Margaret Atwood: Three Tarot Cards
Three Tarot Cards
Thank you very much for inviting me to be with you here today. It is a great pleasure to be delivering this year’s Lectio Magistralis.
But your kind invitation has also been the cause of some puzzlement on my part. I was told I could talk to you about whatever I liked as long as it had something to do with writing. But what can I possibly say about writing in general that others have not said before, or which I myself haven’t said before, which, in my own case did not amount to very much? For what can be said with any authority about writing in general? No one idea of it seems to cover the case.
For example: Writing is a line of black marks on the page, or else on the washroom wall, placed in those locations by countless numbers of people. Writing is a way of recording the human voice, though it is not the only way. Writing is falling out of fashion, or else it is not, depending on who’s telling you. Writing is most often a form of story-telling, and story-telling is one of the earliest of human inventions, and arguably the most important one; we learn much more easily through stories than through, for instance, charts and graphs. Writing was devised in Mesopotamia as a way of keeping temple inventories of commodities such as wheat. Writing was once feared as a secret known only to scribes and magicians, and still carries a whiff of warning: I recently received a coffee cup inscribed with the word WORD, and the subscription, “Handle with care.” Writing has been forged, and used to destroy people, as in the case of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots. Writing has also been used to save people threatened with execution: behold, the written and signed pardon, arriving just in time! Writing has been used to blackmail and extort; it has also been used to bring hope and joy. Handwriting was taught widely in the nineteenth century because capitalism needed a lot of clerks who could read and write in order to keep track of wealth, and of who owed what to whom. That is what the poor clerk, Bob Cratchit – in Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol -- is doing in Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting house as he scratches away with his pen: he is adding up sums. Oh, but you didn’t mean writing, small w, you say. You meant Writing, capital letter! You meant literary writing, or at least written works of some degree of elevation. You meant, possibly, the sort of writing I myself have been known to commit from time to time. I say “commit” advisedly – one commits an act, but one also commits a crime, and writing of the literary sort is an act, but it can also be viewed as a crime. Many have been jailed or sent to their deaths merely because of their writing. Sacrilege and treachery have been among the verdicts; whereas amongst the literary critics – who are themselves writers, let us not forget – bad taste as well as bad writing have been among the accusations.
Beware of writing, we might say! Perhaps one ought to show discretion, and never record anything on paper. But in my case it is far too late for that.
Because human beings are symbol makers and like to organize their symbols in comprehensible ways, I will now attempt to look at some aspects of writing through three Tarot cards: LA PAPESSE, or THE FEMALE POPE; THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE; and LA BALANCE, or JUSTICE. And because human beings are story-tellers, and have been for tens of thousands of years, I will begin with three stories: The first story: How I Became a Writer (sort of ). The second story: How I Once Employed the Tarot Deck in a Rudimentary Fiction-writing Class in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, in the year 1970. And the third story: How I Was Given a Copy of the Visconti Tarot Deck, in Milano, Italy, in the year 2017.
The First Story: How I Became a Writer ( sort of).
Here is the context. In the late fifties and early sixties – that distant planet I am well-placed to describe to you, having been alive and already somewhat grown up by then – there were no cellphones. More than that: there were no personal computers, or social media, or any internet. There were not even any fax machines. Electric typewriters were just being invented; I did not acquire one until 1967. There was no Pill. There were no panty hose. There were no café lattés, or not in North America: lattés had not yet made a stealth attack from Europe and infiltrated the collective bloodstream. There were very few – if any– people who were female in S.T.E.M studies, which means Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
If you were in medicine and a woman, you were most likely a nurse. If in law – unlikely – you were a law clerk. If you were in politics – at least in North America – you were a freak, and treated as such.
Most novelists and poets in the 1950s and early 1960s were male. If you were a person who was female and a poet, you might be expected to commit suicide to show you were serious about your art. The equivalent for a person who was male and a poet was to become an alcoholic, like Dylan Thomas, who was then much in vogue.
