Tuesday, 16 September 2014

DECK REVIEW PLUS: The Alice Tarot is here!

HERE IT IS! The Fabulous Alice Tarot.

I've been following the progression of this deck for some time. It's a tarot deck based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass (click on the links below).

I've been following it with something akin to the species of shameful drooling exhibited by a dog avidly eyeing the fresh made doughnuts on a table. Or, to swap foods, a knave desperate to make off with the luscious Queenly tarts. As it's Alice, we may also dwell on this word "tart" in all of its descriptive deployments. Bodies become words, words become material. It's an exemplary deck not just visually but in its fidelity to the fascination with language, perception, sense and logic characterising Lewis Carroll's literary works.

First off, my awful photos (courtesy Magic Realist Press, 2014) do not begin to do justice to the card images. Go take a look at some rather better card images by clicking on the links below, although as is there pointed out (and I agree as I look at the actual deck) that even those images don't do justice to the incredible almost three-dimensional effect of the cold-stamping. Every card has sections of colour which shimmer with iridescence when they catch the light. Nevertheless, the images are a whole heap better than the photos I've uploaded here (all right, *hears sounds of laughing, snorting audience*, I know that's not difficult). Incidentally you can also find gorgeous Alice bags and purses on the pages accessed via the links below too. Here's a quick peek at mine.

Alice Tarot
Baba Studio

My Word!
Tarts: can't resist
An invitation to word-play is brokered in every card. As Karen Mahoney illustrates for us in her glossily beautiful and extensive accompanying book to the deck, 'For example, the March Hare might indicate something to do with hair, the White Rabbit with his watch might be telling us to "watch out!" and the chess Knights might indicate something will happen at night' (p.27). And that's just at one associative level at the juncture or intersection of images and words in order to get us started. After all, whilst the tarot is - one might assume - primarily a visual tool, don't we have to talk about it? That is, we use concepts to describe the images and communicate what we see or perceive in them. Language is an indispensable but often under-emphasized component of a tarot reading.

Dream Wor(l)d:
The importance of language and word-play is also an underplayed aspect of dream interpretation. For example, if you dream of a lion then perhaps it's important to pay attention to that word "lion". It sounds a little like "lying" doesn't it? Or "lie-on". Lying as in untruth or reclining? Or try "bear". The transmutations between words and images also make this a fabulous deck to use for dream analysis. As Karen points out in the book, that dreamlike quality to the Alice stories lends the deck a shamanic quality. She wonders if Carroll would have approved of that. My guess is that his only objection would be to the "man" in the middle. As I alluded to elsewhere in another post on this deck here, Carroll wasn't fond of masculine pretensions of depth and profundity. Accordingly, Alice Through the Looking Glass has no rabbit hole (no surface/depth distinction) and Carroll dropped the original title of Alice in Wonderland - which started off as Alice's Adventures Underground. 

The Deck
Back to the deck. There have been other Alice tarot decks, sort of cartoony, fairly basic, certainly nothing like this.  The word "awesome" is insufficiently awesome to describe it. "Awe-inspiring" might capture the original meaning of this now over-used epithet more adequately. It's the stunning result of five years of hard work by the team at the Baba Studio in Prague.  The book tells us the fascinating story of how the deck evolved from inspired scribbles, through costumes, scenic composition and textiles to the inspiring finished product. 

The dog took the first opportunity of grabbing the doughnuts. This knave nabbed both the standard edition and the limited edition larger size. The knave was not disappointed. 

Darn it Donna, get life in focus

"Mine, all mine!" said Humpty.
The large edition arrived not only in a beautifully embossed wooden box but wrapped in their own cloth pouch. The standard size I expected to arrive in the standard type of flimsy cardboard standard packaging. I was wrong. It was encased in a shimmering flip-open decorated box of its own. The care, the quality, the attention to detail stands out as a first, I believe, in the production of tarot decks. It really feels special. There's nothing remotely standard about this deck. That would please Lewis Carroll. It certainly pleased me. I have never seen such lovingly and thoughtfully presented edition of the tarot. 

After swooning a bit at the care and the workmanship involved, I spent the day marvelling at the cards. A marvelling which has yet a  long and possibly inexhaustible way to go. Again, the real thing is even better than the photos on the Alice Facebook page which didn't entirely capture the surprising iridescence amid the colours. It's quite breath-taking to apprehend a panorama of details and luxuriant colours you can almost taste and feel. "A feast for the eyes" is probably an over-worked metaphor but it is rather like sitting down to a visually sensuous Tea Party banquet. The Larger Edition is ideal for a one card draw, you can really transport yourself into the card. You could even try story-boarding them across your floor for brain-storming and creative inspiration. Provided you remove all dangerous nibbly pets, paws, stray children, workmen, friends, relatives and other sundry visitors first. For all sorts of reasons, the main one being Card Protection. It would be a disaster of the first magnitude to have any damaged. So it's best not to violently knock them out of the way as you attempt to rescue your cards.

Illuminated shimmery backs of the Large Edition, cards 10cm x 16cm, Standard just short of 8cm x 13cm.

The Alice Tarot Book

Backs of Standard Edition

The book takes us through how to use the deck and is divided into accessible sections covering, amongst much else, and to skip through the material far too quickly, suggestions on recognizing patterns in a tarot reading, some of the main themes of Alice (such as self-identity, madness, dreams, reality, riddles and the unconscious), how to read with the cards including specially designed sample spreads (Down the Rabbit Hole, The Caucus Race, The Tea Party) together with sample readings using the deck. There is also a section devoted to Alice and the mythic and Alice and psychoanalysis. This is followed by chapters describing and interpreting each card from both a "traditional" Rider-Waite-Smith perspective (henceforth RWS) and the more particular focus of the Alice cards. Although the cards follow the RWS structure they only do so up to a point for the deck stays true to the Alice stories and Alice characters are substituted for the RWS archetypes. This isn't entirely new, many decks depart from the RWS clone dynamic, but with this deck it's curiously playful, dark in places, and suggestive in a way that tugs at the imagination beyond the scope of what we might recognize as historically familiar, allusive and widely disseminated symbols, types, tropes and tokens (butterflies, crowns, doves, figures garnered from myth and folklore [although the Alice stories could be considered iconic] and so on).

Some of the images require greater intensification and elaboration than others. For example, the Nine of Cups shows us the March Hare and the Mad Hatter squashing the Dormouse into a teapot. In the story the Dormouse is attempting to snooze through the frivolities of the Tea Party. Karen explains that in Victorian times pet dormice often used to sleep in teapots filled with straw. That is, in accordance with the more RWS meaning, the Dormouse could be considered as having his wish fulfilled.

Beneath each section of the card descriptions are "Further Notes", full of fascinating and informative snippets, asides and possible sources for some of Carroll's ideas. For example, the original Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme has a different ending. It wasn't that Humpty couldn't be put together again but rather,

"Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty where he was before".

It sounds a tad awkward and clumsy, and perhaps that's why it was altered to the final line with which we're all familiar. However, in this original version Humpty Dumpty is not destroyed but perhaps re-positioned or transfigured.

It's all written in an engaging and captivating manner. Finally the book ends with abbreviated versions of both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass which helps frame the narrative context for each card.

Down the hatch
The double meaning is curious and different. Both in the book and the accompanying LWB we find the RWS keywords, then the Alice meanings, helpfully annotated with the episode from the books from which the imagistic tableau is drawn. Rather than merge or blend a particular tarot theme with the RWS stamp, which many themed decks accomplish by yoking it all together with what could be considered some arbitrary violence, we can readily compare and contrast the significances, read only from the one or the other, or else read the two together. Setting it out in this way not only maintains the integrity of both the RWS system and the Alice stories but also dissipates initial confusion for those unsure of their footing in Alice's Wonderland.

Here's an illustrative excerpt from the book, one which happily provides a splendid reason to show you my favourite card in the deck, and the one that initially entranced me sufficiently to plunge down the Alice Tarot rabbit hole. It's Humpty Dumpty in The Tower card.

Noooo, it's gotta be a bad dream, I'm HUMPTY DUMPTY!

Humpty Dumpty

RWS meanings
  • A sudden event that changes things in unexpected ways
  • An accident
  • A "fall from grace"
  • A catastrophe - or something that at least feels catastrophic at the time
  • A life-changing occurrence that happens without warning
  • A crisis
  • A sudden revelation or insight that shakes you to the core
Alice meanings
  • "Pride comes before a fall"
  • Something is broken and can't be mended
  • Someone or something who feels they are too important to be vulnerable, perhaps mistakenly"
Here we could interpolate the character of Humpty Dumpty into the RWS context, and vice versa. There's ample room for a cross-over. Or we could simply focus on the RWS meaning and not necessarily talk about The Tower in an Alice context. Alternatively, perhaps the Alice meaning lends a nuance and another brick in the wall - maybe it shows the insufferable arrogance of a confrontational Humpty character in your life; one who is in for a wake-up call when he or she topples down from the self-appointed "superior" vantage point. Or perhaps you yourself are behaving a little like the self-righteous Humpty?

Now reading the two together more directly, the Alice Tower card could signify that your own edifice of complacent comfort, assumptions, and beliefs might prove as thin and fragile as Humpty's egg-shell. Interestingly, we never find out in any tarot deck what's inside the tower. Perhaps nothing, and you've identified yourself wholly in accordance with an exterior appearance. But what's inside dear Humpty? A yolk, you might say. The soft and aqueous spongy interior. So when we get this card we might wonder at concealed vulnerability shielded by the protective but brittle outward projection of self to the world. Perhaps the monomaniacal and overweening Humpty Dumpty, whilst deluded enough to think (or at least assert) that words mean what he wants them to mean (irrespective of what they mean to you personally, or how they must make sense as a conceptual grammar of shared meaning), is actually an egg with two surfaces: the shell, or outward pompous attitude with which he both greets and scorns the world, and the inner surface of that shell which faces or interfaces with the soft body inside (in fact there are three faces if we include the continuity of Humpty's facial features with the shell).

A yolk is an embryo. Humpty could change into a chicken! Or something. That's if he doesn't break apart by falling. The wall, of course, is also double facing, there's the this-side and a hither-side, in a doubling of the double faced shell. On the other hand, perhaps Humpty should shatter into fragments and smash his shell. What's the old saying? No omelette without breaking eggs. In that sense, The Tower card provides an opportunity for transformation (not that Humpty would want it since he's perfect already).

My couple of paragraphs above hopefully provides an example of how the refinement of the Alice meaning intuitively adds to the RWS meaning. I say "RWS meaning" although of course it doesn't have any univocal and dictatorial meaning; rather, the keywords are an entry point or a starting block. Similarly with the Alice meanings. Humpty as The Tower card acts as a simultaneous telescoping and/or expansion of sense. Both at once, mirroring the paradoxical nature of Carroll's stories.

Despite some near-parallels with the RWS meanings and a few more radical departures (the Eight of Wands isn't necessarily speedy progress: it could be moving as quickly as possible just to stay in one place), on the whole the Alice meanings inject a note of caution and ambiguity. In the Ace of Wands, for instance, we are shown a flamingo. But it's going to take a bit of effort to get a flamingo to behave as a croquet mallet. In other words, although the Ace of Wands is a promise of potential it's not going to be realized without some hard work. The Sun card has an image displaying the quarrelsome, troublesome Tweedles. Indeed, older tarot decks frequently used to show two people. Having the Tweedles for the Sun card brings it to our attention that the Sun card isn't remorseless Jupitarian expansion and joy. The sun can burn. Or maybe optimism and the light of reason isn't the right way to go in a certain set of circumstances. Occasionally, as in the Three and Nine of Swords, the Alice meanings access a more positive twist than the RWS. 

Thematics: Who are You?

You're not who I thought!
 Carroll's Alice books are full of paradoxes and reversals but perhaps the central theme spreading through all others like the invisible tea in the Mad Hatter's tea-pot is that of self-identity. Who is Alice? Who are you? How is Alice identified in this shifting landscape where nothing stays still; where time, direction and causality loop back on themselves along a lateral continuum and there's no permanence? One minute Alice is carrying a baby, when she looks again it's a piglet. Even words are consumed and everyone is equally (but asymetrically) mad - or sane. Alice has no fixed point of reference, no pre-given moral compass with which to navigate this strange world, no stability, no centre, no gravity nor even gravitas: she isn't taken seriously. And that's another neatness explored in the deck. It's playful. It's fun. It's the wisdom of the childlike. Alice suddenly finds herself transported to a place where she's compelled to look at everything with new and unfamiliar eyes. She must question all she thought she knew, and even what makes her Alice. It's an ideal deck for readings on identity and self-awareness. We wonder/wander afresh.

Journey and Direction
Given that nothing in Alice is linear or operates as expected, it's serendipitous as well as deliberate that the Majors in the Alice Tarot are not numbered. There is no necessary trajectory in Alice. It's multi-directional. Who is to say that one place is better than another? This frees up the Majors from the notion that the Majors do or should depict what's called the "Fool's Journey"; a kind of sequential programme, blueprint or schema of supposed spiritual evolution, each stage somehow leading to another in a fairly orderly manner. You begin at a beginning, or nowhere, and end up with some sort of (usually ill-defined) "enlightenment". Really? Who says?

This journey is a burden
There isn't this developmental progression in Alice, it's aporetic (asks questions, poses puzzles, expresses wonder) and it could be argued that a Fool's or Hero's journey has been superimposed on the tarot (as has much else). Maybe it's helpful for you to create a version of your own Fool's Journey if the strictures of such a structure appeal to you. But it's not necessary. I'm with Karen in finding the idea that we MUST have some apprehension of some kind of Fool's Journey through the cards a limiting constraint. Is spiritual development sequential anyway? A nice series of regular steps UP? Already we are working with a bunch of assumptions about "lower" and "higher" or maybe "inferior" and "superior". Up out of the rabbit hole back to...? That's not to say that numerology need be put out of play as if the notional Fool's Journey is co-extensive with numerology. If you get a preponderance of a particular number in a tarot reading perhaps you better sit up and take notice of that. And, of course, the numbers do have some relation to the numbers on the Majors (for example fours concern stability and structure and you'll find that The Emperor [order, control, authority] is numbered Four). This, however, isn't the same as planting a spiritual map of progression onto the Majors. Personally I do work with numerology in tarot readings, but I have hesitations regarding versions of a protreptic Fool's Journey.

Numerology isn't ignored. Page 92 of the book takes us through the significance  of the numbers 1-10 for added numerological inflections to your tarot readings. 

Which Lover?
There is at least one other unique aspect of this deck which should be mentioned. Ordinarily a tarot deck has 78 cards. This one has 79. There are two Lovers cards. Baba Studios also have two Lovers cards in their Tarot of Prague and their Bohemian Gothic Tarot. The Lovers card might signify lovers, a choice, a question of values, or a close friendship. In the Alice tarot, one of the cards depicts the Walrus and the Carpenter. Of course, there's no exact homology between the archetypes of the RWS and the characters in Alice. We won't find a hermit or a High Priestess. Instead the analogue is found through metaphorical substitution: for example, with the Hermit card, we have the mock-turtle instead. The mock-turtle in Alice is a solitary chap who retreats "within", into his shell. As a mock turtle isn't perhaps a real turtle, we have the added suggestion of fakery, perhaps a false guru or an insincere spiritual advisor. Or, at another angle, is there something you should be mocking or laughing at? Or something you might do well to mock or imitate?

Returning to The Lovers card, the Walrus and the Carpenter pick up on the close friendship of The Lovers card, or perhaps even an unconventional love partnership. The dimension of choice is hinted at through the context by way of the decisions taken by the oysters - do they go with the Walrus and the Carpenter, or not? The more conventional signification of passion, romance and intimacy is explored in the alternative Lovers card in the deck which shows two pink flamingos (from the croquet episode in Alice) lovingly entwining their necks into a heart shape. The element of choice (possibly between two lovers) is captured by the third flamingo in the background. You could even use both cards in a reading and whichever turns up may lend specificity to the array of meanings available within the remit of The Lovers card.

Here's a few  more card images.

I can't wait to try these out for an actual reading. Once I've stopped marvelling for a moment.

© Donna Hazel at Tarotdon Tarot


  1. I know you've been looking forward to these cards and am so glad that they're out and you enjoy them. Great review! Extensive, thorough, funny, terrific pix. I don't think you missed a thing. Well done!

  2. Thanks Wulfie! It was fun to write that one.

  3. I love your review! Just discovered the 'extra' Lovers card and went online to find out Why' the extra. Thank you for such an articulate and deep exploration of this deck!

    1. Thank you, Michelle! I don't write many deck reviews but this was just too compelling and philosophically fascinating for me not to shout about. I'm so glad you enjoyed it :)