A Machine for Telling Stories: Tarot and Speculative Fiction
In his book The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Italo Calvino refers to tarot as “a machine for telling stories.” Writers have been using tarot cards as a storytelling device since the Italian and European Renaissance. Tarot appears in fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and speculative fiction works, including The Castle of Crossed Destinies.
“Tarot” refers to special packs of playing cards, first developed in the fifteenth century and now available with endless artistic interpretations. There are many esoteric theories about where tarot came from, but in reality, it seems to have originated in Italy as an expansion of the first European playing card decks. Playing cards had originated in China much earlier, possibly as early as the ninth century, and traveled from China through Persia, Arabia, and Egypt to Europe, where we see the first records of recognizable tarot cards. To study the history of tarot is, on the most basic level, to study the history and culture of Renaissance Europe.
The earliest surviving deck (actually a collection of fifteen incomplete decks) was commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti and his son-in-law Francesco Sforza. These cards were commissioned around 1451. Other important historical decks include the Tarot de Marseilles, which dates from 1650, and the Sola Busca Tarot, which gives us the earliest known example of a seventy-eight-card deck with scenes painted on all of the cards. The Sola Busca Tarot dates from around 1490.
At first, tarot decks were used not for cartomancy (telling fortunes with cards) but for actual games. These games, which may be called tarot, tarock, tarocchi, trifoni, and other variations, are still popular in Europe. The tarot decks differed from other playing cards in that in addition to four suits they included trump cards with illustrations. These trump cards were later expanded and called the Major Arcana. The games and the decks used have regional variations that involve rules as well as the design of decks.
Cartomancy developed alongside the European development of playing cards. However, the idea of using tarot cards specifically as a divination system wasn’t popularized until the 1700s. In 1770, an occultist named Jean-Baptiste Alliette (who used the name “Etteilla”), developed a deck specifically for divination and made the art of reading tarot cards accessible as a profession and a hobby.
Multiple decks and divination guides followed, and in 1910 Arthur Waite and Pamela Colman Smith developed the famous Rider-Waite (also called the Rider-Waite-Smith) deck. Smith, the illustrator, was one of only a few illustrators to create storytelling images for the minor court cards, thus revolutionizing the deck. Meanwhile, Waite modified the card meanings and imagery and created a guide for the deck that popularized it among Edwardians. This deck is the template from which most modern decks are derived.
Modern decks that are marketed as divination tools are all structured in the same way, give or take small variations. The twenty-two trump cards, known as the Major Arcana, represent big life events and major themes. Taken together, the Major Arcana tells the story of The Fool’s Journey through life and maturity. These are the cards that stand alone, such as The Fool, The Lovers, Death, The Tower, etc. The four suits, also known as the Minor Arcana, are sometimes given different names and symbols, but generally represent the same concepts as those in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (the four elements, personality types, etc.). In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the suits are swords, cups, wands, and pentacles (also commonly called coins). The Minor Arcana also contains the Court Cards (usually Pages, Knights, Queens).
Let’s take a closer look at the Major Arcana. The Fool card is numbered 0 (sometimes not assigned any number). The Fool is seen embarking on a journey. The following Major Arcana cards take him/her/they through the journey of maturity. As described by Rachel Pollack in Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot, the first seven cards explore the conscious and the concerns of society: love, social authority, and education. Next, The Fool explores the world of the subconscious and the search for self-awareness. Finally, The Fool travels through the superconscious and deeper spiritual truths, culminating in The World card and starting over again, because in tarot there is no beginning or ending. Major Arcana cards represent big concepts and big events.
The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits. The most standard suits are swords, wands, cups, and coins, but deck designers often play with these suits. For instance, the Halloween Tarot replaces swords with bats, wands with imps, cups with ghosts, and coins with pumpkins. Each Minor Arcana card can be analyzed in terms of its suit, which is associated with compass points, elements, personality traits, and its number. Some students of tarot also reference astrology and the Kabbalah in their studies.
In a reading, the querent asks a question (usually an open-ended one) and the reader chooses an arrangement of cards that seems best designed to answer the question. Some tarot readers claim to be psychic and say that they use the cards to channel answers from the beyond. However, tarot readers may also use the cards in completely non-supernatural ways, seeing them as psychological devices that help the conscious mind and unconscious mind. Wherever the tarot reader falls on the spectrum of supernatural to secular, they all use the arrangement of the cards (the layout) to tell a story that brings clarity to the querent. Thus, the relationship between the cards is more important than any individual card is out of context, just as the actions of a character in a story must be considered in context to that character’s background, situation, and personality traits.
The first known literary use of tarot comes from poet Teofilo Folengo. In his story, Chaos del Triperuno, he includes tarot-themed poems. One of the sonnets within this work, “The Fate of Focilla,” is a reading for the main character. Another tells the story of love’s supremacy over Death. The allegorical cards match the allegorical stories, reinforcing ideas.
In fiction, imagery from tarot has been used to guide worldbuilding, to set up plots, to build characters, and more. Stories using tarot range across all kinds of genres and serve multiple purposes. You’ll notice a lot of overlap between the following examples as tarot may have multiple uses within a single story.
