Morgan, Prince of Hed, a small, quiet, agricultural province, begins the book with an argument with his siblings over a crown that he won from a ghost. It becomes apparent that Morgan aspires to more than the ruling of Hed. He spent several years at the university in Caithnard, learning riddles (unanswered questions) and strictures (lessons to be learned from the answer). Afterwards he took a trip to An to attempt to ask the ghost Peven a riddle that he did not know the answer to. Unlike the many who lost their lives before him, he succeeded. This entitled him to Peven’s crown, the black robe of a riddle-master, and most importantly, the hand of the Raederle, the princess of An. He was setting out to claim her, hoping that she would love him and be happy in the unimportant kingdom of Hed.

The voyage, however, is unsuccessful, as Morgan, and Deth, the High One’s harper who was searching for Morgan, set sail on a death-trap boat, a boat that appeared to be manned with sailors but who disappeared during a storm. Morgan was hit in the head as he washed overboard and spent several weeks in amnesia with Astrin where the reader learns about the Earth-rulers, a great race before them that could make huge buildings (among which Astrin does archaelogical work). Presently Astrin is forced to appear before his brother with Morgan. Morgan, espieing a harp on the table, begins to play the harp, astounding those around him, since the harp was mute for everyone else’s playing. It is none other than Yrth’s harp of Lungold, made long ago to be played by one specific man. This act triggers the return of his memories.

All continues to be unwell. Astrin has been estranged from his brother since his brother married a dead woman—she appears to be living but in reality is only a shape changer. Having failed to convince his brother of the veracity of his claims, Astrin left to dig in the ancient city. Now however, attacks on Morgan prove that the woman really is a shape changer (and that the low string on the harp destroys weapons). Morgan and Deth leave to seek an audience with the High One in Erlenstar Mountain, since Morgan is unsafe and also because he wants to ask the High One why he has three stars on his forehead (that also happen to be on Yrth’s harp).

Long before they reach Erlenstar Mountain, they are captured and brought to the Morgol of Herun. Apparently there is some sort of romance between the Morgol (who is female) and Deth, but it is there that Morgan learns that Master Ohm at Caithnard might possibly be the Ghisteslwchlohm who founded and later destroyed the wizard school at Lungold and that the wizards might no longer be around because they are hiding from Ohm’s control of them. A shape-changer attack gives him a vision of a sword with three swords and he leaves Herun to escape a growing destiny that would cause him to forsake the knowing-what-is-happening-with-nature gift of landrule.

He finds himself unsafe, however, and goes to the far north lands of Osterland to ask the wolf-king some questions. Morgan is overtaken by a snow-storm on his way there and is rescued by a vesta (a sort of elk) that turns out to be the king himself in vesta form. Morgan promises to answer some of the king’s questions and in return the king teaches him how to enter minds and how to take the vesta form. While in vesta form Morgan tracks down the king’s friend, the wizard Suth, who dies saying only to beware of Ohm.

Morgan takes up his travels again, coming to Isig, where he finds Deth waiting for him and where he dream-walks (rather unwillingly) to the sword. He also discovers that Deth was not, as he claimed, present when Yrth made the harp at Isig. Before Morgan and Deth leave to resume to quest for Erlenstar Mountain, Danan Isig teaches him the art of changing to a tree. During the trip, Morgan practices the mind shout and the Great Shout, which causes an avalanche that closely misses them.

His practice of the Great Shout is but preparation for when he meets the High One, who is none other than Ohm himself, with Deth as his harper—presumably Yrth—and whose destiny Ohm appears to have successfully controlled. His Great Shout ends the book.

The Riddle-Master of Hed is a tale with considerable background, told in a straightforward but elegant fashion. It achieve the element of realness that a rich, consistent history gives. Although it is a young adult book, adults looking for a good story will find one in McKillip’s telling. It fits nicely into the fantasy genre and although the hero does predictably travel most of the map shown in the first few pages, including a sojourn in the northern wastelands that appear not infrequently in fantasy novels, it is well written, with enough depth to satisfy adult readers. The ending is rather abrupt and the reader hopes that the two following books in the sequence are as well written (and available in the local library) as the first.
Review: 9.2
Well written, with background that clearly has some depth, but its shallowness is revealed in the places that are unimportant to the plot. The writing is in a somewhat period-style but the descriptions and comparisons are not as masterful as Lloyd Alexander’s. There appear to be fewer themes than Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, but the story does have somewhat more depth to compensate. And while not completely original-feeling, the setting of the book is defintely unique and interesting.

