Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Riddle games, shape-changers and screen adaptations

If there were any book or series of books I want to adapt for the screen — at least, now that Lord of the Rings has been made — it would be the Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip.

Let's state the obvious first: Comprising The Riddle-Master of Hed (1975), Heir of Sea and Fire (1978), and Harpist in the Wind (1979), this series can't be compared with LOTR any more than any other fantasy series.  In fact, it's even less ambitious than were Stephen Donaldson's first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara.

Although McKillip didn't skimp on her backstory, for instance, the names of characters and places seem to have little underlying language logic, as seems to be the case with most fantasy writers (with the possible exceptions of Robert Asprin and Piers Anthony, who enjoy making word games out of their character's monikers).  In fact, one character is called "Iff of the Unpronounceable Name", but McKillip never gave the full name orthographic reality, chickening out by describing the sound of it when Iff finally says it; another is given the clumsy mouthful "Ghisteslwchlohm", which is usually just shortened to "Ohm".

Nevertheless, despite its minor flaws, I've read all three books several times in the last thirty years.  Unlike other books of the Epic Quest genre, the trilogy could stand as a parable of Man's search for God — or at least a particular man's search for God, since that quest takes many shapes.
The main protagonist, Morgon of Hed, is the prince of a small island off the coast of the main Land where most of the action takes place, a speck on the map populated mostly by farmers and herdsmen. Morgon was born with three red-and-blue stars on his face; but when the story starts, it's ceased to be anything more than a mild curiosity.  Also strange for a farmer and ruler of farmers, Morgon has studied at the College of Riddle-Masters across the bay, and shown a great aptitude for this form of oral history cum practical wisdom; at the beginning, though, to all appearances he's settled down to his responsibilities.

Matters change when Deth, the High One's harpist, tells him that a riddle-game he won with a ghost has also won him the right to marry Raederle of An.  Morgon sets off to claim her hand; once he arrives on the other shore, though, he sets off a series of attacks that force him to remember every riddle he ever learned in the college to find the meaning of the stars he wears, the stars that mark him as a somewhat messianic figure of doom.

Morgon is the pivot of a power struggle.  A powerful people from the ocean who can take any shape imaginable, known as the shape-changers, seek to either kill Morgon or use him to get to the High One, a demigod-like relict of a previous race known as the Earth Masters.  Along the way, Morgon learns that his coming has been prophesied for almost a thousand years; as part of his "Star-Bearer" destiny, a wizard named Yrth made a harp and a sword with his stars on them, which he eventually finds.  

Various clues as they come to him first force him to seek out another land-ruler, the Morgol of Herun, a beautiful and extremely perceptive woman named El who is a Riddle-Master in her own right.  Then, trying to flee his destiny, another clue draws him towards a third land-ruler, Har of Osterland, a very old yet dangerous man who is not only a Riddle-Master but who can take the shapes of a wolf and a kind of reindeer-like herbivore called a vesta.  In return for what knowledge he can give Morgon, Har teaches him to take the vesta shape, and tasks him with finding Suth, a wizard who has been in hiding for seven hundred years, a man who was once Har's closest friend.  Morgon finds Suth among a herd of vesta, and saves him from an attack by wolves, but just before he can start to answer Morgon's questions, he inexplicably dies, leaving Morgon with just the name "Ohm".

Ohm turns out to be another player in the power struggle.  When we meet him, he's a Riddle-Master of the College, who had been Morgon's teacher and mentor while he studied there.  He is present when Rood of An, Raederle's brother and Morgon's college roommate, suggests that Morgon go to ask the High One about the stars on his face. Ohm, it turns out, was a historical figure known as the Founder of  Lungold, a town which had for some time had a school for the wizards of the realm; the School was destroyed and the wizards went into hiding when it was discovered that he was using the School as a means of gathering power to himself.  At the end of Riddle-Master, Morgon does reach the High One's home at the northernmost extreme of the realm, only to find that Ohm has been impersonating him for centuries; Deth, who has been his companion, teacher and friend throughout the journey, has led him into a trap.

The second book, Heir of Sea and Fire, uses Raederle of An as the protagonist.  Known (oddly enough) as "the second-most beautiful woman of An", Raederle has been trained from birth by her father Mathom, the King of An, to be a Riddle-Master's wife; on her own, she has been exploring some minor powers of enchantment she seemingly inherited through a witch whose blood is in the land-rulers of An.  She is present when Mathom learns that the land-rule of Hed has passed to Morgon's brother Eliard, and that Morgon is presumed dead.  This event marks the beginning of her own journey to discover the truth, which becomes a journey of self-revelation as she discovers other powers within her that are the legacy of the shape-changers' desire to corrupt the land-rule.

The third book, Harpist in the Wind, brings both Morgon and Raederle together as they strike off to find answers in Lungold, the ancient wizards' city, where the few surviving wizards are preparing for their own confrontation with Ohm.  Early on, they find Deth, whose harpist's hands have been crippled by Ohm, and who leads Morgon into another trap; however, when Ohm tries to force him to take Raederle as a hostage against Morgon's behavior, he chooses to provoke Ohm into killing him.  Escaping Ohm during an attack by shape-changers, they reach Lungold to meet the wizards, in particular Yrth, the maker of Morgon's sword and harp.  Morgon, who has been forced by events to increase his own personal power, eventually learns that his abilities include the power to shape wind and the capacity to learn the other land-rulers' land-law as a source of further power.  And Yrth proves to be as enigmatic a figure as Deth, which provokes Morgon to finally answer the riddle of the harpist's life and actions while he searches for the elusive High One.

Throughout the trilogy, the characters continually question first the apparent disinterest of the High One and then, when Ohm's deception is revealed, his existence.  The only clue they have to his being is the land-law, a form of magic which is not only the source of the land-rulers' power and legitimacy but also a bond which ties them to their lands and makes them responsible to the High One for their actions.  Morgon's own search for the High One is diverted constantly, even as his attitude changes from simple trust in the High One's benevolence to a complex anger and dissociation not much different in substance from disbelief, as a result of all he suffers as both pivot and pawn in the riddle-game.

Only as the final answers to the game start to fall into place does he realize that the High One has been forced into subtle, hardly noticeable actions to protect not only himself but Morgon as well, and to guide the Star-Bearer into his destiny.  Without giving the ending away, I can only say that the High One is moved by love and necessity to use himself as ruthlessly as he uses Morgon, sacrificing himself in service of the land and the people he loves.

Morgon's search for the High One is also a search for Truth, embodied in the metaphor of the riddles.  Riddles are stories from the Realm's history, given in the form of a question, its proper answer, and the stricture to be derived from it; the stricture which defines the whole story is, "Answer the unanswered riddle," a principle Morgon must adhere to if he's to save his life and the High One's.  Moreover, embedded in the riddles are clues to the identity of the shape-changers; once this becomes apparent, Morgon and the Riddle-Masters of the College are forced to re-examine the stories they've been parroting for centuries to find the overarching riddle behind the riddles.

Another metaphor for Truth lies in Morgon's constant references to the names of things.  In Morgon's vocabulary, a name isn't simply an ad-hoc label but its identity:  "Corn bears its name in the seed in the ground, in the green stalk, in the yellow stalk whose dry leaves whisper riddles in the wind."  To find the true name of something is to find its essential being, its reality. Morgon spends half the first book unsuccessfully resisting the name "Star-Bearer" because he wants to hold on to the identity he prefers as the farmer-prince of Hed. At the end of the second book, he enunciates the riddle of Deth by saying, "I want him named."  Deth's name is not merely a pun but a riddle in its own right, as he himself says:  "Even death, Master Ohm, is but a riddle."  This use of names as metaphors for essential identity, particularly the Deth/Death and Yrth/Earth homonyms, serves as the exculpation for all the other names that seem to be random collections of letters.

Author/screenwriter David Gerrold once wrote that the core of high drama consists of putting the protagonist's identity in danger.  This principle serves McKillip well.  Morgon's conflicts with the shape-changers and Ohm are externalizations of his internal struggles with the name "Star-Bearer", his quest to find the High One a quest to find the truth behind this name.  As the plot progresses, Morgon is frightened by the power in the name, the skills given to the Star-Bearer that have no place in a farmer-prince and which separates him from the rest of the realm.  These powers and skills have the potential to make him a law unto himself, a fact which colors his dealings with the other land-rulers.  And yet, the farmer-prince is an integral piece of the Star-Bearer identity; his gentleness, sincerity and respect for land-law binds the other land-rulers to him in love and respect that makes the full realization of his identity a gift to them.

If there's one problematic aspect, it's the relationship between Morgon and Raederle.  Although there's no sexual content to speak of — only once is it implied that they make love, and that implication is no more than a decent fade-out as they start kissing — more than once Raederle refuses when Morgon asks her to marry him, even as she insists on following him all over the realm, even hunting him down when he goes "off the grid".  Since in the third book she's going through a parallel acceptance of her own identity as "Ylon's child" (Ylon is an ancestor King of Hed, fathered ironically by a shape-changer Morgon has killed), it's possible that her refusal to marry Morgon is out of distrust of her heritage.  But even after they make their peace with their identities, we're not given a single sign that they'll build any kind of life together.

However, we have some compensation in some well-drawn, full-bodied characters: Rood, Raederles brother, a blunt, hard-drinking scholar at the College who pricks Morgon's conscience; El, the beautiful and wise Morgol of Herun, and her impulsive, deadly yet affectionate soldier-daughter Lyra; Astrin Ymris, the land-heir of Ymris and sometime hermit-archaeologist; the hard-edged, dangerous Har of Osterland (I used to imagine Paul Newman in this role; now I see Clint Eastwood); the gentle giant Danan Isig, the land-ruler of Isig who can shape himself into a tree; the calmly menacing Eriel; Morgon's stolid, unimaginative brother Eliard and truculent sister Tristan; Mathom of An, prescient, irritable and inscrutable.

Overall, if the Riddle-Master series isn't at the level of artistry of Lord of the Rings, it succeeds very well at its own level, and is more readily adaptable to the screen as the individual books are of modest length.  With the right treatment, it could succeed as a series of movies as well.