The Arthurian Tarot and Legend: The Arthurian Tarot
Review by Lee Bursten

If you would like to purchase the Arthurian Tarot Book/Deck set, click here.

If you would like to purchase Legend: The Arthurian Tarot Book/Deck set, click here.

Since these are two theme decks with the same theme, and since there are several similarities as well as some important differences between them, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two.

The Arthurian Tarot, written by Caitlin and John Matthews with cards illustrated by Miranda Gray, was published by the Aquarian Press (now Thorsons). Legend: The Arthurian Tarot was written and illustrated by Anna-Marie Ferguson and published by Llewellyn.

First, I would like to get one thing out of the way: on my copies of these decks, the copyright date of one of them is a full five years later than that of the other. Now, Iím not drawing any conclusions from this fact, as I know nothing about the publishing history of these decks. This would be a more important issue if the later deck were a cheap rip-off of the earlier, but thatís not the case; itís obvious that both decks are the products of much care, time, effort, and research on the part of their creators. However, I do think it only fair to the Matthews to note that their deck is copyrighted 1990, while Fergusonís is copyrighted 1995.

The Arthurian myth cycle is a natural as a background for a Tarot deck, with its Emperor, Empress, Kings, Queens, and Knights. The authors of both decks were apparently unable to find strictly Arthurian characters or incidents to illustrate some of the Major cards, and instead rely at times on figures from Celtic mythology that donít have a direct connection to the Arthurian stories. It seems that any deck which tries to unite the Tarot images with a cultural or mythic theme always contains a few cards which are a stretch, either from the perspective of the chosen theme or from the perspective of traditional Tarot imagery.

Most of us are familiar with Arthurian legend through Maloryís Le Morte díArthur and books that were derived from it, as well as T.H. Whiteís novel The Once and Future King and its derivative, the musical Camelot. Behind these works lies a complex tapestry of medieval poems and Celtic and Welsh legends, as well as historical accounts of the real-life Arthur. These sources overlap with and contradict each other often. Both Arthurian and Legend use a mixture of these sources, which is certainly more creative than simply relying on the Malory version, which would have been the obvious choice. However, for readers whose only knowledge of the legends is the Malory version, some of the cards and their backgrounds may seem rather strange.

The similarities between these two decks are numerous. Many of the attributions for the Major cards are the same; Merlin is the Magician, Arthur is the Emperor, Guinevere is the Empress, Taliesin is the Hierophant. There are certain cards in the two decks which are alarmingly similar. For example, both Star cards show the dragon-shaped comet which heralds the ascendancy of Uther (Arthurís father) to the kingship of Britain. Also, both decksí 7 of Swords (called Sword Seven in the Arthurian) refer to Galahad drawing a sword from a stone set in a river.

Thatís about all I can think of in terms of similarities. Now the differences take over.

To me the biggest difference between the two decks is one of approach. There are a group of authors (including the Matthews, who have written several books separately and together on the subject) who use the Arthurian legends to create a sort of spiritual discipline. The Arthurian takes this approach, especially in the Minors, where each suit is seen as a spiritual journey governed by that suitís token (here called "hallow"). This, along with the artwork (which Iíll discuss further), lends the deck a somewhat austere atmosphere.

Fergusonís approach is completely different. For her the value of the legends is in the captivating stories they tell, and her deck focuses on the storytelling aspects. She goes into much greater detail than the Matthews do when relating the backgrounds behind the cards, and she does so with gusto and with an obvious love for the stories, which I donít sense from the Matthews.

Accentuating these differences are the different approaches taken to the Minors. In the Arthurian, the Minors are scenes of landscapes, with the suit symbols interacting with the landscapes in such a way as to suggest the Waite-Smith-based meanings. Thus the drama and action in the stories is suggested rather than shown. In Legend, on the other hand, the Minors use book-like illustrations to depict the same Waite-Smith meanings. Here the characters and action of the stories are actually depicted, and one can get caught up in the sweep and romance of the stories.