Magical Items

Yrth’s Harp
Exquisite tune. Will only play for one particular person. Lowest string destroys weapons.
Death ship
Ship that appears to be manned with sailors until they suddenly disappear in heavy seas leaving the ship to break up.
Not really an item but an ability. The land-ruler can sense the land, knowing how every plant and animal is at the moment. Passes to the land heir on death. Can be revoked by the High One if the land-ruler destroys the land.
Shape changing
An ability to take the form of something else. Vesta and trees were specifically used by the protagonists but each new shape appears to need to be learned. “Shape-changers” seem to need a body to inhabit (or maybe copy).
Not really a magic item, but the form of learning. Consists of a question, and answer, and a stricture.
Example: “‘Who was Illon of Yyre?’ ... ‘Ilon was a harpist at the court of Har of Osterland, who offended Har with a song so terribly that he fled from Har out of fear of death. He went alone to the mountains, taking nothing but his harp, and lived quietly, far from all men, farming and playing his harp. So great was his harping in his loneliness, that it became his voice, and it spoke as he could not, to the animals living around him. Word of it spread from creature to creature until it came on day to the ears of the Wolf of Osterland, Har, as he prowled in that shape through his land. He was drawn by curiosity to the far reaches of his kingdom, and there he found Ilon, playing at the edge of the world. The wolf sat and listened.  And Ilon, finishing his song and raising his eyes, found the terror he had run from standing on his threshold. ' ‘And the stricture?’ ‘The man running from death must run first from himself.’” (p. 35)
Example: “‘Who was Re of Aum?’” ... ‘Re of Aum offended the Lord of Hel once and became so frightened that he had a great wall built around his house in fear of revenge. He hired a stranger to build it, who promised him a wall no man could destroy or climb, either by force or by wizardry. The wall was built; the stranger took his pay; and Re at last felt secure. One day, when he decided that the Lord of Hel had realized the futility of revenge, he decided to venture out of his lands. And then he travelled around his wall three times but found no gate to let him out. And slowly he realized that the Lord of Hel himself had built that wall.’ ... ‘Never let a stranger build walls around you’” (p. 111)


Morgan of Hed
Land-ruler of Hed. His curiosity led him to study at Caithnard, where he was the fastest learning student. Loves Hed, deplores the destiny forced upon him. Has three stars on his forehead which no one can explain.
The High One’s harper. Has lived hundreds of years and is an excellent harper. Can find practically anyone/thing. Appears to have a romance with the Morgol.
Ruler of the northern kingdom of Osterland. Can change shapes into at least a vesta and a wolf. Was friends with the wizard Suth, who had given him several unanswered riddles (questions).
Danan Isig
Ruler of the northern mining kingdom of Isig. Likes to stand quietly and become a tree, listening to the sounds of the kingdom.
The High One
Earth-ruler who rules over the land. Lets mankind do what it wants as long as the earth is  taken care of. Sends mental messages to Deth. Ultimately turns out to be Ohm.
Founder of the school of wizards at Lungold, apparently with the intent to control them. Destroyed the school. Now is Master Ohm of the school at Caithnard.
A wizard who fled from Ohm. Appears to have fled to avoid allowing Ohm’s control of him to benefit him. Dies upon revealing his fear; the implication seems to be that his life was revoked as soon as he answered Morgan’s question.
Promised in betrothal by Mathom, King of An to whomever could win Peven’s crown by asking him a riddle that he did not know the answer to.
Lives in exile searching for interesting things in the ruined city of the earth-rulers. Nurses Morgan back to health after his boat self-destructs.
Wife of Astrin’s brother, Heureu. Astrin claims that she is dead and that Ymris is married to a shape changer. Eriel attempts to kill Morgan and eventually the evidence is undeniable to Heureu.
The Morgol
(Female) Ruler of Herun. Sends her war-loving daughter Lyra to bring Morgan to her. Tells Morgan of a riddle that only she knows—Ohm and Ghisteslwchlohm are probably the same person.
The greatest wizard of Lungold besides Ohm. Also known as the Harpist of Lungold, he created the harp for Morgan. The implication is that Deth and Yrth are the same person.