Tarot Tells the Tale by James Ricklef

Review by Kim Huggens


If you would like to purchase Tarot Tells the Tale, click here.


Those of you who are members of the American Tarot Association may be familiar with a regular column in their newsletter called ‘Ask KnightHawk’.  James Ricklef, the author of Tarot Tells the Tale is KnightHawk, and this marvelous book is the product of his years of experience with tarot, and the synthesis of his ‘Ask KnightHawk’ column with lessons in the art and process of interpreting tarot readings.


So what is 'Ask KnightHawk' anyway?  This was a column in which Ricklef presented three-card readings he did for figures from history, myth, stories and fairytales.  Tarot Tells the Tale features 22 of these whimsical, poignant, and oft-times mind-blowing readings, using them as a teaching platform from which the author shows the reader how to…well, read!


Now, there are plenty of books available that give you meanings for the cards, give you spreads to use, or help you link tarot with the Kabbalah and numerology, but there are very few that actually tell you how to put this all together to create an intuitive and accurate tarot reading.  This is why Tarot Tells the Tale is not ‘just another’ standard tarot book, but one that offers something new and exciting to the tarot world.


It is important to note that the only spreads Ricklef uses in this book (with one exception that I will come to later) are three-card spreads, something I find positively refreshing.  The three-card spread is a woefully misunderstood spread.  It can give you a surprising amount of information, is perfect for beginner and advanced reader alike, and has a small enough number of cards to allow you to go into great depth with each one.  It is a common misperception that more cards means more or better information, and Tarot Tells the Tale is a book that thoroughly explores the versatility, depth, creativity and usefulness of this spread.


To do this, Ricklef gives the reader some ideas of different three-card spreads to use (and I am convinced there is a suggested spread for all possible questions here), from the traditional Past-Present-Future spread to the ingenious Life Purpose spread (which I have been using frequently on my friends who have all commented how useful and in-depth the spread was.) 


One of the best things about showing us all these variations of the three-card spread is that it inspires the reader to set about creating their own.  If you find it hard to move away from the Past-Present-Future framework with your spreads, this book will help you see more possibilities that can be used to give an in-depth reading.


This section of the various three-card spreads can be found in Section One of the book, which Ricklef states is primarily aimed at beginners.  However, I would strongly recommend that the more advanced readers, even if they’ve got 50+ years of Tarot experience under their belt, read this section, since it is chock full of inspirational and innovative ideas.  As well as including the three-card spreads, this section also looks at tarot reading ethics, re-phrasing badly worded questions, reversed cards, court cards, using numerology to interpret the Minors, and how to go about interpreting a spread.  Most importantly, Ricklef continually reaffirms the responsibility of the tarot reader to make the reading as choice-centered and empowering for the querent as possible, giving advice on how to turn the simple ‘Will I get the job?’ question into the more helpful ‘How can I improve my chances of getting the job?’ question.  Hid advice is such that it not only gives beginners a grounded foundation to work with, it also makes advanced readers think (and I mean properly think!) about their own tarot reading ‘habits’ and maybe re-evaluate their usual practice and improve it.


Section Two contains the tarot readings themselves, 22 of them to be precise: one for every Major Arcana.  I was particularly taken with the idea that Ricklef chose the reading for each card based on whether or not that card came up in the reading, or based on the character he was reading for and their situation.  For instance, Reading Three, “The Ultimate Lost Love” (Psyche and Eros) was chosen because of the appearance of the Empress (card three) in the reading.  Reading Two, “Woman Ponders Move to Paris” (Gertrude Stein) was chosen because Ricklef felt that Stein embodied the High Priestess (card two) perfectly. 


These readings are consistently entertaining, with their newspaper-headline titles (“Prime Minister Faces Difficult Decision”, “Golden Touch: Blessing or Curse?” and “Angels Tell Girl to Save France”.)  The uncanny and often tongue-in-cheek irony of some of the readings is frequently astounding and a fitting tribute to synchronicity (such as when the Empress, the card of Venus, shows up in a reading for Psyche who married Eros, Venus’ son.)


