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The Lord of the Rings' interlace: from Tolkien to Tarot.


J. R. R. Tolkien's reinvention of the medieval "romance" in The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) was complete; his famous narrative not only demonstrates that genre's markers of allegorical or archetypal characters, quest theme, and interlaced narrative structure, but like medieval narratives, has also inspired a great deal of visual art,1 including The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck and Card Game developed by writer Terry Donaldson, artist Peter Pracownik, and game designer Mike Fitzgerald and published by US Games Systems in 1997.2 Like many contemporary adaptations of Tarot, this deck follows historical precedent in that it consists of a twenty-two card "major arcana" and a fifty-six card "minor arcana" with suits of pentacles (coins), cups, swords, and wands, each with four court and ten numbered cards. The major arcana was probably invented circa 1425 in Italy as a set of trumps for the regular playing deck available in Europe from the later half of the fourteenth century; Tarot was just a regular deck with twenty-two "trumps" and a Queen added to the court cards to facilitate game variety (Decker et al., 29-31). It is, however, the Rider-Waite deck (1909), directed by Golden Dawn member Arthur Waite and created by artist Pamela Smith, that has become prototypical of the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Most "new" decks are either annotative insofar as they maintain the general Rider-Waite appearance and aesthetic, or discursive insofar as they maintain that deck's structure and general associations but also integrate one or more literary works, mythologies, and/or cultures (Auger 2002, 2004). The Lord of the Rings deck is discursive because it integrates Tarot and a single author's work, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and, to a lesser extent, The Hobbit. Contemporary Tarot is also, however, like Tolkien's narrative, a kind of reinvention of the medieval romance; thus the goal of this paper is to examine the connections between the medieval romance and Tarot in general, and The Lord of the Rings and Donaldson and Pracownik's deck in particular, with attention to archetypes, the quest theme, and interlace narrative structure.


Carl Jung defined archetypes as essentially empty forms from which the individual must derive his own meaning and experience; the archetype is simply an a priori "possibility of representation" (Archetypes 79) until it is articulated in dreams, mythology, life, works of art and literature, and, of course, Tarot. (3) The specific archetypes Jung identified, such as the child, the trickster, the mother, and so forth are features of medieval romance and The Lord of the Rings; virtually all of The Lord of the Rings characters are easily recognizable archetypes aligned with the forces of light or darkness, or possibly torn between the two. Tarot artists also enjoy rearticulating these archetypes, developing their own major arcana images of Strength, Temperance, Justice, and so forth; in the creative context, the allegory emphasized in the pre-modern world merges seamlessly with the archetype favored by the modern.

The creators of The Lord of the Rings Tarot likewise redeveloped the major arcana cards, as well as several from the minor arcana, by dedicating them to single characters or symbols, frequently emphasizing them as "archetypes" by leaving out or de-emphasizing specific narrative markers. Such major arcana cards include: Fool (Gollum), Magician (Gandalf), Empress (Belladonna Took, Galadriel, and Rose Gamgee), Hierophant (Saruman), Strength (The White Tree; fig. 4), Hermit (Tom Bombadil), Wheel (Ring; fig. 5), Justice (Oathbreakers; fig. 6), Star (Galadriel's Ring), Moon (Minas Morgul/Minas Ithil), Sun (Shire), and World (Middle Earth). Similar minor arcana cards include: Nine Swords (Nine Riders), Ten Swords (Sauron's power), Ace Wands (Master Ring and Fires of Mount Doom), Eight of Wands (Gandalf riding Shadowfax), Seven of Cups (Seven Palantiri), King of Coins (Treebeard), Knight of Coins (Soldier of Gondor stands guard), Four of Coins (White Tree), and Nine of Coins (Nine Rings around the Tree of Life). While these assignments are quite apt in relation to the archetypal meanings of the cards, particularly those of the major arcana, it is also clear that the conflation of Tarot and Tolkien alters the card associations insofar as Tolkien's characters are more specific or more character-like than the "types" of the Tarot archetypes: the Tarot Fool is any Fool, the Lord of the Rings' Fool is Gollum.

Another noteworthy characteristic of the card assignments in this deck is that no card shows Frodo, Sam, Merry or Pippin alone. Those who, as George Thomson notes, serve as the most modern, humanized characters, whose points of view generally serve as Tolkien's narrative centers (56), are lent no such privilege within the deck. They appear in pairs and groups on several cards involved in various actions, but never by themselves as do almost all the other major characters. Indeed, Hobbits appear on only three of the major arcana cards: the first, in major arcana Tarot order, is on the Empress card where Belladonna Took and Rose Gamgee appear on either side of the Elf Galadriel; Frodo and Sam appear for the first time on the Temperance card along with Gollum (fig. 1); and Frodo appears with Gandalf on the Judgment Card.

The absence of Hobbit individuals from the deck is in keeping with the modern practice of removing a card as a "significator" to represent the querent for whom a "reading" is done to avoid the possibility of its contradictory appearance as the outcome of a spread. The absence of such a card in The Lord of the Rings Tarot visually maintains the treatment of the Hobbits as narrative centers--they are almost always in the text, never outside of it. The user of this Tarot deck is thus already identified, not only as a reader of Tolkien but also with Hobbits: the need to remove a card to represent the querent is obviated by the fact that no card shows a single Hobbit so no such card can appear as the outcome of a reading. Indeed, the directions for reading with The Lord of the Rings Tarot do not include the removal of a querent card before beginning.



In his Anatomy of Criticism Northrop Frye summarizes the typical sequence of a quest based narrative as involving six principle elements: the hero's unusual birth, innocent youth, quest involving sacrifice, the success of the quest in the preservation of innocence and goodness in society, the restoration of the cycle of fertility through the union of lovers, and finally, the ending of action by the assertion of a contemplative state. Most readers will find these elements readily apparent in Tolkien's tale (Thomson 45-8); and for Tarot users, they are equally apparent in the deck. It was, however, only in the eighteenth century that Tarot evolved from a game to a divinatory tool, and it was the later twentieth century before its applications in meditative and other creative exercises became popular and artists and querent-readers began to use it for the analysis and re-articulation of various cultural traditions, including the quest.

The contemporary understanding of the Tarot deck as representing the archetypal quest characteristic of the medieval romance is a view made familiar by such popular authors as Sallie Nichols, Rachael Pollack, and Joseph Campbell, all of whom interpret the major arcana as showing the stages of life and the evolution of consciousness. Nichols, for example, author of Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, understands the major arcana as dividing naturally into tiers with three rows of seven cards each (17). The first row, beginning with the Magician, shows the "realm of the Gods," or that of the major archetypes; the second row shows the "realm of earthly reality and ego consciousness" in which the "hero" of the Chariot seeks to make a place for himself in the world; and the third, beginning with the Devil, shows the "realm of heavenly illumination and self-realization" in which the hero turns from the outer to the inner world (16-20).

The minor arcana cards of contemporary revised decks are also frequently treated as elements in more specific variations of the quest narrative. According to Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot, the Rider-Waite minor arcana "present[s] a continuous story throughout the sequence of the cards in each suit"; the kings are fathers, queens are mothers, and knights are sons. For example, the Swords are supposed to tell the story of a sister's search for revenge against those who killed her brother; the ten shows the son killed, nine the sister grieving, eight the sister seeking revenge captured, seven shows help coming, six her rescue, five the assisting page becomes a warrior, in four he is killed, and in three the sister thus sorrows again, but as two shows, she still seeks revenge. The Ace suggests that those who live by the sword will die by it. The other suits tell stories of a similar type: Coins or pentacles tell the story of a rich family whose wealth becomes the basis of various temptations and alternatives; the suit of staves tells the story of a family divided by the old and new ways of progress; and Cups show the "paths to happiness and the search of two brothers for companionship" (1: 272).

The minor arcanas of contemporary Tarot decks do not obviously imitate these stories, but the images, like those of the Rider-Waite deck, do tend to fall into three basic visual types: emblematic, that is, the card designs show embellished variations on the suit elements; gestural, that is, the cards show one or a few figures engaged in a simple, easily identified gesture with little or no elaboration of context; and narrative, that is, the card includes more narrative elements than are found in the simpler gestural type. In this latter type the details and references tend to imply more particularized relationships between individuals, show more variety of action, often have more elaborate contexts, and may also imply or show specific narratives or myths with known outcomes. Any given deck may emphasize one of these types or incorporate a combination of them (Auger 2006).


Both the major and minor arcanas of The Lord of the Rings Tarot show a predominance of narrative type cards. In the major arcana, ten cards are "narrative," seven are gestural, and five are emblematic with only one of these latter cards having a specific story place. In the minor arcana, forty-two cards are narrative, eight are gestural, and six are emblematic with two of these latter cards having a specific story place. In the guidebook accompanying the deck, Donaldson interprets all of the cards in relation to both archetypes and The Lord of the Rings quest in an adaptation of Arthur Waite's now classic book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot to the world of the Ring. For example, Waite offers an illustration of the "gestural" Six of Cups from the Rider-Waite deck (fig. 2) and the following interpretations for the card:

Children in an old garden, their cups filled with flowers. Divinatory meanings: A card of the past and of memories, looking back, as--for examples--on childhood; happiness, enjoyment, but coming rather from the past; things that have vanished. Another reading reverses this, giving new relations, new knowledge, new environment, and then the children are disporting in an unfamiliar precinct. Reversed: The future, renewal, that which will come to pass presently. (Waite 214)


In The Lord of the Rings Tarot deck, this card is rearticulated with Merry and Pippin (fig. 3), and Donaldson offers an explanation that emphasizes both the importance of the child archetype and the specific manifestation of this archetype in the quest narrative:

Pippin and Merry [at] rest after the destruction of Isengard by the Ents, smoking the pipeweed they found in Saruman's stock. Saruman is inside, guarded from escaping by the Ents. Soon, Gandalf and the others will arrive. Tarot meaning: Rediscovering "the child within," a sense of the basic playfulness of life. Giving and receiving on an emotional level. (Donaldson 224)

The assignment of individual characters, actions, and symbols to individual Tarot cards means releasing Tolkien's story order and its particular interlaced structure to that of Tarot; thus The Lord of the Rings Tarot cards do not follow the sequence of the story. The cards can, of course, be rearranged to remake the order of that story, but only at the expense of the Tarot order. Nevertheless, the general quest narrative Nichols postulated for the major arcana cards is not entirely lost in the Tolkien to Tarot translation.

Consider, for example, what happens to the sequence that begins Nichols' second row in which the hero of the Chariot sets out to make a place for himself in the world if we apply it to Aragorn, the story's most obvious questing "knight." This sequence includes the TarotTolkien cards of Strength-White Tree (fig. 4); Hermit-Tom Bombadil; Wheel of Fortune-Ring (fig. 5); Justice-Oath Breakers (fig. 6); Hanged Man-Faramir; Death-Gandalf and the Balrog (fig. 7); and Temperance-Sam, Frodo and Gollum (fig. 1). According to Tarot, Aragorn is indeed in a position of Strength since he is the rightful heir to the throne. He then moves beyond his Hermit-like life as a lonely ranger and accepts his Fate (or Fortune) as heir in relation to the challenge of the Ring by seeking Justice for the forces of light. As he pursues this justice, the fate of all hangs, like the Hanged Man, in the balance; while the ever-present possibility and reality of failure, loss, and Death is Tempered by friendship and firm alliances.


This natural Tarot order alters somewhat, but does not entirely lose, its sense if the cards are read relative to their specific Tolkien assignments. The White Tree remains an acceptable starting point for this stage of Aragorn's life as it symbolizes the lineage that has made him heir to the throne and the foundation of his strength. The next card showing Bombadil, whom Aragorn never meets or even emulates in the story, is less apt in relation to Aragorn's narrative but makes a point by way of contrast; Bombadil is a hermit who withdraws from almost everything; Aragorn as a hermit-ranger remains socially involved and committed to the future of the social order. The card of Bombadil is followed by that of the Ring, which is certainly on Aragorn's mind, as it is on the mind of everyone involved in the quest to save Middle Earth, but Aragorn fears that he, like his ancestor, will bring disaster to all by failing to destroy it. Next is the card of the Oath Breakers, whom Aragorn manages to bring in to the battle just in time to win Minas Tirith and, appropriately, win Justice for the forces of light. Aragorn has relatively little to do with Faramir, the symbolic Hanged Man, but the fate of the stewardship, like Faramir's life and everything else in Aragorn's kingdom hangs in the balance pending the outcome of Frodo's quest. Gandalf's death, illustrated on the Death card, affects the entire Fellowship, but for Aragorn it is one of the pivotal moments when he must decide to accept responsibility as heir to the throne. Chronologically it is out of sequence here, but Aragorn's acceptance of responsibility brings a transformation in him and in the world, as surely as Gandalf's death transforms him from grey to white so that he may complete his task. And finally, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are essential to Aragorn's final ascent to the throne; they appear here on the Temperance card, pointing to the generally tempering influence the Hobbits provide to a story otherwise full of ambition and bloodshed. It is clear, however, that the deepest influence in Aragorn's heart and mind is an Elf, not a Hobbit.



Interlaced narratives are marked by the simultaneous pursuit of multiple themes as in the weaving of threads to create a fabric such that the story is conveyed, not by explanation, but by "the amplification and expansion of the matter itself" (Vinaver 76-77). Structural interlace involves "artificial order," or the arrangement of events out of chronological order or by moving back and forth between characters and events to articulate themes or otherwise achieve meaningful effects, associations, and comparisons (Leyerle 10). Stylistic interlace, on the other hand, involves restating a subject in different ways, perhaps in different sub-narratives, in order to assert an underlying theme or message (Leyerle 4, 10-11). Pictorial interlace refers to the manner in which the movements of characters and the obstacles and furtherances they encounter are imbricated with the environment itself such that it is "apprehended like an image" (Fein 232), or as if the environment itself were a projection of the inner state and will of the characters4 and ultimately lends that environment a heterotopian quality (Foucault 350-56) that sets it quite apart from any natural space.


All three types of interlace characterize The Lord of the Rings; structural interlace is frequently apparent in the moments dedicated to story, dream, and fortune telling because they intertwine past, present, and probable future events; stylistic interlace appears in the frequent restating of themes of love and loyalty, as in the Aragorn-Arwen relationship as a restatement of that of Beren-Luthien Tinuviel, and the different responses to the ring by the brothers Faramir and Boromir; and pictorial interlace appears so continuously that the physical aspects of the environment seem to be a direct manifestation of the motivations and will of the various characters with regard to the quest.


Adaptations of a specific narrative, narratives, or mythology to the Tarot may also be understood as a form of interlace; in the case of The Lord of the Rings Tarot, this interlace is highlighted by the shared connection between Tolkien and Tarot as twentieth-century adaptations of the medieval romance. The specific methods by which the interlacing of Tolkien and Tarot is carried out are both visual and conceptual. For example, the cards have common designs, such that the central image on each is bordered by stone walls, written references to Tolkien's works, particularly The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and emblems, stars, and an array of other symbolic elements. The central image and writing on each card reference a character, action, or symbol and are thus relatively simple combinations of stylistic and structural interlace. The translation of written to visual form suggests structural interlace, but many of these illustrations are extremely literal, and they are juxtaposed with labels that point directly back to the written text, effectively limiting the potential expansiveness of the visual translation; the effect is that the cards appear primarily as restatements of fragments of Tolkien's texts suggesting they are better understood as examples of stylistic interlace.

The assignment of Tolkien characters, events, and symbols to the Tarot, as mentioned above, disrupts the "natural" storyline of both Tarot and Tolkien, even as it creates a new interlace out of these two sources. The appreciation of this new tapestry requires significant feats of memory on the part of the reader, as does the appreciation of medieval romances with their exhaustive lists of characters, long digressions, and complex movements through time as well as space. In addition to the characters, events, and symbols of both Tarot and Tolkien, not to mention the digressions and movements unique to The Lord of the Rings, the reader of this deck must ultimately make all of these elements comprehensible in the context of a reading.

In keeping with the understanding of Tarot as an aid on the personal quest to individuation, contemporary decks are commonly designed for use in "spreads" or patterns that effectively relate the cards to the querent and his or her question. The result of this process is a "reading," certainly a form of interlace, in which the cards are related to the querent through the assigning of meanings to cards as they fall in different pattern positions, as in "past influence," "immediate future," and "obstacles." Such readings are properly used to foster the querent's ability to make right choices along the path of his or her particular quest. It is in the heterotopian space of the reading, where querent, reader, and cards become the intersection point of past, present, and possible futures that the "interlacing" of querent and cards occurs.

This process may be better understood with reference to a sample reading; Donaldson provides such a sample for what he calls the "Gandalf Spread." The cards for the present and near future position in this sample are the Ace of Wands, a card that shows the Ring above an anvil and is labeled "The fires of Mount Doom create the Master Ring," and The Three of Wands, a card that shows Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas tracking the lost Hobbits. Donaldson interprets this aspect of the spread as indicating the querent's present involvement in some new activity, perhaps a business or a course, that is putting him or her ahead of the competition; he also advises that the combination means the querent should not slow down (Donaldson 256-8). The context of the reading thus leads to the reinterpretation of the narrative elements shown on the cards according to corresponding elements in the querent's life; thus the evil foresight that produced the Ring becomes a new career-related activity with positive implications derived from the association with the search for the seemingly lost Hobbits.

