swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

It's tempting to see Winnowill as an aberration, because in many ways she is. No character in this series, be they elven, human, troll, or Preserver, ever comes close to her level of persistent malice. But in focusing on her, it's easy to lose sight of something else:

The Gliders as a whole are seriously messed up.

Let's take a look at them individually. I can't remember whether anyone else gets named in Siege at Blue Mountain and The Secret of Two-Edge (I think Reevol is the only one?), but in this volume we get Winnowill, Tyldak, Kureel, Aroree, Lord Voll, Egg, Brace, and the two Doors. The first is a villain; the second and third are arrogant jerks; Lord Voll is mired in complete passivity and then, when he rises out of it at last, kidnaps children as hostages for his dream. Aroree is the closest thing to a "good guy" in that lot, and she's not what you'd call reliable about it. As for the others . . . on this re-read, I found myself trying to imagine their backstories. Egg I can kind of understand as an obsessive artist, losing himself in the beautiful, endless challenge of his work. Brace, though -- with endless time to work in, he hasn't managed to reshape things permanently to keep the mountain from falling on their heads? But the two Doors are the one that really boggle me. I can think of no image more emblematic of the Gliders' social and psychological petrification than the Doors sitting in their niches, letting the centuries roll by while they do nothing other than shape the stone open and shut. How stultifying must their lives have been, to make devoting themselves to that job sound like a good idea?

It's fascinating to me because although the Gliders are not High Ones in the strict sense -- none of them, not even Lord Voll, remember the palace first-hand -- their stated goal was to re-create those lost glories, and so they have a better claim to that title than anyone except Timmain. And what have they created? A sterile, claustrophobic world with so little to recommend it, some of their members would rather go into a trance for the rest of eternity than continue to engage.

And the thing is, we don't know if that's the Gliders Doing It Wrong or not. The other tribes speak of the High Ones with reverence. But does that mean they were good and wonderful people? Their own predecessors seem not to have been, what with using up their homeworld and all. I seem to recall the trolls later claiming that their rebellion happened because of how the High Ones were treating them -- a claim that gets disputed, maybe? The details have slipped my mind, but I have this feeling that the High Ones were paternalistic toward the trolls, and not in any admirable sense of the word. Their crash landing on the World of Two Moons is their mythical Fall, but they weren't necessarily innocent before it happened.

Because if humans aren't all bad, the corollary is that elves aren't all good. Cutter had his disputes with Rayek in the first volume, but that didn't shake his belief in elven unity. (As well it shouldn't: there must have been nasty interpersonal conflicts among the Wolfriders from time to time. Two-Spear, for example.) He comes into Blue Mountain with the conviction that anybody with pointy ears is not just a fellow member of his species, but someone with whom he shares "one heart and one mind." That conviction takes a more or less fatal beating here, not just because of Winnowill, but because of the Gliders as a whole. They look on his tribe with contempt; Tyldak and Dewshine Recognize, but achieve no harmony between themselves; even Lord Voll, who is in some respects a sympathetic figure, sees nothing wrong with forcing his ambitions on everyone else. He could have shared his vision of the palace with them all when everyone was still in Blue Mountain, and they might have followed him willingly. Instead he absconds with their chief and two children, in a paternalistic belief that if they just follow him, they'll see that he is right.

There is no real melding of the tribes, as there was with the Sun Folk. Aroree never truly integrates with the Wolfriders, and Dewshine doesn't stay behind at Blue Mountain. The Gliders cannot change, not en masse and for the most part not individually, either. Their story as a tribe ends in death. (As Winnowill once knew it would: she tried long ago to persuade Voll that they needed to change and grow and engage with the outside world. But she failed, and this is the result.) And so we're left with an unanswered question: how much like the High Ones were the Gliders? Bad copies, a mockery of not only the true power but also the true worth of their forebears? Or were they in fact quite a lot like the High Ones . . . implying that the change forced on their species by the World of Two Moons was, in the long run, a good thing?
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

I can't think of any character in this entire series who more strongly merits their own post, with the possible exception of Two-Edge.

Winnowill is a villain, and the story makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. When we see Strongbow being psychically tortured at the end of The Forbidden Grove, his tormentor is shown only as a silhouette -- but the fact that she speaks telepathically tells us she's an elf. And in case you had any doubt as to whether you should still give her the benefit of the doubt, her sending gets its own special mark, a malevolent red and black star. It takes the characters a while to confirm that she's the great danger Savah warned Suntop about, but the reader knows from the start.

