In a previous story, How “ElfQuest” Enraptured Me as an Adult, I mentioned that the Elves in this comic don’t have any gender-based roles and no expectation of heterosexuality nor monogamy. In this story, I am going to address all of these points. I will do my best not to reveal too much about the plot. Also, this will not be an exhaustive treatment of the subject, because I want to encourage readers to discover these stories for themselves.
The Grand Quest
ElfQuest is the story of Elves who live on the World of Two Moons. The main story arc of the original series is that of Cutter, the Chief of the tribe called Wolfriders. The Elves on Two Moons are aliens on the planet, though by the time Cutter’s story begins, they have been living within their forest-dwelling for many generations, and know nothing of their origins.
After a devastating encounter with humans, who hate the Elves and fear them as “demons,” Cutter leads his tribe on a quest. He is convinced that there are more Elves besides the Wolfriders on Two Moons, and wishes to find them all and bring them together in unity.
Through trials and tribulations, the Wolfriders do indeed find more Elves. In addition to the Wolfriders, Cutter and his tribe discover the Sun Folk, the Go-Backs, and the Gliders. All have been living on Two Moons, developing unique cultures and philosophies of life as dictated by their environments. As the story progresses, much about the origins of the Two Moons Elves is discovered. In spite of the differences in their life philosophies, they have much in common.
There are other tribes to be discovered as the series continues; however, in this story, we will be looking only at the story arc of the first twenty issues of the comics, known unofficially as “The Grand Quest.”
Societal Roles of the Elves
Among the Elves, duties and positions are not drawn along gender lines. While of course, motherhood is the realm of females, this is solely a result of biology. Females are not duty-bound to be the only caregivers. While the Elf Rainsong has dedicated her entire being to mothering her children, most female Elves divide their time and attention between parenting and carrying out other duties within the tribe. While there is a “literally magical imperative to reproduce” (Heather Johannsen’s “To hunt, to Howl, to Love Free”), the women of ElfQuest are able to deny this imperative to choose the way of life they wish to follow. This is in spite of the fact that the birth rate among Elves is very low.
The sharing of tasks among tribe members is decided without any consideration of gender. Rather, roles are assigned by the interests and talents of the individual Elf. In some cases, the duty divide looks like what we might call a “role switch” if gender roles are applied among the Elves as they still seem to be among most human populations in the real world.
Nightfall and Redlance
Nightfall and Redlance are lifemates and the parents of one child. While Redlance can fight using a spear, this is not his strong suit. In fact, Redlance’s talent and place among the Wolfriders is that of a plant-shaper. This is an important job, as the shaping of plants is one of the ways the tribe’s Holt is created. Redlance is also the tribe’s weapon maker and the best tracker in the tribe. Redlance is a nurturer who cares for all the tribe’s children, and often reminds his tribe-mates that violence is not a way of life. He believes in forgiveness in spite of having gone through some terrible torturous experiences. His mate Nightfall is a hunter. She is the brave one, who can be trusted to carry out her duties as she must. In battle and in hunting, Nightfall is best with her bow, for she is a great archer. Though the bow is the preferred tool of her trade, she is also quite proficient with her knife.
Suntop and Ember
Suntop and Ember are twin brother and sister — children of Cutter and Leetah. These two are opposites. While Suntop is fair and blond like his Wolfrider father, Ember is dark-skinned and dark haired like her Sun Folk mother. They are opposites, too, in their talents and tasks. Suntop is a sensitive boy with a deep empathic talent and an empathetic heart. It is Suntop who first hears the psychic cries of the High Ones. He can send his spirit out of his body to connect with others on the spiritual plane, and connects with his mentor, the ancient Sun Folk’s Mother of Memory, Savah. While Suntop’s talents are more “spiritual,” Embers are quite physical. She inherited the wolf-blood of her father, and is destined to become the next Chief of the Wolfriders. Even as a child, she is extremely brave and quite bossy.
Mating Practices of the Elves
Wendy and Richard Pini brought acceptance of differences, love between friends, and polyamorous love into ElfQuest, without commentary, as if it was just the way of things. They did it without bravado or angst. The Elves are very demonstrative in different ways, and the connections each of them has with the others are indicated by illustrative looks between them, by the words they say to one another, and by the way they communicate both verbally and psychically. The Wolfriders can Send to one another individually or as a group.
Sending is communication through telepathy, which can be accomplished in words, images, or by an overall understanding that might be equal to the concept of “grokking” (from Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, “Grokking” is a kind of deep, overall comprehension of something that cannot be put into words.) Not all Elves are able to Send, and among the Sun Folk, only Leetah, Savah, and Rayak have this ability.
Another aspect of the Elves’ psychic abilities is that of Recognition. Recognition is a sort of biological imperative that brings two Elves together in order to procreate. For the Elves, procreation is not the purpose for sexuality, though it is possible for an Elf to get pregnant without being Recognized. Elves are not usually jealous of one another, often share partners, and sometimes take part in group sharing between the adults of the tribe.
Demonstrative love between Elves of all genders reveals that they are bisexual and have deep friendships that are meaningful and life-giving. It is important to note that while the Elves are depicted in group love settings, the full meaning of this is not blatant. Children who read the comics before they’ve reached the age where this becomes meaningful are not being exposed to erotica, though nudity is present throughout the series as the natural state of being that it is.
