In an attempt to get through the first 20 issues of Elfquest in less than a year and a half, I’ll be tackling issues #3 and #4 today. As always, you can read along at elfquest.com if you don’t have the paper issues.
#3 The Challenge Recap
The Wolfriders enter the hut of the Mother of Memory and encounter Savah, a tall, slim elf, who welcomes them to Sorrow’s End – the same name that Cutter gave to the mountains back in issue #2. Awed, Cutter asks if she is a High One, one of the elves’ legendary ancestors, but Savah denies it, explaining that while she is old enough to be one of the founding members of the Sun Village, her family also crossing the desert from the greenwood to escape humans, she is not old enough to be one of the High Ones. The Sun Villagers hold a feast to welcome the Wolfriders
As the Wolfriders settle in the Sun Villager Rayek remains apart, feeling threatened by other hunters come to usurp his place and by the strange connection between Leetah and Cutter. Cutter sees how Rayek hunts, using his mind powers to hypnotize prey, and considers it dishonorable. Wolfrider elder Treestump explains to his daughter Dewshine what’s going on between Leetah and Cutter – Recognition, a soul-bond of sorts.
Leetah cannot choose between Cutter and Rayek– Rayek has been her friend and companion for many years but she is unwillingly bound to Cutter on a deep level. Rayek challenges Cutter to a trial of skill and courage, saying that he shall win her, but Leetah indignantly insists that the winner will only settle their rivalry and not her preference.
Cutter wins the first and second trials, tests of wits and agility, although Rayek is not pleased that the second trial was won with the help of Skywise’s lodestone. Savah rules that it the victory is admissible, as Cutter was unaware of the magnetic properties of the lodestone until he accidentally discovered he could use it. Leetah is sympathetic to Rayek’s frustration.
The third trial is a test of courage. Savah probes the contestants’ minds and discovers their deepest fears. They attempt Cutter’s trial first–he must cross a slender natural rock bridge. Turns out that although Cutter grew up running around on thin branches, he’s frightened of extreme heights. When he falters and wonders aloud to Leetah what the point of dying for her would be, Rayek steps out onto the bridge to gloat, then a gust of wind blows him off. The issue ends with Rayek holding onto the rock of the bridge with one hand while Cutter crawls out, stretching his hand out to Rayek, determined that no elf, even his enemy, should die.
#4 Wolfsong Recap
Issue #4 opens immediately after #3 closes, with Cutter rescuing Rayek on the bridge. Rayek briefly attacks him with his mind, ‘sending’ psychically for the first time in his life in rage and hatred, and leaves the bridge. Cutter slowly overcomes his fear, then stands up, crosses the bridge, and touches the symbol on the other side, knowing that it is truly a meaningless act that proves nothing. Rayek runs –and in that moment we learn from Savah that he lost his third challenge when he went out on the bridge to taunt Cutter: his deepest fear was of loss. Cutter confronts Leetah, saying that he’s tired of playing games, and Leetah coolly disagrees, reminding him that he has only won the right to court her, not to have her. Cutter explodes, saying that nobody can refuse Recognition, but Leetah refuses to bow to what she considers blind instinct. Cutter grumps about it, but Skywise fills his role of best friend by pointing out that Cutter has “…a foul disposition and the manners of a troll.”
Late that night, Leetah dreams of Cutter, his face appearing before her and demanding that she say his soul name, then morphing into a wolf’s head. She wakes to hear the howls of the wolves and Wolfriders on a mesa outside the village and, curious, draws close to them and hides behind a rock to witness the event.
Cutter leads the ritual, speaking of the ten chiefs of the Wolfriders before him and then turns it over to Treestump to speak of Bearclaw, the father that Cutter keeps trying to live up to. Clearbrook stands and reminds the Wolfriders that if they speak of Bearclaw then they also have to speak of his Recognized lifemate Joyleaf, for she was his equal, her strengths moderating his weaknesses, as Recognized mates complementing each other. Leetah thinks that this cannot be, as it is wolf-like instinct.
Cutter then tells the story of the deaths of Bearclaw and Joyleaf; the mothers in the group encouraging him for their children do not yet know the tale. It wasn’t that long ago as Wolfrider lifetimes go, as the currently oldest child in the tribe had already been born.
One day on a routine hunt, the elves encountered something evil. The woods contain pockets of magic, left over from the time of the High Ones, which stagnate and turn bad. A monster was born of one of these pockets, when a large snake and saber-toothed cat fell into one while fighting. The magic fused the animals and amplified the rage, producing Madcoil, a chimera-like beast who could send, which incapacitated the Wolfriders. About half of the hunters died, including Joyleaf. Bearclaw and Cutter track Madcoil’s traces to its den, then later as Cutter lies sleeping, Bearclaw sets off alone to challenge Madcoil, and is killed.
