(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)
I can’t think of any character in this entire series who more strongly merits their own post, with the possible exception of Two-Edge.
Winnowill is a villain, and the story makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. When we see Strongbow being psychically tortured at the end of The Forbidden Grove, his tormentor is shown only as a silhouette — but the fact that she speaks telepathically tells us she’s an elf. And in case you had any doubt as to whether you should still give her the benefit of the doubt, her sending gets its own special mark, a malevolent red and black star. It takes the characters a while to confirm that she’s the great danger Savah warned Suntop about, but the reader knows from the start.
But saying that she’s a straight-up villain doesn’t mean she’s inherently evil, in the “dyed in the wool” sense. From Lord Voll we get tantalizing hints about the Winnowill of the past — I would have loved to see a short-run series of backstory about the early days of the Gliders. She was probably ambitious from the start, and likely somewhat manipulative, but those aren’t the same thing as the unrelenting malice she exhibits in the present day. No, her spirit has been warped over the millennia: by the isolation and ossification of the Gliders, by the lack of any real purpose to her endless life, and by whatever happened to her when she vanished underground for a time. If memory serves, that’s when she met the troll by whom she conceived Two-Edge, but whether she herself suffered any trauma or was only ever the inflicter of same, I don’t recall.
Everything that’s wrong with Winnowill is, for lack of a better term, a human problem. By that I mean she’s not supernaturally corrupted or anything like that; her flaws are the same flaws real people have in the real world. Arrogance. Hunger for power. Lack of empathy. A desire to cause pain, simply because it demonstrates her power and it’s the only thing she finds interesting anymore. Where magic comes in is with the suggestion that she could be fixed . . . if she wanted to be. But when it comes to a choice between allowing Leetah to change her and stepping to her almost-guaranteed death, Winnowill chooses death. I find myself sorely tempted to request Winnowill fanfic next Yuletide, because I think it would be fascinating to see the inside of her mind.
That impulse surprises me because, although I very much like Winnowill’s role in this volume, overall I find she demonstrates the same problem exhibited by villains in many other stories: the more the plot focuses on her, the less interesting I find the result. She’s great here, okay in Siege at Blue Mountain and The Secret of Two-Edge, largely unnecessary in Kings of the Broken Wheel (Rayek’s own choices are far more compelling), and then she just . . . keeps going. It’s partly a function of the otherwise intriguing worldbuilding twist that killing her would accomplish jack, and might make things worse: then they’d have to contend with her spirit, which would be no less dangerous and a lot more difficult to hit. As I recall from later canon, she does wind up dead and Rayek has to serve as her prison, but I don’t think the problem she represents ever got resolved; nobody manages to de-toxify her spirit. I really wish they would, because there’s a point at which she starts to feel like a drag on the story to me.
Before that point, though, she’s a fantastic villain. I love her conversation with Leetah, when she tries to use the secret of the Wolfriders’ heritage as a lever to force them out of Blue Mountain before they can threaten her control of the place. Her menagerie of pet humans is incredibly twisted. And Two-Edge — well. He may wind up getting his own post; we’ll see.
I also have to make mention of Winnowill as a specifically female villain. Taken in isolation, her gender and behavior might bother me a lot, because she’s very much the stereotype of the femme fatale: beautiful, seductive, manipulative, and so on. In fairness, I should say the fact that I don’t have a problem with that probably owes something to the age at which I read this story; I was a lot less critical about that sort of thing when I was twelve. But I also think it owes a lot to the larger context of the story as a whole, because Winnowill is only one female character, in a cast that features a broad array of contrasting figures. Leetah as Winnowill’s “dark sister” is particularly noteworthy — there’s a whole metaphorical layer there about how we associate “dark” with “evil,” but Winnowill is the pale one of the pair — but also Dewshine and Aroree and Moonshade and Clearbrook and Nightfall in this volume, many others in the series as a whole. We don’t have to excise the femme fatale from our narrative lexicon; we just have to make sure she isn’t the only option on offer.