November 10, 2022

#08-254: The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps in the Rider-Waite Tarot

Note: The world knows the fantasy works of C.S. Lewis (Narnia) and J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), but fewer are aware of the work of one of their colleagues, the OUP editor Charles Williams.

Get Ready: Do you ever play cards? What are the suits? How many cards are there in each suit? How many in the deck? Do you think these cards have any special meaning?

The informal literary discussion group known as "The Inklings" formed at Oxford University and met between the early 1930s and late 1949. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were its two most famous members, but there were others, including Charles Williams.

Unlike his more famous colleagues, Williams was not a professor at Oxford, but rather an editor of the Oxford University Press. Also unlike the others, many of his works--though fantasy, like theirs--were set in the contemporary world. Lewis said of his works that they were as though "this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvellous." In all Williams wrote 10 fiction books, nearly 20 plays, seven books of poetry, six of theology, ten of literary criticism, eight biographies, and numerous other works.

One of those books with marvelous events in the everyday world is titled The Greater Trumps, featuring the tarot deck. This supposedly-ancient bunch of playing cards dates to the 13th century, and was originally meant for gaming, with no occult associations. They were (and are) not magic all.

The tarot deck can be divided into two parts. The lesser or minor trumps (later called arcana, alluding to their supposed "mystical powers") were very similar to today's standard playing card deck. They feature four suits, named the Wands, Pentacles, Cups, and Swords. These correspond to the modern Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, and Spades. However, where the modern deck has 13 cards per suit, the Tarot deck has 14; the three "face cards" we know (Jack, Queen, and King) are four: Page, Knight, Queen, and King.

Even these humble cards have been invested with "secret" meaning. In order, the suits of Wands, Pentacles, Cups, and Swords represent the elements Fire, Earth, Water, and Air; the social classes of Artisans, Merchants, Clergy, and Nobility/Military; and qualities including Creativity, Possessions, Love, and Reason.

The so-called "Greater Trumps" were also simply 22 playing cards (0 and 21 numbered cards) and used in games. In fact, the "mystical tarot" and its superstitious nature in the English-speaking world is still widely used for conventional card games in the rest of Europe. ("Trump," by the way, denotes a playing card or suit temporarily designated as having a higher value than the others; it is related to the word "triumph.")

These cards were assigned "magical" values only in the 18th century, though they were around for many centuries before that. They fall into such groups as religious figures (the High Priestess, the Hermit, and so on); those with worldly power (the Empress and Emperor); such traits as Strength, Justice, and Temperance; astronomical figures (the Star, Moon, Sun, etc.); and other cultural symbols like Lovers, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Tower.

These images would have been familiar to the Italian courts where the Tarot first developed; they had some allegorical significance, but no mystical or magical importance. 

We haven't yet mentioned the modern Joker card; this was the "0" card in the Greater Trumps, the Fool, and could show up anywhere, as a Joker may be a "wild card" today.

Williams uses these cards as allegories for Love and its opposite, Selfishness, as the owner of the (fictional) "original" tarot deck is pursued by people who would use it to gain worldly power. It's a fun read!


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. astronomical
  2. corresponding
  3. deck
  4. invaded
  5. occult
  6. pentacles
  7. superstitious
  8. temperance
  9. triumph
  10. worldly

  1. matching
  2. five-pointed stars
  3. of outer space
  4. a set of cards
  5. believing in powers not based on reason or knowledge
  6. victory
  7. non-spiritual
  8. hidden; relating to magic or other "secret" powers
  9. came in uninvited
  10. moderation; self-control

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 10, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. a; 3. d; 4. i; 5. h; 6. b; 7. e; 8. j; 9. f; 10. g