Cutter and Leetah
When Cutter and Leetah first see one another, Recognition happens. Cutter knows that’s what it is, but Leetah does not. Recognition has not happened among the Sun Folk for a long time. She is already in a relationship with Rayek, but of course cannot deny the draw she feels to this newcomer, Cutter. Comic hijinks ensue, there is a contest, and Cutter and Leetah end up as dedicated lifemates. There is no wedding, as marriage is not an institution among the Elves. There are times when each of them joins in the group lovemaking. Leetah and Rayek spend time together once in a while, both as lovers and as supports for one another as friends who hail from the same village.
Moonshade and Strongbow
These two are both quiet and strong, and have Recognized. However, they are far different in many ways. Strongbow is old-fashioned and doesn’t like change. He is so much against change that he will argue with his Chief, Cutter. He and Moonshade are clearly a devoted couple, but Moonshade does not always agree with Strongbow. She does not hesitate to say so. Like the other Elves, these two join in the practice of being with other Elves at times.
Rayek and Kahvi
Rayek is both proud and obstinate. He still carries a torch for Leetah and is an exception to the general rule regarding jealousy. He doesn’t like sharing her with Cutter or anyone else. Still, he does take part in the group “activities.” In particular, when Kahvi, the Chief of the Go-Backs, insists the Wolfriders and the Sun Folk who are present have a night of group lovemaking, Rayek joins with her. The evening results in a daughter, who Rayek does not know exists. Kahvi is a strong warrior, who even makes giving birth an act of defiance.
Skywise and Aroree
Skywise is a lone Elf who loves the stars and wants to travel among them. When he meets the Glider Aroree, he has the chance to fly with her and sense the elation of being airborne. The two of them become lovers, as he is so moved by her, and she finds in him the only friend she has. Aroree is by far not the only lover Skywise has. He is an Elf filled with love, and it is visible in his eyes.
Close Relationships Between Friends
The Elves are very close to one another on a level that humans cannot really fathom. The tribes that can Send are able to act as one entity, communicating without their adversaries being aware. Some of the Elves are particularly special, having friendships that run exceedingly deep. Wrapped up into the friendships is a deep love that can manifest in the physical as well as the emotional. Without the artificial mores of any institutional structure, the friendships don’t depend on anything more than honesty and trust.
Cutter and Skywise
Skywise and Cutter are best friends, closer than brothers. When they were children they experienced something like Recognition and have been devoted to one another ever since. They are so close that they shared their soul names with one another. For Elves, the sharing of soul names is extremely significant.
Leetah and Nightfall
Leetah, Cutter’s lifemate, and Nightfall, lifemate to Redlance, are friends though they are quite different personality-wise. Where Nightfall is a hunter and warrior, Leetah is a peace-loving healer. The two of them are known to sometimes spend time dancing naked together in the night.
Suntop and Savah
Savah is the Mother of Memory, the eldest of the Sun Folk. She is the only one who remembers how the Sun Folk arrived at Sorrows End and where they came from, for she is the founder of the village. She doesn’t sleep, but goes into deep trances to find any information she can to help the Elves. Suntop, Cutter and Leetah’s sensitive young son, reaches out to Savah through psychic contact. Their connection is deep, and Suntop seems to have instinctively known that Savah is the only one who can guide him.
Cutter and the Tribe
Cutter has a deep love for his tribe, and that love is reciprocated. He is the son of Ten Chiefs, the last being his father, Bearclaw. Even the traditionalist Strongbow, who often challenges Cutter, respects him as a leader. Cutter has the huge vision of finding and uniting all the tribes of Elves on Two Moons, and with the trust of his tribe, he leads them to finding the truth of their identity. This is an important relationship, more important even than that between Cutter and Leetah, Cutter and Skywise, or Cutter and his children. With his leadership, they are able to become much more than the Wolfriders of the Holt.
The way sexuality, gender roles, feminist ideals, and relationships are handled in ElfQuest is decidedly subversive. Interestingly, however, this has hardly been noticed by critics or gender studies experts. Isabelle L. Guillaume posits that “Elfquest’s relative invisibility in academia and the comics world is linked to the Pinis’ unusual treatment of gender, which clearly goes against established norms of the American comics market, but is not radical enough to attract gender critics.” Guillaume’s opinion is that “Elfquest is in fact a halfway house between the mainstream comics tradition and the all-out radicalism of the feminist underground.”
The purity, beauty, and openness of the inter-relational aspects of Elven life in ElfQuest continues to inspire hope in hundreds of fans who identify with the Elves of Two Moons.
“To Hunt, To Howl, To Love Free” by Heather Johannsen
“Women W.a.R.P.ing Gender in Comics: Wendy Pini’s Elfquest as mixed power fantasy” by Isabelle L. Guillaume
If you’re interested in a take-down of the series as a collection of tired tropes, you can read it on TV Tropes. Note: I don’t agree with many of these, to be honest. I personally think that ElfQuest predates many of these tropes, meaning that perhaps they are part of the history of comics and fantasy that created them.
This story first appeared in Fandom Fanatics on Medium