(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)
When humans appear in Fire and Flight, they are quite simply and straightforwardly the enemy. They capture and torture Redlance; they burn the forest because they believe that’s what their god wants. They fear and hate elves, and elves fear and hate them right back.
But it doesn’t remain that simple.
In my previous post I mentioned the way the story opens up to depict side characters as fully three-dimensional people. There were humans on that list of characters, and the same deepening process happens to their species as a whole. We don’t just get good humans here: we get good humans and also bad ones, humans who are good for different reasons and bad for different reasons, humans who think elves are awesome and humans who think they’re scary and humans who really just wish they could find a place to live where there aren’t any elves at all.
It happens in three stages. The first, of course, is when a family of humans — starving and near death — arrive outside Sorrow’s End. The decision not to kill them is Cutter’s, but the reason he makes that decision is because of Redlance: having been victimized by humans so badly, Redlance wants to know the reason. Because of him, Aro has a chance to tell the human side of the story. Does it erase all badness from them and turn them into angels? No, of course not. But it, well, humanizes them. They, too, suffered from the destruction of the forest. They’re in the desert because they wouldn’t abandon Aro’s brother when he lost his mind — an impulse that would resonate strongly in a Wolfrider’s heart. Their motives are understandable, even when they aren’t likeable, even when the elves have paid the cost of their fears again and again.
Cutter’s decision isn’t necessarily a merciful one. Sure, the Wolfriders don’t kill the humans. But driving them out into the desert is almost certainly just a delayed sentence; Cutter doesn’t give them any water or food or shelter, and they don’t look like they’ll make it very far. We aren’t yet at the stage where harmony and friendship are possible, even to the extent of supplies — let alone permitting the humans to rest there for a while before continuing their journey. His actions aren’t really admirable . . . except insofar as they’re an improvement on what he would have done seven years ago.
Nonna and Adar constitute a nice little inversion of that scene. Cutter, sick and delirious, stumbles upon their home, inadvertently putting his life in their hands much like the lives of that family were in his. But Adar’s people, having never seen elves, aren’t a priori hostile to them, and Nonna comes from the Blue Mountain tribe, which (we’ll see next volume) literally worships them. That isn’t a good balance, either; Cutter later regrets having to deceive Nonna and Adar, performing his expected role of “spirit” rather than being able to relate to them normally. But it saves his life in this instance, because Nonna shows a lot more mercy than he did: she not only takes care of him, but goes to great lengths to avoid violence when first Cutter and then Skywise threaten them. The family in the desert made Cutter see humans as people; Nonna and Adar make him see humans as people who aren’t automatically enemies. People who might even be friends.
Which brings us to Olbar’s tribe. I love Olbar: he’s the most complex human character we’ve seen yet, because unlike the others, he changes during the course of his appearance. He’s caught between conflicting forces, with the Bone Woman’s fearmongering and thirsting for power on one side, his criminal and outcast brother on another, Nonna and Adar returning from exile and forcing his hand, the loss of his daughter Selah to the Forbidden Grove, and then these “spirits” showing up and blessing his people but are they spirits really? He’s the final piece of the transformation: humans started out as the enemy, became people, became people who could be nice, and finally became people who could change. After Olbar, it isn’t possible for Cutter to view humans as a monolith. Any conflicts he has with them going forward will be conflicts with individuals, with groups, or with the forces that keep elves and humans from being able to reach some kind of equilibrium — not with the species as a whole.
The flip side of this will be the introduction of an elf as a villain. But that will have to wait for Captives of Blue Mountain, and I have one more post I want to make about The Forbidden Grove before I’m done.