Tarot Tells the Tale: Explore Three-Card Readings Through Familiar Stories by James Ricklef
Review by Joan Cole

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

In another life as a computer programmer, I used to devour books that demonstrated a new programming language or method of database access by building a toy program complete with source code, and then commenting on each segment as it was built.  These books were so much more efficient for getting up to speed quickly than a book that described the various elements of the language devoid of any context.  Ricklef has written the same kind of book, but for Tarot reading rather than computer programming.  It will appeal to the same kind of person – someone who wants to get down to business quickly, and go back to learning things more formally and thoroughly after getting a few projects of their own under their belt.  By working alongside the book, a beginner to intermediate-level reader will be able to learn the process of pulling a reading together.  Those contemplating doing readings for the American Tarot Association’s Free Reading Network will find this book useful for seeing the style, length and depth of the interpretation that is typical of these three-card email readings.

What does the book cover?

James Ricklef wrote a popular column for the American Tarot Association newsletter called “Ask KnightHawk”.  It was based on the premise:


“Why not do three-card readings to give advice to well-established fictional characters?  Wouldn’t a column based on that concept be both entertaining and informative?”

These readings for fictional characters form the core of this book.  They are bookended by a short review of some Tarot topics that novices often find difficult at the beginning and a card by card summary of meanings at the end.


Preludes- Numerological and Elemental Associations, Court Cards, Finding Card Meanings, Reversed Cards, Rephrasing the Question, Three-Card Spreads, Pulling it Together, Ethical Considerations  – all of this material is covered in 61 pages.  Ricklef does not delay his reader too long with introductory material before getting down to business.  From my work with people who self-identify as “beginners” in the bookstore tarot study group I facilitate, I can say that the way he summarizes this material is very useful and succinct.  The sections on rephrasing questions and ethical considerations summarize issues that someone embarking on reading for the Free Tarot Network and Free Reading Network will encounter, and will need to know how they want to handle.  In that kind of reading, you are are not face to face with the person who emails the question “Am I pregnant?” or “Will Johnny come back?” or “Will I win my lawsuit?”  Ricklef presents what you might call the party line on handling these questions.  Even if you don’t believe the question should be rephrased, if you’ve only done the kinds of spiritual self-development readings that we tend to do for ourselves or our friends who are also interested in tarot, you might not realize the kinds of questions you’ll encounter in reading for the networks, and it is useful to be prepared with a strategy that fits with your own beliefs.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.


Three-Card KnightHawk Readings – Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Gertrude Stein, Psyche, Prodigal Son, Aristotle, Jeckyll and Hyde, Churchill, Dorothy, Einstein, King Midas, Thomas Jefferson, George Bailey, Daedalus, Joan of Arc, Pygmalion, Hamlet, Ugly Duckling, Lady MacBeth, Jane Pittman, Marie Curie, and Abel.  There are as many readings as there are cards in the Major Arcana, and for the most part, the readings contain the Major Arcana card of that position.  These readings are short, about four printed pages in length.  In each case, they begin with a “Dear Abby” letter from the character requesting the reading.  This is followed by the response letter, in the same kind of format you would see a FRN reading presented:


Dear name,

Thanks for asking for a reading

Here’s the spread I used

The first card means

The second card means

The third card means

Thank you for letting me read for you



Generally, each card is discussed in a single short paragraph.  The response letter is followed by a page or two of comments where Ricklef describes why he selected the spread he did, and why he gave the interpretive spin he did for each card.


A Celtic Cross KnightHawk Tarot Reading – Ricklef demonstrates how to interpret the difficult spread that every new Tarot reader seems to learn about first.


“In my book KnightHawk’s Tarot Readings, I noted that reading larger spreads, such as this one, can be aided by interpreting smaller two- to four-card mini-spreads within them.  This chapter demonstrates that process.  It shows how the reading techniques learned through studying three-card spreads can be applied to the interpretation of larger spreads.”

After discussing some of the mini-spreads that appear within the larger Celtic Cross spread at a general level, he does the reading Woman Ponders Proposition from King of Siam.  It’s handled in the same general way as the shorter readings, but as the spread is more complex, the card by card summary is followed by a a discussion of some of the card clusters and the insights they bring.  This is another nugget of tarot strategy not found in the typical beginner book.

Appendix 1: Comments on the Seventy-Eight Tarot Cards – For each card, he gives a quotation, keywords, a few paragraphs of commentary, and a paragraph on the advice the card is typically giving if it comes up in a reading.

Appendix 2: Card/Reading Cross-Reference – This is simply a list of which KnightHawk readings each card appeared in.

Bibliography and References – books, newsletters, zines and websites.

Who is likely to be unhappy with the book?

Someone looking for in-depth commentary on the “tales” KnightHawk does readings on will be unhappy with the rather surface-level coverage.  Just as with the programming books I used to buy, the tales are merely a device for making a point about tarot.  With the programming books, you would be a fool to really use the sample program to build a real-life point of sale system, as the real-life complexity is ignored in the samples.  In the same way, this book is not about the tales themselves.  You will not get any deep insight on Cinderella, for instance.

Someone who has no intention of reading for the public, especially in situations that do not allow face-to-face discussion will likely disagree with the strategy for doing a reading that is demonstrated here. 

Someone who is an absolute beginner still needs another book to cover the standard beginner fare.  This book does not devote any space to topics such as what is the Major Arcana, what is the Minor Arcana, how should you shuffle the cards, and so forth.

Someone who has moved beyond the tricky stage between beginner and intermediate reader, and is comfortable with a variety of spreads will probably find too little new information here to justify the purchase price.  This is definitely not targeted to advanced readers, or even advanced intermediate readers.

Someone interested in tarot from an esoteric/occult perspective, art history perspective, or even self-discovery perspective will not be satisfied, and will probably feel it is hopelessly shallow.  This book is not written for those audiences.  It is entirely focused on doing a particular kind of reading.

What does it have to recommend it?

This is a great book for someone who is just past beginner stage who is starting to think about reading cards for other people.  This is a great book for someone who prefers to learn by example rather than reading through long theoretical explanations.  Finally, this is the perfect book for someone who wants to know the philosophy and style of reading for the ATA’s online Reading Networks, or any kind of online reading for strangers.


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

Joan Cole is a stay-at-home mom and former geek.   She has been studying Tarot off and on since the early 1980's.  You can see her deck collection here.

Review © 2004 Joan Cole
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes