I’ve always been hesitant to buy a themed Tarot deck. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a cool idea – on the contrary, I rather enjoy making connections between the cards and my favorite books and movies. The thing is though, I tend to think my own ideas are better than everything I’ve seen actually published,* and anyway, a themed Tarot just seems too narrow in scope to actually be effective as anything but an art collection.
On the other hand, though, there are so many themed decks out there, it’s almost as if they constitute a Tarot sub-genre all their own. Shouldn’t a well-rounded Tarot collection include one of them? Well, I thought so, but of all the options out there, which one should I choose?
I actually bought the Hobbit Tarot on a whim upon seeing it (priced ludicrously cheap) at the local metaphysical shop, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I couldn’t have made a better choice. For one, it is its own entity, not just a Hobbit-themed RWS ripoff. For another, J.R.R Tolkien is one of my favorite authors of all time, and among all his works, The Hobbit is probably the most timeless.** If I had to pick a single story to be represented in my Tarot collection, I can’t think of one better than The Hobbit.
What remains to be seen, however, is how well the actual deck stacks up to its potential.
I think there are two criteria against which I will judge these cards: How well do they work as a Tarot deck in general? How well do they tell the story of The Hobbit?
This post will answer the former; as far as the latter goes, I have to admit it’s been a few years since I last read the book, and so I intend to reserve the greater part of my judgement in that regard until I have a moment to read it again. There are, however, a couple points I would like to make about its alignment with the story that caught my attention even without having recently read it, and I will address those shortly. First, the cards as Tarot.
I’ve already mentioned that this is not a RWS copy. This is a partial truth. It does place Strength at 8 and Justice at 11. It also maintains all the traditional Tarot titles rather than substitute them with Hobbit-based ones. Pentacles is Coins; the courts consist of Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings. Leafing through the instructions booklet, it seems as though the divinitory meanings of all the cards are more or less consistent with the RWS. So I suppose it’s safe to say that, if you are familiar with the standard RWS definitions, you can use these cards. The difference lies in the artwork. These are all scenes from the Hobbit, and virtually no attempt is made by the artist to make them look anything like P.C. Smith’s iconic drawings. If you are the type to read intuitively based on imagery – and not based on Waite’s book definitions – no amount of familiarity with the RWS will aid you with these cards.
It seems to me that the little booklet is required reading for this one. Each entry consists of a description of the scene depicted in relation to what’s going on in the book, followed by suggested divinitory meanings. Just reading the descriptive first part, some of the scene-to-card transitions seem a bit of a stretch; reading the second part about the divinitory meanings usually clears it up quite nicely. Often my confusion (or skepticism) with the first part is replaced with an “Aha, that’s pretty clever” upon reading the second. The booklet itself is among the nicer ones I’ve got – it’s nice and fat (95 pages), with plenty of info. In the introduction, the author also heads off some of my doubts going into these cards, saying that “In bringing together the Tarot and The Hobbit, a kind of marriage has been achieved between these two very distinct mythical realms, and like all unions, this one also has its own contradictions and unities, its own ‘personae’.” That’s fair, I think, and I’m glad the author said something to that extent, because otherwise I’d probably have held onto some impossible expectations which ultimately would have led to disappointment.
The artwork is pretty good. I think the artist did a fine job of recreating the Middle Earth aesthetic without relying on the Peter Jackson movies to do the imaginative work for him. It looks like a pseudo-Northern European wilderness, which is what Tolkien was shooting for with the book. So well done, there. The problem is that some of these scenes look pretty generic, and without Hobbit-based titles to draw from, the LWB is absolutely necessary to understand what exactly they’re supposed to be showing us. The small cards almost never show their suit symbols, either, so without the suit names on the cards, you would never know what they were.*** I don’t really have any issue with this, but I think it merits pointing out all the same.
The court cards are somewhat odd in that they have no discernible pattern. Bilbo is represented in a few of them all by himself, and some of the other ones use totally generic characters (two of the Queens are nameless women of Laketown, for example). I should point out that there is an occasional card in the pack that depicts scenes or characters that actually exist outside of the storyline told in the book. The most notable examples of this are the four Queens, two of which, I already mentioned, are generic Laketown women, one of which is a mournful Warg bemoaning the fate of her kin after the Battle of Five Armies, and the final one is Goldberry bathing in a pond (with a man watching her in a way that would totally be creepy if I didn’t already know him to be Tom Bombadil). Goldberry and Tom are only mentioned in the Lord of the Rings, although they certainly existed during the time of the events told in the Hobbit. Luckily, I was actually elated to find Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, regardless of the fact that they don’t really belong among these cards (if you know anything about Tom Bombadil, though, you’d understand that he can do what he pleases).****
Another example is the Hierophant, which appears to be Gandalf the White (and he does look distinct from the other times Gandalf appears in these cards in his grey guise), complete with an apparition of Shadowfax, another bit that does not appear in the Hobbit. Temperance is even stranger, showing a high-ranking goblin rousing his fellows to fight the Battle of Five Armies after the events under the Misty Mountains. While that does happen in the timeline of the book, it’s not part of the narrative itself that I can remember; but what actually bothers me about this card is the very use of such a malevolent character for such a typically benevolent card. I think the point is that he is tempered by battle, but even among the other stretches I mentioned before, this one’s a bit much.
One thing I wondered about was how these cards would show the “feminine archetypes” of the Major Arcana when the book is lacking in strong feminine characters (one of the few shortcomings of Tolkien as an author*****). I was not disappointed – the High Priestess and the Empress show situations rather than characters, and I think, given the source material, that was a good decision.
All in all, as a Tarot, this is not the best, and as a recreation of the story, it’s not the best (further judgement on that matter to come), but as a Tarot depicting the story, it’s as good as I think could be reasonably expected. I like it, anyway, and I was surprised when I took it out to read with to find that, with the LWB close by for reference, it gave me pretty insightful results. So, I say, take the shortcomings with a grain of salt, because the Hobbit Tarot does ultimately succeed in what it sets out to do, namely give good readings using the fanciful imagery of Tolkien’s most accessible work.
* I am aware of how snooty that sounds, but I’m just being frank. I mean, those Norse mythology Tarots out there? Please. It’s unfair of me to call them bad, but I think there’s certainly room for improvement.
**Alright, timeless is such a cop-out term to use here, especially when dealing with the mythos of Middle Earth. It’s all timeless, but even I, a self-professed Tolkien nerd, must admit that these books are not for everyone’s tastes. The Lord of the Rings is long as shit, requiring a commitment of at least a couple of months to read in its entirety at a leisurely pace, and The Silmarillion begins to cross over into super-nerd territory (although I was surprised to find that it actually wasn’t quite as dense as I’d expected). Mention anything beyond that (Children of Hurin, anyone?), and you’ll get a blank stare from anyone less than a hard-core Tolkien-head. The Hobbit, by contrast, is meant to be a children’s book, operating just as well within its own little nucleus as it does within the greater context of Tolkien’s body of work. It is a rare example of a perfect standalone fantasy story that also happens to depict a pivotal moment in a much grander epic. I had to pick a word other than favorite or best for this post, though, because it is not my favorite Tolkien book, so for lack of anything better, timeless it shall be.
***There are some exceptions, especially in the suit of Swords. Overall, however, the suit symbols are absent.
****Tom Bombadil is the Hermit in the Lord of the Rings Tarot (by the same artist), which is awesome (I don’t have that Tarot, nor do I particularly desire it, but I’ve seen pictures online). The Hermit in this Tarot is Beorn, which is also a pretty great choice, although the traditionalist in me really wishes he’d had a lantern. There’s no reason to assume Beorn wouldn’t have a lantern lying around somewhere in that great abode of his, and a Hermit without a lantern just doesn’t seem whole to me. I couldn’t help but notice that Tom Bombadil has a lantern in the LOTR version, so there’s no excuse for the omission. Out of all the non-traditional details of these cards, that one probably bugs me the most (with the possible exception of Temperance). But anyone who knows me knows how much I like the Hermit, so I’ll admit to some bias there.
*****Although to be fair, there are a couple great female characters in the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. Although, to be fair again, they are far outnumbered by the men.