The Fairytale Tarot
By Lisa Hunt
Llewellyn Publications, 2009
Review by Kim Huggens
There is something inherently magical and wondrous about the Fairytale Tarot, something that enchants and draws you in, something mysterious yet enlightening about the artwork and stories… In this, her second solo deck and her fifth deck in total, Lisa Hunt has seamlessly merged fantastical fairytales from around the world with traditional Tarot archetypes to provide a deck and book set that is not only readable but beautiful, insightful, and original.
You may have seen Lisa’s artwork in decks where she collaborated with author D.J. Conway: the Celtic Dragon Tarot, Shapeshifter Tarot, and Fantastical Creatures Tarot. Having used these decks extensively over the years, I was excited to see Lisa’s Animals Divine Tarot (which she both painted and authored, her first solo Tarot deck) to see what kind of an author this wonderful artist was. I was pleased, and this magical combination of award-winning paintings with an open, informative, and relaxed writing style make the Fairytale Tarot arguably her best work. The artwork, although brilliant in her earlier decks, has improved to near-perfection, and her style is instantly recognizable. The artwork, executed in watercolours and soft pencils, is attractive and open, making the cards easy to read and symbols easy to identify. Every card image is expressive, evoking the feelings and emotions of the card perfectly.
The Fairytale Tarot bears a traditional Tarot structure of 78 cards, 22 Majors and the 56 Minors and Courts. In places the titles of the Major Arcana have been altered to fit the deck’s theme more accurately and express the meaning of those cards in relation to fairytale conventions. So:
Fool – Innocence
High Priestess – Sorceress
Empress – Fairy Godmother
Emperor – Wise Old Man
Hierophant – Mentor
Strength – Courage
Hanged Man – Entrapment
Death – Transformation
Devil – Temptation
Tower – Deception
Judgement – Redemption
World – Happily Ever After
It is delightful to see how these new titles not only add extra layers of meaning to a traditional understanding of these cards, but also how they link nicely with the work of Joseph Campbell, a famous mythologist whose work on the Hero’s Journey is – in my opinion – invaluable reading for any Tarot student. These new titles put the Major Arcana into a context of the Hero’s/Fool’s Journey more clearly, showing how the innocent Fool (or protagonist of a myth/fairytale) progresses through experiences to meet his Happily Ever After.
The Minor Arcana bear traditional suit titles of Cups, Pentacles, Swords and Wands, and unlike the Celtic Dragon and Shapeshifter Tarot the elemental attributions are for Fire – Wands and Air – Swords, symbolism I personally find preferable and which became a slight stumbling block in my reading of earlier decks from Lisa and D.J. Conway. Further, these Minors are not just the afterthought of an artist such as is found in so many other decks, but rather they are equally as considered, beautiful, and evocative as the Majors. The Court Cards have retained their titles of Princess, Prince, Queen and King (although some readers will be more familiar with the Rider Waite-style Page, Knight instead of the Thoth-style Princess, Prince), with only one change: Princesses are not the Page, and Princes are not Knights, a convention most Tarot readers are familiar with. Instead Lisa has switched them round so that the Princesses correspond to the traditional Knight/Prince and the Princes correspond to the traditional Page/Princess. At first this annoyed me and I got confused, but found it very easy to remind myself to read the Princesses and Princes “the other way round”.
As the title of the deck suggests, every card in the deck has a fairytale from around the world associated with it. Thus, the card images evoke not only the card meaning and interpretation, but also the events and characters of the story as well. It is always difficult for an artist to find the balance between portraying the story and the meaning in such decks, and in the cases of certain cards I feel that Lisa presented the story more than the card meaning, but overall I think she maintained a healthy balance between the two. Luckily, for any images one is unsure of, there is a companion book to refer to for the story!
One of the best things about the stories that Lisa has attached to the cards is that they are all very well chosen. There’s not a single card that I looked at and disagreed with the story choice for. Each story evokes perfectly the card meaning and symbolism, yet also add extra layers of meaning that speak more personally to the individual. Thus, even an experienced Tarot reader may find themselves pleasantly surprised at the insights revealed by the stories that accompany the cards they are otherwise so familiar with – I had an experience with the Five of Cups that left me reeling (in a good way)!
Every card is detailed and highly symbolic, with over-the-top occult symbolism completely removed in favour of more naturalistic images. Where before one might have seen a particular Golden Dawn staff, one now finds carvings in trees and faces reflected in moonlit pools; where one might have needed to refer to the Tree of Life before, here we see the card’s general theme portrayed instead on the character’s face or in their posture. Such symbolism speaks more readily to beginners, to younger readers, and to those who would rather read the cards intuitively than have to remember dozens of different occult systems to gain interpretation. Further, Lisa’s trademark – the almost-not-there faces and figures hidden in trees, mountains, smoke, lakes, and rivers – portrays the natural world as alive, a constant reminder of the childhood imagination manifested in fairytales.
These stunning images are made all the better by the fact that the cards are borderless, allowing you to step right into the images and more freely link them in readings as connected rather than as isolated events. The images are more open this way and seem so much bigger, despite the size of the cards themselves being the standard Llewellyn measurements (2 3/4″ by 4 3/4″). The card backs are completely reversible, bearing a simple yet striking image of a two-headed old-fashioned key that reminds me of the key that opens the door to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden.
The companion book, entitled “Once Upon a Time…” is a complete joy to read. Lisa has retold every single fairytale for our enjoyment and benefit, then described the symbolism in every card and the way the associated tale represents the card meaning and how it might reflect our selves and our lives. It also features an impressive and extensive bibliography that would be an excellent resource for anybody wishing to research further the fairytales themselves. The book is also introduced by a succinct explanation of how fairytales are food for us: the same reasons why Tarot is good for us! In this short section, Lisa manages to demonstrate that the two are most definitely symbolically related and serve the same purpose.
The book presents a couple of new spreads, but I was hoping to see more spreads and perhaps some exercises or ways of using the deck that were more in keeping with the fairytale theme. However, anybody with a little time on their hands would be able to consider their own methods of using the deck. For instance, if you had children you could ask them to pull a card from the deck each night and read them that particular story, using it as a basis to discuss the image and the child’s feelings about the story. (This technique, I have found, works just as well for “grown-ups”!)
My first thought upon looking through the deck was that it would be especially good for children and families, and I also wondered if the deck was perhaps a little too “girly”, since it shows more female figures than men. However, upon showing my two best friends (who are both men in their mid 30’s), the positively gushy and enthusiastic response from them indicated that my initial judgement was incorrect: this deck is, in fact, a deck for anybody. Beginner or advanced reader, young or old, male or female, the card images and the associated fairytales speak to themes and feelings that are beyond all these transient states.
Thankyou Lisa. The Fairytale Tarot is utterly delightful.