Beginnerís Tarot by John Woodcock Review by Lee A. Bursten
This is a deck/book set which I can wholeheartedly recommend Ė although not for beginners. Itís the latest in a seemingly endless line of "beginnerís" deck/book sets -- including the Barnes & Noble Tarot, the Mystic Tarot, and Tarot: Your Color Guide -- whose Minor Arcana cards do not contain illustrations of scenes, merely "pip" designs like playing cards. Itís hard to understand why publishers keep publishing them, because if thereís one thing most Tarot authors agree upon, itís that decks with illustrated Minors are much easier for beginners to learn, since thereís a scene to remind you of the cardsí meanings.
Like those other "beginnerís" decks, the book that accompanies this one, written by Kathleen McCormack, is not terribly distinguished. Although it gives a short history of the Tarot, a few words about reading, and interpretations of each card, the accompanying deck by John Woodcock is not actually mentioned anywhere in the text, which makes me suspicious that the publishers merely assembled the book from other writings by McCormack, and then found an illustrator to create a deck. Of course, this is speculation, since I havenít read McCormackís other books. But it is odd that there are picture credits at the back of the book for decks, like the Visconti-Sforza and the Morgan Greer, which donít appear in the book at all.
Each cardís interpretation contains several concepts, especially the Minors, where one card can carry a laundry list of ten or eleven different concepts. This would make a weighty burden for the beginner, especially since McCormack recommends memorizing all the meanings before starting to read. Some of the interpretations are idiosyncratic, with the standard Waite-Smith meaning often listed secondarily.
What makes this set stand out are two things. First, the packaging is very appealing. It comes in a lidded box, which is not shrink-wrapped, so you can open it in the store and look at the book. This is a good thing, since the book contains a photograph of each card, so you can see what the deck looks like before you buy it. Underneath the book is a piece of clear plastic, and then the deck sits in a well. The cardboard for the well is printed in color with designs from the deck, and the whole thing makes a really nice impression. And this is one of the few deck/book sets published where you can actually keep the cards in the original packaging after opening it.
Then thereís the deck itself, which as far as Iím concerned is the only real reason to buy the set. The illustratorís modus operandi for each Major Arcana card is to copy the figure from either the Marseilles deck or the Oswald Wirth deck, and place it against a simplified pop-art landscape. Behind that, thereís a background that starts off as blue on the top and gradually fades to yellow at the bottom. This background is used for most of the Major cards and all of the Minor cards, which gives the deck a nice symmetry but avoids being monochromatic. There are some simple light effects that look computer-generated, like the clouds on the High Priestess.
The Majors are unnumbered, and are titled in French, another obstacle for the beginner unless they speak French.
The symbolism has in some cases been simplified even beyond the Marseilles deck, such as in the Devil, where the two chained humans have been removed. A potted plant sometimes intrudes upon the scene, for example, in Strength and the Hierophant. The combination of deep colors and pastels gives the deck a bright, open, airy look, which I find quite pleasant.
The Minors are also pleasant. They are pips, but the swords and batons donít have that "prison-bar" effect of the Marseilles, but are arranged artfully. The cups are very pretty with their reds and purples, and the coins look like stained glass. The Courts are all copied (with modifications) from the 1JJ Swiss deck.
I like to read with Marseilles-type decks sometimes, and this is the most pleasant and appealing one Iíve seen; I think I even like it better than the Fournier Marseilles, my previous favorite.
I wouldnít get this for a beginner as a gift (although the beautiful packaging would certainly make for a nice gift) unless you spoke with the person first and made sure they understood the difference between an illustrated and a non-illustrated deck, and that they preferred the non-illustrated. Then I would also give them one of the better standard texts and tell them to ignore the book.
Iíve found a new beginnerís book to recommend Ė Tarot for a New Generation by Janina Renee. Itís geared towards young adults, but I think it would make an excellent beginning text for anybody. The writing is clear but definitely not simplified, and itís quite extensive and thorough, covering Tarot from a variety of perspectives, including very interesting material about the philosophical and psychological implications of divination. And at $14.95 itís very reasonably priced, for a 368-page book.
Book by Kathleen McCormack, Deck by John Woodcock
Publisher: Barronís Educational Series
Tarot for a New Generation by Janine Renee
Publisher: Llewelyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0-7387-0160-2
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 © 2001 Barron's Educational Publishing
Review © 2001 Lee Bursten
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes