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Literature / The Riddle Master Trilogy

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The Riddle-Master Trilogy is a High Fantasy trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip with a Morality Kitchen Sink. The novels in the trilogy are:

  1. The Riddle-Master of Hed
  2. Heir of Sea and Fire
  3. Harpist in the Wind

The third novel, Harpist in the Wind, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and the series remains one of McKillip's most popular works. Several Omnibus editions have been produced under various names, including Riddle of Stars, Quest of Riddlemasters, and The Riddlemaster's Game.

The series takes place in a world where all wisdom is couched in the form of riddles to be solved. The land is divided into kingdoms whose rulers are magically linked to their realms. This "land-rule" is governed by a mysterious figure known as the High One.

Morgon was a student before his parents died and he became the land-ruler of Hed. He was born with a birth mark of three stars on his forehead which are the subject of prophecy, although he tries to ignore that. When the High One's harpist, Deth, comes to visit during his travels, he informs Morgon that Raederle of An's hand in marriage was promised to whomever could defeat Peven of Aum in a riddle game and that An has been in an uproar ever since Peven told the last person to challenge him that he was too late. Morgon admits that he won Peven's crown in a riddle game and resolves to go with Deth to visit Raederle and offer himself in marriage.


Before they can get very far, their ship is attacked by shape-changers who are determined to kill The Starbearer aka Morgon. For his very life, Morgon travels with Deth to the High One on Erlenstar Mountain in search of an answer to the riddle of three stars.

The second book follows Raederle of An, Lyra of Herun, and Morgon's sister Tristan as they search for Morgon, Deth, and the High One, who are all now considered missing ever since Morgon reached the High One and fell out of all contact. The third book deals with the growing war against the shape-changers and the continuing search for the truth about the High One.


These novels provide examples of:

