Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Greed, Heroism and Longing for Connectedness/Fantasy for Artists - p13

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Greed, Heroism and Longing for Connectedness

By Ty Hulse

After slaying a dragon, the great hero king Beowulf discovered that he had been bit, and the dragon’s poison was now killing him. As he lay dying he had one last request of his faithful comrade and servant, to gaze upon the dragon’s treasure. 

Fare thou with haste now To behold the hoard ’neath the hoar-grayish stone, Well-lovèd Wiglaf, now the worm is a-lying, Sore-wounded sleepeth, disseized of his treasure. Go thou in haste that treasures of old I, Gold-wealth may gaze on, together see lying The ether-bright jewels, be easier able, Having the heap of hoard-gems, to yield my Life and the land-folk whom long I have governed.”

The heroes in fairytales almost never set out to help another. Rather they set out to find their own fortune, just as the people encountering fairies – when not terrified for their lives – wondered how they might become wealthy off the encounter. This is because heroes and fairies are the dreams of the desperate, of the poorest of people, they are a vicarious outlet. 

Because of this greed, the desire for treasure is a frequent feature of the mythological and fairytale hero’s character, whether it is that they seek treasure or are wealthy such as Bruce Wayne who becomes Batman. Psychology today states that; “Greed often arises from early negative experiences such as parental absence, inconsistency, or neglect. In later life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, often combined with low self-esteem, lead the person to fixate on a substitute for the love and security that he or she so sorely lacked. The pursuit of this substitute distracts from negative feelings, and its accumulation provides much needed comfort and reassurance.”

There has been a lot of philosophical debate about the value of greed, yet what’s important is that greed in fictional heroes is a way for those who have suffered to feel a sense of emotional release, which is why characters such as kings, or moments such as ‘Harry Potters’ discovery that his parents left him great wealth are so important. 

Consider heist films. There is a long history of Heist stories and tales of adventurous rogues such as Robinhood being more about skilled friends, working together to obtain some goal, than about obtaining treasure. Robin Hood works with a large band of Merry Men, who constantly exhibit joy in each other’s company, and in the freedom, they have found outside of society. Robin Hood has remained so successful in large part thanks to the fact that he perfectly combines the two most interesting aspects of heist stories. 


At their best heists are about breaking down barriers to enter forbidden spaces and as a rebellion against a repressive society. Julian Hanich has stated that heists are about a “desire to extend spatial options, to resist boundaries set by gates and walls, to rebel against artificially imposed limit.” Equally as important they are about the pleasure of working closely with a group of friends towards a singular goal. Greed is common in stories of companionship. The goal of friends in many stories is to obtain wealth. Yet, as already stated, heist stories aren’t about greed for the audience. They are about working with others towards a goal, and while it’s nice to have friends, it is even better to be working towards a singular goal with those friends. To have a sense of purpose. The search for treasure with friends is what makes stories like “Goonies” so engaging and emotionally satisfying.


The artist Trampier used the power of the heist, of breaking down barriers and friends working together in the art he created to act as the cover for the Advanced D&D Players Handbook by Gary Gygax. This piece of art works because comradery, adventuring together with each character having different skill sets that are needed for the group to succeed is as important to Dungeons and Dragons as it is to heists. Wright, Weissglass, and Casey performed a psychological experiment in which they had some groups play Dungeons and Dragons and found that “imaginative role-playing games can serve as an enjoyable medium for promoting (and protecting) moral growth. In particular, gaming that involves the encounter of morally relevant situations appears to facilitate a shift away from concern for one’s own personal interests and toward the interests of others.” What’s more psychologists have found that Table-Top RPGs help provide psychological gratification in this area. That those who play them feel more fulfilled. Likely because they are more than just friends getting together to passively watch something.


Trampier’s art is able to capture all of this and more. His painting shows the interior of a cult’s temple, a place which evil people forbade entry to. A demonic, and disturbingly fleshy looking statue with ruby eyes takes up most of the space in the painting.


At first glance this painting clearly draws on the sensationalism pioneered by pulp magazine covers to draw attention. Unlike pulp illustrations which promise horror, heroism, and sexually provocative situations Trampier’s painting promises comradery, alliance, and perhaps even friendship. For the terrifying setting, like a heist film, can enhance the depiction of friendship among the pairs of comrades in the painting. 


In the background a pair of people work together to pry the ruby eyes loose from the statue, while in the foreground two sets of companions talk to each other, one pours over a map or old scroll, perhaps seeking a greater treasure they know is in this temple. Between these two groups is another pair of friends, chatting while one is cleaning the blood from dragon like creatures off their sword.


Thus this painting shows greed and the multiple skills of groups of friends, while in the full painting, included on the back of the book, we see more people taking treasure from the temple. This is a victory for the friends, a moment to be celebrated, and one that gives those viewing the painting a sense of adventure and hope.


As with all great works of art, however, there are more layers to this painting than the surface idea. Despite their seeming victory in getting here, none of the companions are celebrating. They seem to feel a sense of trepidation. One of the men trying to pry the ruby from the eye of the statue looks precarious, like they are ready to tumble down at any moment.


In the foreground the companions talking seem uncertain as well, as they pour over a scroll or a map, perhaps trying to figure out their next move. Someone else stands guard over those carrying the treasure. They all seem to know that this isn’t over, that something is about to happen. Yet they, like the viewers of the art don’t seem to know what that is. Perhaps the only one who does is the demon statue, grinning wildly beneath its ruby eyes. 


The year before this painting was released Elvis died and the Apple II and Atari were released. It was as if the old world were being swept away by a new one. The world is, after all, filled with change and uncertainty and this perhaps explains the sense of uncertainty and trepidation one feels when looking at this art. And why no one in the painting is fully relaxed. Certainly the artist Trampier didn’t seem to be relaxed, for he separated the characters by regions of darkness, making one wonder if they might not be the best of friends. 


This separation and tension is perhaps explained by the artist. A few years after completing this masterpiece Trampier left his life and art behind without telling anyone. For a time many thought he might have died, but as it turned out he simply left his old life and began driving a cab. When people found this out years later, he was offered a number of jobs related to art and RPGs but he refused them all. For reasons we will never know he felt disconnected from the others in the fantasy industry, and eventually didn’t want to have anything to do with them.


Yet in the short time he worked Trampier still left us with some of the most evocative works of art, which manage to balance depictions of deep seated human desires and anxieties.