Patricia McKillip reading notes: Harpist in the Wind

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

hitw1Harpist in the Wind is the third and final book of the Riddle-Master trilogy and also in some ways the weirdest. We switch point of view characters back to Morgon from Raederle (sigh), but we do get quite a bit of Raederle because she’s determined to come with Morgon wherever he goes. As she says early in the book, “I am doing no more waiting.” (I can’t help reading this as a response to Arwen, and while I do think Arwen tends to get a bad rap, I also get it.)

I’ve talked a little bit about how I see Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books as the precursors to this one. But I also see the trilogy, and perhaps especially this book, as precursors to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Ana talked in her review about the combination of personal and epic, and that “Saving the world matters, and so does saving the people you love, and Agnieszka is given room to care about both.” I think that applies to a certain extent here, and I was interested to see how much Morgon clings to his love of Hed and his family, even as they’re stripped away from him.

But then, in the end, they’re given back. Not entirely, and not in the same way, but it’s clear that as Morgon is given land-rule over the whole realm, he is given Hed back. You cannot go home, but he does. I find this especially interesting in light of the fact that McKillip is writing about the end of an age–she says so over and over, and yet at the end of the book, there is grief and loss but nothing has actually changed. The Elves have not set sail into the West.hitw3

Except, in a way they have. The Earth-Masters, revealed to be the shape-changers, have gone. Morgon binds them until their death or his. Deth is gone, leaving behind a legacy for Morgon which he now must take up. But I never felt the sea change, the diminishing of the world which Tolkien wrote so well (“Land of the Valley of Singing Gold, that was it, once upon a time. Now it is the Dreamflower”). All the human systems remain intact, with Morgon to step into the High One’s place and Eliard to step into his.

Quite a bit of the book is centered on the emotional landscape between Raederle and Morgon as they journey around the world of the book. Morgon keeps trying to get Raederle to stay behind and Raederle refuses. They fight, over large and small things, and in the end they find each other again. I found that by the end of the story I did believe in their relationship and that they would find their way.

If throughout the first two books, hidden natures and hidden names were a big theme, then here what was hidden is revealed. At least, by the end; Deth spends a significant portion of the book disguised as the wizard Yrth. Or rather the High One has put off his Deth-guise and put on his Yrth-guise? This book is weird, and I feel like not everything is ever truly explained. In a certain sense, I didn’t need it to be: the emotional journey of Morgon and Raederle rang true and I accept the whole thing in some way that I can’t quite articulate.

hitw2However, I will admit that I have a hard time with Deth/Yrth/the High One’s actions in forcing Morgon through the experiences of the book. It’s true that parts of it were out of his control, and that he couldn’t reveal himself too soon, and yet. I love what McKillip was writing towards: that moment when everything is explained, when sorrows are transmuted, when you can find the deep secrets in your own nature without losing who you are. But as much as I love that, as much as I love the ultimate choices Morgon makes, I don’t think she quite pulls it off.

Despite this, just as I remembered loving the opening of Riddle-Master, I remembered loving the ending of Harpist. And I do, I truly do. There’s a sense of homecoming, of things ending and things beginning. And the last line is one of my favorites: “Peace, tremulous, unexpected, sent a taproot out of nowhere into Morgon’s heart.”

Book source: public library

Book information: 1979, Atheneum; adult fantasy

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14 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reading notes, reviews

14 responses to “Patricia McKillip reading notes: Harpist in the Wind

  1. Kathy_S

    I love your description of the ending!

    Also, re/ your earlier question about Raederle and the history of fantasy, I can only say, as someone old enough to have snatched each volume from the library’s New Books display, that the Riddlemaster trilogy was the first fantasy I ever read that fit my criteria for true gender parity — not an easy feat when the male lead is the High One designate.

    I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this series, but have still been known to accuse it of growing behind my back. I know I’ve developed a lot more sympathy for Deth over the years.

    • Maureen Eichner

      I had more sympathy for Deth when I initially read this series and I may come back to it again; at the moment I think I am struggling with the philosophy of suffering for gain which seems to be underlying some of his motivations. I think also it’s hard for me to to parse Deth as Deth vs. Deth as the High One.

      Thanks for the thoughts about Raederle! I of course am coming at this question having been born in ’87 and growing up in quite a different era.