  • Abusive Precursors: The Earth-Masters.
  • Action Girl: Lyra of Herun, who is herself the leader of the Morgol's all-female guard.
  • Actual Pacifist: Morgon until he is betrayed. He is brought back to himself brutally and then broken in half all over again out of necessity.
  • Aerith and Bob: While most names are a bit strange, they still range from the relatively-normal Tristan and Morgon to Ghisteslwchlohm. Of course, there's some cultural differences at work here; Tristan and Morgon are both from Hed, which has the most "normal" names, and while Ghisteslwchlohm's origins are never explained, it's speculated that he's from Herun, where Overly Long Names are the norm.
  • After-Action Healing Drama: When Morgon is wounded on the plain.
  • After-Action Patch-Up: When Astrin is attacked on the plain.
  • The Aloner: Astrin, Deth, Morgon and Har.
  • Amazon Brigade: The Morgol's guard.
  • Amplifier Artifact: The twelve-sided crystal Raederle finds that more than does the job for a simple reflection spell.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Deth to Morgon. (Unusually for this trope, a familial rather than romantic love.)
  • Anxiety Dreams: Raederle has them before they learn who won the crown.
  • Arcadia: Hed.
  • Armor-Piercing Statement: "They were promised a man of peace." Lampshaded by Morgon, who ruefully says that he thought Deth was unarmed when words were always his most powerful weapon.
  • Becoming the Mask: Deth.
  • Big Good: The High One. That's the real one, mind, not Ghisteslwchlohm. It turns out that the whole plot was actually him grooming Morgon to take his place.
  • Big Bad: The shape-changers; the one impersonating Eriel is heavily implied to be the mastermind.
    • Big Bad Wannabe: Ghisteslwchlohm thinks he's got everything under control- and then he runs into the Earth-masters and ends up their mind-controlled puppet.
    • Big Bad Ensemble: For most of the trilogy, the shape-changers and Ghisteslwchlohm represent entirely separate threats, sometimes working at cross-purposes.
  • Big "NO!": Morgon's Great Shout at the end of the first book.
  • Blow You Away
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: played very effectively by Deth to Morgon, particularly at Erlenstar Mountain, though not in a romantic sense.
  • Broken Pedestal: Master Ohm/Ghisteslwchlohm and Deth, for most of the last two books until the whole scope of his plan is revealed.
  • Call to Agriculture: Morgon wants to be a peaceful farmer, not the Chosen One.
  • The Chessmaster: Ghisteslwchlohm is good. The shape-changers are better. The true High One tops them all.
  • The Chosen One: Morgon.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Deth.
  • Deadperson Impersonation: Multiple times throughout the series.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Deth: Pretends to be working for the High One, despite actually being the High One himself and working under deep cover for his impersonator, so that he can mentor his successor into success, which requires betraying said successor to the man unknowingly impersonating himself (aka the High One), and faking his own death to impersonate a wizard who was never in fact a wizard but was always him. (Deth why.)
  • The Dragon: Ghisteslwchlohm ends up forced to play this role to "Eriel" and the Earth-masters.
  • The Drifter: Deth
  • Dysfunctional Family: Morgon's family - Morgon, Eliard and Tristan - and Raederle's - currently Mathom, Raederle, Duac and Rood.
    • And let's not forget the ruling family of Ymris - Astrin, Heureu, and Heureu's shape-changer wife Eriel.
    • The remaining ruling families seem surprisingly well-adjusted, for people who can live a thousand years, see through walls and turn themselves into trees.
  • Elemental Powers: Hereditary in humans and highly developed in the Shape-changers. Magic doesn't seem to be limited to one particular element, but some characters specialize.
  • Elemental Shapeshifter: The Earth-Masters and Morgon.
  • Elements of Nature: Earth, Fire, Water and Wind.
  • Engagement Challenge: Raederle has been offered by her father to the man who can defeat Peven in a riddle game. It's been considered unwinnable for centuries before Morgon comes along.
    • Note that everybody who hears about the challenge, including Morgon, who won it, thinks it was an incredibly stupid move.
  • Evil Mentor: Ghisteslwchlohm's standard operating procedure. He does it repeatedly, once in the backstory when he founded Lungold to control the other wizards, then destroyed it when they started to catch on, once in the modern day to Morgon, while posing as Ohm, and once in a more overarching sense by posing as the High One.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Ghisteslwchlohm
  • Expy: The author is an explicit fan of The Lord of the Rings, and while this series is considerably different as a whole, there is one example of this- Ghisteslwchlohm bears a striking resemblance in many respects to Saruman.
    • The author is on record that one of the direct inspirations for the series is the "Paths of the Dead" sequence from Return of the King, which influence can be seen in the binding of the dead kings of An in the third book.
  • Fake King: Ghisteslwchlohm.
  • Fallen Hero: Morgon in the second book.
  • Fearless Fool: Morgon thinks he may be this.
  • Fiery Redhead: Raederle and her brother Rood.
  • Fingore: Deth is a foremost a harpist even after his hands are destroyed as punishment by Ghisteslwchilohm.
  • Fisher King: The land-rulers are all benevolent examples. the Earth-Masters less so
  • Forced to Watch: Deth, if not by Ghisteslwchlohm then by his own conscience and because there's nothing he can do to save Morgon, beyond harping.
