The Fairytale Tarot - Karen Mahony, Alex Ukolov, and Irena Triskova
“Fairy stories open out a parallel and hidden world in our own minds—and therein lies their power and fascination, and their great potential as a partner for tarot. Because after all, isn’t tarot at its best, also a form of story?” – From The Fairytale Tarot companion book
Like the tarot, fairy tales weave layers of shadow and light, with interpretation often in the eye of the beholder. Containing brutality and beauty, the obvious and the ambiguous, the complexity of fairy tales seemed a suitable partnership to the tarot in the mind of Karen Mahony. The designer of The Fairytale Tarot, she and Alex Ukolov (illustrator) and Irena Triskova (artist) have created an exquisite set of 78 cards reflecting mostly European tales—in addition to several Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern stories.
Rather than merely grafting fairytales to fit Rider-Waite-Smith iconography, the Magic Realist Press team selected stories and designed images that are congruent with acceptable card meaning, yet expand these correlations into something more: a deck that is fresh, thought provoking, and potentially transformative.
Blending the transcendent and the ordinary, fairy tales have captured the imagination of children around the world for centuries. However, The Fairytale Tarot doesn’t “Disney-fy” the stories, making this deck decidedly adult. For example, the stepsisters hacking parts off their feet to fit into the glass slipper in Cinderella (The Empress) preserves the vision of the Brothers Grimm. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Little Mermaid (Nine of Swords) finds the mermaid permitting the sea witch to take her singing voice by cutting out her tongue in exchange for “legs…that felt like walking on knife blades.”
Like life itself, both fairy tales and tarot reflect sorrow, sacrifice, betrayal, and loss—as well as the happier themes of marriage, recovery, justice, and fortune. As is often the case, some stories lack satisfactory resolution—and Ms. Mahony is sure to include several of these untidy tales which stir the imagination and beg for a closer look. However, even the well-known stories that are chosen—The Ugly Duckling (Ace of Cups), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (10 of Wands), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Judgement) offer new, intriguing insights into the cards. This is in large part to the magnificent prose of Ms. Mahony, whose astute observations make the companion book a treasure in itself. But when these tales—many unfamiliar—are coupled with the exquisite artwork and illustration of Mr. Ukolov and Ms. Triskova, the result is truly magical.
The Fairytale Tarot uses the suits of Swords (Air), Cups (Water), Wands (Fire) and Coins (Earth), with the Court cards following the Page, Knight, Queen, and King designation. Cards measure approximately 5 x 3 inches, and although the card stock is flexible, they appear to hold up acceptably. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed a few of the edges beginning to turn up, so you may want to take extra care with this deck. At first glance, the backs appear fully reversible, but upon closer inspection, they are not. However, since the design is rather intricate and filigreed, you’d only notice the position if you paid particular attention to the four corners.
As previously mentioned, The Fairytale Tarot comes with a companion book: 232 glossy pages that feature a smaller version of the card image, corresponding fairy tale, keywords and phrases, Ms. Mahony’s adept commentary, and additional artwork. Several spreads, with interpretations, are also included, as is some historical background and a bibliography. A unique addition to the companion book is a tale created for the 10 of Coins by Rachel Pollack. Ms. Pollack did not know the original tale and used the picture to suggest a fresh story culled from her own imagination—The Girl Who Was Too Shy. In the book proper, Ms. Mahony provides the actual tale for the 10 of Coins—The Goose Girl by the Brothers Grimm.
As a professional Tarot reader, I’ve used The Fairytale Tarot the last several weeks with great success—especially with a 3-card Life Purpose spread using a “separated” deck (dividing the deck up in Majors, Courts, and Minors). My clients report amazing accuracy, and reading with this deck has been a joy. The expressiveness of the images lends itself to personal intuitive interpretation, and the tales themselves add depth to readings. There are many symbolic “jump off points” in The Fairytale Tarot!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the companion book, especially discovering new tales and gaining fresh insights into several tarot cards. Some of the tales—such as The Nightingale and the Rose (3 of Swords) and The Constant Tin Solider (10 of Swords) were positively heartbreaking. Other stories—such as The Emperor and the Nightingale (The Emperor) and Water and Salt (Temperance) seem ordinary at first (as far as fairytales go!), but their lessons add depth and breadth to these two Majors. I look forward to re-reading the tales and working further with The Fairytale Tarot. Kudos goes to Ms. Mahony, Mr. Ukolov, and Ms. Triskova for creating a most delightful deck! It may not be a good deck for beginners, but for those who enjoy the complexity of fairytales, it is a very readable, very engaging deck.