(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)
I mentioned in my last post the cultural exchange between the Wolfriders and the Sun Folk, two very different societies. One of the differences between them comes to the forefront when the earthquake sends the zwoots stampeding toward the Sun Village, and the Wolfriders head out to try and turn the herd away. Leetah is shocked to see Dewshine going with them, saying “But it is not a maiden’s place to –” She can’t even muster a justification for that incomplete thought, and Dewshine shrugs it off with a laugh, because she sees no reason she shouldn’t ride in the hunt.
I didn’t notice, until this re-read, that the first half of Fire and Flight doesn’t back up Dewshine’s attitude nearly as much as I assumed. At the time of the holt’s burning, there are seventeen Wolfriders: nine men, five women, and three children (two male and one female). The raiding party that rescues Redlance consists of Cutter, Skywise, Treestump, Strongbow, One-Eye, Scouter, and Pike — all the men of the tribe save Woodlock and Redlance himself. The same group goes to face down the human leader, and the raid on Sorrow’s End adds Woodlock, who otherwise sticks to his usual role of the peaceful stay-at-home dad. (Redlance, another pacifist at heart, stays behind because he’s badly injured.) None of the women participate. It isn’t until you get the story of Madcoil that you see the women riding out: Fox-Fur, Brownberry, and Joyleaf are all with the hunt, and the group that finally takes out Madcoil includes Clearbrook, Nightfall, and Dewshine.
Now, I could actually see an in-story reason for this. The Wolfriders have a serious birthrate problem (about which more in a future post); the six who died in Madcoil’s attack left only four children behind. The tribe after that has only five women of reproductive age, and one juvenile girl. It would actually make sense if they were in a more defensive posture, protecting the women so the tribe as a whole won’t die out. But nobody ever says anything about that, which makes me wonder: did the Pinis change their minds a couple of issues in and decide to give the female Wolfriders a more active role than they originally planned? Or did it simply take them a while to get past their defaults like they meant to? It isn’t just that the women don’t take part in the various war parties. They also get very few lines early on — though to be fair, neither do most of the men — and when the fire starts, Scouter cries to One-eye that “Mother needs us! And I must save Dewshine!” The overall impression is one of much more conventional (i.e. passive) femininity.
But that’s just the first few issues. I actually love the women of this series; there are so many of them, and they’re very different from one another. Nightfall is not Dewshine is not Savah is not Leetah is not Winnowwill is not Kahvi. It takes time for that to develop — in this first volume, Nightfall and Dewshine are the only female Wolfriders to get much page time — but they’re all distinct personalities, with different qualities and flaws. It’s an excellent illustration of how avoiding the Smurfette problem also helps you dodge other pitfalls of writing female characters: when there isn’t just one, she doesn’t wind up being a statement on Women As a Whole. Leetah’s sheltered and peaceful ways are what she is like, not a reflection of her entire gender. Nightfall is fiercer than her lifemate, but that doesn’t mean all female elves have to be Amazons. Rainsong is happy to sit at home trying to solve the birthrate issue single-handedly — or rather double-handedly, because gentle Woodlock is right there with her. If anything, Leetah’s comment to Dewshine feels like 1978 intruding on the story: nobody in the Sun Village is the type to ride into the face of a stampede, except for Rayek. Gender might be a factor, but to me it seems secondary to general Sun Folk attitudes about such behavior.
Which honestly makes a fair bit of sense, for the type of society this depicts. The archaeology post will come later, but hunter-gatherer societies tend to be fairly egalitarian, and while I’m not as familiar with horticulturalists (small-scale farming, of the type we see the Sun Folk doing), I know you don’t usually get major social stratification and specialization until you develop much larger-scale societies than any of the elf tribes have.
I also want to note that I very much appreciate the way the story handles the trial of hand, head, and heart — or rather, the implications of it. Both Rayek and Cutter make the mistake of thinking that winning the contest means winning Leetah. But as she points out to both of them, the purpose of it is to settle their rivalry with each other — not her actual choice. She has a chance to choose before it begins, and can’t; after that, what the victor receives is the right to talk to her without the other one interfering. In Leetah’s own words, she is not “some trinket to be handed out as a prize.” That’s a point many stories miss, even today.