Cutter, now the chief, realizes that this is an enemy that cannot be faced alone, and gets his wolf Nightrunner to call the tribe. They weave nets and set a trap outside of Madcoil’s den then, as Cutter taunts the beast, the elves tangle Madcoil in the net, which allows Cutter to kill it.
The lesson they learned that day, to stand together, is one that affects Cutter deeply. It also affects the hidden Leetah, who muses that she has much to learn as well, and then sneaks off back to her hut.
The idea that the elves are all somehow connected is starting to emerge – Cutter’s naming the mountains “Sorrow’s End,” the same name that the villagers give to their home is one facet. Savah points out that all elves are of one heart and one mind, no matter what their circumstances. We are also starting to learn how adaptable the elfin phenotype is, with the differences in the short, compact Wolfriders and Sun Villagers and the tall, graceful Savah. We also start to encounter the idea that most elves are long-lived, in sharp contrast to the short, feral lives of the Wolfriders.
Another theme emerges, also: death is an enemy to all, the Sun Villagers because they are so long-lived that death is a distant horror, and the Wolfriders because their lives are so short that they barely survive on the edge of extinction. Cutter overcomes his fears because his determination that no more elves should die is stronger than his terror of heights. We also look back into his past to see that determination forged from desperation, when a huge part of the tribe, not that big to begin with, was slaughtered. The Wolfriders cannot afford to lose any more members and, by extension, since all elves are connected, Cutter wishes to protect all elves.
Something else the Pinis do a great job here of handling is the touchy issue of gender equality in relationships. Claiming another person for a mate is shown as something coming out of arrogance, and not to be tolerated. Leetah maintains her right to choose, even in the face of an overwhelming psychic and biological urge that apparently evolved to ensure the best genetic heritage for elven offspring. Bearclaw and Joyleaf are explicitly mentioned as being complementary and equals – Bearclaw is the nominal chief, but Joyleaf shares the responsibility of leading the tribe and is not subservient to him at all. Leetah starts to come to an understanding of the Wolfriders’ attitudes towards Recognition, and that by accepting this urge she may not be subsuming herself to Cutter and to base instinct.
I somehow doubt that a comparison between Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries and Elfquest has been done before, but I am irresistibly reminded of Harriet’s core problem: she, too, is drawn to a charismatic man and has to spend a considerable amount of time considering the reasons why, and facing the questions of whether it’s possible for a man and a woman to have a truly equal relationship and how a woman can maintain her independence after marriage. Cutter and Peter both bow to the inevitable after a period of confusion and step back to let Leetah and Harriet make the choice in peace. (Oops, that’s in issue #5! Spoilers!)
I think we’re also supposed to infer that the primary reason Leetah hasn’t accepted Rayek’s proposal is that to be in that sort of relationship with him would indeed be to be possessed, a prize. To be independent and valued among her people, then to be relegated to Rayek’s ownership is distasteful. Recognition seems to be another aspect of the same thing, but in issue #4, she learns that the Wolfriders don’t see it that way. She’s got one more problem to overcome, which we don’t actually learn about for some time in the comics, but which plays a greater role in the books, if I recall correctly. It’s a minor spoiler, but has been hinted at in the comics so far: the Wolfriders are actually part wolf, thanks to a shapeshifter in the distant past who saved the tribe by coming up with a way to learn the ways of the wolf. That quite understandably repels Leetah, and she’s got to figure out what this means: are the Wolfriders true elves? If she accepts Cutter, will their children be elves?
This question of what makes an elf is returned to later on in the series and becomes more important.
As an aside, I should also add that Recognition looks like an interesting way to maintain genetic diversity among a very small population by ensuring that a minority of maladaptive mutations get passed along. If we extrapolate from human genetics—I know, I know, elves aren’t human and human genetics may not apply—the Wolfriders and the Sun Villagers are quite inbred, the Sun Villagers starting from a population of five, and the Wolfriders being a small tribe in a marginal environment (marginal not in resources, but in predators: humans having a serious impact on their tribe’s size). Recognition obviously occurred in the past with the Sun Villagers, although it’s fairly rare. They are so long-lived, however, that a very low birth rate would be capable of sustaining the population and indeed, if they can’t produce an increasing amount of food from their oasis, a low birth rate stabilizing the population would be preferable as they wouldn’t want too many mouths to feed. If you don’t die and don’t increase your production, then you can’t afford to reproduce.
That’s the end of my rambling thoughts for this month. Let me know what you think!