Lord of the Rings Tarot by Peter Pracownik and Terry Donaldson
Review by Kim Huggens
If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.
I have to admit that I did not immerse myself in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) books until this Summer, after two of the Peter Jackson film adaptations had been released. As I write this review, I am eagerly waiting for 7:30pm (only five hours to go!), when I will finally get to see the long-awaited third film, the Return of the King.
But because I read the books so recently, everything is still fresh in my mind so I can criticize this deck very easily and to my heart's content. I owned the deck a couple of years before my first encounter with the LOTR, and at the time I thought it was quite nice: very fantastical, interesting, and in places pretty. Now I look at it and realize that this deck had so much potential and could have been much better than it is: but as all LOTR fans know, any adaptation from the books, whether it be on film or in tarot deck form, has huge potential to be either brilliantly wonderful or dismally poor. When I imagine what this deck could have been, I realize the designers chose the latter path, and made it dismally poor.
During this review, I will examine the deck both as a reading deck and as an attempt at adaptation from LOTR.
As a reading deck, I would not recommend this deck to anybody, not even fantasy/LOTR/Pracownik fans. I found the cards much too cluttered to be suitable for divination: each not only bears the card image, but also a sentence beneath it explaining the image, a grey-brick border on the top hand left and side displaying the title of the card, and a gaming symbol in the top right-hand corner (more on the game later.) It all looks very ugly, and as though it should be in some TV fantasy program like Knightmare! The deck is traditional all the way except with the images, so it has 78 cards, 22 being Majors, all numbered 'correctly'. Each card bears an image of a person, place or event from the world J.R.R. Tolkein created. But this fact cannot save the deck. The images it carries would require the reader to memorize all the meanings beforehand, since they give you no clues through symbolism as to what the meaning of the cards are. Sometimes you cannot even work out why a certain character has been put in the card! The Queen of Wands for instance is Théodwyn, Théoden's sister, mother of Éowyn and Éomer, sitting on a throne thinking about what the future may hold for her children. I'd dearly love to know why she was chosen for the Queen of Wands: she doesn't seem to fit at all! And the fact that Théodwyn doesn't appear at all in the LOTR books, except as a brief mention in a family tree in the Appendices, rings alarm bells for me. Is this a LOTR deck, or is it a LOTR, Silmarillion, Hobbit, and Tolkien's Unfinished Tales deck? Indeed, there are quite a few cards that depict things that never happened in the LOTR books: The Six of Swords ('Bilbo and his Dwarf friends use barrels to escape from the Elves'), and the King of Cups ('Thorin Oakenshield and Gimli the Dwarf resolve to work together'), for instance.
Many of the images chosen for the cards I disagree with vehemently: Gollum as the Fool? I think there are better possibilities for this card, Frodo being the most obvious one. Faramir on the funeral pyre for the Hanged Man? Where is the self-sacrifice and reflection in that part of the story? I would have preferred to see Gandalf's battle with the Balrog as the Hanged Man, since Gandalf has to sacrifice something in order to gain a greater understanding. This deck also has 'The light of the Evening Star shines through Galadriel's Ring' as the Star, which I think is quite a shallow choice for this card; surely the Light of Elendil would be a better choice, since the Star is about hope in the darkness, and the Light of Elendil provides exactly this for Frodo and Sam in Shelob's lair?
I also do not agree that the One Ring embodies the Wheel of Fortune card, and instead think it would be better as the Devil (because of the temptation it exudes, and the way it binds people to it, often taking away their free will and drawing them into shadow.) Éowyn is the High Priestess in this deck, which I think does not do the character justice and misinterprets her. According to the deck, 'The Lady Éowyn is guided by her intuition', but I do not see where. In the books, she is guided by her inner strength, her desire for valor and to be able to defend those she loves in battle. She is also the one who defeats the Witch King and slays his fell beast, not through physical strength but through courage, determination, and the refusal to be something she is not. (The Witch King cannot be slain by any man, but little does he realize that the soldier standing against him is actually a woman!) To me, Éowyn is the Strength card perfectly embodied (whereas in this deck, Strength is 'The White Tree that bridges Heaven and Earth, and shows the opening of a New Age'.) I was also expecting Galadriel and her Mirror to be the High Priestess instead.
I was very disappointed to find that the creators of the LOTR deck have fallen into the blind trap of only seeing the Hierophant card as something bad and evil: they have assigned Saruman the Many-Coloured to this card. The caption on the card reads 'Saruman courts dark and secret forces. The Palantir has given him a vision of his own future glory.' When will tarot deck creators get over their childish hatred of this card? The Hierophant is so much more than some stuffy, evil figure-head for organized religion: he is a teacher, full of wisdom that he passes down to others. He is a representative of the Divine on Earth. In my opinion, Gandalf, one of the Maia incarnated as a Wizard, a guide and teacher to many in the LOTR books, would have been better suited to the Hierophant card than Saruman.
There are many more card allocations that I disagree with, but there are far too many to mention here! Obviously, with a deck like this, nobody is going to agree with everything in the cards and there are bound to be a few cards people dislike and say could have been done better. However, one does not expect nearly all of the deck to be like that! The choices of characters/places/events in this deck are frequently shallow (such as - you guessed it - Middle Earth for the World), odd (Théodwyn as the Queen of Wands) or could have been chosen better. Having said that, there are a few cards that I think were excellently chosen: Éowyn and Faramir's embrace as the Two of Cups (a healing love), and Aragorn and Arwen as the Lovers (true love and choice.)
I used to adore Peter Pracownik's artwork, but feel he sold himself short in this deck: many of the images are unappealing, far too dark for the card meaning, and portraying the LOTR universe very poorly. Hobbits in shoes, Norse Runes engraved here and there, Gollum being green, Orcs that are indistinguishable from men... And not to mention impossibly beautiful women wearing very little clothing.
The card backs are also very unattractive: they are reversible, with a grey brick background upon which 'The Lord of the Rings' is written. In the centre we see two interlocking golden rings. Once again, it looks like something from a fantasy TV show or a computer game.
As mentioned previously, this deck can be used to play a game as well, created by Mike Fitzgerald. Half of the little white book that accompanies the deck has been dedicated to the rules of this game, which is far too difficult to learn and far too boring to be of any use. According to the creators of the deck, they included the game to continue the 'bardic tradition' of making study fun, though I don't see how the game would help one study tarot, apart from making one look at the cards (though that can be done without playing the game).
The deck can be purchased alongside the book, instead of just with the little white book. I would recommend you choose the former, since the proper book gives a lot more information about why the creators chose certain characters/events for each card (though even these explanations do not make me agree with them!) The book includes descriptions of each card and its astrological association. For the Majors, we are also treated to some first-person speech titled 'The Fool Speaks' or 'Temperance Speaks' (for example). This seemed like an interesting idea at first, but at times it seems too cheesy and unnecessary: a lot of what is said in this section has already been said in the general description of the card.
The Minor Arcana, as usual, are given less space in the book than the Majors: one page for the Minors, describing only the choice for the card and the meaning of that card, whilst the Majors are given around four-six pages each. Included in the book are a few spreads and a short section on how to read the cards, as well. It's not much, but it's better than the little white book!
Overall, this deck is very disappointing, quite unattractive, and very difficult to read. (Personally, I wouldn't recommend it for readings at all!) It might be nice to have in a collection, but I doubt that it would be of any use there either. Tolkien fans may also be very disappointed with this deck: indeed, every LOTR fan I've shown the deck to has reacted very badly to it, and concluded that it could have (and should have) been done a lot better. In my opinion, the deck is an insult to both tarot and the fantastic Lord of the Rings books, and I keenly await the creation of a better one.
If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.
You can read other reviews of this deck here and here.
Kim Huggens is a 19 year-old Pagan Tarot reader, reading Philosophy at Cardiff University. She has been studying tarot since the age of nine, and runs talks and workshops on different aspects of the tarot. She is President of the Cardiff University Pagan Society, and runs an online tarot course at www.witchschool.com. She lives with her boyfriend in Cardiff, and currently has a tarot deck collection of over 150 decks.
Images © US Games
Review © 2003 Kim Huggens
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes