Thursday, April 16, 2009

Riddle Me This

As an adolescent I read a fair share of science fiction and fantasy, something that should not come as a surprise. I was of the geeky, intellectual bent that favors such narratives at that age and had a number of friends who shared this interest. I still own many of my favorite books and on occasion return to beloved worlds and characters. Long before Harry Potter arrived at Hogwarts and on our planet, protagonists in these epics searched for wisdom, knowledge, power and control over both internal and external forces. Usually their journeys included formal training as well as quests filled with danger and adventure. Ever the educator, I have always paid attention to the presence of schools and systems of knowledge in these universes; I have attended as well to the ways in which knowledge, both practical and philosophical, is imparted. Often the stories told involve tumult around transfers of power, the culmination of historical epochs and the chaos of a changing world order. It is no wonder that memories of the genre have been bubbling up in my mind of late.
One of my particular favorite series (as this genre breeds multi-volume series) is relatively obscure. It came to me by accident when an elementary school classmate loaned me a bunch of books that included an early omnibus edition. A current single volume, titled Riddle-Master, is available, but I own Patricia McKillip’s work in its original three parts: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire and Harpist in the Wind. The protagonist, Morgon of Hed, is a young land ruler and a drop-out of the College of Caithnard, founded by wizards, where study is conducted in the form of answering riddles, with accompanying strictures, in recitation style. But Morgon himself, branded with three stars on his forehead, is a riddle that the established codes of knowledge cannot answer. The growing threats of violence in the world, which kill his parents before the story begins and then start to close in on our hero, combined with his own impetuous drive to ask questions, send Morgon on a long journey to escape danger and uncover answers. In the process of his chase the order of his universe as well as the details of his identity unravel and reconstruct themselves. Morgon is headstrong, too inquisitive for his professors and too restless to stay in his own small country. But his personal power is greatest not because of his intellect or charisma; what marks Morgon most is that his mind and heart remain open to learning from others and to diving into new experiences. Along his journey his fellow land rulers respond to this quality and teach him all that they know. Their knowledge is quite physical: land rulers are bound to every living thing in their countries and are attuned in unusual ways to the nature and animals around them. I love questions and I love that in this story the structure and limitations of questioning are the fabric that hold and also break this world, but it is in the moments of mentorship and communion that Morgon has with others that I see the truest, deepest learning take place. I could go on and tell you more but please, read the series instead. McKillip is a beautiful writer.
I like to think that at my best I too am this way with others but I know as well that this kind of questioning and desire for knowledge is usually threatening to others. Actually, I have learned this from hard experience. Because a part of me is as fearless in intellectual quest as Morgon is. One must wonder – if questions are so threatening, then what is it that those in the know are truly afraid of? This is most especially so when some questions are allowed but others are verboten. What questions should we be asking in our world at this point in time?
I have a question myself about the seriesm for McKillip. I would like to know what becomes of Rood, Morgon’s schoolmate and brother of his intended, Raederle. For the romantics: Morgon wins her hand because he wins a riddle contest with a ghost in her native country. Rood is perhaps more temperamental than his friend or his sister – and that says much – and at the end of the last book his role has changed in a way that must surely chafe, but we learn nothing really of his reaction. This is a geeky question from a fan left a bit restless by loose ends…

Other worlds to explore: is a fan website with a bibliography for this prolific author. is one of the best and wisest writers in this genre, practically without peer. Her Earthsea Series is required reading; it now stands at six volumes. I am not sure that anyone should be allowed to grow up without following Ged on his adventures. My favorite single volume work of hers is The Lathe of Heaven. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series is a guilty pleasure… all ten books, two series of five, each focused on a different generation of the dysfunctional royal family. I have long wanted to walk the Pattern. For “younger readers” I particularly recommend (and I trust that if you are under 50 and reading this that your world was rocked when you first read A Wrinkle in Time) and Lloyd Alexander; his Chronicles of Prydain (five volumes) are the masterpiece but my sentimental favorite is The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, with his perfectly named cat Presto. Watch for the children in the street playing out the events of the day with great prescience. Wisdom and discernment can appear in the unexpected corners of any world.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

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