When the church in the 80s decided to eject some D&D players, they actually had a point. Fantasy roleplaying did turn out to be occult and pagan recruitment to some extent. I’ve found 40-year-old ‘magickians’ with groups still running. (Of course there are atheist D&D groups eager to fall in with Dawkins as well.)
When it came to art, few doubted that the 80s TSR illustrators upped the game, especially the ‘big 3’ — Clyde Caldwell, Jeff Easley, and Larry Elmore. “Larry Elmore’s covers are really astonishing, and TSR had to have known his cover art sold a lot of books!”, remembers a gamebook reviewer. With an eye for the mythic, however, most of it is not terribly sophisticated. “Strong man fight big monster,” sums up a good 70%. For the ladies, it turns out that showing thigh is somehow a major part of the adventuring skillset. But occasionally, just occasionally, something different seems to happen.
I had entirely lost interest in these games when I saw the cover of Forgotten Realms Adventures, a painting by Clyde Caldwell known as Allisa of the Mists. This is a couple of decades back now. I bought the book, thinking maybe I’d play again someday, but have never even read it. I just liked the cover. As Caldwell himself mentions, “the image became an icon for Forgotten Realms”. I hauled it out recently and, with an eye primed for the mythic, noticed some interesting stuff.
As with any interpretation of a mythic (or mythic-style) symbology, you need to look twice: once as a person, and then closely at the symbols. In Allisa of the Mists, (with apologies for the dilapidation of my copy):
… we see a foreground figure, a woman, who looks at us with a certain prideful and challenging appraisal. In contrast with many D&D ladies (especially Caldwell ones) she is fully clothed — perhaps an effect of moral majority censorship, I don’t know. She rides a horse which on closer inspection proves to be a unicorn. Behind her, in the misty moonlight, rise two large towers, portcullises open to reveal orange interiors. The effect of the whole, for me, was always something like: “Are you worthy to enter?” (Not a bad way to sell a book.)
So let’s look closer. What do we see?
The armour is gold, the alchemical symbol of achievement and victory, and the helmet is winged as is Athena’s, occasionally. Wings represent intelligence and spirit; weapons, mastery. A horse could be solar or lunar, here the golden light suggests solar. Unicorns have tended to represent sexual and moral virtue. Mastery, intelligence and victory through sexual ‘virtue’ or power represents an enlightened one, one who has been through kundalini, sitting masterfully astride her own animal nature.
But the background shows a moon that is pale, mysterious and misted. The realm in which this figure moves is not solar but watery and a little shivery. Compare the image, too, with the Rider Waite Moon:
The second chakra is associated with the element of water. It is also very much associated with the kidneys, linked to the water element in Chinese medicine. The kidneys’ colour is dark or black — observe the towers, one on each side. The water element also covers fear, and therefore courage. The kidney caps release the fire of adrenaline as these towers release their inner glow : orange, the colour of the second chakra according to Glenn Morris. This Allisa is a figure who knows the way through this watery realm, the second chakra realm in which you risk paranoia and terror (“trust is a hard-earned commodity,” says Glenn) and she challenges you to find it if you are worthy. She could indeed be considered an Athena, an encourager of wisdom, or perhaps an image of the achieved Superconscious Mind itself.
How much of this went through Caldwell’s awareness? None I’m sure. But the subconscious mind is a strange thing. I’ve long believed something was influencing Gygax — I mean the platonic solids as dice, come on! And as mentioned, many whose imagination was struck by such images went on to meditate or cast circles. Glenn himself used to say D&D was fun for learning strategy. He recommended playing mages or clerics if you planned to learn about the non-physical experientially.
Are you worthy to enter?