But saying that she's a straight-up villain doesn't mean she's inherently evil, in the "dyed in the wool" sense. From Lord Voll we get tantalizing hints about the Winnowill of the past -- I would have loved to see a short-run series of backstory about the early days of the Gliders. She was probably ambitious from the start, and likely somewhat manipulative, but those aren't the same thing as the unrelenting malice she exhibits in the present day. No, her spirit has been warped over the millennia: by the isolation and ossification of the Gliders, by the lack of any real purpose to her endless life, and by whatever happened to her when she vanished underground for a time. If memory serves, that's when she met the troll by whom she conceived Two-Edge, but whether she herself suffered any trauma or was only ever the inflicter of same, I don't recall.

Everything that's wrong with Winnowill is, for lack of a better term, a human problem. By that I mean she's not supernaturally corrupted or anything like that; her flaws are the same flaws real people have in the real world. Arrogance. Hunger for power. Lack of empathy. A desire to cause pain, simply because it demonstrates her power and it's the only thing she finds interesting anymore. Where magic comes in is with the suggestion that she could be fixed . . . if she wanted to be. But when it comes to a choice between allowing Leetah to change her and stepping to her almost-guaranteed death, Winnowill chooses death. I find myself sorely tempted to request Winnowill fanfic next Yuletide, because I think it would be fascinating to see the inside of her mind.

That impulse surprises me because, although I very much like Winnowill's role in this volume, overall I find she demonstrates the same problem exhibited by villains in many other stories: the more the plot focuses on her, the less interesting I find the result. She's great here, okay in Siege at Blue Mountain and The Secret of Two-Edge, largely unnecessary in Kings of the Broken Wheel (Rayek's own choices are far more compelling), and then she just . . . keeps going. It's partly a function of the otherwise intriguing worldbuilding twist that killing her would accomplish jack, and might make things worse: then they'd have to contend with her spirit, which would be no less dangerous and a lot more difficult to hit. As I recall from later canon, she does wind up dead and Rayek has to serve as her prison, but I don't think the problem she represents ever got resolved; nobody manages to de-toxify her spirit. I really wish they would, because there's a point at which she starts to feel like a drag on the story to me.

Before that point, though, she's a fantastic villain. I love her conversation with Leetah, when she tries to use the secret of the Wolfriders' heritage as a lever to force them out of Blue Mountain before they can threaten her control of the place. Her menagerie of pet humans is incredibly twisted. And Two-Edge -- well. He may wind up getting his own post; we'll see.

I also have to make mention of Winnowill as a specifically female villain. Taken in isolation, her gender and behavior might bother me a lot, because she's very much the stereotype of the femme fatale: beautiful, seductive, manipulative, and so on. In fairness, I should say the fact that I don't have a problem with that probably owes something to the age at which I read this story; I was a lot less critical about that sort of thing when I was twelve. But I also think it owes a lot to the larger context of the story as a whole, because Winnowill is only one female character, in a cast that features a broad array of contrasting figures. Leetah as Winnowill's "dark sister" is particularly noteworthy -- there's a whole metaphorical layer there about how we associate "dark" with "evil," but Winnowill is the pale one of the pair -- but also Dewshine and Aroree and Moonshade and Clearbrook and Nightfall in this volume, many others in the series as a whole. We don't have to excise the femme fatale from our narrative lexicon; we just have to make sure she isn't the only option on offer.
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote an archaeology paper on Elfquest.

No, really.

It was supposed to be a paper looking at the Wolfriders as hunter-gatherers and the Sun Folk as horticulturalists/early agriculturalists. Naturally, when I finally had a paper topic I enjoyed and could have run well past the guideline of 10-12 pages, I had a professor who said anything past twelve pages he would chuck in the trash, and then dock us points for not having a conclusion. The result is that the paper wound up only addressing the Wolfrider half of the equation, because I ran out of space for anything else.

I was going to rehash the paper as my third and final post for The Forbidden Grove, but in re-reading it, I discovered that it was a) longer than I recalled (I thought it was 5-7 pages) and b) way more technical. So rather than trying to recycle the whole thing in a quarter the words, I decided it would be better to just post the paper on my website (pdf link), for those of you who actually care to see the whole thing, bibliography and all, and then use this post to talk about the things that didn't fit into the paper.