DNA had just recently come to light. Nobody had yet cloned their dog.
There was only one school of Creative Writing then. It was in Iowa. There were no such schools in Toronto, Canada, which is where I began to be a writer. Any skills I may have come by during my long and peculiar trajectory have been self-taught, with help – I am pleased to acknowledge – from my friends, first readers, agents, and editors. But it took me quite a while to acquire these skills: first I had to write something. And a lot of what I wrote in the beginning was quite bad. So it is with most writers.
And, as for all writers, I believe, my first teachers were other writers – some living, but many, many more who are no longer alive in the usual sense of the word, but who live through their voices and words and stories, and whose works I devoured whenever I could find them, for I was always a voracious reader. “You’ll ruin your eyes,” they would say to me when they caught me reading with a flashlight; and so I did. It was eyesight well spent. To all those writers I say, Thank you. My debt to you is immeasurable.
In 1957, having already assimilated some of the core texts that have been so useful to me ever since – the Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, any folktales I could get hold of from around the world, The Thousand and One Nights and One Night, a great many detective and science fiction novels, a huge stash of comic books, a lot of Shakespeare and 19th century novels – though not yet Dante, Cervantes, and Chaucer – I entered university. The Humanities were having a boom time of sorts then, or at least they were more respected than they are now. They had, indeed – and in some circles – filled a void that was being created in the space once occupied by religion. They seemed to offer spiritual uplift, or personal enrichment, or nebulous enhancement. They were supposed to be – in some way that was never very well defined – morally Good For You.
There was a down side to this view, as there is to everything human. The Soviet Union, in the twenties and thirties and later, had taken this kind of moralizing analysis to an extreme – certain poets and writers could not even be published there, having been declared “degenerate” and thus harmful to society. So dangerous was the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova thought to be that she was banned from publication in the U.S.S.R. for decades. Her astonishing poem, “Requiem” – about what it felt like to live through Stalin’s terror and his purges in the 1930s – was composed in fragments, which were then memorized by Akhmatova’s trusted friends. Any record in writing was burned: to have been caught with the evidence might well have meant a death sentence for Akhmatova. When Stalin was finally dead and glasnost had at last arrived, the fragments of the poem were re-assembled and the poem was published.
Imagine risking your life to preserve a poem or a work of fiction or a record of what has happened! But people do. I think also of Curzio Malaparte’s book Kaputt, smuggled out in pieces during the Second World War. Just recently, a book of short stories about life in a very repressive regime was similarly smuggled out of North Korea. It is called The Accusation. The author used a pseudonym – Bandi, meaning “Firefly.” Think about that. A tiny insect, sending out frail pulses of light in the darkness.
This is the writer as witness, as messenger – a time-honored role. I recall that use of the voice from the Book of Job – said to be one of the most ancient in the collection of texts we know as the Bible. The voice is the voice of the messenger who comes to Job, describing the catastrophes that have destroyed his children. He says: “I only have escaped alone to tell thee.” This is one of the things that imaginative literature can do in times of trial and trouble – it can bear witness.
However, when too much moral scrutiny is brought to bear on art by forces outside it that claim to be acting to protect society, you invariably get censorship, and you even get even things like the obscenity trial of Flaubert’s groundbreaking novel, Madame Bovary. This very moral view of literature – nothing should be published that would scandalize – was typical of the Victorian age – an age that matched its virtuous high-mindedness with the largest population of courtesans, street prostitutes and children sold into the sex trade that London has ever seen. But we have never been free of it, this idea that novels and poems and artworks in general have to be judged according to whether or not they are Good for You, by the standards of whoever is doing the judging.
In our age, this kind of moralizing is likely to manifest as an examination of artistic items that frames them merely as a subset of the entertainment business, or else as some kind of secretion – like a pearl around an irritating grain of sand – or as detritus, like a shed snake skin or a collection of toenail clippings produced by the culture at large, and worth studying only as a symptom of all the things that were wrong with the author’s psyche or her or his worldview or his or her socio-economic position or her or his philosophy, or aesthetic, or set of prejudices.
