Tuesday, November 13, 2012


THE HOBBIT TAROT, just released, is by the same people who did THE LORD OF THE RINGS TAROT fifteen years ago: Peter Pracownik (artist) and Terry Donaldson (accompanying booklet), with even the same publisher: U.S. Games Systems, who publish an amazing variety of tarot decks, from the classic Rider-Waite tarot (which started the modern tarot tradition*) to my personal favorite, the Morgan-Greer tarot (which makes a great Deck of Many Things, for those playing classic ADandD 1st edition, as well as interesting bookmarks).

Having looked through the deck quickly and read some (but by no means all) of the booklet identifying the characters on each card, explaining the symbolism of details (much of it non-Tolkienian), and giving it divinatory significance, I have to say I'm disappointed. Some of the art is nicely done (the ones the box, front and back, for example, is among the best in the set) but many of them have a kind of plastic look to me.

The art's also inconsistent from card to card: for example, Smaug appears on both major arcana XV (The Devil), in which he destroys Laketown, and XVI (The Tower), in which he lays waste the mountainside. But in one he's portrayed as a winged serpent, completely legless, while in the other he has arms and legs, just as Tolkien described (and showed) him; XXI (The World) shows him with legs again. Similarly, the pictures of Gollum on cards X (The Wheel of Fortune) and XII (The Hanged Man) show a strikingly different figure.  And just to confuse things, Gollum reappears twice more, on card XVIII (The Moon) and the Six of Cups, in both of which he resembles the figure on X, not XII.  A little more consistency in how major characters appeared wd have been nice.

There too, sometimes the description of the card in the booklet doesn't match the art that actually appears on the card, as in XIII (Death), which shows the Great Goblin pierced by arrows, or when the description of card IX (The Sun) says "We see Mirkwood in the distance" and we don't. One of the worst offenders, XI (Justice), is said in the booklet to show Bilbo giving the Arkenstone to the Elvenking, while the card itself shows and entirely different scene, one that never appears in Tolkien's work: Bilbo and Thorin under a tree with a scale; Thorin is hushing Bilbo, while Sting and the Arkenstone lie in the foreground. All v. symbolic, no doubt, but not v. Tolkienian.

Finally, there are the non-Tolkienian elements, as when XVIII (The Moon) refers to the moon as "she", or when XVII (The Star) shows an eight-rayed star over a seven-sided septogram, or when Bungo Baggins is shown with a mustache. Also in this category is the card-back, which shows the One Ring in a pattern with twelve other rings and some tengwar --whereas there are of course twenty Rings of Power altogether, and it's hard to think of a combination that wd fit their pattern (ten in outer positions, surrounding two who are opposing the One).

The set occasionally brings in characters or events that don't actually occur in THE HOBBIT itself but are only known through THE LORD OF THE RINGS (e.g. Smeagol's murder of Deagol, who is here described as his brother). Perhaps the oddest reach is their feeling they had to include some female characters or images when there are no female characters in THE HOBBIT, aside from a mention of the (late) Belladonna Baggins. Their solution is to show Belladonna and Bungo on one card (VI. The Lovers), with Bag End in the background. 

Outside the Major Arcana, the four Queen cards of the various suits show more of their straining to get Tolkien's work to fit their pre-set pattern. The four figures they chose were 

1. The Queen of Cups: Goldberry bathing in a pool by moonlight, watched by Tom. Presumably this is the prelude to his capture of her; the booklet text, weirdly enough, suggests she might be pregnant -- in which case we have to wonder what became of the child over the next eighty-odd years.

2. The Queen of Wands: A lady of Laketown, displaying her wares (a basket of apples). The text suggests a tempress subtext, which seems unlikely given that her customer is a woman herself, apparently older than the apple-vendor.

3. The Queen of Swords: A warg howling at the Moon. The text says this is a female warg, howling for the loss of her kin in the Battle of Five Armies. Pretty far fetched, but there it is.

4. The Queen of Cups: Another lady of Laketown, this time sweeping the grass or reeds by the shore of the lake, daft as that sounds. 

So, too bad: cd have been great, but is neither faithful enough to Tolkien nor appealing enough as a set of images to pull the whole thing off.

I do have to say, though, that of all the things that have come out based on his works over the years, I think Tolkien would have been more upset by these two tarot decks than anything else -- cartoons, films, "pipeweed" smoking, hippy buttons, fan-fiction: the works. What next, the Necromancer's Ouija?

--John R.

*Rider was the artist, Arthur Waite (Charles Williams' mentor in the Golden Dawn) the occultist who came up with the symbology used and its interpretation.


Mithrennaith said...

Begging your pardon, but as to the name of the Rider-Waite tarot: the Rider Co. was the publisher, the artist was Pamela Coleman-Smith.

Nancy Bell said...

Rider was the publisher, not the artist. The artist was Pamela Coleman Smith