  • Functional Magic: Inherent Gift is pretty common, particularly among land-rulers and their families; the whole world is filled with Wild Magic; Rule Magic has largely disappeared with the wizards but returns with them.
  • Genocide from the Inside: Although the High Ones are technically not dead, the High One drove all the others into the sea and bound them forever. He is also, debatably, a rare heroic example, in that it appears he crushed the others and forced them into the sea when they started to destroy their own children and it became clear that their war was going to destroy everything if he didn't.
  • Geometric Magic: Dodecahedrons.
  • Ghost Amnesia: After winning their riddle game with his life, Morgon reminds Peven of the names of his children.
  • God Guise: Ghisteslwchlohm impersonating the High One. He knows he's not the real deal, but as the most powerful being in the realm, he figures he can make a better go at it than anyone.
  • Godhood Seeker: Ghisteslwchlohm's ultimate plan was to use Morgon to acquire the land-law of all the realm's kingdoms, becoming the High One in truth.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Raederle; her family's Earth-master heritage is very pronounced in her.
  • Have You Seen My God?: The High One
  • Hidden Depths: Several characters, including Morgon, the peaceful farmer-Prince of a remote island, who is the last one anyone (including himself) expects to get caught up in prophecies that will affect all the lands; Raederle, who has inherited more than she knows or wants to know from the mysterious shapeshifters beneath the sea; and the pig-woman of An who Raederle befriends.
  • High Fantasy
  • His Name Is...: Technically inverted, but similar in principle - when Morgon convinces the wizard Suth to tell him why he has been hiding in vesta form for seven hundred years, Suth manages to say nothing except a name before he's struck dead by magic: Ohm.
  • Immortal Ruler: Har the "wolf-king", land ruler of Osterland, is a powerful and unaging mage who loves the wild regions and creatures of his land almost as much as its people. In addition, the High One, from whom all the land rulers draw their powers (literally), is older still than even Har, though he's not much into direct ruling.
  • It's Not You, It's My Enemies: Morgon attempts to tell Raederle this. Fortunately for everyone, she convinces him otherwise.
  • It Sucks to Be the Chosen One: Morgon, full-stop
  • Kill Me Now, or Forever Stay Your Hand: Morgon has a literal Sword over Head scene with Deth at the end of Heir of Sea and Fire.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: It's always been part of the plan that Morgon has to kill Deth.
  • Language of Magic: Magic is a unique hodgepodge of functional music, language, sympathetic geometry and elemental.
  • Last of His Kind: The High One is actually the last of the Earth-Masters, or at least the last one who wasn't bound in the ocean.
  • Magical Land
  • Magic Music: Very much so, the highest example being Morgon's harp, which he can barely play.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: When people are emotional, they can give Great Shouts capable of shattering stone. It doesn't seem like something they can weaponize so much as a type of Power Incontinence, since nobody is ever shown doing it deliberately.
  • Meaningful Name: Deth and Rood, who is willing to strip to make a point. Also Yrth 'earth' and Raederle 'riddle', referring to her ancestry.
  • Milky White Eyes: Astrin
  • Mind Rape: For a long time this is Morgon's life under Erlenstar Mountain.
  • Modest Royalty: Many of them, but especially Morgon.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: Morality ranges from Actual Pacifist Morgon though even he spends most of the second book hunting someone down with express intent to kill them, pragmatic but still very good-aligned Raederle, very grey Deth, whose actions verge on Necessarily Evil sometimes but whose intentions are good, pretty damn awful Ghistelwhchlohm, who is the type to Mind Rape someone for a year to get a piece of information, and the shape-changers, who verge on Blue-and-Orange Morality.
  • Musical Assassin: A shapeshifter nearly suffocates Morgon with a song.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Played straight and subverted with Deth, the High One's harpist.
  • Mythopoeia
  • Nature Spirit: The shape-changers.
  • Necessarily Evil: Deth, betraying Morgon to Ghisteslwchlohm and then harping to him throughout his imprisonment. Justified by success, and largely forgiven by Morgon himself.
  • Noble Fugitive: The High One is nearly murdered by his heir.
  • No Pronunciation Guide: Averted, as there is a pronunciation guide in the back of each book (at least in the original printings), which is needed with names like Raederle, Ghisteslwchlohm, and many other people in Herun, who tend to go by nicknames to work around this.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: A riddle about a Prince of Hed who was pursued into his home by a monster and when he finally opened the door nothing was there.
  • Offing the Offspring: The shape-changers's children.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: We hear a lot about Morgon finally managing to turn Ghisteslwchlohm's power against him and escape; unfortunately, it's all either secondhand or long after the fact.
  • Omniscient Morality License: Deth only does what he must and he's willing to take any punishment for doing what's necessary.
  • Only One Name
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The numerous wraiths in An, most obviously.
  • Out of Focus: Morgon is the main character of the first book; in the second, he barely appears, and Raederle is the focus character instead. The third book splits the focus between them.
  • Overly Long Name: A Herun tradition, apparently, which is why they all go by shortened versions of their names - e.g. Elrhiarhodan and her daughter Lyraluthuin are El and Lyra to their friends
  • Physical God: The High One and the Earth-masters.
  • Princesses Rule: Hed, being the humble place it is, is ruled by a prince.
  • Punny Name: Deth. It's actually short for Tirunedeth, but he is fully cognizant of the pun's potential. It has a second layer when you meet his son Tirnon, who reveals that his (Deth's) name was originally Tir.
  • Pursued Protagonist: Deth and Morgon.
  • Rage Against the Mentor: amongst others:
    Morgon: "I could have broken your harp strings with a thought."
    Deth: "You did. Several times"
  • Really 700 Years Old: The wizards, shape-changers, and a few of the land-rulers live an indefinitely long time.
  • Rebellious Princess: Raederle of An, Tristan of Hed and Lyra of Herun.
  • Reluctant Warrior: Morgon, once circumstances force him out of being an Actual Pacifist
  • Resigned to the Call: It takes a few near-death experiences for Morgon to even consider going to the High One and asking him to figure things out.
  • Right Justified Fantasy Map: It seems that human colonization of the High One's realm came from over the Eastern sea, and never extended into the harsh Bad Lands further West.
  • Royal Blood
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Due to the small size of their kingdoms and each land-ruler's psychic connection to his or her own land.
  • The Quiet One: Deth.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Har once cursed a man for failure to extend hospitality.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The shape-changers. Sealed Amorality In A Can?
  • Shoot the Dog: So many times.
  • Silent Scapegoat: Deth.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Because it's all he can do, Deth plays Morgon his harp while Morgon's being mind raped.
  • Spell Book: Of the most obscure and impractical kind. Opening them is the first challenge.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Lampshaded. When Morgon finds out that a king swore his daughter to anyone who could win a contest he'd just won, he asks how anyone could be so stupid as to make such a promise. Luckily, there was already some attraction between the two (and it's implied that the king had some ability to see the future and foresee this outcome.)
  • Standard Royal Court: Inverted, subverted and every other verted. Only An, Ymris and Herun have anything resembling such. Morgon's 'court' includes his pig keeper and is basically just a large farm household.
  • Stern Chase: Morgon and Deth in the final book
  • Supernatural Gold Eyes: All the Morgols of Herun have them; it's a side-effect of the power that lets them see through solid objects.
  • Sympathetic Magic
  • Take Up My Sword: Deth to Morgon
  • Thanatos Gambit: The High One.
  • Thousand-Year Reign: The High One's succession.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Sort of. Played straight and then subverted.
  • Unexpected Successor: "I realised that the last thing I had been expecting after all those endless, lonely centuries was someone I might love..."
  • The Unpronounceable: One of the wizards is actually called "Iff of the Unpronouncable Name"; it turns out his full name has to be sung, not spoken, and even then it took a while to work out the tune.
  • Was It All a Lie?: A question asked by basically everyone who ever interacted with Deth, after the news that he betrayed Morgon begins to circulate. In particular, his answer is played both ways with his relationship with El; while still needing to maintain his cover with Ghisteslwchlohm, Deth callously implies it was all a lie, but when reporting this to El, Morgon describes Deth's actions From a Certain Point of View to tell her Deth actually loved her. This kindness is what ultimately breaks Deth and reveals that it was never a lie to begin with.
  • Wham Line: At least one per book (with several in the third), but the most obvious is at the very end of the first book, when Morgon's mentor, Ohm, reveals that he's simultaneously the Big Bad, Ghisteslwchlohm, and what people thought was the Big Good, the High One:
    "I am Ghisteslwchlohm, the Founder of Lungold, and—as you have guessed—its destroyer. I am the High One."
  • Wizarding School: Lungold had one before Ghisteslwchlohm destroyed it. In the modern day, there's Caithnard, the school of riddle-masters, which evokes the tropes of one; but it's unclear if it teaches actual magic.
  • Wizards Live Longer: All the wizards are centuries old at least; it's implied that they do die of old age eventually, but exactly how long they last isn't specified. This also holds true for some other magic-users who aren't wizards, like the more powerful land rulers; Har is roughly two thousand years old, and Danan Isig may be even older.
  • The Wise Prince: Deth and Morgon.
  • Words Can Break My Bones: "The Great Shout" is a variation on this - psychic shouting that can do a remarkable amount of damage.
    • Or harvest quite a lot of tree nuts.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Played with, in that Raederle is officially the second most beautiful woman "in all the Three Portions of An."
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: The shape-changers themselves and anyone with enough natural talent and willpower.
  • You Are in Command Now: Morgon. Twice.
  • Zero-Approval Gambit Deth aka The High One. Also Mathom of An who outrages his lords and his heir by leaving An to search - or so he says - for Morgon, thus allowing the bindings on the ancient and hostile ghosts he holds in check to loosen. He is successful; An arms itself remarkably quickly for war as a result.

Alternative Title(s): The Riddle Master Of Hed, Heir Of Sea And Fire, Harpist In The Wind, Riddle Of Stars