Monday, June 2, 2008

Tarot Tales

Over the past month or so, I’ve been reading two books that focus on Tarot cards—which I know almost nothing about—in various ways.

The first was Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps, which is about as quirky as the other Williams’ books that I’ve read in the past. Williams seems to assume the traditional Hermetic principle “As above, so below; as below, so above” in his storyline, so that what happens in the material world and the spiritual world, which seem dualistically separate, are interwoven and parallel. In order to understand the book at all (I still don’t feel like I’ve understood it well), I’ve spent time learning a bit about the significance of each of the Tarot cards that appear as the plot of the book develops. The ways in which Tarot cards reflect Jungian archetypes particularly intrigued me. I’ve also reread each chapter at least twice, trying to pick out what Williams is doing with the Tarot cards and with the story of Christianity, which is also woven deeply into the plot. Williams’ use of the dance and of hands as metaphors throughout the novel is intriguing since those are both favorite images of mine. His description of prayer—especially a scene where Sybil is in contemplation—also stood out. Perhaps that’s because Joanna and Sybil are both marvelously constructed, strong characters that have made me think again and again about the meaning of mystery and love.

Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies was the second book that had Tarot cards at its center. I’ve been working my way through Calvino’s writings little by little and it happened to be the next book in the pile so it was quite by chance that I began it as I was about half way through The Greater Trumps. Calvino uses the Tarot in an entirely different way, using the images on the face of the cards to tell the stories of the lives of people who are caught together staying at a castle or a tavern. The book as a whole is sort of a Canterbury Tales using Tarot cards in place of poetry. While the stories Calvino created were intriguing, the chapters I enjoyed best were those in which he retold well-known tales—of Faust, Hamlet, or King Lear for example—using only the images found on the Marseilles tarots.

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