Each reading begins with the question, in letter form, from the querent, and continues with Ricklef’s reply.  This reply is in two parts- an explanation of the three-card spread being used and the cards that are in each position, and the interpretation.  Because of the fact that Ricklef often uses the actual image in the cards to gain meanings, each reading is illustrated with the deck he used when he did the reading.  This helps the reader see where he got some of his more intuitive interpretations from, and often helps highlight the importance of really looking at the cards and interpreting them for the querent, not just by reciting pre-learned lists of keywords. 


The most exciting feature of these readings however is the Commentary section that comes after each one.  This section, which is usually about the same length and the reading it is commenting on, is basically Ricklef telling the reader how he got the interpretation for that reading, how he chose which nuance out of the hundreds of possible nuances for each particular card.  Sometimes he tells us he picked up on a single symbol in a card.  Sometimes he noticed the way the characters in the cards were positioned in relation to each other.  Sometimes a phrase leaped to his mind, and sometimes numerology helped him.  Often, Ricklef also describes how he linked all the three cards together: an art that comes through practice and demonstration, though unfortunately very few books give sample readings for this (which, incidentally, was one of the original reasons Ricklef wanted to write a book featuring them.)


The sheer diversity of the readings featured (from Lady Macbeth seeking advice about how best to help her husband ascend the throne, to Cinderella asking how she can overcome her situation and find Mr. Right) allows Ricklef to demonstrate many different three-card spreads and methods of interpretation. 


I found these readings to be a marvelous way to teach the art of tarot reading.  It has been a long-held tradition in many crafts to learn by watching the master at work, and it seems that tarot is no different!  However (and herein lies yet another beauty of this book), Ricklef continually states that this is only his way of doing things, and that others may do differently with just as accurate results.  He teaches, not preaches, and often gives the reader information about methods he personally does not use, allowing them the all-important freedom to think for themselves. 


Section Three is about the Celtic Cross, a spread which in my opinion is done-to-death, and often useless for most querents.  It is also notoriously difficult to learn and use and I have long been an avid ‘Celtic-Cross-hater’.  However, reading Section Three helped me see how this 10-card spread can be split down into bite size chunks or mini-spreads in order to interpret it, and it is the most thorough exploration of this spread I have come across.  To demonstrate how useful this section is, I must confess that after reading it, I felt an overwhelming urge to try my hand at the hated spread, using Ricklef’s method.  (And whilst we’re at it, I must also confess to trying a few readings using reversals- an act which caused my housemate, a fellow anti-reversals tarot reader- to look at me as though I were the worst sort of traitor alive!)


To make interpreting a Celtic Cross spread easier, Ricklef provides the reader with a very effective and useful ‘Four Step plan,’ which I found provides a framework around which the interpretation can be based.  As with the three-card spreads, this method is demonstrated with a reading. 


Finally, the Appendices give card meanings, which are brief, but potentially useful for the beginner.  As usual, though, Ricklef points out that the meanings he gives are not the only meanings, and that the tarot student will (and should) explore other facets of the cards and build up their own meanings for them based on their readings, meditation, symbolism, and a synthesis of others’ views of the cards.


To conclude, I would recommend this book to everybody: beginners and advanced readers alike, as it really does have something for everyone.  Never before have I encountered such a well-written and thorough explanation of the process of interpretation and the three-card spread.  After quickly dipping into this book for five minutes whilst having my lunch, I suddenly found I could not put it down, and came away from it a better reader than before.  It would be a particularly useful book for anybody looking for new ways of card reading, or those looking for advice about how to get the most from small spreads. 


James Ricklef, I take my hat off to you, prostrate myself before your feet, raise my glass to you, give you a well-deserved standing ovation, and thank you for this wonderful addition to the tarot world. 


Click here and here to read other reviews of this deck.


If you would like to purchase Tarot Tells the Tale, click here.


Kim Huggens is a 19 year-old Pagan Tarot reader, reading Philosophy at Cardiff University.  She has been studying tarot since the age of nine, and runs talks and workshops on different aspects of the tarot.  She is President of the Cardiff University Pagan Society, and runs an online tarot course at www.witchschool.com.  She lives with her boyfriend in Cardiff, and currently has a tarot deck collection of over 150 decks.

Review © 2004 Kim Huggens
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes