Ship of Fools Tarot by Brian Williams
Review by Tom Tadfor Little

If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.

The Ship of Fools is the final tarot creation of artist and scholar Brian Williams, who has given us the beautiful and rich Renaissance Tarot, the witty and critically lauded PoMo Tarot, and the serene and subtle Minchiate Tarot. I am a great admirer of Williams's work, yet the Ship of Fools deck and book caught me ambivalent, and made me wonder whether my admired friend had taken a misstep or two, disrespectful though such thoughts might seem, as Brian's life ended before the publication of this deck.

The cards are monochrome line drawings, printed in dark sepia tones on a light tan backdrop. They evoke old woodcuts, but clearly convey Williams's postmodern, gentle, and often ironic sensibility.

Brian Williams, an art history student with an undying fascination with the tarot, had taken an interest in the Narrenschiff, a classic of German Renaissance literature by  Sebastian Brandt. The Narrenshiff, or Ship of Fools, moralistically illustrates all manner of foolery, and prods its readers to forsake these undignified errors and lead a virtuous, Christian life. Early illustrations of Brandt's work are filled with woodcut images reminiscent of the tarot trumps, some dramatically so. So Williams set to work creating a tarot deck to blend these ancient images with his own esthetic sense and with the broad stream of tarot tradition.

When Narrenschiff images could not be found to inspire his work, Williams often relied on the work of early-20th-century artist Pamela Colman Smith, who created the images of the immensely influential Rider-Waite (Waite-Smith) Tarot. I'm generally not receptive to this sort of mixing of epochs.

The book accompanying this deck falls short of what we have come to expect of Williams's writing - there is not much in the way of art-history connections for the images. The descriptions are limited to noting the Narrenshiff sources, when appropriate, the classic Tarot de Marseille imagery, and the Waite-Smith designs. Keywords are provided that represent a blending of Brandt's work and traditional tarot assignments.

My concern on first encountering this deck was that Williams (never really engrossed in the practice of tarot as a divination technique), had gone too far into his private world of art history, neglecting the practical concerns of card readers in his desire to engage with the ancient woodcuts of Brandt's tome.

Furthermore, the Narrenshiff images have a negative bent, illustrating the errors of Foolishness at every turn. Although Williams himself espouses the merits of the Fool, it was not clear to me that the deck could rise above the negativity of its source material by mere proclamation on the part of the artist.

My concerns evaporated the first time I read with this deck about a matter of intense personal concern. I used the "Exquisite Corpse" spread described in the book. Although intended for collaborative reading among a cadre of tarot folk, the spread adapts readily to use by a single reader.

I had just emerged from a love affair with a very difficult personality, and the cards showed the truth of the matter plainly and dramatically. The strangeness of the Narrenshiff images -- the Queen of Cups with her refusing-to-see husband, the Queen of Swords with her self-possessed aura -- all spoke directly to my personal situation, and Williams's keywords were uncannily accurate.

Most telling of all was the theme card for the spread, the Five of Swords. Williams has taken the familiar Waite-Smith image of the gloating victor, and massaged it into a scene of a solitary swordsman, with the divinatory meaning, "Victory goes, sometimes, to the one who merely show up." This completely summed up the situation I was reading about, although it was eerily deviant from any traditional meaning I had encountered.

What I learned from working with this deck is that there is power in those ancient archetypes - as Williams found in early illustrations of the Narrenshiff - power to spill out human truth.

Approaching this deck as a tarot know-it-all, one is likely to object at every turn to the particular images, which defy tarot common sense in deference to the ancient Narrenshiff illustrations or to Williams's sometimes-idiosyncratic recapitulation of the Waite-Smith imagery.

But there is magic here. Approached with a beginner's mind, the images on the cards and the divinatory keywords offered can give startling insight into the questions one asks of a tarot deck. Although not a diviner himself, Williams had a seemingly intuitive knack at coming up with keywords that hit home in the context of a reading.

Although I wouldn't recommend this deck to a beginner seeking knowledge about traditional tarot symbolism, or to an advanced reader already wedded to a particular system of divination, I can recommend it without reservation to anyone seeking fresh and intense divination experiences. There are remarkable images in these cards - images tarot people have not seen before, but that speak truth in uncanny and unambiguous ways. Williams's keywords are inspired, though the text surrounding them may seem perfunctory and formulaic.

This deck is a work of genius. Like all works of genius, it is accessible from some directions but appears impenetrable from others. The images that appear in this deck were selected and re-invented by a mind immersed in the tarot for decades.  Although this deck is different, it has soul, roots, and wings.

The Ship of Fools Tarot Deck by Brian Williams
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0738701610

You can read a tribute to the artist of this deck, Brian Williams, here.

If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.


Images 2002 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review 2003 Tom Tadfor Little
Page 2003 Diane Wilkes