It is no longer the contemplation of the artistic object that is said to be good for us: it is the critical destruction of it. What a relief -- another tainted cultural object consigned to the dustbin of history, as we more enlightened beings proceed along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City of Oz, where everyone is happy and well-behaved, or – as Saint Augustine, inventor of sex as the original sin, would have it – the City of God. In our age, this high-minded judgmentalism of ours (from which I myself am by no means exempt, I hasten to add) runs in tandem with a saturation level of violent pornography unheard of and indeed impossible in earlier times. Human beings and human societies are nothing if not contradictory, as you may have noticed.
But I digress. There I was, then, in 1957, at the age of 17. Toronto in 1948 – the year I moved into it – had a population of roughly 680 thousand. It was known as “Toronto the Good,” or sometimes “Toronto the Blue,” in reference to its blue laws – no drinking in establishments where people might see you from the street, for instance, and never on Sundays. On Sundays the entertainment was going down to the railway switching yards to watch the trains being shunted around. So dull was Toronto that people made jokes about it: “First prize a week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto.” Such were the good old days.
Today things have reversed somewhat: Toronto is now considered to be the most multi-cultural city in the world. Who in 1948 could have thought that such a thing would happen? The word “mul-ticultural” hadn’t even been invented then! In 1961, when I was a young writer, the advice I was given by those few stalwarts already in the arts was, basically, “Get out of Toronto.” Or they would expand on that: “Get out of Canada.” Canada then had few published writers, no film industry, and no music industry. The arts were something you imported, supposing you had a yen for them: wood was what you exported. Canada was considered sterile ground for the creative or entrepreneurial mind, and indeed for almost every form of endeavor except logging and mining, and fish. As one of the few recognized pundits we’d produced at that time said, memorably: “Americans like to make money. Canadians like to count it.”
That pundit was Northrop Frye, thanks to whom I went to Harvard Graduate school instead of to Paris, where I had been intending to work as a waitress, live in a garret, write masterpieces in my spare time, smoke cigarettes – Gitanes, by choice, but no hope there, as I was allergic to them – drink absinthe – similarly no hope, since when alcoholized I threw up, an unpoetic thing to do – get tuberculosis, the romantic disease of choice, and cough myself to death like the heroine of La Traviata. That’s an opera. Even though Canada didn’t have an opera company, I did know about operas, thanks to the radio, and to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts live from the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City.
I chose Harvard and a Graduate English degree over Paris and dying from tuberculosis because Frye was of the opinion that I would probably get more writing done as a student than as a waitress – we called them waitresses then, not “servers” – and he was right, as I found out later when I actually did become a waitress. Clearing away the half-eaten food of strangers is a good weight-loss technique, incidentally. I lost ten pounds. But that’s another story.
All this time I was writing. I finally published my first novel in 1969. I did my first book signing in the men’s sock and underwear department of the Hudson’s Bay Company Department Store in Edmonton, Alberta. This is a true story, I did not make it up. Which brings me to:
The second story: How I Once Employed the Tarot deck in a Rudimentary Fiction-writing Class in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, in the year 1969/1970.
If you weren’t born yet in 1970, don’t worry: a lot of people weren’t.
I lived in Edmonton, Alberta, in the years 1968 to 1970. I was supposed to be finishing my Harvard PhD thesis in Victorian Literature, which had to do with powerful supernatural female figures and their relationship to the Wordsworthian and the Darwinian views of Nature – benign in the first instance, red in tooth and claw in the second – but at a moment during these two years I got waylaid by the film business and started writing scripts, and I never did get back to the thesis about the supernatural females.
There was a rudimentary writing class being offered at the University of Edmonton then, and I was asked to teach in it, being by that time a published poet. The students were undergraduates, and terrified of the page. To help them out, and to give them something to focus their attention, I brought my Tarot pack to the class and asked them to choose one of the major arcana – the cards with named pictures – or else one of the face cards – the minor arcana –– the King, Queen, Chevalier or Horseman, and Page – from the four suits, which, in Tarot, are Cups, Swords, Wands, and Coins. (In ordinary card decks these have become Hearts, Spades, Clubs, and Diamonds.) Happily, the Tarot deck contains a number of powerful female cards as well as male ones, so there was plenty of choice for all.
This worked quite well as a way of triggering episodes of writing, as did the telling of folktales as prompts for stories. One of the students wrote quite a good version of the Fitcher’s Bird variant of the Bluebeard story from the point of view of the magic egg, which betrays two of the heroine’s sisters by getting blood on it, but not the third sister, who puts it on a shelf before entering the bloody chamber.
Why did I know about the Tarot cards? They were in vogue in the time of T.S. Eliot, who mentions them in his classic poem, The Waste Land. A minor novelist of the period – Charles Williams, a member of the Tolkein circle – even wrote a novel based around them called The Greater Trumps. So I’d learned about the Tarot through studying 20th century literature. I’d had a copy of the Marseilles deck in my possession for some time, and was in the habit of casting fortunes with it, until it got a little too accurate for comfort.
I had also recently learned astrology and palmistry, under the following circumstances: I was living in an Edmonton house that was divided in two, and in the other half of it lived a Dutch historian of art called Jetzke Sybyzma, who was studying Hieronymous Bosch. She had a theory – since recognized – that his paintings contained astrological symbols, and so she had studied astrology and books about astrology in order to interpret these symbols. With astrology went palmistry, since that system too was connected to the planets, and the arrangement of hands, fingers, and rings in Renaissance portraits can tell us a lot about the subject of the portrait.
During the long, dark, cold Edmonton nights, when it was hazardous to venture outside because of the ice, and also the ice fog – crystals of ice that could get into your lungs and cut them open – as a way of passing the time, Jetske taught me what she knew about reading hands and casting horoscopes. The Tarot pack, too, is connected with these astrological systems. Which brings me to:
The Third Story: How I Was Given a Copy the Visconti Tarot Deck, in Milano, Italy, in the year 2017.
Towards the end of 2017, I attended the Noir in Festival, which is dedicated to noir films and novels, and which takes place in Milano and Como. There I received the Raymond Chandler Award, which was very pleasing to me, since Raymond Chandler’s works were among the detective novels I had read as a young person. During our visit to Como, we went up in the funicular to the town of Brunate, and saw – in the church there – the famous picture of the female Pope, which has been variously identified, but which is supposed to be connected to the story of Santa Guglielma – the founder of a genderequal religious sect who prophesied the advent of a female pope.
This prophesy was, understandably, not popular with the official Church, and especially not with the Inquisition. Guglielma took refuge at the top of the Brunate mountain, and – said our guide – the inquisitors were too lazy to climb up there, so they never caught her; though they subsequently dug up her bones and burned them at the stake.
The Visconti-Sforza Tarot deck was commissioned more than a hundred years later, and the second card in the deck – La Papesse, the Female Pope, which has had its name changed in some Tarot versions to The High Priestess – is said to have been included in honour of Santa Guglielma and her sect. Who can tell? But so goes the story.
After our visit to Brunate and our conversation about the female Pope, the publisher’s representative – Matteo Columbo, who is himself a magician of sorts – presented me with a copy of the beautiful Visconti-Sforza Tarot deck, which contains the designs on which
all subsequent versions of the deck are based.
I have chosen three cards to represent three aspects of the novel. They will correspond roughly to the beginning, the middle, and the end.
The first card is LA PAPESSE, or THE HIGH PRIESTESS. In fortune casting it signifies the occult and mysterious, underground forces at work, and hidden secrets. I draw your attention to it in relation to the writing of novels – because every novel is in some sense a mystery novel. If there are no secrets at the beginning of the book – and if the author shows her hand too early – (“showing your hand” is another metaphor from card games), we readers will not be intrigued enough to read on.
We want to learn more. We expect a certain amount of misdirection from the author: we hope to discover that things and people are not as we were at first led to believe. We expect the hidden to be revealed by the end of the story, and if it is not, we can become quite annoyed.
The Female Pope or High Priestess is governed, in astrological terms, by the moon, which by medieval times had acquired a somewhat dubious reputation. It can stand for intuition, but it can also stand for change, impermanence, and illusion. The Moon card in the Tarot deck shows – among other things – reflections in the water. There is the Moon, and there is the reflection of the moon. The reflection is an illusion: you cannot seize the moon by jumping into the lake.
And novels too are reflections and illusions. As an author, you must work as hard as you can to make your illusion a convincing one. I am not disparaging novel-writing by saying this. Truth of a kind can appear – and often does appear – through reflections and illusions. As Emily Dickinson ordered poets to do, novels tell the truth, but tell it slant. She also says, “The Truth must dazzle gradually.” Moonlight and indirection, not the full noon-time glareall at once. This is good advice for novel writers.
My next Tarot card is also governed by the moon. It is called: THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE. I have chosen it to represent the middle of the novel.
Because a story always consists of a sequence of events – this happens, then this happens, then this happens -- and the events of the story take place in a certain order, the composition of a novel must always involve considerations of time. As Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, once said, if it’s a novel there will be a clock in it.
Or, we might add, some other way of marking the passage of time. Sundials mark time circularly by marking the circle made by the sun. Clocks – the analogue version – are circular: the hands go around, and then the next day they go around again. The phases of the moon mark time – new moon, full moon, old moon, dark moon, and then the sequence repeats. Calendars in their usual paper form are however linear – March, 2018, is torn off and discarded, and, although each year repeats the months and the cycle of the seasons, the years themselves will not repeat. We will never see 1812 again, except in historical films and science fiction time-travel fantasies.
If time is linear, where is the beginning and where is the end? A question it is useless to ask if time is circular.
How will the novelist conceive of time? How will it be arranged within the narrative? The codex book form within which most novels are embedded is linear – that is, the pages are numbered in sequence –but the way time is handled within this linear arrangement is not necessarily linear. The time element might for instance resemble a circle – at the end, the central character finds him or herself back in a situation similar to the one from which he started out, though she would not necessarily be the same age at the end, unless it is a story that contains supernatural or unnatural features. Or time might be arranged to tell parallel stories that take place at the same time, but that then intersect. Or we might find ourselves dealing with multiple flashbacks.
The story – what happens – and the structure – how to tell the reader what happens – may be the same, or they may be different. If the same, the story begins at the beginning and goes along until it comes to the end, where it stops. If different, the point of entry will not be the same as the beginning of the story. For instance, in the Iliad, the point of entry finds Achilles sulking in his tent, after which we learn why he is sulking in his tent, and then why he comes out of his tent and what he does then.
In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the point of entry is miserly old Scrooge having a miserable time of it on Christmas Eve, during which he is visited by the ghost of his dead partner, and after which we are shown three separate time pockets – Scrooge’s past, his present, and his possible future – each of which tells us readers more about his life, while telling Scrooge more about himself. Time then stops and reverses, and he is allowed to live Christmas Day all over again, this time much more merrily.
In Emily Brontë novel Wuthering Heights, the point of entry – the beginning of the novel - is very far along in the actual story - the sequence of events. The female protagonist, Catherine, is long dead, her obsessed and morally dubious adorer, Heathcliffe, is middle-aged, and their story – the story we are about to hear – is told through the voices of two other people entirely – a gentleman who wants to rent a property owned by Heathcliffe, and Nelly, the former hired help in the household of the central characters, who knows quite a lot of the story, though not everything.
Those are several of the many ways in which time in a novel may be arranged.
By way of experiment, let’s try a few variations on a familiar tale.
1. Little Red Riding Hood, simple linear version. Once upon a time there was a little girl whose mother had made her a beautiful red cloak with a hood, and so the girl was called Little Red Riding Hood. One day, her mother said to her, “I have prepared a basket of nourishing treats for your grandmother, who is ailing, and who lives on the other side of the forest. You must take it to her, but be careful not to stray from the path, for there are wolves who livein the forest...” And you know the rest.
