Deck Review: The Arthurian Tarot

It’s time to break up the Serious Business with another review, don’t you think? (For those of you who only recently followed me, I post reviews of things when I’m bored, which is all the time.)

The latest addition to my ever-expanding tarot and oracle collection is The Arthurian Tarot by Caitlin and John Matthews. Just to be clear, this is not the same deck as Legend: The Arthurian Tarot by Anna-Marie Ferguson, the similar names apparently confuse people. The edition I bought is the newer version in the green box with white bordered cards. There is an older edition (Hallowquest) with black borders, but it’s out of print and really expensive.

I’m of two minds when it comes to tarot decks, I like my decks to be as “traditional” (particularly RWS traditional) as possible, but at the same time, I like it when decks do something different (but not too different). There isn’t a single deck that completely satisfies these contradictory impulses, so I have to settle with sometimes preferring my RWS clones, and sometimes wanting something different.

The Arthurian Tarot definitely falls in the “something different” category.

First, the basics, the cards measure about 2.4″ x 4.5″, each card image is bordered by a white border (which forms a sort of “window”) with a knot design in the upper corners. The backs are green with a gold knot pattern and fully reversible. The deck comes with a little purple booklet that has card meanings and spreads designed specifically for the deck. The suits are spears, swords, grails, and stones, court cards are maiden, knight, king, and queen.

Let’s talk about the art, shall we? The first thing you should know about the art is that you can’t trust images that you see online (including the ones I’m going to show you) because not only are most of the images of this deck of the OOP black-bordered deck, but the colours seem faded when compared to how the deck looks in person. At first, I was skeptical that the white borders wouldn’t be a distraction when I read with the cards, but I’ve actually found that the borders are more of a help than a hindrance with the system the Matthews have set up (more on this later). The images are brightly coloured without being eye-poppingly bright.

I suspect what will ultimately make or break this deck for you is its non-traditional system. For starters, nearly all of the majors are renamed. The Fool becomes The Seeker, The High Priestess becomes the Lady of the Lake, Justice becomes Sovereignty, and so on and so forth. The only cards that remain unchanged are the Star, the Moon, and the Sun. Even with the name changes, the majors are more or less RWS-esque in their imagery and meanings.

The minors, on the other hand, are landscape scenes (apparently of actual landscapes in Britain that you can visit) with few (if any) human figures. Each suit is also tied to a particular season. This is an interesting idea, as the images lend themselves more readily to meditation. but may seem a bit lonely if you’re used to minors with a little more movement. The scenes are meant to draw the reader into the images, to derive meanings from their experiences rather than just doing things as the book says.

Actually, I think one of my biggest gripes is the Little Purple Book, because while the interpretations it gives for each card are about as RWS as RWS can be, I suspect the average reader would be a bit puzzled by the choice in imagery, especially since at times the Arthurian legend doesn’t seem to mesh well with each card. Spear Five, for instance, is supposed to represent the combat between Balan and Balin, two brothers who unknowingly kill each other. The image shows a large stone with two crossed spears leaning against it. Now, I suppose you could figure out that the card has something to do with competitiveness and strife, but it just seems like a lot to remember for that many images.

Personally, I found it much easier to go “into” the scene in the card and interact with the objects there. As an example, I pulled Spear Ten from the deck and tried to imagine myself on that path with the two crows, and what I felt was this feeling of foreboding (crows, I might add, kind of freak me out) and the spear to my left was bloody, as if it had just been used in a battle. It was just a really creepy, not-nice card, and I didn’t really want to hang around there anymore.

This wasn’t even really a reading, this was just me pulling a card to try the method outlined in the book.

Oh, and the deck did have a moment when it kicked my ass. I decided to use the “Soul Protector” spread to get some help with my writing. The idea of the spread is that you are “assigned” one of the Majors to help you with your issue, in much the same way that King Arthur would assign a knight to help people in trouble in the stories.

Suddenly, there’s Gawain staring me in the face….

And I’m all like “Ohai, Gawain, I should get back to writing my queer version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, shouldn’t I?”

Also, Gawain is probably my favourite knight.

Did I mention this was after I shuffled and scattered and cut the deck like crazy?

Yeah, the deck kicked my ass. It was the best ass-kicking ever.

Besides the not quite helpful book, the other gripes I have with the imagery are small. Gawain, for instance, has now been nicknamed “Pillow Knight” because his shield looks like a pillow, and I have no idea what possessed the artist to draw the Green Knight like he’s someone trying to camouflage himself by pasting an entire bush to his body.

Oh, and then there’s one of my pet gripes–cards that look like other cards. This deck is driving me crazy with it, because Sovereignty (Justice) looks a lot like the traditional Temperance card (even with a white and red river) and the actual Temperance card (the Cauldron) reminds me of the Wheel of Fortune, because round things and fate. Sovereignty is probably the one card in this entire deck that is bugging the crap out of me.

It is not okay to make cards that look like other cards, OKAY?!

Overall though, it’s a pretty deck and an interesting deck to read with.

Okay, done talking, have some pictures:

img030 img031Sorry for the hugeness of the pictures.

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