Mythic Storytelling: Tarot for Writers, Part 3

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

Greetings, my lovely Speculators! I hope you’re keeping safe and well in these remarkable times.

I also hope you’ve enjoyed this miniseries on the tarot for writers so far. To recap, in Part 1, I offered a brief introduction to the tarot, in Part 2, I reviewed five books on the tarot for writers, and now, in part 3, I’m going to create an outline for a fantasy story using the tarot.

A Note on Methodology

As we covered last column, there are many different ways the tarot can be used to help build or discover a story and you could probably come up with even more ideas on your own, given time, practice, and your individual writing process. To keep things simple, I’ve elected to use a Hero’s Journey spread, as this will be a mythic structure that many of you will be familiar with.

I first selected a random card for my protagonist and my antagonist from the court cards of the minor arcana after shuffling and cutting these 16 cards. Then, using these cards as my focus, I shuffled, cut, and drew 12 cards from the remaining full deck (major and minor arcana), one for each stage of the Hero’s Journey. I read each of the cards intuitively at first, and then looked up the standard meaning, to see if it would provide further insight into the stage.

If I got stuck at any point, I would have pulled what I’m going to call a “clarifying card.” The clarifying card would have been read in tandem with the card pulled for the stage, to see if the deeper reading could pull me past the road bump. As you’ll see, however, my random drawing of the cards proved to be eerily on point and no clarifying cards were needed.

Though I have a few decks—my interest in tarot predates my discovery of it as a mythic storytelling tool—I chose to use the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith. It’s the most recognizable of the tarot decks.

Protagonist

The card I pulled for my protagonist was the page of pentacles. Saara is the only daughter of a wealthy landowning family. Though it is not traditional for a young woman to inherit her family’s wealth, Saara’s parents want to keep their wealth in the family and have been educating her to take over management of their estates, including leading their militia. Though there is still pressure for Saara to marry and have children to carry on the family line, Saara does not want to marry. Saara is also bonded to the land as her grandmother was before her and has been training with her grandmother to become a fenwoman, a true lady of the land.

Antagonist

The card I pulled for my antagonist was the knight of wands. Miko is the son of a neighboring earl, an experienced warrior who has been exploring and raiding foreign lands for years. His parents have been trying to negotiate his marriage to Saara. They want Miko to take control of Saara’s family lands, a goal Miko shares.

The Ordinary World

The first card I picked, interestingly enough, was the Fool. Saara is naïve. She has no idea what life has in store for her. She believes that she can do it all, manage the family estates, lead their militia, and become fenwoman. She doesn’t know what she’ll have to sacrifice to truly serve and protect her people.

The event that disturbs Saara’s ordinary world? Miko’s family is pressing his suit and backing it with the threat of their superior military strength. If Saara’s parents don’t agree to the match, Miko might take Saara and her family’s lands by force.

The Call to Adventure

The nine of swords shows a person sitting up in bed with their hands covering their face. Nine swords hang overhead. My immediate thought: this is a nightmare. Saara’s nightmare would be to lose her autonomy, her family, and her ability to serve and protect the people who live on her family’s lands.

How does this translate into a call to adventure? Saara has to figure out a way to prevent Miko and his family from taking everything she holds dear. But how does that look? Will she have to pretend to accept Miko’s suit to buy some time while she figures out another solution? One of the provided meanings of the card is a wake-up call. Saara’s certainly getting that.

The card was also inverted, which could mean remaining calm in the face of disaster, and this would fit as well, because Saara can’t let on that this situation scares her to death.

The Refusal

The three of swords depicts a heart pierced by three swords. Saara is faced with an impossible choice. Accept Miko’s overtures and surrender everything into his control, try to fight him and probably end up losing everything, anyway (she may be naïve, but Saara’s not stupid—she knows her little militia is no match for Miko’s hardened warriors). Even if she manages to pull off a temporary deception, Saara doesn’t know how she could possibly outmaneuver Miko and his family. She runs to her grandmother.

This card was also inverted, which can mean blessings in disguise. And that leads us directly into the next stage of the Hero’s Journey.

The Mentor

The seven of pentacles shows a gardener tending a plant which bears the seven pentacles and represents a successful harvest. This card was also inverted—there are a lot of those in this reading—meaning a failed harvest.

Saara’s grandmother, Mummu Liisa, is the fenwoman of the family and lady of the land. Saara has not progressed in her training sufficiently for the skills of a fenwoman to serve her in her current dilemma. Mummu Liisa will do what she can to protect the land and its people, but she is not a shield matron and she doesn’t have the authority to intervene in political matters. She recommends Saara seek out and petition Luonnotar, the spirit of nature. This will, of course, involve a series of trials.

Crossing the Threshold

The ace of swords depicts a hand emerging from the clouds, holding a sword. A crown hovers over the tip of the blade and six motes of light or Yods—signifying the divine—surround the bottom. This card represents divine inspiration or fertile thinking. Inverted, as this card is, it can represent a broken engagement for a woman.

Saara departs to seek out Luonnotar, telling her parents and Miko’s family that she is going to ask for the spirit’s divine blessing on the union. This does not break the engagement, per se, but delays the marriage for a time.

Tests, Enemies, Allies

The Moon is a card that focuses on the power and guidance of intuition. When inverted, as it is here, it represents deception, secrets, and hidden enemies.

Saara sets off on her quest with her companion, Maija. Miko, not trusting Saara, sends his younger brothers Arvo and Juha to follow her in secret. On her search for Luonnotar, Saara will complete three tasks that will rely on her intuitive strengths as a novice fenwoman in a series of try/fail cycles.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

For the next stage of the Hero’s Journey, I drew the five of pentacles. On it, a woman in a ragged cloak leads a man with crutches past the stained-glass window of a church in the middle of a snowfall. This card denotes poverty. The inverted five of pentacles only exchanges material difficulties for relationship difficulties.

The quest has gone on longer than Saara thought and she and Maija are almost out of food and money. Saara wants to push on, counting on Luonnotar’s generosity. They only have the third task left to complete, but Maija has been injured and wants to return home. She accuses Saara of being selfish.

The Ordeal

Judgement is a card symbolizing transformation. Though the image is one depicting “judgement day” the underlying message is one of forgiveness and release. Inverted, the card speaks to stagnation and the inability to move on. In the Hero’s Journey, the ordeal is the midpoint of the novel, the mirror moment, the point at which the protagonist learns something important about themselves, and moves from reaction to action, heading toward the climax.

Saara completes the third task alone, having given Maija what little they had left and sending her home. She comes close to failing, is gravely injured, but she ultimately succeeds and meets with Luonnotar. When she asks her boon of the spirit, however, Arvo and Juha reveal themselves, her deception of their brother Miko, and they demand that Saara be punished. Luonnotar instead sets Saara one final, terrible test. If Saara succeeds, her boon will be granted. If she fails, Luonnotar will punish her, as Arvo and Juha have asked.

The Reward

The ten of cups shows a family, the parents with one arm around each other and the other raised to the sky. Two children dance nearby. Overhead the ten cups form a rainbow. The card fits this stage of the Hero’s Journey perfectly. Happiness. Peace. Contentment. It would be a reward, except the card was inverted, which in this case inverts the interpretation literally.

Saara’s reward is twofold. The first is that she’s learned, by completing the third task herself, that she is a more capable fenwoman than she thought. But now she must complete Luonnotar’s final challenge and, for all she’s learned, Saara doubts she can do it. The second reward is time. The challenge is in a distant land and Saara needs to recover from her injury.

The Road Back

A stonemason works on a cathedral on the three of pentacles card. Two clergy stand nearby, holding the blueprints. The three of pentacles denotes skill, craft, and artistry, but the inverted card means mediocrity and weakness.

It is a time of weakness for Saara as she recovers and hones her skills as a fenwoman (cue magical montage here). Arvo and Juha are again following her, but they are no longer hidden and harass her openly. Maija finds her way back to Saara. She’s sorry she left. She knows that Saara’s quest is about more than avoiding an unwanted marriage. She was just wounded and tired and hungry. The two friends reconcile as they travel to the final challenge.

Resurrection

The nine of pentacles card shows a lady hawking. The pentacles are scattered through the surrounding grape vines. This is a card meaning prosperity and success, gaining an inheritance, or comfort and pleasure. And this one wasn’t inverted!

At the final challenge—I don’t know what it is, this is just an initial outline—Saara digs deep and comes into her own power even as Mummu Liisa dies protecting their ancestral home from Miko and his warriors. Saara is now the new lady of the land. She cannot marry. Nor can she manage the family estates or lead the militia. This is Luonnotar’s boon: the clarity of purpose gained through this final challenge.

Return with the Elixir

And again, in what might be the coolest coincidence, I picked the Magician as my twelfth card. The Magician denotes power and mastery.

Saara and Maija return home to pay their respects to Mummu Liisa. Saara assumes her new role, healing the land and her people alike. Maija remains with her as Saara’s friend and handmaiden. Miko has been stripped of wealth and rank and banished for causing the death of a fenwoman. Arvo and Juha are dismayed by the change in their family’s fortunes.

It’s Your Turn

I’ll be honest. This freaked me out. I shuffled and cut and picked random cards. I didn’t turn them over until I started to write this outline. But the outline kind of wrote itself. There were a lot of inverted cards and a lot of pentacles, but that just spoke to theme—which would be another column.

This is just a basic outline and there would be more work involved in making it into the functional basis of a story (what is Saara’s wound, her want/need, what lie does she believe in the beginning and what is the truth she comes to understand by the end?). But I hope you can see the potential in the cards as a way to unlock your intuitive powers as a writer.

If you’re looking for a different way to develop an idea into an outline, try the tarot. I’d love to know if your results were as surprising as mine.

Until next time, keep speculating, and see where it leads you!


Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at http://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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