2. Version Two. In medias res. Little Red Riding Hood was so happy! The birds were singing, the sun was shining, and the wildflowers were in bloom! What a good idea – to pick a bouquet for her grandmother! But contrary to instructions she had received before this story begins, Little Red Riding Hood had strayed from the path, and suddenly, out from behind a tree stepped a polite but decidedly hairy gentleman with very white and pointy teeth. “Good day, little girl,” he said. “What are you doing?” “I am picking a bouquet for my grandmother, who lives on the other side of the forest,” said
3. Version Three. Retrospective, with flashbacks. Looking back, Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother shuddered every time she remembered the horrible time she had spent inside the stomach of the wolf. It had been very dark in there, and decidedly acidic, and there were a number of plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake, as well as the remains of several ham sandwiches. The grandmother much preferred watercress sandwiches. But the worst part of her ordeal was having to listen silently while the wolf dressed up in her nightgown and nightcap and then did an impersonation of her. Such a bad impersonation! And all to entrap her beloved grandchild, Little Red Riding Hood! But then, luckily, along came ...” And you know the rest.
Or we might take a more sinister view—the view taken as a rule by detective thrillers – and begin with the corpse. But whose corpse? In one version of the story, both the grandmother and the wolf bite the dust, but in another version it is only the wolf. Why not tell the story both ways and let the reader choose? Many have done this, including the authors of Write Your Own Adventure Stories, and also Charlotte Bronte, in her novel Vilette. In such a case there is not a single order of events, there are two.
Or, in the case of multiple narrators, there are a number of orders of events. This is the scheme proposed by the Kurosawa film Rashomon, so famously that the title has become short form among writers for this kind of multiple-stranded approach in which each account contradicts the others: “Ah. Pulling a Rashomon,” they might say, nodding wisely.
Some fictional structures resemble jigsaw puzzles – many pieces that are seen by the end to fit artfully together. Others resemble the child’s game of “Clue” - the writer sprinkles clues, the reader tries to spot them. But whatever the story and whatever the structure, there is always – in any act of story-telling, and in any act of fiction – an assumed interplay between the spinner of the tale and the unraveller and interpreter of it – the listener or reader.
The Wheel of Fortune Tarot card has to do with time. There is a well-known television show in America called The Wheel of Fortune, and both the television show and the Tarot card derive their name and symbolism from the Roman Goddess Fortuna, or the Goddess of Luck. The Romans prayed to Fortuna in the hope she would favour them and bring them material wealth. She was however notorious for being fickle and unpredictable, as gamblers were well-placed to know. It is she - otherwise known as Lady Luck - who is being invoked in the sprightly gambling song and dance number in the 1950’s musical comedy, Guys and Dolls, called “Luck, be a lady tonight,” in which a character is rolling the dice. He implores Lady Luck to behave in a ladylike fashion and stick with him, rather than wandering off as she so frequently does.
The fickleness of the Goddess Fortuna is the feature is invoked in the opening song of Karl Orff’s voice cantata, Carmina Burana. The Latin words begin like this.
O Fortuna /Velut luna /Statu variabilis /Semper crescis / Aut decrescis; /Vita detestabilis /Nunc obdurat / Et tuncurat / Ludo mentis aciem, / Egestatem, Potestatem / Dissolvit ut glaciem. / Sors immanis / Et inanis, / Rota tu volubilis /...
O Fortuna, you are fickle as the moon, always waxing and waning; this miserable life first wrecks, then cures at a whim; poverty and power melt like ice. Fate, you monster of emptiness, you malevolent whirling wheel - happiness is in vain, and always fades away.
Lady Luck and her sometimes malevolent whirling Wheel of Fortune made it into mediaeval and early Renaissance symbolism, and thus into the fortune-telling Tarot Cards. Fortuna was well known to Shakespeare, for instance. I needed to spend some time recently thinking about this Goddess because she has an important part in Shakespeare’s late play, The Tempest. In this play, the central figure, the magician Prospero – we know by his name that he is the darling of Fortune – has been down on his luck for twelve years, having been usurped by his treacherous brother, set adrift in a leaky boat, and marooned on an island. There he would have stayed, except for the actions of – I quote - “an auspicious star,” who is linked with the Goddess Fortuna – here known as “Bountiful Fortune, my dear lady.” It is thanks to this influence that Prospero’s enemies are brought within range of his magic powers and he is able to stage the illusion of the tempest that begins the play.
I was immersed in this material because - as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project - I was writing a modern-novel rendering of the play, which has since been published as Hag-Seed - one of the bad names the earth-creature, Caliban, is called. Each element in the play had to be represented in my novel –
but what was I to do about “Auspicious Star” and “Bountiful Fortune, my dear lady?” The action could not start without them, or her, but in the original play they are not characters as such. My solution was to provide an influential woman called Estelle, who wears sparkly jewelry and has a twinkly manner – that takes care of the “star” elements – and is given wearing wardrobe items with wheels and fruits and flowers on them, since Fortuna’s emblems are the wheel and the cornucopia or Horn of Plenty, which is what you hope Fortuna will bring you. It is due to Estelle, acting behind the scenes, that my hero’s enemies are brought within his reach.
In more simple Tarot packs, such as the Marseilles deck, the Wheel of Fortune has lost its goddess, but in the earlier Visconti deck Fortuna is fully present. She is shown turning her wheel, and, as it turns, people are rising up on the left hand side of it (thus on the right hand of Fortune.) One temporarily fortunate individual is shown at the top wearing a crown, but others – who used to be at the top – are being thrown off to Fortuna’s left or crushed beneath the wheel at the bottom.
This is where we get the term “revolution.” A revolution involves a turning of the wheel – whereby those on the bottom mount to the top, and those at the top are deposed. This kind of wheel- turning does not promise equality, by the way – merely a major place-change, with luck for some and unluck for others. And, since every human symbol has a negative version of itself, the wheel also became a particularly unpleasant mediaeval torture device known as...The Wheel.
Human societies are ever changing; thus there is no such thing as being on the wrong side of history – if history means who’s in political power and who’s not, and who’s in intellectual fashion and who’s not – because history of that kind doesn’t have sides. History is not an inevitable linear progression. It doesn’t start with Genesis and go on to Revelations, at the end of which the City of God appears and everything is fine forever. There is no inevitability in the course of human power and fashion: what looks like the right side of history today may well be cast as the wrong side of it tomorrow, but then the right side of it again the day after tomorrow.
In the writing of novels, the place of the Goddess Fortuna is taken by the novelist. It is she or he who arranges time and turns the wheel, elevating some characters to happiness, deposing others or even killing them off. Perhaps time in the novel is always a combination of wheel and road: the wheel revolves, and fortunes – in love and life – are made and unmade, but all the while the wheel is travelling along the road and time is progressing in a linear fashion as well. When you are writing a novel, you have to watch the clock and the calendar– was there enough time for X to sneak into the greenhouse and murder Y? But you also have to keep an eye on the moon, which, we already know, signifies illusion. Fortune is like the moon: Semper crescis, aut decrescis. Ever waxing and waning.
My third card is JUSTICIA, or THE BALANCE. I have chosen it to represent the ending of the novel.
