When I write a review, I like to find an interesting way into the deck I am reviewing – a doorway, let’s call it, which opens my readers up to the world which awaits them.
My doorway into The English Magic Tarot is through a card I’ve pulled twice for the last couple of days. Interestingly, the said card, the 3 of Pentacles, did not come from the deck I am reviewing. Yesterday, it threw itself from Cilla Conway’s Intuitive Tarot, showing three turning cogs. For today, I turned over a version of the same card from The Deviant Moon Tarot.
So, what has this to do with The English Magic Tarot, published by Weiser Books? In The Deviant Moon Tarot’s version of the 3 of Pentacles, we find three characters – an artist, a painter, and a sculptor. While taking my morning shower, I thought about this and it was the comparison between those three deviant characters and the creators of The English Magic Tarot that became the doorway I’d been seeking.
The 3 of Pentacles is about teamwork and co-operation. When it turns up in a reading, it promises initial success but we are advised to share out the rewards of this with those who helped our project to fruition. The English Magic Tarot is not the work of one individual, but three. We have the artist, the colourist, and the writer of the deck’s companion book. In view of the Deviant Moon card, the roles of artist and painter are obvious, but it took the work of a lyrical-sculptor to bring everything together in the end.
I mention all of this because The English Magic Tarot is very much a reflection of the personalities of its creators, all fused together in one project. I met all three of them recently, which added a new understanding to the deck for me. The concepts of the cards (which are mainly Rider Waite based) came from the artist, Rex Van Ryn. They were then coloured by Steve Dooley, a successful artist in his own right; and once ready, Andy Letcher began to write the text for the book.
I first became aware of The English Magic Tarot when I heard that it was being launched at the UK Tarot Conference, which is where I eventually met Rex, Steve, and Andy. I’d snagged a copy in a bookshop some weeks before and had already chatted with Rex online. The deck is a standard 78-card tarot and comes in a beautifully designed sturdy box. The cards have a soft lamination to them and are just slightly wider than your standard Rider Waite.
What you will first notice is that the Major Arcana is borderless. At the time of this review, it has become fashionable to either publish borderless cards or for users to trim those that have large borders around the images. Of course, a borderless card can often invite a reader into it with slightly more ease and, when read in a line of three, the borderless images effortlessly merge into one another. The palette on all of the cards in this set is sophisticated and slightly muted. This really adds to the antique feel of the deck. The tones are warm but not garish, cool but not cold. Steve has really set the mood of the deck in his choice of colouring.
The Major Arcana will be recognisable to the majority of Waite readers. Rex’s line work is ornate and his background as a comic book artist is plain to see through style. He understands how to convey movement well and, in many cards, the perspective is unique and interesting. The Tower is one example: we look up to it from ground level. It smolders while two ravens, linked to the historic tale of The Tower of London, watch on. And then there is The Chariot – if you’re one of those people who want to see your horses charging ahead recklessly, you’ll love this version. This charioteer is going to need a hefty dose of control to keep these two in order!
While the Majors have Rider Waite symbolism within them, the English Magic team have not provided us with simply another clone. Set within the ‘heyday of English Magic’, the cards contain their own characters and twists – Sir Isaac Newton is seen in The Star, Henry VIII is The Emperor, and we find the Wicker Man (from the 1973 British film of the same name) in Judgement. You will also find runic codes and hidden symbols throughout the cards, eagerly awaiting to be decoded.
Unlike the Majors, the Minor Arcana is not borderless. While this might be a drawback for some, it was actually one of the things which drew me to the deck. I read 11 card spreads professionally and I like to be able to see how many Majors and cards from each suit dominate in a reading. Having colour coded cards helps me to do that and having a borderless Major Arcana highlights the stronger energies within a reading. In this set, the borders around the Cups are in a deep teal, the Wands are depicted by a rustic red, Swords are mustard, and Coins are green. They have large borders but, to be honest, the colours in each illustration accent them, which make them even more attractive. Personally, I love the mixture of borderless and bordered cards, which you can see displayed beautifully together in my photographs.
On the whole, the Minor Arcana has Waite meanings but they have been imaginatively twisted to fit with the decks theme. As an example, we can see Waite’s three dancing maidens in the 3 of Cups; however, they take their places within a painting, watched over by its artist. This is interesting because in the artist, we find what could be interpreted as the reversed meaning of the traditional card. While the merriment of the 3 of Cups can be witnessed in the painting, we find someone who appears slightly lonely, watching them from afar.
There is the odd twist in The English Magic Tarot that might throw the more rigid Rider Waite reader off course. For example, some card interpretations follow tradition less strictly and the meanings for a few have switched places (the 7 and 9 of Pentacles being the most noticable changes). A reader deeply rooted within the Waite tradition might also find it difficult to place the King of Pentacles in a library, where they’d possibly expect to find a member of the Sword court. However, this kind of diversion is small and the deck will be a breath of fresh air for anyone who wants to step out of the confines of traditional tarot framework. There is a lot of detail and symbolism in this deck and it invites a reader to explore it without any preconceived ideas about how the set should behave.
One of the interesting things about this pack is that the author of the book, Andy Letcher, added his interpretations after the images had been drawn and coloured. As an experienced tarotist and writer of many articles on paganism, folklore, and shamanism, he added his own layers of colour through his use of the written word.
What I really like about Andy’s text is that while it deals with a period which sits at the end of the Renaissance, he adds a very modern flavour to its tone. Andy accurately tells the story of these English Magic characters of history, but manages to entwine the likes of Monty Python, King Arthur, James Bond, and Oscar Wilde into the mix. And he does it seamlessly and with style. There is every chance that a book on this subject could have been stodgy and lacking in character, but Andy has injected an extra dose of personality into The English Magic Tarot. He speaks with great knowledge but in the way that a friend would, sharing memories of his own experiences within the various card descriptions.
The 3 of Pentacles, therefore, is a fine way of viewing the three creators of this deck, for without each of the cogs in place, it would not be what it is. It was a pleasure to spend time with Rex, Steve, and Andy (as well as Steve’s lovely wife) at the 2016 conference. I chatted with all three separately, sharing my own Spirit Within the Shadows Tarot with them.
If you’re looking for a deck with an eccentric and quirky personality, then this is definitely one for you. It would be a good choice for Waite readers, but it is by no means a clone or ‘follower’. It is also worth noting that this deck could well become popular with male readers or with those who are looking for a slightly more masculine deck than what is currently on offer. While some of the cards are undeniably beautiful, it doesn’t suffer from being just another pretty deck on shelf. The English Magic Tarot is punchy, interesting, and full of substance and personality.
Illustrations from The English Magic Tarot (Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley, and Andy Letcher), published by Weiser Books