Past, present and future are literally in the cards for the characters that populate Charles Williams‘ 1932 novel The Greater Trumps. Curmudgeonly, perpetually dissatisfied Lothair Coningsby, a Warden of Lunacy having a bit of a mid-life crisis, has inherited a collection of rare decks of cards from a late close friend. Among them is a hand-painted deck of Italian tarot cards, dated circa mid-15th century, that turns out to be very special indeed.
It is the original tarot deck, and corresponds to miniature golden figures that move as if by magic across a golden plate, in an intricate interlocking pattern that seems to defy human understanding. Each figure corresponds to a card in the deck: four suits, each with 10 numbered cards, and four “court cards” (Page, Knight, Queen and King), plus the so-called “Greater Trumps,” or Major Arcana. In the midst of all those figures is The Fool, or Nought, which anchors the entire deck and yet doesn’t seem to move at all (or does it, if one only has eyes to see)?
But this particular tarot deck isn’t just about the symbolism; it possesses real power over the traditional four elements (earth, air, fire and water). As Henry Lee, the gypsy-blooded fiance of Nancy Coningsby explains, “It’s said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire.” (Indeed, when he and Nancy put the cards to the test, her shuffling does indeed produce actual dirt.) “That’s of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it’s said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the ever-lasting dance.” The Fool is the key to understanding that great cosmic dance, enabling the one with that comprehension to predict the future based on the present. Henry Lee and his grandfather desperately want to have that power, and their desire fuels the events that ultimately unfold — first with catastrophic, then with sublime, results.
Williams is hardly a household name in today’s literary circles. He is one of the lesser known members of the so-called Oxford Inklings. (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are the most famous members.) He was forced to leave University College London before completing his degree for financial reasons, but that didn’t keep him from pursuing a life of letters, and eventually acquiring an honorary master’s degree for his trouble.
He worked (initially as a proofreading assistant) at Oxford University Press from 1908 until his death in 1945, work which apparently left him plenty of time to write. In addition to his novels, he wrote Arthurian poetry, numerous works of literary criticism, and The Figure of Beatrice, an analysis of the Divine Comedy that is still cited by today’s Dante scholars. When the Press moved from London to Oxford after the outbreak of World War II, Williams began attending the Inkling meetings on a regular basis, getting their input on his final novel, All Hallow’s Eve, and having the privilege of hearing some of the earlier drafts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy-in-progress.
Like Lewis, Williams was a devout Christian, but his belief system had a few odd quirks, with more than a hint of mysticism and a fascination with classical philosophy and pagan myths. That pagan/mystic bent infuses all his novels, in which supernatural forces routinely impinge on ordinary daily lives, transforming his characters in the process. Doppelgangers, succubi, ghosts, palmistry, the Holy Grail, African tribal lore, and the Platonic archetypes all make appearances in Williams’ fiction. He briefly belonged to the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn — which is probably where he acquired his familiarity with the tarot cards that play such a central role in The Greater Trumps. (The Golden Dawn established most of the various “meanings” associated with modern tarot cards.)
Tarot decks have a murky, frequently disputed history; the Wikipedia entry is littered with missing citations and cautionary notes. But the bits of history Williams relates in The Greater Trumps is fairly accurate, considering their mysterious provenance. While there are many legends that purport to tie tarot decks with ancient Egypt, there is no reliable evidence for this. Historians generally agree that generic playing cards first appeared in Europe in the late 14th century, probably migrating over from Islamic Spain, and there is certainly a tradition of using more traditional decks for divination purposes. Tarot as a game seems to have emerged in the early to mid-15th century in Northern Italy: a normal deck of 52 cards, to which the 21 carte da trionfi (“triumph cards”) were added, along with the Fool.
Tarot decks were used for gaming at first; written records of their use in divination don’t appear until the 18th century, when they became quite popular with leading occultists of that period, and became associated with magic and mysticism. The alleged Egyptian connection is attributed to a Swiss clergyman named Antoine Court de Gebelin, who believed the popular Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and the Egyptian Book of Thoth. (It wasn’t true, but nonetheless the legend spread.) A prominent French occultist named Alliette used the tarot to tell fortunes just before the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, was fascinated by tarot readings, which helped popularize them further. Today, the most widely used deck in the US is the Rider-Waite Tarot, featuring images drawn by artist Pamela Colman-Smith in accordance with the instruction of Christian mystic/occultist Arthur Edward Waite, first published in 1910. (Both Waite and Smith were members of the Golden Dawn.)
