Deck Review

The Lord of the Rings Tarot

Developer: Terry Donaldson
Artist: Peter Pracownik

The Lord of the Rings Tarot is consists of your typical 78-card deck; practically no changes were made to card names, suit-element correspondences, and card meanings. The cards themselves are bordered in black, with the name down the left side, the picture in the middle, and a short description of the scene at the bottom, supposedly to remind you of the card's meaning. Since the deck can also be used to play a game, which is explained in the booklet, they have different backgrounds and a symbol at the top right to denote their "alignment". The card backings are grey bricks with the title "The Lord of the Rings" both upright and upside-down, with two interlocked rings at the center, and quite reversible.

I didn't like the art style, though it's not exactly bad quality. Peter Pracownik also painted the Dragon Tarot, which I would dearly love to get my hands on. With all the borders and descriptions, the pictures are quite small in relation to the cards, which could be disappointing. In addition, I found them a bit lacking in unity. Some of the cards are extremely stylized, while others have symbols at the top, or symbols embedded in an oval border around the picture, while the rest are rather like any old fantasy artwork. The Minor Arcana all show the suit symbols, usually hovering at the top of the picture rather than incorporated, although that is another inconsistency.

I read from Wicce's review about her complaints that Hobbits were pictured with shoes or hairless white feet, which is a legitimate complaint about the deck, although I have graver ones so I won't dwell on that here. In addition, even though Tolkien was considered rather prissy when it came to women, many of the female characters are pictured in your usual fantasy way: showing lots of leg and breast and still expected to fight. Fortunately, Eowyn is about the only character that lent herself to such a thing. (Until you get to Arwen in the movie, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

Card Correspondences
Now we get to the core of why I hate this deck and consider it a total waste of money. I bought the book and deck boxed set, and the book goes into rather extended detail about each of the Major Arcana while devoting a long paragraph to the descriptions of each Minor Arcanum and only a few lines to their meaning. The Major Arcana descriptions include a lengthy discussion of the thing pictured on the card and its history, a section on the card's meaning, one on its astrological correspondence, and finally, a section where the person, or thing, "speaks". It is in the last that the author begins to show his greatest flaw in the creation of his deck: how totally he misunderstood Tolkien's works.

As I thought about it before writing this review, I gradually realized that the way he deals with each card is much like the writing of his introduction. The introduction had a lot of potential. Different aspects of Tolkien's work was discussed and each time he started down the path of insight, and I began to see what he was getting at, and all of a sudden he would shy away from actually having a point, following with an incredible non sequitur that started talking about modern life. Like that, each card description is relatively accurate, but I was unable to make any connections between the card's scene and its meaning most of the time. The detailed symbolism in the artwork is carefully explained, but never alluded to again in the section on card meaning. And then the author started contradicting his introduction, losing the beautiful connections he had made.

The best place to begin is at the beginning, I suppose, with The Fool. In the introduction, the author starts talking about the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring, strongly hinting at its parallels with the Journey of the Fool, and the importance of the initiation of this journey. Then he abruptly switches to talking about the lack of this initiative in the modern world and how many young people have gone astray as a result. (Or somesuch. I started gagging in my head and stopped paying attention at that point.) But who, then, was ultimately designated as The Fool? Gollum.

Now, when I first got this deck, I didn't really know anything about tarot and card meanings so this fact rather went by me. When I came back to the deck again, my mind screamed. I have to say it is blindingly obvious that Frodo, or, failing that, Bilbo or Sam, is the Fool. Led out the door on an adventure, totally unsuspecting of the trials and pains to come. The author himself describes how The Fool signifies the beginning of a journey, a sudden change in the direction of one's life. Then he suddenly talks about Gollum's choices, how he loved the dark but was not aligned by Mordor, how he was obsessed with the Ring. Does that sound Foolish to you? The Fool symbolizes a beginning, but Gollum was twisted, had reached the end of his purposes, and was essentially incapable of redemption. So many times he comes right to the brink, but is interrupted and falls back. When Gollum "speaks" he talks about being able to see himself different in the future, but the truth is that Gollum had no more ambitions nor true will to live, just a consuming lust for the Ring. The author admits to a fascination with Gollum's character, though, so I suppose he had to give him this central card, poisoning the entire deck, in a sense.

The other card that jumped to my attention upon revisiting this deck was The Wheel of Fortune, which is the One Ring. What comes to mind is Elrond's warning, "We cannot use the Ruling Ring." It's evil and would bring downfall to anyone who used it except Sauron, just consider Isildur and Gollum. Yet the card blithely states, "The Ring brings benefits, but eventually dominates." Unless Donaldson was the ultimate pessimist, who believes everything comes to a bad end, the Ring is totally inappropriate as the Wheel of Fortune. The book is even worse when it has the Ring "saying" how it chooses to be favorable to certain people. There's also a literal error: the Ring says it chose Bilbo to get out of Gollum's cave, but Gandalf clearly says that Bilbo's discovery was a mistake, that the Ring meant itself to be discovered by a Servant of the Enemy. The Ring does not turn but yearns forever after its master.

Other cards are annoying, but not as major as those two after which I don't even want to touch the deck. Galadriel, not Eowyn, is clearly the High Priestess. The Mirror of Galadriel would serve a better Seven of Cups than the Seven Palantíri. That, too, was a major downfall of the deck: the author could not resist numerical symbolism and would cram the things in even where they didn't fit, the Nazgul as the Nine of Swords, for example. It might sound trivial to a non-Tolkien fan, I suppose, but there are simply too many grave misinterpretations, not even things that are arguable (like Balrog wings, perhaps). Besides, even if the book might describe standard meanings for the deck, neither the pictures nor the short descriptions really help you bring them to mind. This is a very unintuitive deck. Looking at the cards, I must remember the Rider-Waite meanings on my own, then stretch to match it with the image before me. Plus, since I'm griping anyway, the "Dark Peoples" and "Free Peoples" card game symbols are quite distracting.

Okay, so the deck is not absolutely without its good points. I thought it was brilliant to have the Balrog as Death, and wondered why I didn't think of that myself. (Let's ignore the facts that the Balrog looks like a human and that the author says its whip was "lightning".) Earendil is certainly the Star (you'll notice it is the same with my deck), and Grima, symbolically, is a better Devil than Sauron might be. But, you know, in the end it doesn't balance out.

Bottom Line
The deck is worthless. The art is inconsistent and unaesthetic (at least to me), and the cards are badly designed. The author did a miserable job of correlating scenes and card meanings, making for an unituitive deck, and he totally misinterpreted the characters and scenes anyway. Try casting this into the fires of Mount Doom.

- Elwen, 01.05.02