Not much in the way of justice can be expected of the Goddess Fortuna and her fickle wheel, but the Tarot does contain such a concept, represented by the card called La Balance – the two-armed scales – or Justicia, the Goddess of Justice. Again, this is a Roman goddess – the familiar figure you sometimes see outside courthouses, carrying a sword in one hand to signify punishment and a two-armed scales in the other, signifying the weighing of evidence and therefore a just verdict. As you might expect, the Goddess of Justice is governed by the astrological sign of Libra, or the Balance. Sometimes Justicia has a blindfold, to show that she does not play favourites and cannot be bribed. But in the Visconti Tarot deck, she does not wear a blindfold. She sees everything. The Goddess of Justice dates from Roman times – which is how she got into the Tarot – but her two-handed scales is a lot older. In Ancient Egypt, after you died you went to the afterworld, where your heart was weighed against the feather of the Goddess of Truth or Right Acting. If your heart was found wanting it was tossed to a supernatural crocodile and devoured. You could cheat by having a coffin charm put into your coffin – another useful function for writing – but the God Thoth, who had the head of an ibis and was the Scribe God, might be standing by with a written list of all your good and bad actions.
In Tarot fortune-casting, this card signifies a positive resolution for you if you yourself have acted kindly and fairly. If not, you need to pay attention – for, with La Balance, how you have acted towards others will be balanced by how fate acts towards you. The action of this card is not at all like that of the Wheel of Fortune: quite the reverse. It says that there is a moral pattern, and that you are part of it. It is a card that concerns itself not with things in process – the middle of a novel, let us say – but with outcomes – resolutions and endings.
The sequence of cards now shows the patterning of novels. For the beginning of a novel, the Female Pope or High Priesess, with her secrets and hints; for the middle, the Wheel of Fortune, with its unrolling of time and events and the ever-changing fortunes of the characters; and for the ending, Justicia, or The Balance, when – we hope – the characters will receive the fates they deserve – good fates for the good characters, bad fates for the bad ones.
That is certainly what we wished as children, and folktales as a rule are happy to oblige. Cinderella, being a good character, receives a much improved fortune in the form of a nice rich man who wanders by on a horse and has a shoe fetish – well, at least it’s better than poking about in the ashes – and Little Red Riding Hood is rescued from the wolf. How unhappy we would be if things worked out otherwise, and Little Red Riding Hood became simply a tasty wolf meal! But we live in an ironic age, Dear Reader. Sometimes the endings to our novels are not so simple. In fact, most of the time they are not so simple. There are many other cards in the deck – The Falling Tower, for instance, which is catastrophic, or the Hanged Man, which promises illumination but only if you spend some time dangling from a tree upside down. Or the Magician, a good card to have if you are an artist. We might meditate on some of these other cards as possible guides for the writing of a novel. But whatever cards we choose, the Goddess of Justice with her balance is always present somewhere in our minds, telling us, if not that events in our novel have turned out as they should, at least how they ought to have turned out. As a rule, we know when things are fair and when they are not fair. We wish they were fair, but they are not always. That, alas, is real life. Or, in a novel, the illusion of real life.
And now it is time for me to fold up my deck of cards and slip it into the pocket of my magician’s jacket. Is the Magician in the Tarot deck a mere juggler? Sometimes. Novelists have their tricks. They pull rabbits out of hats quite frequently. But at a deeper level, the Magician card is about positive transformation. And so, we hope, is the novel. “Your book changed my life,” people frequently say to novelists. At this point it is best not to ask them how. That is a question for the reader to answer.
For the writer must now move on to the composition of a new novel, or else back to the beginning – to the card of the High Priestess and her fresh batch of secrets, hints, and intuitions. Like the God Hermes, she is the opener of doors. What will come next? We long to know, but with a story, we can only find out by following the pathway of the Wheel – ever twisting, ever turning – into the forest, which, as ever, contains wolves, and rising and falling fortunes, and illusions, but which might have a little justice at the end. Thank you.
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. Her latest book of short stories is Stone Mattress: Nine Tales (2014). Her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, was published in September 2015. Other recent works include the MaddAddam trilogy – the Giller and Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013). The Door is her latest volume of poetry (2007). Her most recent non-fiction books are Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008) and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011). Her novels include The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; and The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale – now a TV series with MGM and Hulu – and The Penelopiad. In 2016, Hag-Seed, a novel re-visitation of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, for the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, was published. Also in 2016, Angel Catbird – a graphic novel with co-creator Johnnie Christmas (Dark Horse), was published. Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.