Extremely condensed version of the original points: the Wolfriders are a reasonably plausible depiction of hunter-gatherers. Apart from the birthrate issue (which I first noticed when working on the paper), they pretty much pass the sniff test of "could this work under the conditions described?" The size of the tribe is in line with hunter-gatherer bands, especially if you look at what it was before the various calamities started dropping their population. (They are, however, massively inbred -- this came up in the discussion of Recognition a couple of posts ago.) Their high-quality bows and ability to coordinate their hunts between both elves and wolves mean they're probably more efficient predators than would otherwise be the case, so they can squeak by on the question of whether the environment would support that large of an elf/wolf/troll/human population under sedentary conditions, especially now that I've re-read The Forbidden Grove and caught the references to trolls cave farming (meaning they're not dependent on above-ground resources to feed their population); the humans stretch that about to the breaking point, but they're mobile instead of sedentary, so I'll let it pass. Their social structure fits the type of society they have. Etc.

So what about the Sun Folk? They're a lot harder to discuss, because they don't get as much detail as the Wolfriders do. I'm too lazy to go look at a crowd scene and try to count how many of them there are; I think we have to take the art with a grain of salt, because the overhead shot of the Sun Village before the raid shows only seven buildings and four tiny fields, which seems unlikely. But assuming there's an aquifer they're drawing water from, they could manage oasis agriculture on a small scale. The better question is how it got started: general theory among archaeologists is that hunter-gatherers picked wild grains from natural stands, then probably noticed new stands cropping up where the stuff they'd gathered fell, then started shoving seeds in the ground to see what happened, then got organized about it. There aren't any natural stands of grain or other plant-based food in the area -- did the founders bring seeds with them? Their history is much too undefined to say.

What we see of their social structure is plausible, though, with Sun Toucher and Savah as their elder leaders, and more specialization than you see among the Wolfriders: Rayek and a few others as hunters, Shenshen as a midwife, Ahdri as Savah's handmaiden, I think there's a weaver, etc. You generally need sedentarism and a degree of bounty before you really get specialists, because other people have to be able to provide enough excess food to support the ones who aren't engaged in subsistence work. Nobody here except for Savah seems to be highly specialized, i.e. totally divorced from the general work of the village -- their society isn't that complex and stratified. But they've got more of it going on than the Wolfriders do.

Technology-wise, the Sun Folk can work gold and probably copper, which is entirely reasonable for the tech level. The trolls work "bright metal," probably steel; how their forges operate is completely hand-waved. (Coal? If so, how do they ventilate their caves? Trees from the surface? If so, how do they gather the wood? Who knows.) The humans use stone tools, and so do the elves in pre-troll-contact flashbacks; Pike's spearhead is made of stone. I think Wendy Pini said the world was at roughly the Mesolithic level of technology; to me that sounds like an accurate description of when the High Ones landed, but by the time of the main narrative I'd put it closer to pre-pottery Neolithic. None of the images of stone tools get super-detailed, but they look more refined to me. And again, the humans live mostly in small bands, with leaders and religious specialists but not much in the way of stratification beyond that. Ideologically, they believe in a spirit world but don't have a complex theology; there's a background detail of the Hoan G'Tay Sho holding feathers from the giant eagles during a ceremony, which rings absolutely true.

So despite the magic and the immortal characters and so forth, it hangs together on a realistic level. I do wonder if part of the reason for the Kings of the Broken Wheel storyline was to jump the narrative out of the constraints of Stone Age society: if memory serves, Rayek takes the palace ten thousand years into the future, which is about right for getting things from the late Mesolithic or early Neolithic to the more medieval-style period they wind up in. (Not that a fictional world has to change at the same rate as history, but that's the yardstick we have to judge it against, so.) The story could still work even if the world was nonsensical -- but it's nice to have this solid underpinning anyway.

(Having said that: there's one point on which the realism falls down a bottomless pit. After thousands upon thousands of years of separation, the Wolfriders and the Sun Folk and the Gliders and the Go-Backs and Timmain herself still all speak exactly the same language. And even if you handwave that on the basis of long life/immortality and telepathy slowing linguistic drift, Cutter and Skywise travel overland for three months -- with good conditions, you could traverse the entire Oregon Trail in four months -- and the human language they know still works without a hitch when they meet Nonna and Adar. I understand why the Pinis might not want to let linguistic roadblocks derail the momentum of the story . . . but it's still wildly unrealistic.)

