By Wolfen Moondaughter
It might surprise our more regular readers to learn that I was actually into wolves before I started reading Wendy and Richard Pini’s ElfQuest. My interest in canis lupis predates my introduction to that comic series by two years; I had already been reading all the non-fiction books on the subject of my favourite animal that I could lay my hands on. Truth be told, though, literature on the subject wasn’t too plentiful; wolves were still the Big Bad back then. Looking at all the wolf-related art out there now, you’d probably never realise what a desert I was in back then. Most of the few stories that included them depicted them as evil, and were woefully-inaccurate as far as their behaviors go. So you can imagine my delight upon finding a series that depicted them in a positive — and surprisingly accurate — fashion. (Especially considering it’s a work of fantasy!)
So when our Culture Vultures editrix, Rebecca Salek, was throwing about ideas for our intended “Earth Month” issue, and she suggested an article on the relationship between elves and wolves in the world of ElfQuest, of course I leapt on it like a wolf on a rabbit! I’ve been reading the series since I was seven, after all, and had even wanted to be a wolf biologist at one point in my life. (The title of this article is even a take-off of the title Of Wolves and Men, by wolf biologist L. David Mech.)
ElfQuest takes place on a world not so unlike our own, save that it has two moons and the wolves there are almost twice the size of the ones we know. The history of ElfQuest begins when a group of aliens searching for their own kind crash-land on that world, called Abode, in an era where humans are still in a primitive stage (the equivalent of Cro-Magnon, methinks). In running from the savage and dangerous humans, the aliens — the elves — are separated into splinter factions that end up out of touch from each other for thousands of years (which isn’t as big a deal as it sounds, as the elves are close to immortal). Life on primitive Abode is harsh, and it only seems that much harder for the elves when they find that their magic powers don’t work very well at all in this new environment.
There is an exception among one group of elven survivors, though, one elf whose powers work better than anyone else’s. Her name is Timmain, and her specialty is shapeshifting. In mimicking the life forms around them, she comes to understand the interactions of the life forms in their new world. She takes on the form of a wolf and integrates herself into a nearby pack, even going so far as to becoming the mate of the alpha male. As time passes, she spends less and less time with her own people — and less and less time in her original form. Eventually, she loses herself to the wolf completely, though she still thinks of her people as “pack” enough to continue bringing them food.
Being an alpha female means bearing young — one might say that it’s the alpha pair’s duty, first and foremost, as the strongest of the pack, to pass on their genetic code. (It’s rare for other females in a pack to bear young, as it would be harder for the rest of the pack, which helps to feed and care for the pups, to care for so many — the pups would be in competition. Then again, it’s also rare for there to be a wolf pack the size of that which runs with the Wolfrider tribe; it seems that their effective hunting practices have allowed the wolf pack to relax the usual wolf rules on multiple/coinciding pregnancies.)
Timmain does fulfill her role as alpha female — once. Unlike true wolves, though, she only bears one cub. He’s a hybrid—elven in body, but covered in fur, with fangs and the eyes of a wolf. She allows her elven kin to take him and raise him. They call him Timmorn Yellow-Eyes.
Then Timmain disappears. Perhaps she was driven out by another female, or even several members of the pack — what good is an alpha female if she cannot reproduce quickly or well? When she’s rediscovered by her descendants thousands of years later, she’s with another pack—as an omega, the lowest wolf in the pack pecking-order. (Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turned out she’d actually had another cub in all the time she was missing? Of course, if such a character came for anyone other than Wendy and Richard, it would likely get slapped with a “Mary-Sue/Marty-Stu” label quicker than you can say “Ayooooah!” … Er, if you’re not familiar with the world of fan fiction, never mind. ^_~)
Meanwhile, in her absence, Timmorn eventually takes on her role in feeding the elven tribe. He still runs with his father’s pack, too. Eventually he succumbs to Recognition, an elven mating imperative, and, by the elf he gets Recognised to, he sires a handful of elf cubs with strongly-wolfish behaviors. But he also sires a number of cubs with wolves: those offspring are the start of the wolf pack that becomes bonded with his elven offspring, the start of the Wolfriders (who in turn are the “main characters” in the series). These wolves are a bit more intelligent than their non-elf-blooded brethren, and they can “send” (communicate telepathically, although their “sendings” are comprised of images and emotional impressions rather than words). Sending, in turn, has allowed these wolves to develop deep bonds with their elf cousins.
How did this particular group of elves get the name “the Wolfriders” anyway, you might be asking. The answer, quite simply, is because the wolves give their slower-running elf-cousins a lift when speed is of the essence—another way in which the wolves have contributed to the survival of this particular group of elves. Of course, the actual practice of riding wolves came off as a bit peculiar to Timmorn’s offspring and some of his “more-wolf-than-elf” descendants — they wouldn’t ride on an elf, after all, and they saw the wolves as their brothers as much as any elf, if not more so—but most of the Wolfriders are at least a little “more-elf-than-wolf.”
Through the wolves, the elves — Timmorn’s descendants mostly, but also some of the full-elves in the early days of Wolfrider history — learn to hunt. Not just how to kill, mind, but what to kill, and when. Humans are inclined to show their prowess by killing the strong and sizable, but when survival is on the line, it’s more sensible to go for the weak and young: an easier kill that’s both less dangerous and takes less energy. The wolves also likely taught the elves to look for smaller game — field mice are a favourite treat of wolves, and could certainly be stretched into a decent meal for an elf if added to a stew. And wolves will, on occasion, eat berries and fruit; the ones they eat would likely in turn be safe for elf stomachs. All the things that the wolves taught them about survival and living with one’s environment — and about ultimately accepting death as a part of that life — is known to the Wolfriders as “The Way.”
But don’t think it’s all a one-sided relationship: while wolves in general are by no means unintelligent or incapable of caring for themselves, there’s something to be said for that extra boost of smarts elf-blood gave them, and for the longevity: Wolfriders wolves are estimated to live a few decades, as opposed to the true-wolf average of about 5-7 years. The bows and spears the elves bring to the hunting mix lessens the need to face dangerous hooves or claws — and arrows can bring down birds in flight! Sending probably helps in the hunt, allowing silent communication. Elves can smoke meat for later eating when food is scarce; much safer than eating potentially-spoiled meat from a cache. And I’m sure the wolves appreciate the nice scratching only elf fingers can provide.
It sounds a little like our own history, really, when our primitive ancestors teamed up with wolves on the hunt and domesticated them into dogs—but there’s some differences between our co-development with wolves and that of the elves, of course. The Wolfrider wolves were not made “civilized” so much as the elves were made more wild. Also, the elves see their wolf-friends more as equals than pets or servants, as opposed to the Sun Folk and their Zwoots (camel-like beings) or the Go-backs and their caribou (both groups treating their beasts of burden as little more than tools—and pretty expendable ones at that). The Gliders’s hunters, the Chosen Eight, might have gotten emotionally attached to their giant bird mounts, especially seeing as they went so far as to enslave the Wolfriders for killing one (accidentally) and threatened to execute the “killer’s mount,” the archer Strongbow’s wolf, Briersting. Still, the Gliders trained their birds to obey and to go against their natural inclinations. Also, while they may allow the humans to call them Bird Spirits, the Gliders have no blood bond to their giant bird mounts, nor do they seem to have taken on any aspect of the birds’ behaviors.
The Wolfriders have a similar hierarchy system to their wolf cousins, and will challenge one another for higher positions (usually either to be chieftain, or hunt- or war-leader). At no time in Wolfrider history was this more evident than during Two-Spear’s chieftainship, when his half-sister, Huntress Skyfire, was constantly challenging him for leadership (and rightly so, as he was practically insane). But in the current generation, Strongbow has certainly challenged his chieftain, Cutter — and Cutter’s father, Bearclaw — often enough, when he felt said chief was displaying poor judgment. While he was right a few times, he never exactly won those challenges. And though Cutter is the Blood of Ten Chiefs, there is more than enough evidence to support the notion that the Wolfriders would abandon that line if they felt the next descendant wasn’t up to snuff, just as a strong wolf might usurp an alpha. Skyfire did not win out over Two-Spear; Two-Spear gave each Wolfrider the choice of who they would follow. (Unfortunately, those who chose him followed him to their deaths). Rahnee, Timmorn’s daughter, had to prove herself chieftess over her brother, Threetoes — and they were really the only contenders for the position. Cutter’s daughter, Ember, became chieftain of her own group of Wolfriders, and nearly lost the position at one point to an elf named Scouter. While attainment of leadership within the tribe might seem to be by right of blood, it truly is, like with wolves, by rite of blood (especially since technically all the remaining Wolfriders are descendants of Timmorn).