  2. today, of course, the trilogy might well be published as YA, which is what I was when I read them for the first time. I have read them so often that if I want to, while weeding or sewing, I can scroll them through my mind….

    • Maureen Eichner

      Hmmm, such an interesting thought! You’re right of course, and yet I suspect that the trilogy wouldn’t be published in the same way today–I can’t see current editing/markets allowing a protagonist to dither for almost an entire book the way Morgon does in the first volume.

  3. Very interesting set of reviews, and I think it’s different coming to the trilogy as an adult. I believe I first read this series just about when it came out, because I think it was before I was in HS. For me, it was one of those seminal works that set my permanent taste. Both Morgan and Raederle worked for me, and still do, but that’s the time in your life where when you fall for a book, you fall hard.

    The mid-70s might have been the period in which female protagonists started to proliferate, though I imagine McKillip wasn’t actually the first. In the same basic period that McKillip was writing these, we also got CJC’s Morgaine and Arafel; Marta Randell’s JOURNEY, Ann McCaffery; Doris Piserchia’s SPACELING, which I’m glad to see is available on Kindle because I really enjoyed it; and John Varley’s Gaia trilogy — those are the ones I found quickly in my library. I’m sure I read all these books about when they came out, because I don’t remember ever even noticing a female protagonist as something different.

    • Maureen Eichner

      I think I was about 20 when I first read these, so right between teen and adult. I liked & appreciated them then and now, but I had my taste already fairly formed.

      Hmmm, your points about female protagonists are interesting–it looks like Cherryh, Randall, Piserchia and McKillip all were publishing at just the same time so there’s a proliferation of female protagonists & writers in epics fantasy at that point. (I’m not sure about McCaffrey because I’ve never seen the Pern books as fantasy, personally.)

      On the other hand, I do think that McKillip is maybe the most influential of those–at least as a younger reader, I haven’t heard of Randall or Piserchia before, and CJC I think of primarily as SF (though I know she has written fantasy works and of course my entrance into her books was through the SF side). But I also think I see CJC’s influence primarily in the sociological/character-driven SF realm–granted again that I’m not as familiar yet with her fantasy books. McKillip on the other hand, I think has influenced a number of later fantasy writers–including, of course, yourself! 🙂

      But thank you for the perspective. As I noted to Kathy S above, I was born in ’87 and so am probably coming at the whole thing from a different angle than older readers.

      • exactly the same year I read the Riddle Master Trilogy, I read my first Diana Wynne Jones, Spellcoats, and my first Darkover book, Hawkmistress. Both with strong female protagonists!

        • Maureen Eichner

          I’ve gotten hung up on the fact that you started reading Diana Wynne Jones with SPELLCOATS! Of all books! Wow.

      • Oh, she sure did influence me! Yes, yes, Pern is sorta SF, but to me it feels so much like fantasy I forgot it technically isn’t, quite, despite the physics-defying dragons and telepathy and time travel …

        It’s quite true that Randall and Piserchia vanished without a trace — well, they only wrote a few books each. I just happened across them at the right time, and incidentally, Randall’s best is SWORD OF WINTER imo.

  4. Kathy_S

    I’m afraid I didn’t hear of Cherryh until years later — not sure the library even owned her books at the time — and I still don’t know Randall and Piserchia. McCaffrey, yes, but in Pern I always felt as though women were a struggling underclass, although I loved seeing the triumphs of its heroines. In McKillip, on the other hand, Raederle wasn’t a crusading exception. We had at least one land ruler, assorted female wizards, supporting female characters consistently developed as people — for example, I think some authors would have considered Aia a distraction from the Har storyline. And Deth’s opponent’s gender wasn’t an issue: instead, we were asked to consider ‘not compassion, but passion.’

    I was actually in college for the beginning of Riddlemaster and grad school by the time the last volume appeared, so I also don’t know how it would have been to read them as what’s considered “young adult” nowadays.

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  7. I’m sorry I missed these reading notes back when you did them! Great thoughts about all the books that echo a lot of my own feelings. I read them as a teenager and so they’re definitely a part of me, even though I still don’t think I really “get” them entirely, and I still find them a little frustrating at times, for the reasons you articulate.

    I think Megan Whalen Turner does a better job of explaining why Gen had to go through what he did; it’s sort of the same explanation—you wouldn’t be who you are and where you are if you hadn’t suffered those things—, but I think it’s less arbitrary in the Attolia books.

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