No doubt because of the rich complexity of their symbolism, tarot cards figure in almost every artistic medium imaginable. For instance, Bizet’s Carmen has a pivotal scene in which Carmen and her two gypsy pals read their fortunes in the cards. Her friends see love and wealth, but the doomed Carmen can only see her own death. Sci-fi author Roger Zelazny has his characters in the Amber fantasy series use magical decks of tarot cards to communicate with each other (each of the Major Arcana represents a character). Television is rife with tarot references: the decks are a major feature in the HBO series Carnivale, and have been featured in episodes of the 1994 teen drama My So-Called life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and (more recently) Monk. Woody Allen’s latest film, Scoop, features a serial killer in London whose signature is a tarot card left at the crime scenes. And the cards have become an art form in and of themselves: all manner of uniquely designed decks have cropped up, from mystical New Age decks like the Tarot of the Cat People, to decks based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and even a deck devoted to computer geeks, where the major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, and The Garage. (The suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts, while the court cards are the CIO, the Salesman, the Marketer and the New Hire.)
Clearly, tarot cards hold a fascination for us that has little to do with divination, igniting our imaginations in some very intriguing ways. I learned how to read tarot spreads myself in the 1990s — not because I attribute any special powers to either myself or the cards, but because I was fascinated by their symbolism and how they could be arranged in so many different combinations to essentially tell a story. There are certain universal elements that seem to resonate with the human psyche, and these are built into the tarot design, and the associated meanings of each card. Noted psychologist Carl Jung was fascinated by tarot symbolism — like me, not because he ascribed to them any mystical powers, but for what those symbols revealed about human nature in general, and the specific fixations and subconscious yearnings of his patients.
Jung might have been onto something. People do seem to crave reassurance about their decisions and direction in life, even if their “fortunes” merely serve to reinforce what their gut instincts have already determined. They look to things like crystals, tarot cards, and astrology, in addition to psychotherapy, as one means of getting that reassurance — and perhaps as an avenue to acquiring deeper self-knowledge. A recent article in the Washington Post by the self-described “spiritually sensitive” Rachel Machacek relates her experiences visiting five different psychics in a single day as an exercise in determining whether there is anything to be gained by such ventures. She concludes:
“My day of fortunetelling included some nerve-jangling moments. And it got me thinking about where I’d been, my current situation and what the future holds for me. And I suppose that’s the point of any therapy: awareness and acknowledgment of your issues, and moving forward guided by positive forces.”
That’s the sort of mushy, unfocused, vaguely New Age sentiment that sets a skeptic’s teeth on edge, especially if said skeptic has any background in science. After all, science is predicated on our ability to make accurate predictions about the world based on precise, universal physical laws, using the language of mathematics. Well, sort of: things can get a bit weird at the subatomic level, where we can only assign probabilites, because the very act of observing something causes it to change, such that any information we glean about, say, an electron is no longer valid a moment later. We can use science to make useful predictions about some things, but not others: the weather, for instance, remains unpredictable beyond a few days, and while statistical analysis can help traders on Wall Street better navigate the rising and falling of the stock market, it can’t determine those fluctuations with 100% accuracy. There are just too many variables.
So, while the old Pythagorean notion of the music of the celestial spheres might have fallen by the wayside, that doesn’t mean Nature isn’t engaged in an elaborately intricate dance all her own. Williams’ novel even cites the movement of electrons (discovered just a few decades earlier) as being among those steps. Nature’s dance includes “everything that changes, and there is nothing nowhere that does not change,” and it is that change that makes the future so hard to predict. Even if the characters in The Greater Trumps can pin down one exact moment, in a flash, that moment is over and their observation is no longer accurate.
And it can change in a myriad of different directions, each change begetting more change, branches upon branches in the evolutionary timeline. Replay the same scene and alter just one tiny element, and you may find — as meteorologist Edward Lorenz did in the 1960s when he sought to create a predictive model for the weather — that things play out in entirely different ways, with dramatically different outcomes. Our fortunes, the twists and turns in the road of human life, just have too many variables. In their own way, the fictional Henry Lee and his gypsy grandfather are pursuing a sort of science, seeking absolute truth in a constantly changing world. But as physicist Richard Feynman once shrewdly observed, Nature doesn’t always willingly reveal her secrets. Certain elements of the great cosmic dance seem to be always hovering just beyond our ken — which is what makes life so interesting. We continually seek new knowledge and greater understanding, and this in turn raises new questions and mysteries to be solved. It is, indeed, a never-ending cosmic dance.
When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette writes about science and culture on her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics. Her latest book, The Physics of the Buffyverse, has just been published by Penguin.