(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)
Fire and Flight, the first volume of the series, could stand on its own just fine. It’s the story of how a tribe of elves called the Wolfriders were driven from their home and found a new one; it’s also a romance story for the protagonist, the Wolfrider chieftain Cutter. Both of those things find resolution here, so while the seeds of the ongoing story are present, you get a complete tale right out of the gate.
When it comes to interesting things to say about this volume, the first one that leaps out at me is race. Looking at it with my current perspective, the story doesn’t open very well on that front. We get a brief flashback about how the ancestors of the elves came to the World of Two Moons and met with disaster, and . . . well. Tall, thin, pale Tolkien elves get bashed over the head by brutish humans who are a lot darker-skinned. There’s a whole lot of interesting stuff going on with that backstory that will have to wait for a later post, but the visuals you get in those first few pages aren’t great. In the present moment, thousands of years later, the humans look more anatomically modern (I’m going to do a whole post about the archaeological perspective on this series), but they’re still fairly brown and primitive, and the elves are still pale and pretty.
But. If you continue on past that, things get a lot better.
For starters, I love the fact that our Tolkien elves have become short and (relatively) stocky and eat raw meat and ride wolves and howl at the moon. The Wolfriders are not their ancestors, and they’ve become a lot more primitive themselves, struggling to survive in a harsh world. The only reason they have metal weapons is because they trade with the trolls underground — who, though not depicted in anything resembling a flattering light (they’re green and lumpy and not remotely admirable), clearly have much more advanced technology than either the elves or the humans.
Where it really gets interesting, though, is when the Wolfriders cross the desert after the burning of the holt and find themselves at Sorrow’s End. In 1978 — the same year that Gary Gygax introduced the drow, those black-skinned concatenations of every evil outsider characteristic you can think of — Wendy and Richard Pini gave us the Sun Folk, a settlement of civilized, brown-skinned farmer elves. Compared to them, the Wolfriders are straight-up barbarians. Made cynical and suspicious by their recent woes, the Wolfriders literally charge down into the village and raid the place, even to the point of carrying off Leetah (a direct reversal of the “brown animalistic barbarians will carry off the white womenfolk” trope). Is it subtle and nuanced? No, not really. But for 1978, it was pretty remarkable. And Elfquest still remains the only example I can think of where not only are there brown elves, but they’re depicted as more civilized than their white cousins. Everything else either maintains the color quo (the Forgotten Realms now has non-evil brown-skinned wild elves, but they’re barbaric compared to pale sun or moon elves), or just kind of flings around skin color at random (the Shannara TV series, which made no attempt at setting up any rationale for elven ethnicity).
True, the Sun Folk are depicted as weak in certain ways, and “weakness” is one of the standard Orientalist tropes for the Other. Rayek is basically the only hunter among them, and even he uses his hypnotic powers to stun his prey rather than chasing it down on wolfback like Cutter’s people. Part of the cultural exchange that ensues features the Wolfriders encouraging the Sun Folk to be more proactive and aggressive. But it is an exchange; the Sun Folk teach things in turn, like history or the planting of crops and weaving of cloth. And, y’know, the not being an asshole. (More on that when I get to the post about Recognition.) The Sun Folk’s pacifism and passivity are circumstantial, the consequence of living in a sheltered place with almost no threats, not anything inherent to them. Ultimately you get some Wolfriders settling down in the Sun Village because the culture there is more their speed, and some Sun Folk going off with the Wolfriders because the quiet life doesn’t suit them. Both ways are okay. Both sides can benefit from the other. So while there are criticisms you can make, it is (sadly) still progressive enough to be noteworthy, even today.
If there are other good examples of racial diversity among elves out there, please do let me know.