Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest is a comics series that has been around for forty years. Soon, this ongoing story about the World of Two Moons and its denizens will be coming to an end with the upcoming last issue of its Final Quest arc. Around three years ago now, I wrote an article on my Mythic Bios Blog called When I Recognized Elfquest: where I talked about how I found Wendy and Richard Pini’s comics saga, and how it related to me. However, that was only part of the story: of my story.
Back when I first learned more about Elfquest, I just assumed it was a high fantasy series drawing from a similar place from where The Smurfs or Wizards came. The only other thing I knew about the series was that a character from Piers Anthony’s Xanth named Jenny the Elf and her wolf came from this place called the World of Two Moons, and I just left it at that.
But what I didn’t realize at the time was that Elfquest was about a form of inclusivity. For just as Elfquest’s world has Two Moons, and each Wolfrider has their wolf, each character possesses a dual aspect of their personality that complements as opposed to contrasts with each other.
Part of the reason I think that this dynamic works so well in the Elf Wolfriders led by their Chief Cutter is due to the existence of the two elements that humans do not have: Sending, and Recognition. I’ve said as much in my previous article, but it bears special repetition in this case.
Sending is a form of telepathy that transmits thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, and ideas from one Elf’s mind to another. It is, in essence, a perfect form of communication. You can understand just why this aspect would appeal to so many readers: especially self-identifying geeks and nerds. In a group of people that have been traditionally misunderstood, lonely, and often unconventional, Sending would be the ultimate in quick, efficient, intimate, and meaningful communication. There would be very little room for misunderstanding in such an exchange.
You can make the argument that Sending, or telepathy, is a mainstay of fantasy and science fiction tropes. But Recognition has its place as well, even if Wendy and Richard Pini made something a little more unique in this case. The Pinis intended Recognition, on a surface and pragmatic level, to be a mechanism of procreation: of a strong impulse for two or more Elves to breed. Yet Recognition has its own deeper, and almost metaphysical connotations. Kurt Vonnegut through his Cat’s Cradle might see it as the formation of a karass – a group of people who feel themselves almost spiritually, and inexplicably drawn together for a purpose – I feel it is Robert Heinlein through his Stranger in a Strange Land that has a closer analogue in the form of grokking: having a deep pang of connection with someone and knowing them beyond the details of material life. Certainly, the fact that Elves gain knowledge of each other’s Soul-Names – their true selves – adds a metaphysical element to Recognition in itself.
So even though I didn’t know what Sending and Recognition was initially, I did “Recognize” their significance from my own exposure and explorations into science-fiction and fantasy. Whether or not humans have a certain degree of Recognition in our reality is a debate I will leave in other, more capable hands, but these elements are why I believe the Wolfriders of the World of Two Moons can reconcile their dual aspects of savagery and compassion, the wild and close-knit kinship, the moment and understanding so well.
When I first found the term polyamory on a site called Spiral Nature – a philosophy or orientation in which someone can love, and have intimate and consensual relationships with more than one person – it was merely esoteric language and idealism to me. I understood it in an abstract way, but I thought that human beings were too selfish, too jealous, and too insecure to tolerate a partner being with multiple people, or even one other person. After all, it’s pretty hard to gain true understanding from another person as Sending doesn’t actually exist.
I thought the idea was a recipe for pain. Really, when it comes right down to it, I was deeply afraid of it: of the possibility and the chaos that might already have been inside of me. I was so scared of it that when I was with my first girlfriend I avoided making any other friendships with girls – or anyone, even as I castigated myself for being attracted to, and having feelings for other women. It even grated at me when I saw this happen in my fantasy books: my refuge from this confusing world. I felt as though there was something wrong with me: as if I were bad, misogynist, or chauvinist in some way. Sometimes I wonder if I reached out for other geek groups more if I would have been able to accept that part of me sooner, and not felt so alone.
Finding others who actually identified as, and lived being polyamorous was not an easy task, and even when I found that some of my friends lived like this – having multiple relationships and being honest about that fact – it made my insides twist in fear, shame … and desire. I wanted this for myself, but I didn’t know how to ask, or how to find it.
During this period, that continues to this very day, I had all kinds of experiences. Some people talked the jargon or language of polyamory, while treating people like objects. Some believed I did the same thing. Others came to, and left my life. Some tried to convince me I was going through a phase, or that I was misguided – that after “dating” I’d find a “real girlfriend” and settle down – while others thought that my lack of monogamy gave them permission to treat me like a bookmark or placeholder when a real “romantic” (read: monogamous) person came around to their lives. And there is always the underlying social stigma and expectation involved: of everyone thinking that I wanted to sleep with every woman I met just because I was poly. After a time, it got to the point where I avoided meeting new people again: because I was afraid they would reject me, and that it was inevitable that they would lack any understanding of me as a person whatsoever.
I had differing kinds of relationships. Some were serious, others fun, more that just didn’t work out. I got hurt, and I hurt others. But some people stayed with me: to this very day in fact. One of these lovely people saw I was struggling and introduced me to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. There is something in Stranger that she wanted to stress in particular. In addition to grokking, the novel presented the concept of water brotherhood: the idea that you can open yourself to a group of people and trust them with your very life and being. My girlfriend called it finding your Tribe.
A Tribe is made up of all the people with which you can relate. These can be intimate, romantic partners but also blood family, friends, and comrades. Essentially, they are the family that you make, or that forms around you. You are supposed to be there for each other, and understand one another. It reminds me now of Cutter’s Tribe of the Wolfriders.
Before I found Elfquest Archives Volume One at a student comics sale, and long after I got back into the comics medium as an adult, I never thought that comics dealt with issues of polyamory or open-relationships. I’ll admit that I cried when I got Stranger. I also admit that I cried after my first disastrous attempt at a local Tribe and in reading Heinlein’s Friday: with the protagonist’s pain in being rejected by her chosen family being quite relatable. But then I read Elfquest and in particular a short comics story in the collection called “The Heart’s Way.”
I won’t spoil this story, as it is included for free In All But Blood on elfquest.com, but it was the first comic – or at least fantasy comics – I’d ever seen that dealt with the different nuances and kinds of love that exist. It focused on the ever-questing Wolfrider Skywise: his easy nature, his mercurial spirit, and his relationship with women, and his friend Cutter. It was tastefully done, and it concluded in an open-ended fashion. That was the moment in my old apartment at York University on my bed, reading these lush and restored pages and panels, that I found a comic that – perhaps more than even Stranger – that I could identify with: a story that almost made me feel represented.
No one else had to find it for me. I found it on my own, or perhaps it found me.
In that moment, I was incredibly happy.
I’ll admit that many of the other Elfquest stories didn’t really capture the magic of “The Heart’s Way” for me, and I didn’t always jive with the places where the latter arcs took the Tribe of the Wolfriders, but there were still moments of that idea of what a water brotherhood – what a Tribe – should be. Much later, I found out one of my other partners read Elfquest as well. She told me that I reminded her of a combination of three male characters: the solitary Sun Elf Rayek with his indomitable will and near-obsessive drive offset by Cutter and his fierce generosity of spirit and his desire for unification towards a greater goal, and – of course – Skywise and his sly wit, his insatiable curiosity, and his sheer, unflagging sense of wonder.
Would that I could be so lucky to be in a place of two sides, two names, and two Moons laid bare in a beautiful multiplicity for those who matter. Perhaps that ideal and fiction between elf and wolf, human and beast, and thought and emotion, is where lies the true place of “The Heart’s Way.”