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.
Harpist 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.
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.
However, 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