Tarot Tells the Tale by James Ricklef and Tarot and Dream Interpretation by Julie Gillentine

Reviews by Ron Hogan


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


If you would like to purchase Tarot and Dream Interpretation, click here.


As “KnightHawk,” James Ricklef has written an online column for the American Tarot Association since 1999 in which he performs three-card readings for fictional characters, mythic figures and people from history. Tarot Tells the Tale collects 22 such readings, thematically arranged around the Major Arcana, plus a Celtic Cross reading (for the real-life woman on whose life The King and I was based).  But before we get to the readings, Ricklef guides us through the usual “Tarot 101” material: numerological and elemental associations, reversed cards and so on.  This section, which takes up nearly one-fifth of the book, will likely bore those already familiar with those who have turned to the book seeking new approaches to tarot reading, but may prove useful to others who want to use Ricklef's examples to better understand the basic reading process.


While he does suggest at one point that the tarot deck is just a deck of cards and that the true magic lies within the reader, Ricklef still tends to mystify the act of tarot reading by ascribing personality or consciousness to the cards.  Thus we hear of “the whispered truths of the Tarot,” and how he “always trusted the Tarot to speak to me, even...in seeming riddles” or when “expressing a sense of humor.”  When he performs a reading for Dr. Jekyll, he wonders why the Devil card doesn’t show up, then says “that would have been too obvious, and the Tarot works in subtler ways.”  On at least one occasion, however, he alludes to an authority above and beyond the deck, claiming “the Universe, speaking through the cards, never lies.”


So we are expected to believe that a tarot reading is a “soulful practice” of intuiting the “true meaning” of messages from the universe or some other guiding spirit.  If this were really the case, might it not then be frivolous to apply this technique to fictional characters and dead people?  Ricklef never fully addresses this potential dilemma, partially deflecting the issue by emphasizing the role of the reader’s own intuition in the process.  So you should free-associate when reading in order not to stifle your intuition, because an answer that makes sense will inevitably make itself known, even if you have to sort through several nonsense answers to get it.  (Which doesn’t prove that intuition “works,” only that if you make enough statements, the likelihood of one ringing true increases.)  He even advises you to cut the deck with your non-dominant hand because it’s “more under the influence of your intuitive brain.”  This is not uniformly true for all human beings, and neurologists might have more to say on the subject, but more importantly, which hand you cut the deck with has no significant impact on the cards that eventually turn up -- and certainly offers no metaphysical guarantee the “right” cards will appear.


Putting aside the arbitrary associations imposed upon the cards, and the irrational assumptions about the generation and interpretation of a given reading, let’s consider the content of Ricklef’s examples.  You may quickly grow annoyed, as I did, by his habit of beginning and ending each reading with cloying thank yous to the querent for allowing him to read for them.  You might also find his interpretations of these stories somewhat superficial.  Ricklef tells us he considers the King Midas story “amusing and endearing,” not exactly the way I would describe the tale of a man brought to the brink of starvation and forced to witness the apparent death of his beloved daughter.  But I came to suspect, after a while, that he had less familiarity with his sources than he let on.  For example, after performing the Jekyll reading, Ricklef “came to realize that the doctor’s potion separated the good and evil halves of his psyche, and was intended to give control of his life to his better half.”  But you hardly need to perform a tarot reading to figure that out, since Robert Louis Stevenson makes the point quite plain in the actual story.  Anyway, he advises Jekyll to love himself more and seek help from his friends, then glibly concludes, “Alas for poor Dr. Jekyll, if he ever did receive such advice, he obviously ignored it.”  But Jekyll never received such advice, of course, because he doesn’t exist outside of a fictional story.


The Death card shows up in a reading for Daedalus, the father of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, so Ricklef suggests “you will have to release something important in your life.”  Of course, Ricklef plays with a stacked deck, so to speak, because he already knows how this story, like all the stories he chooses, ends, but reminds us to inform querents the Death card almost never means someone will die.  Yet the point here appears to be that someone will (or, at the very least, might) die, and Ricklef has deliberately hidden that possibility from the querent.  If Daedalus existed in real life, one could conceivably argue that Ricklef’s choice to withhold this potential interpretation contributed to the death of Icarus by not fully alerting Daedalus to the specific risks involved in their flight.  This underlines the major flaw in the “Death doesn’t mean death” line of reasoning that dominates modern tarot interpretation, intended to make sure querents never feel threatened by tarot readings.  Avoiding discussion of death may leave the querent in a better mood, but as this reading shows, the omission may also do a fatal disservice.


The omission of death also colors Ricklef’s interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel, in which Abel says his brother has been “cold and withdrawn,” behaving strangely, and “may even be planning to do me harm.”  He asks, “What’s wrong?  Or am I just being paranoid?”  Ricklef refuses to answer that question, even fictionally, and suggests, “I think what you are trying to ask is something like, ‘What do you need to know about your relationship with your brother?’”  Well, no -- Abel doesn’t want to know about his relationship, he wants to know what’s wrong with his brother.  If a tarot reader can’t or won’t answer that, fine, but said reader should not then pretend the querent wants to know something other than the subject of his question.  Again, if Abel really existed, advice beyond the bland admonition to “help your brother find love in his own heart before it is too late” might have done a better job of alerting Abel to the presence of danger and saved his life.


Ricklef also asks, “Have you ever wondered what the heck Cain was thinking?”  If you’ve actually read Genesis, probably not, for you know “Cain was very wroth” because God had rejected his offering in favor of Abel’s.  The Devil card happens to come up in this reading, which leads Ricklef to ponder whether “the Devil made him do it,” but he rejects that notion because “typically the Devil card indicates the shadow aspects of our human nature.”  Typically, perhaps, if you buy into Ricklef’s preferred interpretive framework, which doesn’t have much room for the Judeo-Christian god and devil, relying instead on the New Age concept of the “Higher Self” or “the divinity within all of us.” 


He utilizes this concept to inappropriate effect during his “reading” for Joan of Arc, who wants to know if the voices in her head are “truly those of angels.”  Again rejecting the querent’s premise, he asks what Joan needs to know about the voices, suggesting that they may come from Joan’s Higher Self.  Never mind that people in her time didn’t believe in Higher Selves -- though they did believe in souls, the soul was not distinct from the individual and certainly didn’t exist on some higher, more divine level during the individual’s lifetime -- and would have considered his advice heretical.  (For that matter, Joan might have considered the very act of seeking advice from a tarot reader, if she even had recourse to such divination, an act of heresy as well.)


As you might guess from the examples above, Ricklef changes the question frequently to suit his own sense of what one can or cannot learn from the tarot.  Thus, no questions about what will happen (because one can always change the future), no questions about what one should do in a given situation (because one should always make decisions for oneself), no questions about the actions or thoughts of other people (for that would violate Ricklef’s ethics concerning privacy).  Every reading gets steered towards the preferred goal, “to provide the querent with insights about himself and about the world around him in order to show him how he can create the future he wants.”  (Hard to do, I’d say, when your jealous brother plots to kill you at the first opportunity!)  “What do I need to know about my relationship with...?” becomes a favorite substitute for all sorts of questions, such as “Will my boyfriend ask me to marry him?”  (He rejects another alternative framing of that question because “we can’t, in essence, ask what the querent can do to make her boyfriend propose to her -- when, actually, that seems a perfectly reasonable question.)


Still, we have no reason to doubt Ricklef’s claim that he didn’t preselect the cards for any given reading in order to find the “perfect” card for his characters.  I can’t say the same for the examples in Julie Gillentine’s Tarot and Dream Interpretation.  In the most blatant case, she lays out two cards for a woman who dreamt about her dead husband: the Queen of Swords and Death.  How fortuitous that she should get the perfect pair of cards to read for a widow!


Gillentine shows an even greater tendency towards mystification than Ricklef.  In the widow’s reading, for example, she proposes, “Perhaps the first husband chose to linger to reduce some karma from his part in causing the woman pain.”  Perhaps.  Then again, perhaps the first husband didn’t linger at all and existed in the dream only as a figment of the woman’s imagination.  But Gillentine never gives such commonsense explanations serious consideration, because she places too great a faith in the oracular quality of dreams to entertain the idea that a dream might NOT have a message for the dreamer.  (In this, she is heavily influenced by the teachings of Edgar Cayce.)  She also believes the use of tarot readings to interpret dreams creates a “powerful synergy” that “engages dream consciousness in the waking state.”  (Another interesting issue for a neurologist to take up, as she herself points out.)  And the spirit world plays a strong role in her interpretations of these dreams; in addition to the dead husband, her “clients” also encounter ghosts of 9/11 victims, connections to past lives, and messages from the ubiquitous Higher Selves.


Yet Gillentine doesn’t even fully engage the dreams given to her to interpret.  In one case, her client describes seeing cards from Crowley’s Thoth deck.  She recognizes the Death card, but not the other one, though she believes it comes from the Swords suit.  So Gillentine picks one for her, the Eight of Swords, “a woman blindfolded, tied, and surrounded by swords.”  The RWS Eight of Swords may contain that image, but the woman didn’t dream about cards from the RWS deck.  By switching decks on the client and interpreting the “wrong” card, Gillentine ignores data she should, by her own standards, scrutinize closely, thus distorting the final analysis.  In the end, this client “resolved to continue working with her dreams... to gain further wisdom into her issues.”  Maybe that’s the point: while many tarot readers advise querents not to rely too extensively on readings, Gillentine’s dream reading model could provide justification for frequent consultations to “work with” the client’s dreams, subtly increasing the querent’s dependence upon tarot or the tarot reader.


Both books are padded with introductory material on suggested card meanings, but Gillentine loads her book even further, throwing in a 50-page “dream dictionary” and organizing her presentation to run through all the dream spreads once, then go through them again with sample cards when she could much more efficiently present the material by offering a spread and a sample reading together. 

When you get right down to it, using tarot to interpret dreams simply “explains” one story by telling another story, with no guarantee, other than Gillentine’s assumptions, that either story will have anything to do with the other.  The story the cards tell depends entirely upon which cards turn up, creating any number of possible stories -- so unless you believe some Divine energy controls card placement as well as dream content, the tarot reading offers only random images to juxtapose against other (potentially random) images.  Although I suspect they didn’t intend to do so, she and Ricklef actually provide strong evidence AGAINST a mystical component to tarot reading by demonstrating how we can apply the cards to all sorts of situations, even unreal ones, and achieve similar results in all cases.  While this doesn’t necessarily denigrate the stories we project onto the cards when reading for ourselves or other actual people, it should alert us to the fact that those stories have no source beyond our own imaginations.

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


If you would like to purchase Tarot and Dream Interpretation, click here.

Ron Hogan has no particular connection to Tarot, other than owning a couple of decks, but he has interviewed hundreds of authors, including Rachel Pollack, for his website.

Reviews © 2003 Ron Hogan
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes