The tarot has always fascinated me. I bought a Waite-Smith deck when I was 16 and entertained people by giving a number of accurate “readings” . I would not now recommend this, even to non-Christians. There is too much power and too little certain knowledge for Tarot readings to be safe.
However, even at that time, I was puzzled by the amount of Christian imagery in the Waite-Smith deck. So much so, that non-Christians, ex-Christians, or anti-Christians prefer to use other decks with less overt Christian symbolism.
Now, I am not a Tarot scholar, and the only other tarot deck I have ever held in my hand resembled the Marseilles deck, which dates from the 17th Century. The imagery of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck is in the same tradition. This is important because, I believe, Charles Williams describes the Waite-Smith Tarot deck in his novel, The Greater Trumps.
“Time enough,” he said. “Listen, among them is not the Chariot an Egyptian car, devised with two sphinxes, driven by a Greek, and having on it paintings of cities and islands?”
“It is just that,” the other said.
The Greater Trumps is a the best example of William’s plundering of occult themes to make an overtly Christian point. Some of his other plot devices are too obscure, like his use of Neo-Platonic Ideal Eminations in The Place Of The Lion, or too downright weird, like whatever is the ascetic exercise used by Nigel Considine in Shadows Of Ecstasy. The Tarot, however mysterious it may have been in the 1930s when Williams wrote the novel, enjoys a high profile now.
I have to admit I stand in awe of Williams’ effortless use of occult themes in his novels. He never dismisses occult power out of hand, nor does he associate it strictly with the diabolical. You get the sense reading Williams that there is only One source of power, and all subsequent exercises of power through whatever mediation is either a discharge of rightful duty, or a theft.
The occultists in The Greater Trumps, Henry and his uncle Aaron, enter as thieves, attempting to obtain and exercise power that doesn’t rightly belong to them. Through the bequest of a distant relative, Lothair Coningsby has come into possession of the original deck of Tarot cards. These cards can be used not only to predict events, but to cause them; not just to interpret reality, but to generate reality. The occultists first try outright theft, but when this fails, as it must in Williams’ cosmos, they fall back on Henry’s legal and emotional relationship with Nancy, Lothair’s daughter, to effect a loan of the cards, and from this all the conflict in the novel ensues.
But it is not Lothair’s legal claim on the cards that ultimately foils the occultists, but the seemingly inconsequential claims of his sister, the aptly named Sybil, whose only claim on the cards or the characters is that she loves them indiscriminately and without condition. This love supports her brother’s legal claim to the cards, strengthens Henry’s and Nancy’s love until it becomes something apart from the lever that Henry (and Nancy) wished to make of it, and undoes all the mischief released by the cards as a result of the manipulation of this love.
All of Williams’ novels portray the only story there is; the struggle between the Empire and the City, between those who would illegitimately place themselves at the center and beggar the periphery in order to glut themselves upon the surplus and those who receive from the true Center, add their poor, derivative contribution, awaiting the day when the fissures are repaired, and the whole fabric is awash with light and power.