The Tolkien Tarot Spread III: Fiction and Divination

What does fiction have to do with divination?

The common thread is the story structure, the plot. A work of fiction is an illustration of prototypical event structures, plotlines that are moving or meaningful. A divination system also provides plotlines, as well as general elements to flesh out the events of the story. A divination system shows you a possible plot line for your own personal story; it allows you to construct a tale to make sense of your life.


A Tarot spread can be thought of as a narrative structure upon which you can hang the life events surrounding the theme of your reading. The classic three-card reading — past, present, future — is just about as basic a narrative structure as one can imagine. The Celtic Cross is an elaboration of that basic narrative, showing obstacles, influences from ‘above’ and ‘below’, etc. Diane Sylvan has a marvelous spread (the Storyteller) that echoes Campbell’s journey of the hero. The Tetractys spread, which I learned of while researching this article, is a fascinating one that I’d love to try sometime, and seems to combine four plot patterns into one.

The Tolkien spread uses Tolkien’s favorite six-part plot pattern, which I explain in detail in the previous post; it underlies most of the action of The Lord of the Rings, as well as the overall arc of the novel itself. It illustrates Tolkien’s primary theme, eucatastrophe — the sudden twist, unexpected and yet intimately bound up with the framework of the tale, that brings the story to a positive conclusion.

I’ve named the cards after some examples from the novel.

  1. Bag End. The source; the starting situation. Indicates the state of equilibrium that is broken when the journey commences. Examples of ‘Bag End’ include Tom Bombadil’s house, Rivendell, Lorien, Faramir’s hideout, and of course, Bag End itself.
  2. The Fellowship. The journey — difficulties encountered, or friends that step in to help. The process of learning that is necessary to carry the Querent through to the end. The difficulties that require fortitude, strength, and faith.
  3. Gandalf. The guiding spirit of the journey, which places unexpected resources in the path in the form of apparent happenstance.
  4. Cirith Ungol. The terrible peril; the primary difficulty of the journey. Here, nearly all hope may be lost; no way forward may be seen. It may also represent an alternative ending place, if the Querent so chooses, although this may not be advisable.
  5. Gollum. The eucatastrophe: the sudden, unexpected twist that resolves the situation. May represent a new way of viewing the affair, or the prominence of a new factor that was unconsidered before.
  6. Grey Havens. The ending situation; the new equilibrium after the resolution. Of course, in Tolkien’s vision, all new situations are colored with sorrow, because the old equilibrium (Bag End) has been lost forever.

Notice that if you use this spread, you’re really committing yourself to this kind of plot — the journey, the guiding spirit, the surprise ending. If this isn’t the kind of story you want to tell, you’d best use a different spread! But I suspect this spread would be very useful for certain kinds of situations — ones where perhaps you feel helpless, out of your depth, or trapped with no apparent way out. In such a situation, you may want to find a story you can tell that highlights guidance from Spirit through difficult times.

An Illustration: Balancing Home, Work, and Spirit

I’m a little hesitant to give this illustration, since I’m in the midst of trying to work this situation out for myself; I don’t know what the answers are yet, and I may not be able to tie everything up in a nice rhetorical bow at the end. Nevertheless, I’m excited to try this spread, since I feel like I’m right in the middle of a helpless, trapped, out-of-my-depth situation.

Put simply, I have been trying to find some way to bring my scattered energies into one unified place. I spend time at work, I spend time with my family, and (sometimes) I spend time on druidism and this site, but they feel to me to be in conflict with each other, competing for my time, rather than working together coherently and reinforcing each other. I can’t drop any of them; they’ve got to learn to live together. I’ve been working with this problem for years, and the stresses and conflicts have only gotten stronger.

Here are the cards of the spread, along with some off-the-cuff thoughts:

  1. Bag End: 10 Pentacles (Wealth). A fitting starting place, since each of the three areas of my life are, separately, going pretty well. But the 10’s aspect of completion is appropriate, since they’ve each separately grown successful enough to interfere with each other, and they can no longer grow without doing so at each other’s expense.
  2. The Fellowship: The Star, reversed. Lost hopes, false hopes, doubt, failure; desperation. This is definitely a reflection of the difficulties I’m having on this journey.
  3. Gandalf: Justice, reversed. Imbalance, injustice, disharmony. I’m not sure of the best way to read this, since ‘Gandalf’ is supposed to be the positive influence of guiding Spirit; but one meaning that comes to mind is that Spirit is actively keeping the elements unbalanced and in conflict, in order to achieve some larger end. The more I think about it, the more likely this appears to me.
  4. Cirith Ungol: 10 Swords (Ruin). A fitting card for the Terrible Peril. Crushing, merciless defeat, brought about by too much emphasis on intellect divorced from reality. Ouchie.
  5. Gollum: King of Swords. Isn’t this something? The Ruin of the 10 Swords is reversed and redeemed by the King of Swords — by intellect grounded in reality. This is an excellent illustration of eucatastrophe: an unexpected, wonderful reversal of fortune brought about by elements from the existing framework of the story.
  6. The Grey Havens: Ace of Pentacles (reversed). An obvious tie-in back to Bag End’s 10 Pentacles, which reflects the dual nature of the Grey Havens — looking both forward and back. And the implications of the Swords — that the relationship between the intellect and reality needs work — is reflected in the relationship between Swords and Pentacles. The fact that it’s the Ace could indicate a brand new beginning… The cycle represented by the 10 is over, and a wholly new path is opening. (The reversal is a bit worrying, though.)

Working to make sense of your life — whether events that have already passed, or situations you’re in the midst of — is an act of storytelling, placing a structure on events to give them meaning. Recognizing the structures you’re using will not only give you more control over the stories you construct, they’ll allow you to recognize your true role in your life: not Victim, not Victor, not Bystander or Schemer or Lover or Savior, but Author.


12 responses to “The Tolkien Tarot Spread III: Fiction and Divination”

  1. I’ve been reading this series with some interest, though Tolkien’s writing has never assumed the level of myth for me. Still, I’m really enjoying the insights I’m getting along the way from your reflections. “Working to make sense of your life — whether events that have already passed, or situations you’re in the midst of — is an act of storytelling, placing a structure on events to give them meaning.”

    Yes. I think all writers know this. Surely all writers who examine the spiritual underpinnings of our lives do…


  2. Yes, Cat, and Tolkien certainly knew it. 🙂 Have you read his essay “On Fairy Stories”? He considered storytelling (of a certain order) to be a holy act, a reflection in the image of Creation, as we are in the image of the Creator.

    Tolkien, I believe, struggled with the “code switching” between Catholicism and the native paganism of the Germanic peoples; both belief systems held great attraction for him. In some ways he considered the ethics of the ancient Norse to be superior to Christian ethics, since the fact of Ragnarok meant that Right Action for the Norse was required without the promise of a final eternal reward. I think this is reflected in the ethics of his characters in Middle Earth, who have no wonderful afterlife promised to them, but have to struggle on regardless. Frodo in particular goes through the final portion of the book with no hope of success in his heart at all. Tolkien’s solution to “code switching” was to create a new system — a new mythology that satisfied his sensibilities. 🙂


  3. Alright, here is a simple exercise…

    Draw a hopscotch board, complete with numbers 1 through 10. Play the game until you get to the top… What do you do next?

    Well, most people turn around and play back to the beginning.

    From this perspective, is the 1 upright or upside down?

    Did the 1 itself change position, or did you simply change your perspective?

    You’re starting your question at the furthest end of the path… Bag End, for you, isn’t where you started, but it is where you last felt safe. It would be Rivendell, not Bag End itself. You’re already on your journey, and you are having your own personal Council of Elron, deciding as Frodo had to, whether to continue on as the ring bearer, or let the foolhardy humans, immortal elves, and stout dwarves take the burden from you.

    And, if you let them take the burden… You return to the start. Except that walking out your front door is a dangerous task, isn’t it? The Ace of Pentacles looks like it’s upside down, because you have already passed it… Would the Shire be the same when you return as it was before the road swept you along its own merry way?


    You’re at the end of physical wealth, until you find a new path. It is just a temporary pause, and the Earth that the Pentacles represents needs periods of sowing as much as it needs periods of reaping. If you use your mind to figure things out while your hands are busy with other tasks, the Earth will not care… She’ll bless you for taking care of her while you’re taking care of yourself.

    In this case, you are looking at your thoughts as the Ten of Swords… the end of thought. Ideas build upwards, then outwards, then upwards again… We have a sudden burst of inspiration, then we perform methodical research, and once our tower of thought is strong enough, we have sudden bursts of inspiration again.

    Looking at the 10 of Swords as though it were upside down tells me that you’re at a perspective where you are already beyond that card. Turn around and look forward, and you’ll find your eucatastrophe staring you in the face, the King of Swords, or mature inspiration.


  4. Dang, Adam… You’re good at this.

    I gotta think about that.


  5. It’s remarkable how closely your situation and your reading mirrors my own… Perhaps I will try this spread this weekend and see what happens.



  6. Glad you enjoyed it, Erik. I doubt that our situations are all that rare, these days. 🙂 Let me know how it goes!


  7. The version of the Celtic Cross that I’m most familiar with places the querent in the spread twice. That seems to work very well with the traditional sense of the cards being upright or reversed. We already know where the querent is, so we know how they’ll see the other cards in relation.

