Lord of the Rings Tarot by Terry Donaldson   Review by Janet Selman

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

OK, I’m the first to admit it. I’m a Tolkien nut. I’ve read the entire series of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings about every two-three years since high school. I have three different editions in my home. In high school, a friend and I learned the runic script of the dwarves (hey, no teacher’s going to be able to translate those notes if intercepted!).

I’m also the first to admit that anyone who tackles the adaptation of a well-loved project has a difficult—no, nearly impossible job. Whether that is adapting a book to a movie, or a tarot deck, people are going to grumble. I’m sure that if anyone tried to adapt McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series to a tarot deck, or Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar…or Anthony’s Xanth books…Star Trek…there would be cards here and there with which I didn’t agree. But hopefully, there wouldn’t be the major discrepancies, the major errors, that there are in this deck.

More than anything, this deck makes me yearn for what it could have been.

First off, the deck is set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth world. The cards, 4 ¾" x 2 ¾", all have black borders with a stone column along one side containing the name of the card, and then a colored background within that, similar to a piece of colored satin laid under the actual picture. The color of the "satin" changes from card to card, but doesn’t seem to follow any sort of scheme. Beneath the picture is a one line summary of the scene of the card, which will mean little or nothing to someone who hasn’t read the books. Unfortunately, all of this froufraha reduces the actual picture portion of the card to less than 2" x 3"…a mere postage stamp. The art, which is inconsistent but sometimes quite striking, is reduced to a size necessitating a magnifying glass for optimum viewing.

From a tarotist’s point of view, the suits are Wands, Coins, Swords, and Cups. The courts are King, Queen, Knight, and Page. The majors are conventionally named, with Strength numbered eight and Justice, 11. Most of the pips are illustrated with scenes from the stories; a few have only symbols. I believe that to use this deck for reading, one would have to have a well-grounded understanding of general R-W-S interpretations; the deck itself won’t help you out much. With that basic understanding, there are some instances where this deck might provide one with additional depths of understanding; in general, however, I believe it would be a difficult deck for public readings or divination purposes.

The art, as mentioned, is inconsistent. The landscapes are evocative, if chilling. Animal and fantasy figures are frequently very nice. Unfortunately, the human and human-like figures tend to be quite cartoonish.  Most of the women seem to have been drawn from a teenage boy’s ideal point of view…an ideal not consistent with Tolkien; while there is romantic and courtly love within Tolkien, there is no blatant sexuality. It never seems to be daylight in Middle Earth. The vast majority of scenes are in darkness; a few are depicted in yellowish twilight.  Even the Sun shines thinly, as if unable to break through fog--it doesn't look warm.

Unfortunately, this deck also falls for a pitfall that has trapped many another theme deck: the picture on the card often seems chosen just because the picture "matches;" not because the meaning suits the card. The Fool is a great example of this. Gollum is depicted, a really rather pitiful being who does act foolishly. But he is depicted near the end of his pathetic life, at a time when all of his actions are really determined by only one thing: the desire for the ring. He has chosen, long ago, to pursue a path of evil; his footsteps are preordained. His choice does not falter; he chooses evil even until the end and remains only a shadow of what he could have been, without growth, without change. There are at least two figures who would have made much better choices for the Fool, figures who put aside their fears and choose to travel new paths, and thereby learn, and progress and attain wisdom. Either Bilbo or Frodo, at the outset of their journeys, are ideal Fools.

Which brings me to some of the inconsistencies between this deck and the LOTR books, which are many. The examples are legion, but a few will illustrate the point:

The Queen of Swords is the Lady Eowyn. Eowyn, a trained sword maiden, is fated to be left behind as her father and cousins ride to war. She armors herself as a man and secretly accompanies the Riders, thereby placing herself in a position where she strikes one of the major blows of the War of the Ring. On this card, Eowyn is depicted in a sexy pose, one leg bare to thigh peeking from beneath a midnight blue evening gown, with cleavage down to the belly button. Her loose blonde tresses and come hither glance may help sell the deck, but all I can think of is how her saddle sores must have chafed…and I wonder how she survived her wounds with armor of velvet.

Orcs are depicted basically as men with bad posture and costuming. The Orcs are enormous, ferocious, beastly creatures, not the spindly inept beings depicted here.

In fact, all of the humanoid-type species are depicted as being very similar, for the most part. In the series, orcs are wide, hairy, burly, and ugly; men tall and strong; elves slight and lithe; dwarves short, broad and sturdy; hobbits shortest of all, but inclined to be a bit chunky. On these cards, it’s quite difficult to tell one from another. One particularly frustrating card depicts a man, an elf, and a dwarf standing together; all are the same height and only a beard distinguishes the dwarf.

Most annoying of all for Tolkien fans, the hobbits are frequently depicted wearing shoes, even indoors. This may seem nitpicky, but shoes on a hobbit are like hats on fish; one just doesn’t see it in nature!

There is some outstanding Tolkien art out there. One wonders what the Hildebrandt brothers would have done with this deck. Their glowing light and ethereal sense would convey the images much more effectively than the dark and cartoonish appearance of this deck. This deck might appeal to those interested in fantasy-type art (Tarot of a Moon Garden or Merry Day lovers may like it). There are instructions included for a role playing game, which seems quite complicated although it is touted as being easy to learn. I believe that the appeal of this deck is more as a novelty than as a serious tarot deck, or as a serious bit of Tolkien memorabilia.

You can read another review of this deck and see more pictures from it here.

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

The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck and Card Game by Terry Donaldson and Peter Pracownik
ISBN #: 1-57281-017-3
Publisher: US Games Systems

Review © 2001 Janet Selman
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes

Janet Selman is "a middle-aged wife, mother of two, witch, midwife, professional cat spoiler and habitual housework avoider."










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