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The Psychology of Artemis Entreri: A Developmental Perspective

April 16, 2015
*I think this post will kick off a series of posts where I discuss the psychology of my favorite characters in any given work of fiction, in no particular order. To begin, I will focus on a book series, relatively different compared to many of today's uber popular fandoms: the Legend of Drizzt series by R.A. Salvatore (Dungeons & Dragons/Forgotten Realms). Also, this is only my perspective, and I have no authority over the character or the series, nor is this "authorized" in any way. Trigger warning for traumatic events.*

As I sit here taking a break from studying, I can't help but stare at the Artemis Entreri vs. Drizzt Do'Urden print on my wall. I obtained this beautiful piece of art, "Detail from Starless Night," at Todd Lockwood's booth at San Diego Comic Con last year. Sometimes when I am feeling stressed or tired, I look at it and think 'what would Drizzt do?' He can do anything, and he always wins.

Opposite him, there is his former nemesis Artemis Entreri. He stands at about 5'6" (approximately), with dusky brown skin, dark hair, and gray eyes. He has prominent sideburns, high cheekbones, wears dark clothing, and usually keeps himself clean shaven and well groomed. He is fit, and though he is small in size, he exudes a type of strength that could overpower almost anyone who may cross him, and make no mistake, he would!

Artemis Entreri is considered a cold-blooded, calculating, ruthless assassin who is at one point the hero's nemesis, or a "what the hero might have become had he made all the wrong choices" type of character. He is not someone anybody should aspire to be like in real life. But he is my favorite character in the series.

When first introduced, Entreri is described as a man in or approaching his 40's, with a physique closer to a man in his 20's. He is described as a person who appears to have no emotions, no weaknesses, and no attachments. He kills if necessary without a second thought and without regrets. He has no friends, trusts nobody, and has no time or tolerance for frivolity. He doesn't really like anything or anybody, and denies himself any kind of pleasure so as to not allow luxuries to make him "weak." Respect does not truly appeal to him, except the type of respect that comes with fear and ensures that others will stay out of his way. He is a very intimidating guy!

When I think of the reasons he is my favorite character, the list does not include the cruel things that he does or the type of person he has created himself into. It's the evolution of his character and what it tells us about his psychological development.

Early Childhood Trauma

Trauma in childhood can have devastating immediate and long-term consequences. It is a very real problem, with approximately 3 million children in the United States being victimized each year. Childhood trauma can lead to a number of issues throughout life including loss of trust in others, a negative view of the world, a negative view of the self, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm behaviors, and personality disorders. It can also lead to poor verbal skills, problems with memory, and learning difficulties.

The character of Artemis Entreri suffered many traumas in life. He was born into extreme poverty. He lived with his mother and the man he believed to be his father in a small house that was barely more than a shack, and slept on the floor, covered by a thin blanket that would not do much to keep him warm. At night, he had to swat away insects that would crawl over him. His mother was a prostitute and his father was physically abusive toward him. He often saw men come into his home, give his father money, and then go to his mother's bed. He was repeatedly sexually abused by an uncle, and in adulthood Entreri at one point suspects that his father knew of this, and in fact allowed it in exchange for money.

In older childhood, around the age of 9, his mother sold him into slavery. It is unknown how long he was with the people who took him, or what traumas he may have experienced during that time. He spent the amount of time it took the merchants to travel from his city of birth to the closest city, and ran from them two days after their arrival. He lived off whatever he could find or take from the streets or other people. Nobody showed him kindness. He lived as a homeless child, finding ways to outsmart those who were bigger or older than him, and learning ways to survive, for over five years. He had to be ingenious, quick, and a step ahead in order to survive in the unforgiving streets. He ran "his" street and had his own "informants." At around 14 he joined one of the local guilds in his town after proving himself by taking out another street thug. For years after that, he was part of that guild, eventually working his way to being one of the most feared assassins in his area.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship: The Collapse of Emotional Defenses

Through various events, Entreri meets a dark elf, or drow, named Jarlaxle. The two find each other intriguing, and they begin what they both describe as a mutually beneficial relationship. Jarlaxle spends much time thinking about why Entreri is so emotionally shut off, and trying to figure him out. He takes Entreri on multiple adventures in hopes that they may facilitate Entreri developing an openness to new experiences. We see Entreri going along with Jarlaxle's ideas, allowing this person into his life, and learning from Jarlaxle, who appears to be the closest thing to a friend that Entreri has ever had (although he would never directly refer to the drow as such).

In Jarlaxle's attempts to figure him out, he gives to Entreri an object called Idalia's flute. This magical object is said to have the power to "unlock any heart." As Entreri plays the flute, its properties begin to tear down the emotional defenses he had built up carefully over time. Feelings from his past that he had not allowed himself to experience resurface. There are visible changes in him. He no longer takes care of his appearance as he used to. He wants to stop playing this flute, but doesn't or can't. Because of what the magical flute is doing to him emotionally, Entreri allows himself for the first time in his life to be open to a romantic relationship, only to be betrayed horribly yet again. This betrayal acts as a catalyst for a journey that will take Entreri to revisit his childhood home and confront the demons of his past.

A Good-Enough Mother

Psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott described a "good-enough" mother as one who provides love and care despite stressors of her own. She is not perfect, and she does not provide the child with everything, but she provides the child with enough care and she often does all that she can to do so. Good enough mothers love their children and worry about their well-being. They tend to generally meet the infant's needs. As the child grows, a good enough mother will gradually allow the child to become more independent. Children with a good-enough mother are typically able to individuate at their own pace (not forced to do so) and to learn to see that mother is not perfect. They accept that mother makes mistakes and do not expect her to meet all of their needs all the time.

Despite the things he witnessed at home, and despite the physical and sexual abuse he suffered, the child Artemis Entreri loved his mother and she loved him. In most of his memories of his mom, Entreri is described as looking up at her, observing her facial expressions, and feeling a sense of tenderness while in her presence. It would not be a stretch to say that she was the only person who gave him a sense of safety as a child, and that he trusted her innately.

Given this, I don't think it would be a stretch either to say that he had a more or less healthy attachment with his mother in early childhood. From brief conversations he had with a few people during his journey to his childhood home, we can infer that as a child he spent time with his mother when she went to listen to religious sermons, that he was precious to her, and that she kept him as clean as possible despite their living situation.

It is unknown whether she knew about Entreri being sexual abused by his uncle, but it is likely that she knew he was physically abused by his "father", and either chose to do nothing or was unable to do anything about it.

The last time Entreri saw his mother before being taken away, she turned her back on him as he was being taken in a wagon by the people who paid to take him. The emotions this abandonment triggered in him included anger, sadness, and fear. This experience taught him that he could not trust anyone, and that the world was an unsafe place. What else is a child to learn if abandoned by the one person who loves him unconditionally?

Defense Mechanisms and Survival

The trauma of being torn away from a primary caregiver can be very damaging, not only psychologically but physically. A child under constant stress will be primed to be hypervigilant, to expect bad things to happen, and to be ready to react to a dangerous situation (fight/flight response). When we are in stressful situations, our bodies react in a certain way. Certain hormones that prompt our fight/flight response are released at higher levels, including cortisol and catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine). The effects of these being released include increased blood flow to muscles, brain activity, and cardiac output, and decreased blood flow to the internal organs and the gastro-intestinal system.

Sure, we can't speak to the physiology of a fictional character in a fantasy world. Even if he is human, Artemis Entreri has a different constitution. It is unfair to compare real-world biology to that of the Forgotten Realms or any other fantasy series at such a level. Because if we were to compare him entirely based on what we know of real world biology, we would assume that he would have had not only social but language impairments due to malnutrition. And anybody who has read the books knows that this is not the case. Here, I use real world perspectives of biology to attempt to better understand the psychology behind what makes Entreri the person he is.

Entreri was dealt a certain hand, and, like his mother, did what he had to do to survive. The day he joins the guild as an adolescent, he notices some boys around his age playing, and is described as having a sense of pain knowing that he gave up his "youth" and "innocence." But stating that he gave up the opportunity to have what they had is a bit of an unfair statement, as it implies that he had the choice. Even when accepted into the guild, Entreri had to prove himself worthy of being part of it. For a child who had been abandoned by his primary caregiver and then not been able to truly belong anywhere, even someone like Entreri would have tried his best to belong in order to facilitate his own survival.

Jarlaxle: Not the Best Therapist

As Jarlaxle observes the inner turmoil that Entreri is experiencing throughout his journey to his city of birth, he begins to realize that perhaps breaking down his emotional defenses was not for the best. Entreri was not ready, nor was he willing to go on this journey of self discovery. It was something he would never have done if it weren't for the influence of Jarlaxle and Idalia's flute. In fact, it is something he is unaware of when he begins to use the flute. He had survived as best as he could for decades because these traumas were well controlled, and he was not emotionally ready to face them. Through various actions, including confronting the man he believed to be his father, confronting the man who sexually abused him, and confronting the men who victimized his mother, Entreri was able to deal with his trauma the way only Artemis Entreri could. It can't be said that he was okay after facing his inner demons and confronting the reality of his childhood, but he had likely achieved a sense of reconciliation regarding his past.

That is not to say that he was a changed man after. Artemis Entreri was, and continued to be, someone who fought for his survival, sometimes against great odds. At times, in order to survive, he collaborated with others who he did not consider friends, or even true allies. He has been known to be very open about the fact that he will join groups in order to ensure his own survival. Confronting his demons did not undo the pain, but I believe it made it possible for him to conquer it, rather than continue to suppress it and continue to allow it to be the only basis upon which he built his worldview.

Thinking from a therapeutic perspective, what Jarlaxle did, though perhaps well-intentioned, was a terrible idea. In therapy, especially when working through trauma, pushing the client to face the trauma without a certain level of preparation first is something that will cause more harm than good. Bringing up the emotions surrounding the trauma without assessing the situation or the client's readiness, and without even knowing what the traumas are, is beyond ill-advised. Jarlaxle, for all his worldly knowledge, failed in this aspect, in large part because he had no idea the sorts of things that were hidden away in Entreri's consciousness.

After his journey to his childhood home, Entreri decides to leave Jarlaxle's company and go on his own. Entreri tells Jarlaxle, in his own words, that he doesn't like the changes he inspired. Despite this disappointment in Jarlaxle, Entreri's worldview seems to be less generalized when it comes to others. He doesn't "open up" like Jarlaxle wanted, but he is able to recognize that he is capable of redefining himself and reframing his past, which is a thing that we strive for in working with trauma. (Many things happen in later books, which I will not get into in this post).

If you are reading this and are familiar with this character, I would love to hear your thoughts!

2 comments on "The Psychology of Artemis Entreri: A Developmental Perspective"
  1. Honestly, I find your psychological profile fascinating.
    Now I am in no way educated in psychology, but I happen to come from and similar background, in a lot of ways and can see the "right idea but wrong method", argument for Jaraxale, and agree. But I think, that after Artemis begins to deal with his repressed emotions and feelings, and comes to a realization of how Drizzt was able to control his own violence, that Artemis achieved some closure of his past and actually became a deadly warrior.

  2. Honestly, I find your psychological profile fascinating.
    Now I am in no way educated in psychology, but I happen to come from and similar background, in a lot of ways and can see the "right idea but wrong method", argument for Jaraxale, and agree. But I think, that after Artemis begins to deal with his repressed emotions and feelings, and comes to a realization of how Drizzt was able to control his own violence, that Artemis achieved some closure of his past and actually became a deadly warrior.