The Tarot: Methods, Mastery, and More by Cynthia Giles
Review by C. Demetrius Morgan
This book by Cynthia Giles is stated to be a “direct outgrowth of its companion book”: The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore. Not having read that volume, I can state, as dispassionately as any human being possessed of opinions and perceptions of reality may, that there were times while reading this book that I was utterly dismayed by the style and tone of presentation and others when I enjoyed what I was reading. Though never was I moved to open disgust, a response which some works on the subject matter have elicited. Such were my initial impressions of the work and they have stuck with me as I glance at the book sitting on my desk.
Style: There are some who care not for what has been termed ‘wishy-washy’ New Age jargon. If this describes how you feel, then this book is not for you. Read no further. Do not pause by the bargain bin if you see it, unless you’re a glutton for punishment. Still reading? Great. Now let me be blunt: At times, Mrs. Giles' presentation approaches flawless dispassionate scholarship, only to backslide into near apologetic tracts of highly opinionated observations, views which are colored by heavily-accented New Age idiom. A fact that makes The Tarot an uneven read, uneven because there are times that the text switches style and focus from one chapter to the next, thus giving the reader a cramped feeling. It's the sort of sensation you get when reading a novel in which the author provides the bare minimum of chapter breaks in a effort to squeeze as much action into the story as possible. It's not that big a problem; in fact, few casual readers may even notice.
The Book: A non-standard sized paperback, Tarot: Methods, Mastery, and More is 238 pages of discussion, in six chapters, about tarot and its relationship to society. While not a ‘how-to’ book, it does make an effort to portray tarot in as positive a light as possible and, in doing so, makes claims for tarot that many liberal skeptics would bristle at. However, unlike many ‘New Age’ works, this one is actually well-formatted and quite professionally presented. For instance, not only does the book have a 14-page index and two pages of bibliographic information, it is annotated. Giles has made every effort to note her sources and provide readers with easy access to all information presented within her book, as clearly denoted by the contents and index pages. Alas, as this book is out of print, the example it provides for how to construct a proper reference work will sadly be lost on many. But, if you find a copy in the bargain bin, examine it closely, especially if you’ve ever entertained the idea of writing your own book.
Content: Dated. Not all of it is, but certainly those portions that make mention of Internet sites, which are sadly few and far between, as are numerous colloquial references--such as those found in Chapter Five--that will continue to grate on the reader over time. But then Ms. Giles' book was published circa 1996, and the Internet is like a shiftless vagabond. Still, a new edition with updates would be nice, but not necessary. Otherwise, the book, for the most part, is a discussion of how tarot is perceived, used, and presented. Largely, it presents the sort of anecdotal tales one would expect of a book providing a well-rounded historical overview, which the book does, even if at times the information reads as if it is incomplete. Considering the author states this is a companion volume to an earlier work, this sense of the story not being wholly presented is understandable. It would probably be best to read this book after, or in conjunction with, its companion tome.
Overview: The book is well-formatted and soundly indexed, which is a major plus. Some chapters' flow of subject focus wanders a bit, like many books on the topic of tarot do, but not to the extent where digressions leave you wondering about the conceptual focus of Ms. Giles' work. Too, headings of chapters are very telling about content:
Chapter 1: The Possible Tarot
Chapter 2: Divination: Expanding the Ways of Knowing
Chapter 3: Wellness: Rejoining Body and Mind
Chapter 4: Growth: Uniting Spirit and Soul
Chapter 5: Renewal: Reviving our Culture and Planet
Chapter 6: The Invitation of Mastery
Minor digressions aside, there are a wide range of topics mentioned in the chapters above that may distract and annoy some readers, while others will find them illuminating. For instance, there are numerous references to feminist ideology, specifically the myth of an oppressed, Goddess-oriented, pre-patriarchal society, and the perception of feminine “talents and values” being “overshadowed in the mostly masculine” male-dominated world. These are really asides, but the male ego being what it is, it may be easily bruised if read by those unfamiliar with these concepts. Too, the book is ripe with metaphysical references and New Age jargon. Alas, despite the book's many positives, its one major negative is the lack of even a cursory glossary. But then, the book is aimed at a specific target audience; an audience that is expected to already be familiar with many of these terms or at least possess other works in which they are defined. That is a very minor quibble that can easily be overlooked.
Presentation: Stylistically, the book uses exposition with a stated goal of exploring the ‘dragon lands’ of tarot myth and fable from a contemporary viewpoint, and does this rather well, even though portions of the work may read like an anthropological essay, albeit an essay with heavy Jungian influence. Many tarot basics are explained, from divinatory practices to explaining what a spread is, as are other basics of a tarot reading.
Surprises: One big surprise was finding mention of the work of Timothy Leary and Whitley Strieber (of Communion fame), which marks this as being beyond the ordinary sort of “‘wishy-washy’ New Age” book many may have come to expect of the subject matter. In fact, there’s quite a lot in the book that may make readers pause to double check the cover to be sure this is, indeed, a book about tarot.
Would Recommend For: Those already familiar with, or possessing a passing knowledge of, a basic background of the tarot. Not a work for the novice; indeed, the work puts forth many opinions and theories as if fact, thus the information presented within this volume may foment misapprehension that could lead uninformed readers to develop unfounded misconceptions about the nature and historical associations popularly attributed to tarot cards. However, for those well grounded in the basics of tarot mythology and lore this is, at worst, an entertaining diversion from the usual ho-hum reading material often found in print. Even so, this remains an interesting window into one esteemed author’s view of the ever-evolving legend that is tarot.
The Tarot: Methods, Mastery, and More by Cynthia Giles
Review © 2003 C. Demetrius
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes