Elfquest Re-Read, Fire and Flight: Recognition

(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)

I suspect I’ll wind up making several posts about Recognition during the course of this series, because it’s such an interesting and complex topic: a spontaneous soulbond, with bonus reproductive instinct. You can spin a bunch of different stories out of that, and the Pinis hit quite a few of them; in fact, I’m not sure there’s any point in what I consider the main canon (the first eight volumes, up through Kings of the Broken Wheel) where they play it completely straight. Cutter and Leetah come the closest — but before I get to that, let’s talk about Recognition itself.

I mentioned before that the Wolfriders have a serious birthrate problem, and this extends to basically all the elves except the Go-Backs (who have managed to ditch Recognition entirely; I don’t recall if we ever find out how). The instinct that drives Recognition is based on genetic matching; some magical instinct looks at another elf and says “yep, you’d make a good kid with me,” whereupon the two of you bond at a psychic level and feel an urge to get it on. Savah says in Fire and Flight that “Recognition insures that your offspring will number among the strongest and most gifted of our race” — which would run the risk of elitism, the special super-awesome Recognition-born children vs those who happen the normal way, except that apparently Recognition is just about the only way elves can have children. Out of the seventeen Wolfriders in the present day, only one (Pike) was born outside of it, and that’s considered a noteworthy thing. Later on, Nightfall and Redlance will need Leetah’s magical assistance to have a kid. Now, something I read — I don’t remember where this was; probably in an interview or something from the Gatherum or maybe even the RPG — said that the Recognition instinct gets less selective the older an elf grows, which is why an elf can turn around one day and find themselves bonded to a person they’ve known for centuries. But essentially, without Recognition, you’re unlikely to reproduce. And only the Go-Backs, who have ditched the impulse entirely, seem to have more than about two kids max.

When your birthrate is that low, your species is going extinct. I don’t care how long you live: if your replacement rate is that abysmal, then you’ll barely maintain population in good times, and bad incidents will whittle you down one bit at a time. Madcoil took out six elves who had only four children among them. Shale and Eyes High both died after a single kid. Rillfisher left only Dewshine behind, and Treestump hasn’t Recognized anybody else since then. This is especially a problem when your super-picky reproductive instinct may wait for three or five hundred years before deciding, okay, I guess that person will do. That’s three or five hundred years in which you might get killed without having any children at all.

So: Recognition is narratively fascinating, but logically kind of dumb. You’d either need to just run with the elitism, keeping Recognition-born children in the minority and having most being conceived the normal way, or you need Recognition to be way more active in an elf’s early years, so they have a better chance of reproducing before something takes them out. And either way, most of these elves need to be like Woodlock and Rainsong, bringing more than two kids into the world.

Of course, the story is less interested in the pragmatic implications of Recognition than it is in the narrative aspects. Which is fine, because that’s what I’m ultimately interested in, too. 🙂

I’m sort of astonished that I have yet to write soulbonds into any of my fiction, because they’re one of my favorite iddy tropes. A permanent psychic connection to another person! Guaranteed to cause angst on the way to a (probably) happy conclusion! The angst is a key part; if soulbonding meant instant and uncomplicated harmony with the other person, it wouldn’t be nearly as good story fodder. Clearbrook says that Bearclaw and Joyleaf “completed each other — just as any two who have Recognized one another should,” but a) that isn’t always the case and b) even when things do settle down to a happily-ever-after, the road there isn’t necessarily smooth. In fact, I can’t recall any instances in the main canon of Recognition leading immediately to a good partnership. We have plenty of happily lifemated pairs, but all the ones I can think of who form their bond during the course of the story run into at least a little trouble.

Like Cutter and Leetah. Because the Wolfriders are (generally speaking) the protagonists of this series, a lot of their behavior ends up being positioned, or at least read, as “good” — but on the topic of Recognition, their basic attitude is shown to be straight-up wrong. They’re used to obeying their instincts without a lot of reflections, so Cutter, once he realizes what’s happened, sees no reason he and Leetah shouldn’t just get together right away. (Strongbow, in his least admirable moment ever, argues that Cutter should stop worrying about what Leetah wants. I apparently edited that out of my memory, and will probably go right back to pretending he never said that, because I usually like Strongbow.)

But Leetah sees plenty of reasons to hold off. And unlike Cutter, she’s more than able and willing to delay, to control the impulse driving her toward this total stranger. In the classic way of romance, they both need to change before they’ll actually be a good match for one another. Cutter needs to grow past his hotheaded impulsiveness, to show respect for Leetah’s point of view; this culminates in his abject surrender to her will for Dewshine’s sake after the stampede. (As if Leetah wouldn’t have healed her anyway — but Cutter doesn’t understand that yet.) As for Leetah, she needs to learn about the Wolfriders and their ways, to see Cutter’s positive qualities as a leader, as exemplified by the Madcoil story. But things don’t click for them until she speaks Cutter’s soul name out loud, which brings the epiphany she needs: the soul name, being an encapsulation of the individual’s essence, helps her understand him in a way that nothing else could.

It’s interesting that Cutter doesn’t receive the same kind of key. Leetah doesn’t have a soul name; that seems to be peculiar to the Wolfriders, because of their dependence on sending (telepathy) — even though the Gliders and the High Ones use sending a lot, and don’t appear to have soul names. I don’t know why the Pinis made that decision, though I could make up reasons. Soul/true names are another fun trope, and this story mines them pretty thoroughly, too — Cutter and Skywise, Nightfall and Redlance, Strongbow closing Timmain out of his mind to keep himself safe. That may wind up being another post.

Anyway, this particular couple actually wind up in an excellent partnership, once they understand each other. Not every Recognized pair in this series can say as much . . . which is why you should expect at least one more Recognition post before I’m done with this re-read, one that focuses more on the problems baked into the concept.

That’s enough for Fire and Flight, I think; I haven’t touched on everything in it, but the other topics feel to me like I could save them for a later volume. So next up, The Forbidden Grove!

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