Tarot cards can act as a guide to the reader, providing foreshadowing and structure. A chapter might be named after a card, or the entire story might match the tale of The Fool’s Journey (which, of course, is an archetype story not only found in Tarot). This is helpful in confusing narratives. For instance, Bone Dance, a science fiction book by Emma Bull, involves an unreliable and uninformed narrator. The author uses tarot to foreshadow events and also to give structure to the story by beginning each chapter with a card. Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, The Books of Magic uses a tarot reading and, later on, figures from tarot cards to give guidance to the main character but also to make sure the reader understands what information is being conveyed.
Tarot is also useful when it comes to launching a plot. The use of tarot to kickoff the plot is a common plot device in science fiction and fantasy, as well as in mysteries with a speculative fiction element. The Chronicles of Amber, a fantasy series by Roger Zelazny, is a series that begins with its amnesiac protagonist finding a tarot deck in which the Major Arcana are portraits of his relatives. This prompts him to journey to the land of Amber in an attempt to take the throne. Many mysteries begin with a reader foretelling the death of a querent (or some other disaster) and seeking to bring justice to a killer when the prediction comes true. The Game of Triumphs by Laura Powell begins when the protagonist finds a tarot card in her pocket that invites her to participate in a magical and dangerous game.
Many authors build entire worlds out of tarot. K.D. Edwards uses the Major Arcana of tarot for worldbuilding purposes in The Tarot Sequence series, an urban fantasy in which the residents of Atlantis live among humans. Their politics and powers are shaped by tarot with each Major Arcana card representing a rival court. In The Game of Triumphs, by Laura Powell, tarot is played by real people who manifest the powers on the cards and live in both the mundane world and a magical one, capable of leaping through time and space and performing magic. Another book, Tarot, by Marissa Kennerson, has four countries, each governed by a tarot suit. Each country embodies the qualities of that suit—so, for instance, the Land of Cups is friendly, communal, warm, and coastal.
Obviously, any work that references tarot is going to involve symbolism. The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot, famously uses the symbolism of tarot (both traditional and cards of his own invention) for allegorical purposes. The symbolism is tied to that of the same poem from Shakespeare and Arthurian legend, creating a mythic backdrop for a mundane life. In the Tarot trilogy by Piers Anthony, a planet named Tarot is a place where all religions are found and all are true—which makes a certain sense when one recalls that the tarot is said to hold all the world’s wisdom within its seventy-eight cards.
Tarot can also illuminate character and bring characters together. In the magical realism novel, The Hanged Man, author Francesca Lia Block uses tarot cards as a way for the protagonist to consider and reconsider herself and the personalities and the roles of people in her life. This is another book in which each chapter begins with the name of a card. The heroine pictures herself and those around her as particular cards. Her own card, more than any others, changes as she resolves emotional conflicts and faces trauma.
Sometimes tarot is used in forming character in a more direct way. For instance, in the urban fantasy series The Red King, by Jenn Stark, the main character is the embodiment of the Justice card and as such she has to stop magical crimes. In Tarot, by Marissa Kennerson, most of the characters represent cards and are named as such (The Magician, The Hermit, etc.). The danger with these kinds of characters is that they can become too bound up in archetypes to be well-rounded, layered people. At their best, they can represent powerful forces and themes.
Using a tarot reader as a character is a great way to open up character and plot possibilities. The amateur detectives in Eight of Swords by David Skibbins, Fool’s Moon by Diane A. S. Stuckart, and The White Magic Five and Dime by Lisa Falco and Steve Hockensmith are all readers who get uncannily accurate readings about clients headed into trouble. Their personalities are very different (and the level of fantasy restricted to a growing sense that the cards are always right) but their profession means that they share traits of being observant, fast learners, and good listeners. Their profession also gives them an excuse to talk to many different kinds of supporting characters, all of whom have some exposition to get off their chest.
Unfortunately, some writers default to stereotypes when it comes to tarot readers. Despite legends that tarot originated with the Romani people, it’s unlikely that it did. Many Romani do not do any kind of divination and those that do are as likely to read a palm or a regular deck of cards as a tarot deck. The term “gypsy” is considered derogatory, especially in Europe. “Romani,”or “Romany” is the preferred term, or the name of the subgroup to which an individual belongs.
Any discussion of tarot in speculative fiction is incomplete without a look at The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino. In this two-part book, the unnamed narrator finds himself at an inn filled with stranded travelers. The story appears to be set sometime in Renaissance Europe. None of the travelers are able to speak, but there is a tarot deck on the table and they use this deck to tell their stories. The first part of the book uses the Visconti-Sforza deck, which dates from 1451. The second part uses the Tarot de Marseilles, which dates back to 1650.
The innovation of the book is that it plays with the idea of storytelling without words, using a single set of shared images. The variety of stories told using the decks suggests that an infinite number of stories can be told using tarot. Yet, words remain important, and the narrator translates these stories into words and tells them to the reader, who must then rely on his subjective interpretation of the images even though those interpretations may be very different from the intention of the storyteller.
There are endless ways to tell stories. Tarot cards, which come in a wide variety of art styles, can inspire and enrich. They can illuminate and motivate characters, set plots in motion, and provide the template for worlds. They can provide frameworks for stories and reinforce themes. They are, as Calvino states, “a machine for telling stories.” Remember however, that just as the future is not set, the story is up to you.