I find myself less than comfortable with some of Fergusonís choices for the cards. Although both decks use material from the different Arthurian sources, Ferguson mostly sticks with the romantic Malory version, but then for the Devil card she uses Cernunnos, a Horned God figure from Celtic mythology. The picture she has painted is rather similar in effect to the Waite-Smith Devil card, showing a goat-footed, horned man with a disturbing stare. This actually does make an interesting Devil card, but I think itís a little out of place in this deck, as neither Cernunnos nor the traditional Tarot Devil have anything to do with the Arthurian stories.

I think the Matthews were much more creative with their Devil card. They show the Green Knight, who mysteriously appears in Arthurís Christmas court with a challenge: He will allow any challenger who accepts the challenge to cut off his head, but then the challenger must come to the Green Knightís castle in a year and allow the Green Knight to cut off the challengerís head in turn. The divinatory meaning is given as "Challenge; obstacles which must be overcome; ignorance; self-limitation; inflexibility; unconscious fears realized; stagnation; incisive change; creative possibilities." Thus the Arthurian Devil depicts an actual Arthurian character, and is a new and interesting take on the traditional interpretation.

Another choice I didnít care for in Legend was that of using the story of the Red Knight, and his practice of hanging his defeated opponents from the trees outside his castle, to illustrate the Hanged Man. The picture shows a knight hanging by his neck from a noose, obviously dead. I think this strays too far from the traditional meanings of the Hanged Man, which include suspension, waiting, self-sacrifice for a greater good, and changed perspective. None of these meanings make sense if the person is dead. The Matthewsí Hanged Man, showing the Wounded King who cannot be healed except by the Grail winner, hits closer to the mark, since he is in a state of suspension, waiting to be healed. Unfortunately this picture is a literal bloodbath, with blood pouring out of his several wounds onto the ground, in a lack of restraint which is rare for this deck.

Ferguson sometimes seems a little less well organized in assigning pictures to characters. For example, Sovereignty is the goddess of the land, an important concept in the Arthurian myths; to quote the Matthews, "she is the epicentre about which the Arthurian legends revolveÖ[she] represents the inherent unity of the King and the land." In the Arthurian she is chosen for the Justice card. But in Legend, she is relegated to serving as the Queen of Cups. She seems too important a character to be relegated to the Courts, nor does she really fit in with them, since the other Courts are all human (except the Pages, who are animals).

The artwork for these two decks is as different as could be. Fergusonís pictures are hazy, misty watercolors, reminiscent of Arthur Rackhamís Arthurian book illustrations. Fergusonís artistic approach is unabashedly romantic. The men are all dashing, with long hair and bare arms, and would not look out of place on the cover of a romance novel; nor would the ethereal, pale, wasp-waisted women (for an earthy contrast, check out the scan of the World card in Diane Wilkesís review of the World Spirit Tarot). On the whole the paintings are quite beautiful, with two caveats; one, because Ferguson does not use strong outlining for the figures on the cards, sometimes you have to look at a card for a while before you can make out the central figures or whatís happening. (For example, in Strength, the young lady riding the lion is apparent, but it takes a while to notice the old lady behind her riding a serpent.) Secondly, her drawings of faces are sometimes not quite as polished as her watercolor technique is.

I also felt that the Legend Pages, which are represented by animals, donít fit in visually with the rest of the deck. I like the idea of using animals for the Court cards (as in the Alchemical Tarot and the Greenwood Tarot), but in this deck they have a completely different style from the other cards. They look like cards from some animal divination deck that got mixed in by mistake. The deck on the whole, however, is strikingly lovely.

Miranda Grayís artwork for the Arthurian is in an altogether different mode. Her drawings are careful and precise, with pale colors. The overall mood is one of silence, especially in the Minors, in which no humans appear. The only sounds I can imagine in this world would be the wind blowing, and maybe once in a while a bird chirping. In fact, it reminds me of the atmosphere created by the original Myst computer game. There is a haunting beauty in these cards, especially in the Tens, which are each depicted as the homes of the suit-specific hallows. The castles in the Tens are shown illuminated by lights inside them, and they beckon mysteriously. Besides the aforementioned Wounded King (Hanged Man), the Stone Maiden (Page of Pentacles) is rather alarming, holding a dish with a manís head on it. Grayís realism is not an advantage in this case; we didnít really need to see the blood dripping into the snow.

