Well, there’s much excitement here in La La Land as I and my writing partners, Marv Wolfman and Craig Miller, hurry to meet the deadline for the first draft of the new screenplay for “Elfquest – The Movie.” (see announcement elsewhere on this web site). The previous script, which I completed three years ago, was aimed for commercial reasons at a younger audience. This new version, however, is quite a bit more faithful to the adult content of the original quest. I can’t say enough about Marv and Craig’s contribution. Our high-spirited, often heated story sessions testify to the zest and passion they’re bringing to this, Wolfmill Entertainment’s first animated movie project.
When life treats you well, it’s good for the soul to give something back. For the past year, in addition to the work I continue to do for Warp Graphics, I’ve been a member of a Los Angeles-based group of “masters in training” called The Golden Way. We’re an eclectic bunch with strong spiritual concerns. Among us are healers, artists, hypno-therapists, musicians, geomancers and web site designers. The purpose of our group is to promote planetwide harmony through better communication. To that end, we sponsor events throughout the year at which those of us who feel ready give lectures before live audiences. This helps hone our speaking and teaching skills, even as we share our expertise in various fields of interest.
Recently I gave a talk on the subject of heroic archetypes and mythic storytelling. It’s funny. As many times as I’ve gotten up to speak in front of large groups at comics or science fiction conventions, I’ve never felt butterflies the size of the Gliders’ giant hawks before! The nervousness sprang, I guess, from the realization that this was my first time speaking about deeply held beliefs to a non-fan audience. My usual “convention persona” couldn’t shield me. Talk about moving out of your comfort zone! But that, too, is the Golden Way’s purpose, to keep sending us – potential teachers, leaders and healers – out on the high wire until we get used to working without a net.
Though portions of it may seem like old news to some of you, I thought the text of my speech might be appropriate for this installment of WendyWords for two reasons. One: it gives some back-story, from a rather spiritual point of view, on how Richard and I came to create ELFQUEST. Two: it speaks to how fantasy, when used not as a total retreat from reality, but as a window on the world, can enhance one’s life and personal growth in wonderful ways. Herewith, the first installment. Hope you enjoy.
YOU ARE THE HERO – DISCOVERING THE SPIRITUAL FAIRYTALE THAT IS YOUR
By Wendy Pini
A Peddler, laden with wares, trudges down a dirt road and stubs his toe against a rock. Cursing at the pain, he picks up the rock and flings it far away down the road. “May you cripple all my competitors who follow,” the Peddler grumbles, limping on toward town.
A while later a Pilgrim with a cane hobbles along the dirt road, deep in thought, and stubs his toe against the same rock. “God bless it!” he cries out in pain and contemplates removing the rock from the road, lest the next passer-by suffer the same fate. Just then, the church bell rings. “I’m late!” gasps the Pilgrim. “God’s will be done.” With that, he leaves the rock lying right where it is and limps hurriedly toward town.
A while after that, a young Vagabond skips merrily down that same dirt road, stubs his toe against that same rock and falls flat on his face. Lying prone, he laughs at himself, and holds the rock up to examine it. To his amazement, the rock suddenly sprouts two eyes and a mouth which splits into a wide grin. “Finally! Someone’s come down to my level to hear what I have to say,” the rock laughs. Then it tells the young vagabond a secret which can lead him to great good fortune…depending on the next step he takes.
If you were walking down that dirt road and stubbed your toe against that rock, how do you suppose you would react? One way to know is to choose which of the three travelers you identified with most. Was it the angry Peddler? The contemplative Pilgrim? Or the carefree Vagabond? Think it over. We’ll come back to it in a bit.
My adoptive parents were atheists who nevertheless sent me to church because it was “the thing to do.” The impression of God I formed early on was, to say the least, confused. Something was out there…that much I knew. I came in knowing it. But it certainly wasn’t that stern, judgmental, male deity who frowned at me every Sunday, but who didn’t exist the rest of the week.
Growing up on a ranch in California’s central valley, isolated from town and other kids, I read a great deal: Shakespeare… Dickens… Chaucer…the Ramayana…every color of Lang’s Fairy Books. Stories of all kinds, from all nations, were both friends and teachers who helped me form the beginnings of personal values…the first signs of character.
Loneliness I knew, but not as much as you might think. Because, while God was distant, the Angels, Devas and Fairies were not. Never did I feel unaccompanied. I especially loved obscure legends of the “Fair Folk,” the tall, mysterious elves known as the Sidhe…The Snow Queen…the Rhine Maidens…all Nature Spirits, both benevolent and cruel. I recognized them. These were my people. Though my outward form was very human, I could sense the wings, clipped and invisible though they were, sprouting from my shoulder blades.
By the time I could walk, I was compelled to draw those wings, and all kinds of fantasies – not of what I could see, because I’m not clairvoyant – but of what I could feel…the presences…the companions …the unseen “others” who dwell beside us, not one heartbeat away.
“The kid’s imagination is just too vivid,” they said, “Out of control.” It’s true, I was always talking to myself…or to someone who wasn’t there. No one seemed to realize that spirits inhabited my grandmother’s Victorian garden. No one else could feel the presence of elves and fairies beneath every bush, or hear the merpeople whispering in the fish pond.
It was all so alive to me…that garden…the world…the sky…and populated not just by humans and animals, but by the Hidden Ones. Imaginary friends, very real to me, they granted me a gift: the power to manifest their images for anyone who wished to see. Inspired by turn-of-the century illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley and Maxfield Parrish, my detailed drawings and paintings blurred the borders between the world of the Hidden Ones and mine.
Because life in a small town seldom supports that vision of reality, I felt most comfortable in the role of storyteller. You can get away with anything, even the truth, as long as folks know you made it up just for fun. It was only when I insisted on being believed that sorrow and pain occurred. But insist I did, especially in my teens, when the world of the elves seemed so much more like “Home” to me than a world containing the Vietnam war, race riots and rampant sexism.
Being a born storyteller doesn’t mean one has an innate grasp of where stories come from, or why they’re so important. In the mid seventies, when I asked my husband Richard if we could somehow publish this wild yarn I had about a wandering band of elves, I felt no sense of mission. It never occurred to me that Divine Guidance was working overtime, trying its hardest to get through to us both.
Richard, a scientist with a sharp, analytical mind, always believed there was more to the universe than could be perceived with limited human senses. However, that did not mean he believed in elves, or spirits of any kind. Truthfully, at that point in my life, I wasn’t sure I did either. Once he’d heard it, though, Richard knew the epic fantasy had to be sent out into the world in some form or other. It was a quest we had to fulfill, together, almost as if we’d made a pact before we were born to do it. So we called the series ELFQUEST.
We didn’t stop to ask what effect it might have on us, or the rest of the world, should this dream manifest. We just plunged ahead, blissfully ignorant, making every artistic, emotional and business blunder we could possibly make. And yet the Universe supported us every step of the way. Why? Shakespeare or Rembrandt I wasn’t. And Richard was learning the art of publishing the hard way, by the seat of his pants. So why were we, utter novices at our trade, the recipients of so much out-of-the-blue guidance, luck and protection?
Let’s go back to the tale of the Peddler, the Pilgrim and the Vagabond. Three travelers met up with the same rock in the same way, but each reacted to it differently. Which one were you?
I bet a lot of you identified with the Vagabond, because it was he to whom the rock told its secret. We all like to think we’re clever enough to seize Opportunity when it knocks. But…if we were to be truly honest here…wouldn’t some of us have to admit we’d be more likely to throw opportunity away, like the Peddler? Or pass it by because we’re absorbed in something else, like the Pilgrim?
Don’t let that trouble you. The correct path for you may look like utter disaster to someone else. There are as many ways a story can go as there are people in the universe.
The first spirit guide who appeared to us, and stayed to help us throughout our quest, was Brother Wolf. Despite knowing little about his clan, I’d used them as major characters in ELFQUEST. To me, it seemed they were just naturally kindred spirits, elves and wolves. Apparently they agreed. And they appreciated the acknowledgment.
Richard and I like dogs a lot, but wolves…they were big, bad shadow figures of the forest, fascinating…dangerous…and best left alone. But with the publication of our earliest issues, live wolves were suddenly popping out of the woodwork, showing up at museum classes, zoos, park reserves, offering many precious opportunities for interaction and study. Brother Wolf wanted us to get it right, you see. Because overcoming prejudice…looking past appearances to see the soul within…was to become one of the major themes of our stories.
As to our adventures in self publishing, were there rocks along the road? Fellow travelers, there were boulders. There were thorns. There were lions and tigers and bears – oh my!
However, after twenty-one years, I’m happy to say you can find in the graphic novel section of most big chain book stores a whole line of collected volumes of ELFQUEST and related ELFQUEST items. You see, like potato chips, we couldn’t stop at just one. Life had too much to teach us. And every time we learned a new lesson, we put it into another story.
No one’s tale can be told without someone finding in it both meaning and resonance. One day we looked around and discovered we had a following. Fans! Thousands of them! How did that happen? Trying to maintain a brutal publishing schedule while muddling through some very messy personal problems, we suddenly found ourselves in the unlikely position of role models.
How was it that our point-eared, elfin characters had stirred up such an emotional response? The readers were only too glad to enlighten us. Our lessons, they explained, presented in the form of fantasy symbols, were feeding their hearts and souls. Even disguised by the glamours of the Fairy Folk, our personal myth was worth knowing and telling…precisely because we were so fallibly human. Somehow, unconsciously, Richard and I had tapped into the heroic archetypes that every world culture has cherished since the beginning of time.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines an archetype as: “the original pattern or model of all things of the same type.” Out of the original, countless variations can be born. When the archetype is a God or Goddess, depending on the particular pantheon, they tend to embody divine qualities to which we can only aspire. But when the archetype is a hero, he or she can be very human, with human strengths and failings, providing the role model for an endless line of heroes who tread similar paths.
Often, those paths cross fictional territory. In ELFQUEST, our lead character Cutter, Chief of the Wolfriders, is related to Arthur, legendary King of Camelot, and further back, to Ulysses, the wandering ruler in quest of his rightful throne. All embody, to one degree or another, the primal archetype of the boy king who must undergo many trials and tribulations before he’s found fit to rule.
From the wellspring of our everyday lives, Richard and I had managed to draw stories both intimate and cosmic in scope. Our audience’s response taught us a wondrous thing: anyone’s personal experiences can be translated into the universal truths for which the world hungers. More than that, we learned that the Universe protects these truths, insuring they’re told again and again, until Mankind’s oldest lessons are finally learned.
In whatever guise they appear, from whatever time period, we respond to heroic archetypes with fond recognition. We need them…we will always need them, for they mirror for us, on a grand scale, all aspects of our human experience. As one of our readers aptly put it, we’re all on a “Self-quest.” Every life lived is an heroic journey and we are all archetypal heroes and heroines unawares.
Who stubbed their toe just now?
For some, that must be a pretty big rock lying in the middle of the road: the idea that you are a hero…that your life is an ongoing story…and that you are its central character, not a helpless victim. Life isn’t a series of random events. You’re creating it, telling it chapter by chapter as you go. And just as each word leads meaningfully to the next in the proper forming of a sentence, there is a grand, though not always apparent, purpose to every step you take.
Remember our merry, young Vagabond? What do you suppose he’ll do with the talking rock now that he’s learned its secret? Will he thank it and make his fortune following its advice? We hope so. Because everyone knows trusting Divine Guidance (or good counsel, or even a hunch) is what heroes are supposed to do to reap their reward.
But what if the vagabond doubts his own senses? Maybe, despite all the rock’s protestations, he’s simply unable to believe it can talk and he just…walks away. Or maybe he does seize the opportunity, but not in the way the rock expects. Maybe the Vagabond puts the talking rock in his pocket, dashes off down the road and makes a quick buck selling it to the peddler!
Ideal behavior and right action aren’t always the same thing.
Ultimately, no choice is wrong. Whatever the Vagabond does, he knows, just like the Peddler and the Pilgrim, that he’ll always be the hero of his own story.
TO BE CONTINUED