The reading, the context in which Tarot is ultimately used, thus combines stylistic and structural interlace. Stylistic interlace appears in the restatements of themes in the different forms of narrative, cards, spread, and reading itself. Structural interlace appears in the many different threads referencing multiple themes, elements, and temporal and geographical foci, that appear in all of these forms. The spread and its associated reading also animates the cards into a unique pictorial interlace, realized only upon close study as a simulation of the querentreader's world created by choices, interpretations, and the projection of thoughts.


The Lord of the Rings Tarot thus retains the associations with the medieval romance common to both Tarot and The Lord of the Rings. Although the archetypal Tarot "characters" in this deck are identified directly with the book, these borrowed articulations are themselves invocations of archetypal or "type" characters engaged in the typical romance objective: a quest. The interlaced structure of the romance, also found in the standard Tarot as well as the adapted text of this particular deck, is not lost but further and repeatedly renewed and elaborated every time the deck is used.

Works Cited

Auger, Emily E. "Arthurian Legend in Tarot." King Arthur in Popular Culture. Eds. Donald Hoffman and Elizabeth Sklar. Jefferson: McFarland, 2002. 233-248.

--. "The Lord of the Rings' Interlace: Tolkien's Narrative and Lee's Illustrations." The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 19.1 (2008): 70-93.

--. "Re-envisioning the Tarot's Minor Arcana." Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association Conference. Atlanta. 12-15 April 2006.

--. Tarot and Other Meditation Decks: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Typology. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004.

Burlin, Robert B. "Inner Weather and Interlace: A Note on the Semantic Value of Structure in Beowulf." Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope. Eds. Robert B. Burlin and Edward B. Irving, Jr. Toronto: U of Toronto P 1974. 81-89.

Campbell, Joseph. "Symbolism of the Marseilles Deck." Tarot Revelations. San Anselmo: Vernal Equinox, 1987. 9-25.

Decker, Ronald, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

Donaldson, Terry (Developer), Peter Pracownik (Artwork), and Mike Fitzgerald (Game Rules). The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck and Card Game [Deck, Booklet, Pamphlet]. Stamford: US Games Systems, 1997.

Dummett, Michael and John McLeod. A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack: The Game of Triumphs. Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Mellen, 2004.

Fein, Susanna Freer. "Thomas Malory and the Pictorial Interlace of La Queste del Saint Graal." University of Toronto Quarterly 46.3 (1977): 215-240.

Foucault, Michel. "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias." 1985-86. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach. New York: Routledge, 1997. 350-56.

Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton: Princeton UP! 1971.

Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

--. Symbols of Transformation. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP 1967. Kaplan, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Tarot. Volume I. Stamford: US Games Systems, 1978.

Leyerle, John. "The Interlace Structure of Beowulf." University of Toronto Quarterly 37.1 (1967): 1-17.

Nichols, Sallie. Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. York Beach: Weiser, 1980.

Pollack, Rachel. Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot. Part I: The Major Arcana. Wellingborough: Aquarian, 1980.

Thomson, George. "The Lord of the Rings: The Novel as Traditional Romance." Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 8.1 The Novel in England and Europe (1967): 43-59.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. 1937. Illustrated by Alan Lee. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

--. The Lord of the Rings. 1954-55. Illustrated by Alan Lee. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

--. "On Fairy-stories." The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 33-99. Waite, Arthur Edward. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. 1910. York Beach: Weiser, 1983.

West, Richard C. "The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings. " Ed. Jared Lobdell. A Tolkien Compass. La Salle: Open Court, 1975. 77-94.

Vinaver, Eugene. The Rise of Romance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.


(1) In a previous paper ("The Lord of the Rings' Interlace"), I discussed the appearance of these characteristics of the romance in The Lord of the Rings, as well as Alan Lee's illustrations, with special attention to various types of interlace, including structural, stylistic, and pictorial interlace. As previously shown, all three types of interlace characterize Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and are enhanced and elaborated upon in Lee's illustrations.

(2) I do not discuss the game aspect of this deck here, but see Dummett and McLeod for more on Tarot as a game.

(3) Such references may be found throughout Jung's The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious and Symbols of Transformation.

(4) See Burlin for this approach. He does not use the term, but his approach conforms to Fein's identification of pictorial interlace.
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Title Annotation:J.R.R. Tolkien and 'The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck and Card Game' by Terry Donaldson, Peter Pracownik and Mike Fitzgerald
Author:Auger, Emily E.
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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