On to Captives of Blue Mountain!
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

When humans appear in Fire and Flight, they are quite simply and straightforwardly the enemy. They capture and torture Redlance; they burn the forest because they believe that's what their god wants. They fear and hate elves, and elves fear and hate them right back.

But it doesn't remain that simple.

In my previous post I mentioned the way the story opens up to depict side characters as fully three-dimensional people. There were humans on that list of characters, and the same deepening process happens to their species as a whole. We don't just get good humans here: we get good humans and also bad ones, humans who are good for different reasons and bad for different reasons, humans who think elves are awesome and humans who think they're scary and humans who really just wish they could find a place to live where there aren't any elves at all.

It happens in three stages. The first, of course, is when a family of humans -- starving and near death -- arrive outside Sorrow's End. The decision not to kill them is Cutter's, but the reason he makes that decision is because of Redlance: having been victimized by humans so badly, Redlance wants to know the reason. Because of him, Aro has a chance to tell the human side of the story. Does it erase all badness from them and turn them into angels? No, of course not. But it, well, humanizes them. They, too, suffered from the destruction of the forest. They're in the desert because they wouldn't abandon Aro's brother when he lost his mind -- an impulse that would resonate strongly in a Wolfrider's heart. Their motives are understandable, even when they aren't likeable, even when the elves have paid the cost of their fears again and again.

Cutter's decision isn't necessarily a merciful one. Sure, the Wolfriders don't kill the humans. But driving them out into the desert is almost certainly just a delayed sentence; Cutter doesn't give them any water or food or shelter, and they don't look like they'll make it very far. We aren't yet at the stage where harmony and friendship are possible, even to the extent of supplies -- let alone permitting the humans to rest there for a while before continuing their journey. His actions aren't really admirable . . . except insofar as they're an improvement on what he would have done seven years ago.

Nonna and Adar constitute a nice little inversion of that scene. Cutter, sick and delirious, stumbles upon their home, inadvertently putting his life in their hands much like the lives of that family were in his. But Adar's people, having never seen elves, aren't a priori hostile to them, and Nonna comes from the Blue Mountain tribe, which (we'll see next volume) literally worships them. That isn't a good balance, either; Cutter later regrets having to deceive Nonna and Adar, performing his expected role of "spirit" rather than being able to relate to them normally. But it saves his life in this instance, because Nonna shows a lot more mercy than he did: she not only takes care of him, but goes to great lengths to avoid violence when first Cutter and then Skywise threaten them. The family in the desert made Cutter see humans as people; Nonna and Adar make him see humans as people who aren't automatically enemies. People who might even be friends.

Which brings us to Olbar's tribe. I love Olbar: he's the most complex human character we've seen yet, because unlike the others, he changes during the course of his appearance. He's caught between conflicting forces, with the Bone Woman's fearmongering and thirsting for power on one side, his criminal and outcast brother on another, Nonna and Adar returning from exile and forcing his hand, the loss of his daughter Selah to the Forbidden Grove, and then these "spirits" showing up and blessing his people but are they spirits really? He's the final piece of the transformation: humans started out as the enemy, became people, became people who could be nice, and finally became people who could change. After Olbar, it isn't possible for Cutter to view humans as a monolith. Any conflicts he has with them going forward will be conflicts with individuals, with groups, or with the forces that keep elves and humans from being able to reach some kind of equilibrium -- not with the species as a whole.

The flip side of this will be the introduction of an elf as a villain. But that will have to wait for Captives of Blue Mountain, and I have one more post I want to make about The Forbidden Grove before I'm done.
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

I like Fire and Flight, but this volume is where the story really hits its stride. After our simple, linear introduction, where the plot is straightforward and only a small number of characters get much in the way of attention, the narrative opens up: two strands, with Cutter and Skywise searching for more elf tribes, while back in Sorrow's End Suntop receives a warning that sends nearly the entire tribe on the road again in pursuit of that pair.

