Monday, April 18, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #5:ELFQUEST #1-20 (1978-84)
“Tell me, dark sister—how did you reconcile yourself—to the taint in Cutter’s blood?… Did it thrill you—the mingling of his blood with yours?”
PLOT-SUMMARY: On a world inhabited by three intelligent humanoid species --elves, trolls, and human beings --Cutter, chief of the Wolfrider elf-tribe, decides to seek out and bring together all the elf-tribes, scattered throughout the world after their legendary progenitors, “the High Ones,” descended to earth from the sky. The plot’s first movement is a microcosm of this greater quest, as the savage Wolfriders encounter and establish relations with the sedentary Sunfolk, culminating in the fruitful union of Cutter and his wife Leetah. The second movement begins the quest proper, and takes the Wolfriders down a false trail, as they encounter an elf-tribe called the Gliders. The villainous Winnowill, who controls the tribe through intrigue and deception, claims that her tribe are the High Ones of legend. In the third plot-movement, Cutter and his allies pursue the correct trail at last, guided by Two-Edge, the half-elf, half-troll offspring of Winnowill. Upon reaching the Palace of the High Ones, Cutter learns how Two-Edge has manipulated the quest for his own ends. But he and his friends also learn the true history of his people, the trolls, and the world they share with the native humans.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: As the above summary should make clear, the function dominating ELFQUEST’s narrative mythos is a sociological one. Throughout this epic fantasy the dominant theme—that of “savagery versus civilization”-- has a Howardian ring despite the story’s Tolkienian surface. But where Howard was a Spenglerian pessimist, believing that every civilization would eventually fall to the forces of barbarism, the Pinis are considerably more optimistic. Civilized tribes commit the error of extreme Apollonianism, erecting edifices and customs that shield them too much from life. Savage tribes err in that they try to live in the Dionysian flux, stifling their own capacity to understand the deeper nature of the world. In the Pinis’ world, the tribes can compensate for one another’s overcompensations, bringing about what Jung calls an enantiodromia, a reconciliation of opposites.
That’s not to say that the reconciliation is easily reached. The primal sin that tosses both elves and trolls upon “a world they never made” is as follows: the shapechanging “High Ones,” a star-traveling race of high technology, take the apelike ancestors of the trolls, originally a separate alien race, aboard their ship to be the High Ones' servants. The proto-trolls rebel against their captivity and cause everyone aboard the starship to become stranded on the humans’ world. There, ironically enough, the descendants of the first trolls become consumed with crude technology, becoming master smiths and tunnel-diggers. In contrast, some though not all descendants of the “High Ones” use their shapechanging powers to bond with the world of nature, not least the Wolfriders, who are actually crossbreeds of elf and wolf.
Though the Pinis provide a wealth of character-oppositions, the one with the greatest mythic resonance is the one between Cutter, a humble tribal chieftain who takes on the unifying task of an Arthur or Charlemagne, and Two-Edge, the mysterious half-breed master smith. In myths and legends smiths are often ambivalent figures, sometimes helping, sometimes opposing the ruling powers. Two-Edge manages to do both. On one hand he manipulates Cutter’s quest for purely selfish reasons; he engineers a major conflict between elves and trolls, mirroring the conflict between the two natures in his own body. Yet Cutter, nicknamed Kinseeker, foils Two-Edge’s scheme by bringing in a group of trolls to fight on his side. This act suggests the possibility of a greater brotherhood between all the intelligent races of the ELFQUEST domain (even if human beings are rather marginalized in the final chapters). Still, Two-Edge is as necessary to Cutter finding his way as Merlin is to Arthur.
The complexity of the Pinis’ creation is often ignored in response to the “cuteness factor” seen in Wendy Pini’s art, influenced both by Disney cartoons and manga. It’s fascinating to see how well Pini emulated the dramatic structure of Japanese comics, even though very few had been translated in the 1970s. In terms of Fryean mythos ELFQUEST is dominantly adventure, yet like many of the better manga it’s adventure leavened with very strong dramatic elements. To draw a comparison with some of the mythcomics I’ve surveyed thus far, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is, for all its relative sophistication, still closer to the pure-pulp aesthetic of Siegel and Schuster’s SUPERMAN than either work is to ELFQUEST.