    This Tolkien spread, though, doesn’t place the querent… The questioner’s location is completely unknown. It would be like flipping through the book to a random page and asking where Frodo is compared to the landmarks around him.

    In this case, the cards are telling us where to put the questioner… if card 1, Bag End is upright, then they have their next safe place in sight and in mind. If reversed, then the safe place that they’re thinking of is behind them.

    Similarly, card 6, Grey Havens, is where you believe you’ll go when your mission is accomplished. If it is upright, then it is indeed a new destination. If reversed, then you are saying that you expect to return somewhere you have been before.

    Card 2, the Fellowship, represents the difficulty that you define as the pinnacle of this part of the journey. Again, if upright, you have not yet crossed it yet (or finished crossing, as it is very likely that you have started crossing it already). If reversed, it is a warning to not cross that path again. This represents the underlying reason that you have for doing what you’re doing, and depending on how fear-based you may be at the time, you could be fleeing from the ring-wraiths, or you could be courageously taking the burden of the ring. Going back to the reading, you set out to create this website, raise a family, and work at your job because of hope… Yet, hope alone is no longer enough to support you, so it is time to stop relying on it.

    Card 3, Gandalf, is the influences that are outside of your control. If reversed, then you can not rely on that specific influence any more, but should be thankful for those who provided it.

    Card 4, Cirith Ungol, represents your fear. If reversed, you have already faced this fear, and it is foolish to turn and face it again. If upright, then facing that fear directly should be a wonderful course of action. 10 of swords is the end of thought… Are you afraid of running out of ideas?

    Card 5, Gollum, is what facing your fears (or turning away from your fears, if 4 is reversed) will look like. If reversed, then perhaps you should ask yourself if you have already received this “reward.”

    King of Swords is a very powerful card… It represents mature thought, often either inspiration or logic… a genius, either way. The element of Swords is Air… Do you know any air-heads—I mean… uh… people born under an Air-elemental sign—who might be able to provide some inspiration for future posts, or who might be able to provide a series of posts themselves?

    What sun sign is your wife, if that’s not too personal?

    Also, I’m a Taurus… firm earth-sign here, so I don’t fit the profile. I might look smart, but that’s only because I’m stubborn about being right. 😉


  8. Amazing analysis, Adam — it’s remarkable how many layers of meaning can be teased out, here.

    I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of running out of ideas. The “Future Posts” page has a big list, but even that’s not complete, and I’m always getting new ideas.

    If there’s an intellectual thing I’m afraid of, it could be operating without a plan, or maybe being afraid that a plan would not work.

    My wife is an Aquarius, so yes, she’s an airhead. 🙂 So am I (Gemini), and two of my daughters, and my mother (Librae).


  9. I’ve only just began working with the tarot, but I wanted to take a shot at this. Here goes…

    Bag End (Nine of wands): The guy in the card (me I guess) seems to be on the defensive. I’ve built a fence around myself to keep out my enemies (or even friends?) and hold a staff for self protection. I’ve been in a few fights already, which is probably why I look a little paranoid.
    The Fellowship (Three of swords): The journey has only just began and things are falling apart already. Sorrow upon sorrow pierces my heart. Clearly I need to confront my fears and dismantle the fence I’ve has erected around myself.
    Gandalf (Ace of Pentacles): A helping hand appears from the clouds holding a large coin of abundance and prosperity (guidance for the journey), indicating the reversal of sorrow and the promise of fortune. The card shows a tranquil garden in which I experience a moment of peace. Now it’s time to resume the journey. I see mountain peaks in the distance.
    Cirith Ungol (Death): Death awaits me. I’m lost and disorientated in a world of fear and darkness. This could be some kind of initiatory stage. It may be that my old self with all my fears and sorrows that made up my old self are about to die. This could be the moment of transformation of a renewed self awareness and freedom.
    Gollum (Queen of Pentacles): I’m standing before the throne of a queen, who sits holding another large coin. Perhaps this is where my encounter with the guide symbolized by the Ace of Pentacles come to fruition.
    Gray Havens (): It appears I’m victorious. But my victory has come at the expense of others and I’m not sure if they are enemies or friends.


  10. Forgot to add the last card: it was the Five of Swords 🙂


  11. I always thought somebody should make a LOTR Tarot Deck. But you’ve done the next best thing. Thanks for posting this.


  12. Bill — thanks! Actually I think there are a number of LoTR decks out there, including at least one authorized by the Tolkien estate, but I haven’t found one I really like. For example, one of them had Saruman as the Heirophant. What’s up with that?!… 🙂 Elrond or Galadriel would have been a much better choice.


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