The ensemble nature of this series has always been one of the things I like best about it. Yes, when all is said and done, Cutter is the protagonist. He's the leader, not just in the sense that he's the one making decisions, but also in the sense that it's usually his needs and desires that are driving the main part of the story. (Keep his tribe alive; find more elves; get his kids back. Books five and six, Siege at Blue Mountain and The Secret of Two-Edge, are something of an exception to this.) But the Pinis are very, very good at making everyone around Cutter also matter.

Which is an achievement in comic book format, because in the end, you have such limited space to work with. One of the skills I hugely admire is the ability to characterize in an efficient fashion: Joss Whedon excels at that, and I wouldn't put the Pinis far behind. In less than twenty panels of The Forbidden Grove, they give us a fantastic exchange between Redlance and Woodlock -- two characters who barely got any lines in Fire and Flight -- that brings both of them to vivid, breathing life. (For those who haven't read it in a while, it's the scene where humans show up outside Sorrow's end. Woodlock wants to be one of their executioners; Redlance insists on hearing what they have to say because he wants to know why they tortured him; when Woodlock calls for their deaths again, Redlance tells him to shoot the kid first; Woodlock can't, and Redlance consoles him.)

Those aren't the only two that go from being images on the page to full characters in this volume. Nightfall, who got a little attention in Fire and Flight, gets more here. Strongbow has several great moments -- and they're not all the same kind of moment; his challenge against Cutter, his rare verbal outburst when the Sun Folk question Dart, and his annoyed "'Think you can get him?' Huh!" thought bubble when he's about to shoot the bird show different aspects of his personality. I can't off the top of my head recall Moonshade getting a single line in Fire and Flight; here the argument with Leetah about following Cutter, plus the single panel where she lets herself be taken by the eagles after they carry off Strongbow, sell us in four panels on Moonshade's unshakeable traditionalism and devotion to her lifemate. (Since I posted about gender before, it's worth mentioning that I 100% believe Moonshade would have delivered that exact same rant if she'd been talking to a male healer who stayed behind when his female chieftain lifemate went off to search.)

Plus there are new characters! Suntop and Ember both have personalities that don't simply map to "kid," and they aren't the same personality; the differences between the twins are clear from the get-go. We get Picknose and Oddbit and Old Maggoty, Nonna and Adar, the Bone Woman and Thief and Olbar the Mountain-Tall and Petalwing. The cast in Fire and Flight was big, but almost entirely in the background. Here a much larger percentage of the characters get their moments in the spotlight, and those moments are not wasted. We'll get even more as the series goes along, with narrative side strands that step away from Cutter's concerns to show that other people have their own lives, their own problems, for which Cutter is the one playing a bit part (if he's involved at all). Done poorly, a large cast winds up feeling like an undifferentiated mass, with the narrative flavor spread so thin nobody winds up with much at all. Done well, this is one of my favorite types of story.

I'll be making a post at some later point about the art, but I want to note that the concern for rendering the characters with detail extends to how they're drawn. Part of the reason I never got into the Wavedancers story was that I honestly couldn't keep the elves of that tribe straight: I don't know if that was because I read it in black-and-white and the artist depended heavily on color or what, but they all smeared together for me. The way Wendy Pini draws her elves, they can be tiny silhouettes in the background of a panel and I'm still able to tell which character I'm looking at. They are, in every respect, individuals.
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

I suspect I'll wind up making several posts about Recognition during the course of this series, because it's such an interesting and complex topic: a spontaneous soulbond, with bonus reproductive instinct. You can spin a bunch of different stories out of that, and the Pinis hit quite a few of them; in fact, I'm not sure there's any point in what I consider the main canon (the first eight volumes, up through Kings of the Broken Wheel) where they play it completely straight. Cutter and Leetah come the closest -- but before I get to that, let's talk about Recognition itself.

I mentioned before that the Wolfriders have a serious birthrate problem, and this extends to basically all the elves except the Go-Backs (who have managed to ditch Recognition entirely; I don't recall if we ever find out how). The instinct that drives Recognition is based on genetic matching; some magical instinct looks at another elf and says "yep, you'd make a good kid with me," whereupon the two of you bond at a psychic level and feel an urge to get it on. Savah says in Fire and Flight that "Recognition insures that your offspring will number among the strongest and most gifted of our race" -- which would run the risk of elitism, the special super-awesome Recognition-born children vs those who happen the normal way, except that apparently Recognition is just about the only way elves can have children. Out of the seventeen Wolfriders in the present day, only one (Pike) was born outside of it, and that's considered a noteworthy thing. Later on, Nightfall and Redlance will need Leetah's magical assistance to have a kid. Now, something I read -- I don't remember where this was; probably in an interview or something from the Gatherum or maybe even the RPG -- said that the Recognition instinct gets less selective the older an elf grows, which is why an elf can turn around one day and find themselves bonded to a person they've known for centuries. But essentially, without Recognition, you're unlikely to reproduce. And only the Go-Backs, who have ditched the impulse entirely, seem to have more than about two kids max.

When your birthrate is that low, your species is going extinct. I don't care how long you live: if your replacement rate is that abysmal, then you'll barely maintain population in good times, and bad incidents will whittle you down one bit at a time. Madcoil took out six elves who had only four children among them. Shale and Eyes High both died after a single kid. Rillfisher left only Dewshine behind, and Treestump hasn't Recognized anybody else since then. This is especially a problem when your super-picky reproductive instinct may wait for three or five hundred years before deciding, okay, I guess that person will do. That's three or five hundred years in which you might get killed without having any children at all.

So: Recognition is narratively fascinating, but logically kind of dumb. You'd either need to just run with the elitism, keeping Recognition-born children in the minority and having most being conceived the normal way, or you need Recognition to be way more active in an elf's early years, so they have a better chance of reproducing before something takes them out. And either way, most of these elves need to be like Woodlock and Rainsong, bringing more than two kids into the world.

Of course, the story is less interested in the pragmatic implications of Recognition than it is in the narrative aspects. Which is fine, because that's what I'm ultimately interested in, too. :-)

I'm sort of astonished that I have yet to write soulbonds into any of my fiction, because they're one of my favorite iddy tropes. A permanent psychic connection to another person! Guaranteed to cause angst on the way to a (probably) happy conclusion! The angst is a key part; if soulbonding meant instant and uncomplicated harmony with the other person, it wouldn't be nearly as good story fodder. Clearbrook says that Bearclaw and Joyleaf "completed each other -- just as any two who have Recognized one another should," but a) that isn't always the case and b) even when things do settle down to a happily-ever-after, the road there isn't necessarily smooth. In fact, I can't recall any instances in the main canon of Recognition leading immediately to a good partnership. We have plenty of happily lifemated pairs, but all the ones I can think of who form their bond during the course of the story run into at least a little trouble.

Like Cutter and Leetah. Because the Wolfriders are (generally speaking) the protagonists of this series, a lot of their behavior ends up being positioned, or at least read, as "good" -- but on the topic of Recognition, their basic attitude is shown to be straight-up wrong. They're used to obeying their instincts without a lot of reflections, so Cutter, once he realizes what's happened, sees no reason he and Leetah shouldn't just get together right away. (Strongbow, in his least admirable moment ever, argues that Cutter should stop worrying about what Leetah wants. I apparently edited that out of my memory, and will probably go right back to pretending he never said that, because I usually like Strongbow.)

But Leetah sees plenty of reasons to hold off. And unlike Cutter, she's more than able and willing to delay, to control the impulse driving her toward this total stranger. In the classic way of romance, they both need to change before they'll actually be a good match for one another. Cutter needs to grow past his hotheaded impulsiveness, to show respect for Leetah's point of view; this culminates in his abject surrender to her will for Dewshine's sake after the stampede. (As if Leetah wouldn't have healed her anyway -- but Cutter doesn't understand that yet.) As for Leetah, she needs to learn about the Wolfriders and their ways, to see Cutter's positive qualities as a leader, as exemplified by the Madcoil story. But things don't click for them until she speaks Cutter's soul name out loud, which brings the epiphany she needs: the soul name, being an encapsulation of the individual's essence, helps her understand him in a way that nothing else could.

It's interesting that Cutter doesn't receive the same kind of key. Leetah doesn't have a soul name; that seems to be peculiar to the Wolfriders, because of their dependence on sending (telepathy) -- even though the Gliders and the High Ones use sending a lot, and don't appear to have soul names. I don't know why the Pinis made that decision, though I could make up reasons. Soul/true names are another fun trope, and this story mines them pretty thoroughly, too -- Cutter and Skywise, Nightfall and Redlance, Strongbow closing Timmain out of his mind to keep himself safe. That may wind up being another post.

Anyway, this particular couple actually wind up in an excellent partnership, once they understand each other. Not every Recognized pair in this series can say as much . . . which is why you should expect at least one more Recognition post before I'm done with this re-read, one that focuses more on the problems baked into the concept.

That's enough for Fire and Flight, I think; I haven't touched on everything in it, but the other topics feel to me like I could save them for a later volume. So next up, The Forbidden Grove!
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

I mentioned in my last post the cultural exchange between the Wolfriders and the Sun Folk, two very different societies. One of the differences between them comes to the forefront when the earthquake sends the zwoots stampeding toward the Sun Village, and the Wolfriders head out to try and turn the herd away. Leetah is shocked to see Dewshine going with them, saying "But it is not a maiden's place to --" She can't even muster a justification for that incomplete thought, and Dewshine shrugs it off with a laugh, because she sees no reason she shouldn't ride in the hunt.

I didn't notice, until this re-read, that the first half of Fire and Flight doesn't back up Dewshine's attitude nearly as much as I assumed. At the time of the holt's burning, there are seventeen Wolfriders: nine men, five women, and three children (two male and one female). The raiding party that rescues Redlance consists of Cutter, Skywise, Treestump, Strongbow, One-Eye, Scouter, and Pike -- all the men of the tribe save Woodlock and Redlance himself. The same group goes to face down the human leader, and the raid on Sorrow's End adds Woodlock, who otherwise sticks to his usual role of the peaceful stay-at-home dad. (Redlance, another pacifist at heart, stays behind because he's badly injured.) None of the women participate. It isn't until you get the story of Madcoil that you see the women riding out: Fox-Fur, Brownberry, and Joyleaf are all with the hunt, and the group that finally takes out Madcoil includes Clearbrook, Nightfall, and Dewshine.

Now, I could actually see an in-story reason for this. The Wolfriders have a serious birthrate problem (about which more in a future post); the six who died in Madcoil's attack left only four children behind. The tribe after that has only five women of reproductive age, and one juvenile girl. It would actually make sense if they were in a more defensive posture, protecting the women so the tribe as a whole won't die out. But nobody ever says anything about that, which makes me wonder: did the Pinis change their minds a couple of issues in and decide to give the female Wolfriders a more active role than they originally planned? Or did it simply take them a while to get past their defaults like they meant to? It isn't just that the women don't take part in the various war parties. They also get very few lines early on -- though to be fair, neither do most of the men -- and when the fire starts, Scouter cries to One-eye that "Mother needs us! And I must save Dewshine!" The overall impression is one of much more conventional (i.e. passive) femininity.

But that's just the first few issues. I actually love the women of this series; there are so many of them, and they're very different from one another. Nightfall is not Dewshine is not Savah is not Leetah is not Winnowwill is not Kahvi. It takes time for that to develop -- in this first volume, Nightfall and Dewshine are the only female Wolfriders to get much page time -- but they're all distinct personalities, with different qualities and flaws. It's an excellent illustration of how avoiding the Smurfette problem also helps you dodge other pitfalls of writing female characters: when there isn't just one, she doesn't wind up being a statement on Women As a Whole. Leetah's sheltered and peaceful ways are what she is like, not a reflection of her entire gender. Nightfall is fiercer than her lifemate, but that doesn't mean all female elves have to be Amazons. Rainsong is happy to sit at home trying to solve the birthrate issue single-handedly -- or rather double-handedly, because gentle Woodlock is right there with her. If anything, Leetah's comment to Dewshine feels like 1978 intruding on the story: nobody in the Sun Village is the type to ride into the face of a stampede, except for Rayek. Gender might be a factor, but to me it seems secondary to general Sun Folk attitudes about such behavior.

Which honestly makes a fair bit of sense, for the type of society this depicts. The archaeology post will come later, but hunter-gatherer societies tend to be fairly egalitarian, and while I'm not as familiar with horticulturalists (small-scale farming, of the type we see the Sun Folk doing), I know you don't usually get major social stratification and specialization until you develop much larger-scale societies than any of the elf tribes have.