Unlike Legend, the men in the Arthurian are not particularly impressive physical specimens (even Gawain, who illustrates Strength), but Iím sure this is a more realistic depiction of how British people really looked around 500 A.D. Although several of the figures bear pleasant expressions, the overall mood is somber, which is perhaps appropriate for a deck that is geared more towards spiritual discipline and inner exploration and contemplation.

The two decks go back and forth in terms of being more faithful to the traditional Tarot images. The Arthurian, for example, shows Merlin very much in a Waite-Smith Magician mode, shown seated at a table with the four suit symbols before him, and two dragons forming a lemniscate above his head, while Legend abandons the traditional imagery altogether, showing Merlin climbing a hill and looking behind him, in an image more reminiscent of the Hermit. On the other hand, while Legendís Chariot card is quite traditional, showing a battle chariot riding to war, the Arthurian rejects charioteering in favor of a scene from Celtic legend, showing Arthur and six companions in a boat, returning from an adventure in the Underworld.

The commitment of the authors to both decks is apparent in the extensive supplementary materials available for them. Legend is sold as a deck-and-book set. The book, titled A Keeper of Words, is 256 pages long and amply describes the stories behind the cards, and includes material on the creation of the deck, the history of the Tarot, the background of the Arthurian legends, and Tarot reading. It is also lavishly illustrated, not only with the pictures on the cards but with several original drawings. The set also comes with an absolutely gorgeous layout sheet for the Celtic Cross spread. The deck and book are also available separately, although I canít imagine anyone wanting to buy the deck without the book.

The Arthurian is sold only as a deck-and-book set. The book is called The Arthurian Tarot: A Hallowquest Handbook. At 159 pages, it gives the background stories, although not in as much depth as A Keeper of Words. However, there is much material on divination, and several original spreads which I found very impressive, especially a 13-card spread called Merlinís Mirror, which reveals "our three faces: the one we show to others, the one we would like to be, and the real self which often lies hidden at the centre." I especially liked the fact that sample readings were included for each spread, although not every card in every reading was discussed.

Also available is a separate book, Hallowquest: The Arthurian Tarot Course. At a hefty 379 pages, this book describes a yearlong course in meditation, ritual visualization, and self-examination, along the way discussing each card, not in a divinatory way but instead how that card relates to oneís spiritual path. The Matthews clearly prefer this use for their deck rather than the divinatory uses outlined in the Handbook that comes with the deck. The book also contains many wonderful spreads for self-examination.

I love the idea of doing a yearlong course based on a deck, but unfortunately I would never have the patience to do such a thing. Those who are interested in using the deck for divination may tire of the incessant focus on self-examination and spiritual discipline, but I found the discussions of some individual cards to be invaluable in discerning what the authors had in mind for some of the cards, as the descriptions and meanings given in the Handbook are sometimes obscurely written, especially the Court cards. The Matthews seem to have realized this, at least as far as the Court cards go, as they provide in the Hallowquest book a secondary set of meanings for the Courts which are much more comprehensible and reflective of the traditional divinatory meanings.

Now I suppose I must say which of these decks I prefer. This is difficult, as I like them both. Theyíre both attractive and appealing systems. Personally, although I prefer Legendís storytelling approach to the Arthurian spiritual-discipline approach, Miranda Grayís austere pictures appeal to me more than Fergusonís watercolors, beautiful as they are, partially because Iíve always preferred simpler, clearer Tarot images, and partially because the austere mood lends an appealingly mysterious tone. Also, the spiritual journey approach of the Arthurian Minors does lend a structure to the deck that is missing from Fergusonís more haphazard assignment of stories to cards.

Both decks are significant contributions to Tarot and both should be investigated by anyone who is intrigued by the notion of combining the Arthurian mythos with the Tarot.

You can read another review of the Arthurian Tarot here and the Legend Tarot here and here.

The Arthurian Tarot by John and Caitlin Matthews           Legend: The Arthurian Tarot
Thorsons Publishing                                                              Llewellyn Publishing
ISBN #: 0-85030-843-7                                                        
ISBN#: 1-56718-267-4

If you would like to purchase the Arthurian Tarot Book/Deck set, click here.

If you would like to purchase Legend: The Arthurian Tarot Book/Deck set, click here.

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images from the Arthurian Tarot © Thorson Publishing
Images from the Legend Tarot © Llewellyn Publishing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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