Throughout the series, the Wolfriders stress the importance letting the wolves do their thing; that is to say, they don’t interfere with situations like challenges, or try to force or prevent matings, or otherwise curb or alter the wolves’ natural behaviors. Sometimes this means their bond-wolf might be driven out or even killed by the pack; though the Wolfrider may grieve, they generally hold no animosity towards the other members of the pack.
There are two “states of being,” or mindsets, for a Wolfrider: “Wolfsong” and “Starsong”. When they hunt, they fall under the spell of Wolfsong, which allows them to follow their wolf-given instincts and ensures their survival in harder times. When food is plentiful, they are apt to listen more to the Starsong, and spend less time simply trying to survive and more time with the arts.
But there are some Wolfriders who almost always follow the Wolfsong and live in what they call “The Now of Wolf Thought,” an apt description for an animal state of mind, where the only concerns are the immediate moment, rather than what may have been or what might still be. Strongbow frequently lives in The Now; he and his mate, Moonshade, have been called the “Keepers of The Way.” The Now keeps a Wolfrider from being swallowed by fear of the future, and helps them move on past grief.
An excellent example of how useful this trick could potentially be occurred when the current Wolfrider chieftain, Cutter, had to go for hundreds of years without his soulmate, soul-brother, or children (they were abducted and whisked forward in time.) He could not manage to lose himself in The Now, no matter how much time had passed. And yet he could not find solace in Starsong or the knowledge that his family would return one day, for while time is meaningless to an immortal elf (the way it us to us compared to the 24-hour-lifespan of a gnat), it’s far less so to the albeit long-lived but nowherenear immortal Wolfriders. Eventually he opted to be put in a state of suspended animation to wait out the remaining few thousand years until his family’s return — and his tribe, loving him so well, went into that sleep with him, along with their wolf friends. Even Strongbow and Moonshade were willing to bend The Way enough to join them.
We can see just how far into the Starsong Cutter’s soul-brother, Skywise, typically was, even before he lost his wolf blood: when his own wolf-friend, the aging Starjumper, got into a brawl with a “jackwolf” (a jackal-wolf hybrid that a newer branch of the Wolfriders, from the desert village of Sorrow’s End, rode), Skywise tried to pull his wolf-friend out of the fight by the tail, clubbed the jackwolf with a branch, and even threatened to kill the rival beast, until Cutter reminded him that the fight, no matter the outcome, was a part of The Way. But while he listened in the end, Skywise never seemed entirely comfortable with the price that came with his wolfish heritage; when he was abducted into the future and thought his tribe long-dead, he made the choice to be rid of his wolf-blood and the death it brought.
Voll, Lord of the Gliders, might have argued the values of mortality vs. immortality with Skywise, though. By finding places that were pretty safe from all threats, such as dangerous animals and severe weather, the Gliders and Sun Folk paid a high price for their peaceful existences — they became barren, their lives stagnant. And really, would you want to live forever if life was boring as all get-out, if you lived continuously in the same place for thousands of years, seeing the same walls allllll the time? At least in learning to live (and die) in harmony with Abode, the Wolfriders were still able to breed. Not to mention that, after having given up his wolf blood, even once he was reunited with his tribe, Skywise felt horribly estranged from them still. He had lost the instincts that came with the wolf blood, and had become a liability to their survival.
Now it’s mostly the Wolfriders who still live in the world outside, while Skywise and the bulk of the other “true elves” spend most of their time in the reclaimed ship that brought their ancestors to Abode in the first place. (Again with the same walls all the time and the potential for boredom …) As Timmain said when they found her again and she regained her elfin form, the wolf blood was a gift to her descendants, because the world would not accept them to live in it without truly becoming a part of it.
And that’s something I think we would do well to remember on our own world.
Links to visit
Elfquest.Com — The official website.L. David Mech — The personal site of the author of Of Wolves and MenInternational Wolf Center — An organization dedicated to educating people about wolves.Wolf Park — Think of them as a zoo with only wolves, dedicated to educating the public through close encounters. Warp Graphics has shown this organization their support.The National Wildlife federation — This link leads to their page on wolves.