, the sky. It was acknowledged in the cultures of the various small nations with their land-rulers and land-heirs. Magic was not just a means to a human end. It was its own thing. It had rules, it had strictures, but now, when I put words to those “rules,” they’re words like rhythm, harmony, scansion. Magic’s rules were the rules of music and poetry. (Or, as a shape-shifter tells the Raederle in The Heir of Sea and Fire, “…not compassion, but passion.”)

The magic was real with a history and a mystery in the land. The riddles, half-fable, half-koan, pass on the mysteries to generations of students. There are towers and ruins on the plains. There are artifacts and folktales. And in the little farm island of Hed, there is a land-heir, Morgon, who has three stars on his forehead.

Looking back from the 21st century, it’s obvious that Morgon is a Chosen One. In fact, his adventures faithfully follow the footsteps of any Chosen Ones’s path. He is still his own person; a farmer and the son of a farmer. He seeks to challenge himself, but he doesn’t seek greatness—which is why he can win a crown in a riddle-match with the ghost of a king and hide the crown under his bed.

Morgon is smart and brave. He’s genuinely humble. He isn’t an outcast in his own community. Morgon has a loving (if baffled) family. He wants to help. He’ll help save the world, but he can’t help wondering if the farmers back home can get the harvest in.

He’s a decent man.

The land rulers and land heirs each have a kind of magic, and their magic comes from their kingdoms. It is part of the land. It is not something to be collected, consumed, or traded for profit. It’s meant to be stewarded. As the trilogy progresses, the land-rulers who decide to fight are doing so to protect their lands and their people, not to amass wealth or create an empire.

I don’t think I consciously recognized all of those things while I was reading the trilogy, but I knew Morgon resonated with me. I was too young to vote when Nixon was elected and I wouldn’t have voted for him anyway, but I was deeply disillusioned when Watergate was uncovered, and the investigation showed us a President who colluded to commit illegal acts in order to win an election. (Yes, I know just how that sounds.)  In my small Catholic parish, our beloved priest called together a small group from the congregation, including my parents, to tell him he was leaving the priesthood because he’d been secretly married for two years. I thought the no-marriage rule was stupid, but I felt hurt and betrayed anyway. At the other end of the spiritual continuum, I watched the Vatican enact bureaucratic torture on a priest and a nun who had requested to be released from holy orders so they could marry. It seemed like no institution could be trusted.

Morgon of Hed and his world were a balm. Escapism? Completely, but also, at a deep psychological level, a model for how people could be in a world. You could try to help people. You could be kind. You could tell the truth. You could respect others.

The story of the trilogy provided healing and guidance, but there was also the language; McKillip’s elegant, beautiful, spare prose, again, like poetry and music itself. The prose wasn’t so compressed and distilled that it became inaccessible, because somehow McKillip walked the tightrope and remembered that the words existed to serve the story.

Over the next three years as each book came out, I read them, and came away with a thirst to do this things create stories, create worlds, draw people into them. I’d always written stories; I’d never written stories like this. But I saw the magic and I watched to touch it.

McKillip inspired me another way. In 1977, I attended a reading of hers at a convention. It was immediately obvious that she was shy. The other woman SF writer I had heard read was Ursula K. LeGuin, who I would not describe as shy (or if she was, she adjusted for it robustly). McKillip became a personal role model as well.

My prose will never be as beautiful as hers, nor my worlds as immersive (I can dream, though!), but I can tell stories, and on my best days I tell myself that maybe my stories reach one person in the world who is disillusioned, confused, frightened, and my words help them. And that I owe to McKillip.



  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.