Reading Tarot in “Wake Unto Me”

On February 6, 2011, in Fun Stuff, Young Adult, by lisa

Fortuna, by Hans Sebald Beham, 1541.

I’ve had a Rider-Waite deck of tarot cards since college, and am mesmerized by the rich layers of symbolism in their deceptively simple artwork.  I feel that a picture reaches past the logic of words, into the unconscious, and asks you to build a story around it.

In the case of The Wheel of Fortune, I built a whole novel.

Black of hair and pale of face,
Without bidding she will chase
The source of Sisters’ power real
In the heart of Fortune’s wheel.

So goes the prophecy at the beginning of my paranormal romance for young adults, Wake Unto Me.  The tarot card of The Wheel of Fortune was the inspiration for this prophecy, as well as for a treasure hunt that plays a major role in the plot, and for the fate of the heroine herself.  Literally and figuratively, everything in Wake Unto Me revolves around The Wheel of Fortune.

My heroine, fifteen-year-old Caitlyn Monahan, is an outsider at her high school in rural Oregon.  Haunted by strange and terrifying dreams and obsessed with history, she feels out of step with her contemporaries, and as if she belongs somewhere else.  Floundering for meaning in her life, Caitlyn clings to her one memento of the beloved mother she lost as a child:  a tarot card of The Wheel of Fortune, on which her mother had written a brief, cryptic note:  “the heart in darkness.”

…Caitlyn had researched the card online, had even asked a fortune teller about it once, but she had never found an answer to why her mother had given it to her. The Wheel of Fortune’s main meanings were “fate” and “change,” which seemed about as ambiguous—or obvious—a message as you could leave a person on the day you died.

The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune from the Rider-Waite tarot deck.

The mystery of the card will only be answered after Caitlyn goes to France to attend The Fortune School, a boarding school to which she has – mysteriously – received a scholarship.  Little does she know that the school’s founding group, the Sisterhood of Fortuna, has hopes that she will fulfill the prophecy of finding the heart of Fortune’s wheel.

On the night before Caitlyn leaves for France, she has a dream about her mother:

Behind her, she heard the shuffling of cards and then the soft snick, snick, snick of cards being laid upon a table.
The hairs rose on the back of Caitlyn’s neck, and she slowly turned.
Sitting in an easy chair, a TV tray in front of her, a young woman with hair as long, black, and straight as Caitlyn’s own was laying out tarot cards.
“M-m-mom?” Caitlyn whispered hoarsely, afraid to believe what she was seeing.

In the dream, Caitlyn’s mother does a reading for her, laying out the cards that will, like The Wheel of Fortune, come to represent important aspects of her future.  But the beauty of tarot cards is that they can be interpreted in so many ways, and as Caitlyn will discover through the course of the story, what she both hopes and fears the cards to mean in her life is rarely what they do mean.

The final card in Caitlyn’s reading is The Wheel of Fortune.

Jana Riley’s The Tarot Book was an enormous help to me in forming a more in-depth interpretation of The Wheel of Fortune than I might have arrived at otherwise; most specifically, I used her suggestion that when you become enlightened, you move your awareness from the chaos at the rim of Fortune’s turning wheel to the stable viewpoint at its center, where the ups and downs of your fate can be viewed with clarity.  This is a transformation that occurs for Caitlyn when she discovers both secrets about herself, and the location of the literal ‘heart of Fortune’s wheel.’

The Fool

The Fool, from the Rider-Waite tarot deck.

The other cards Caitlyn receives in her reading are more conventionally interpreted in the story; in fact I chose them because their simpler meanings fit the story, rather than being inspired by them and anything deeper they had to say, as I was with The Wheel of Fortune.  The entire scene where Caitlyn’s mother reads the cards for her was actually added during the second draft of the book.

As readers of tarot cards know, though, it’s not always easy to separate ‘before’ and ‘after.’ One of the cards in the reading is The Fool.  Although I never consciously thought of The Fool while writing the first draft of the book, when I went back to look for tarot cards for Caitlyn’s reading, the appropriateness of The Fool slapped me in the face.

For most of the story, Caitlyn is The Fool, naïve, lost in her dreams, and on an emotional journey that threatens to send her into an abyss.  The small satchel The Fool carries, denoting pilgrimage, also ties into the story:  the ancient pilgrimage routes both to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, and the routes to Jerusalem once guarded by the Knights Templar, play roles in the plot.  And Caitlyn herself is on a metaphysical pilgrimage to the heart of Fortune’s wheel.

In the first draft, I had already repeatedly used this French phrase in the story:  Je suis au bord du gouffre. Translation:  “I am at the edge of the abyss.”  The phrase not only describes Caitlyn’s state of mind, but also a literal abyss near The Fortune School:  a sinkhole in the limestone ground, over fifty feet deep, its bottom filled with cold blue water.  The abyss has already claimed one soul in the story, and there are moments where it threatens to claim Caitlyn’s, as well.  She must “wake up” both from her powerful dreams and from her unenlightened state, if she is to avoid that fate.

Knight of Cups

The Knight of Cups, from the Rider-Waite tarot deck.

The other cards that appear in Caitlyn’s reading are the Knight of Cups, Nine of Swords, Queen of Swords, Three of Swords, and Death.  Caitlyn is, understandably, worried at such a spread – with the exception of the Knight of Cups. This is a paranormal romance, after all, and what would a romance be without a hero?

Caitlyn hopes the Knight of Cups will prove to be the man of her dreams; she just doesn’t count on him being so literal about it.  The only time Caitlyn sees the hero is when she’s dreaming, and so she doesn’t know if he’s real or imaginary.  All she knows is that she loves him.  Cups seemed fitting.

When I starting writing Wake Unto Me, I had no idea that tarot would grow to play such a large part in the story.   The cards took on a life of their own, just as my characters often do, interacting with my imagination and written words to give voice to unconscious realities that might otherwise remain silent and hidden.

The tarot spread at the start of Wake Unto Me foreshadows events and – I hope – stirs the reader’s curiosity. It serves as a preview, revealing the story in pictures that are difficult to interpret, dependent on intuition, and clearer in hindsight than foresight – just as in life.  A reader is taunted with the whole truth laid out before her, if only she has the eyes to see it. The tarot cards tell at the beginning that which will be proved true at the end; as my editor would say, they create circularity.

In Wake Unto Me, the beginning and end of that circularity is The Wheel of Fortune.

The Wheel of Fortune

"The Wheel of Fortune" by Edward Burne-Jones, 1863.

This article also appears in the February 2011 issue of Tarot Reflections.

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