The Riddle-Master of Hed
Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Publisher: Del Rey, 1987
First Published: 1976
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.
Of Riddles and Lessons for Morgon
The riddles in The Riddle-Master of Hed are questions with answers in the form of folktales that teach a lesson. They’re used whenever a character wants to make a point, and they serve to give the reader a glimpse of the vast history of their world. There are many riddles in this novel, some are full riddles—with question, answer, and lesson—while others are presented as only the question or only the answer. This discussion focuses on the four full riddles that pushed Morgon to continue on his quest, and a final riddle question that boggles the mind.
The full riddles appear whenever a character is trying to make Morgon see the error of his ways. This has to do with the saying that “riddles are often dangerous, but an unanswered riddle may be deadly” (106). If riddles are questions with lessons in their answers, then not having an answer to a riddle is lack of knowledge. In other words, ignorance is deadly, and in Morgon’s case this becomes quite literal. He doesn’t know who wants him dead or why, because he doesn’t know who he is. At Caithnard, Master Ohm asks the riddle, “Who was Ilon of Yrie?” Morgon narrates that Ilon was the harpist who offended Har of Osterland and ran away in fear. He moved to the mountains and lived alone with only his harp. With nothing else to do, his harping skills grew so much that word of his music reached Har, who then found Ilon. The lesson is, that “a man running from death must run first from himself” (35). Master Ohn is trying to make Morgon see how foolish it is to run from the question of who he is. Morgon simply responds that he is not running, but merely not engaging the riddle of his destiny. The riddle fails to push Morgon in the right direction and he boards a ship back to Hed. But then the ship goes down and Morgon’s path changes anyways.
Later on in the story, on the road to Erlenstar Mountain, Morgon panicks and says he wants to go back to Hed. Deth engages him in a riddle: “Who was Sol of Isig and why did he die?” Morgon answers that Sol was pursued by thieves through the mines of Isig Mountain. He stopped running at the stone door in the bottom of the mountain and couldn’t bring himself to open it because he fear what lay beyond. The thieves caught him and killed him. The lesson is to “turn forward into the unknown, rather than backward toward death” (89). Choosing not to engage in the riddle of his destiny is as deadly as running from it. As if the riddle wasn’t clear enough, Deth then tells Morgon, “You are Sol of Isig, caught up by fear between death and a door that has been closed for thousands of years” (99).
Morgon grows angry at this. Up until then, other characters have used riddles against Morgon, but this time he uses a riddle against Deth by asking, “Who was Ingris of Osterland and why did he die?” Reluctantly, Deth answers that Ingris angered Har, the King of Osterland by refusing to take him in one night. The King cursed him so that if Ingris’s didn’t get the name of the next stranger to stop at his house, then he would die. The next stranger came—and it was Deth—and gave Ingris everything but his name, so Ingris died. The lesson is to “give what others require of you for their lives” (100). Morgon’s point is that Deth has the answers to his questions, but refuses to give them even knowing Morgon’s life is at stake. Deth argues that the riddle also applies to Morgon whose destiny is intertwined with the lives of everyone in their world. If Morgon doesn’t continue on to Erlenstar Mountain, then he’ll let everyone die.
Morgon reluctantly enters the City of Circles, where there is yet another full riddle. Lyra uses it to make Morgon see reason after he’s set on running back to Hed yet again after another freak-out session. Lyra asks him, “Who was Re of Aum?” When Morgon doesn’t answer, she tells him anyways. Re of Aum offended Lord of Hel. He then hired a stranger to build a wall around his home so that the Lord couldn’t get to him. Time after, Re found out he couldn’t get out. The stranger had caged him in. The lesson is to “never let a stranger build walls around you” (111). Lyra’s making a point of how Ghisteslwchlohm essentially captured all the wizards by building a school and teaching what he wanted. All the wizards knew as truth was what Ghisteslwchlohm taught them. Lyra is telling Morgon that if he wants to find the truth about himself, he can’t let others make conjectures or come up with ideas for him. He has to go find out for himself. He has to continue on his quest. And he does.
The use of riddles is quite unique in this story, to the point where I eagerly anticipated them in each important dialogue. The riddles essentially push Morgon to think and challenge him to find the answer to the unanswerable riddle of who he is, even though all he wants to do is run back to Hed. The full riddles were exceptional, but the one that really captured my attention was the riddle Astrin asks to Morgon: “Who paid for his shape with the scars on his hands and to whom?” (50). Morgon writes the answer on the book, but we’re not given it. Later on, we meet Har, the wolf of Osterland, who got his scars from Suth by learning to shape shift. So, that might be the answer Morgon wrote. But then Morgon himself becomes the answer to this riddle when he gets the scars from Har for learning the vesta shape. It begs the question of, how many answers can a riddle have? And, can an answer to a riddle change with time? This blew my mind.