I also want to note that I very much appreciate the way the story handles the trial of hand, head, and heart -- or rather, the implications of it. Both Rayek and Cutter make the mistake of thinking that winning the contest means winning Leetah. But as she points out to both of them, the purpose of it is to settle their rivalry with each other -- not her actual choice. She has a chance to choose before it begins, and can't; after that, what the victor receives is the right to talk to her without the other one interfering. In Leetah's own words, she is not "some trinket to be handed out as a prize." That's a point many stories miss, even today.
swan_tower: a headshot of Clearbrook from the comic book series Elfquest (Clearbrook)
[personal profile] swan_tower
Hi, all! I recently started doing an Elfquest re-read, and decided to blog my way through; suggested I crosspost here. If you want to bookmark the index of all these posts as I make them, that's here, on my site. This is the first of the lot, apart from that introductory post.

Fire and Flight, the first volume of the series, could stand on its own just fine. It's the story of how a tribe of elves called the Wolfriders were driven from their home and found a new one; it's also a romance story for the protagonist, the Wolfrider chieftain Cutter. Both of those things find resolution here, so while the seeds of the ongoing story are present, you get a complete tale right out of the gate.

When it comes to interesting things to say about this volume, the first one that leaps out at me is race. Looking at it with my current perspective, the story doesn't open very well on that front. We get a brief flashback about how the ancestors of the elves came to the World of Two Moons and met with disaster, and . . . well. Tall, thin, pale Tolkien elves get bashed over the head by brutish humans who are a lot darker-skinned. There's a whole lot of interesting stuff going on with that backstory that will have to wait for a later post, but the visuals you get in those first few pages aren't great. In the present moment, thousands of years later, the humans look more anatomically modern (I'm going to do a whole post about the archaeological perspective on this series), but they're still fairly brown and primitive, and the elves are still pale and pretty.

But. If you continue on past that, things get a lot better.

For starters, I love the fact that our Tolkien elves have become short and (relatively) stocky and eat raw meat and ride wolves and howl at the moon. The Wolfriders are not their ancestors, and they've become a lot more primitive themselves, struggling to survive in a harsh world. The only reason they have metal weapons is because they trade with the trolls underground -- who, though not depicted in anything resembling a flattering light (they're green and lumpy and not remotely admirable), clearly have much more advanced technology than either the elves or the humans.

Where it really gets interesting, though, is when the Wolfriders cross the desert after the burning of the holt and find themselves at Sorrow's End. In 1978 -- the same year that Gary Gygax introduced the drow, those black-skinned concatenations of every evil outsider characteristic you can think of -- Wendy and Richard Pini gave us the Sun Folk, a settlement of civilized, brown-skinned farmer elves. Compared to them, the Wolfriders are straight-up barbarians. Made cynical and suspicious by their recent woes, the Wolfriders literally charge down into the village and raid the place, even to the point of carrying off Leetah (a direct reversal of the "brown animalistic barbarians will carry off the white womenfolk" trope). Is it subtle and nuanced? No, not really. But for 1978, it was pretty remarkable. And Elfquest still remains the only example I can think of where not only are there brown elves, but they're depicted as more civilized than their white cousins. Everything else either maintains the color quo (the Forgotten Realms now has non-evil brown-skinned wild elves, but they're barbaric compared to pale sun or moon elves), or just kind of flings around skin color at random (the Shannara TV series, which made no attempt at setting up any rationale for elven ethnicity).

True, the Sun Folk are depicted as weak in certain ways, and "weakness" is one of the standard Orientalist tropes for the Other. Rayek is basically the only hunter among them, and even he uses his hypnotic powers to stun his prey rather than chasing it down on wolfback like Cutter's people. Part of the cultural exchange that ensues features the Wolfriders encouraging the Sun Folk to be more proactive and aggressive. But it is an exchange; the Sun Folk teach things in turn, like history or the planting of crops and weaving of cloth. And, y'know, the not being an asshole. (More on that when I get to the post about Recognition.) The Sun Folk's pacifism and passivity are circumstantial, the consequence of living in a sheltered place with almost no threats, not anything inherent to them. Ultimately you get some Wolfriders settling down in the Sun Village because the culture there is more their speed, and some Sun Folk going off with the Wolfriders because the quiet life doesn't suit them. Both ways are okay. Both sides can benefit from the other. So while there are criticisms you can make, it is (sadly) still progressive enough to be noteworthy, even today.

If there are other good examples of racial diversity among elves out there, please do let me know.

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