Academic journal article Mythlore

Tarot and T.S. Eliot in Stephen King's Dark Tower Novels

Academic journal article Mythlore

Tarot and T.S. Eliot in Stephen King's Dark Tower Novels

Article excerpt

Authors create myrtopoeic novels by developing a new or pre-existing mythology or fairytale. This development is not about static references to Arthur, Merlin, and Excalibur; it is about using the generative potential of such characters and elements in a transformative way as the primary substance of a narrative. Arthuriana is among the favored inspirations for contemporary mythopoeia, often developed by way of the conventions of such popular genres as fantasy, gothic, science fiction, and western. In such novels, cartomancers and Tarot cards (1) sometimes supplement or replace classical prophets and oracles. King Arthur and Merlin are among the many recognizable models for characters in mythopoeia and the plight of the Fisher King is among the favored plots, sometimes reinvented by way of references to T.S. Eliot's (1888-1965) "The Waste Land" (1922). (2) Stephen King incorporates all of these elements in his mythopoeic Dark Tower series: Arthuriana, the conventions of popular genres, a cartomancer--albeit a villainous one--and Tarot, as well as themes more specific to Eliot's poem, such as the linking of Tarot with the loss of memory. (3)

Eliot undoubtedly used the Rider-Waite Tarot (Waitinas 370-72, 375), created by Golden Dawn initiate Arthur E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith and published in England in 1909, as the basis for his poetic elaborations, and developed the fragments that make up his work from a wide range of literary sources. King too may have been familiar with the Rider-Waite deck, as it was certainly available in 1970 when he began work on The Gunslinger. The earliest extant Tarot decks of the fifteenth century consist of four or more suits plus a set of trump cards. While the earliest decks were unique, each being painted for a specific aristocratic patron, cheap printed decks soon became available. What is now marketed as the "Marseilles" Tarot--the Grimaud edition is something of a modern classic--is not one deck but rather a type of deck characterized by a set of conventional card designs, with many variations, that originated with these early printed decks. Following the publication of the Rider-Waite Tarot (with twenty-two trumps and four suits--wands, cups, swords, and pentacles--of fourteen cards each) and guidebook, Tarot become an increasingly popular fortune- or future-telling tool for both professionals and amateurs and began to make regular, if not frequent, appearances as such in fiction and film.

Fictional cartomancy scenes tend to emphasize the trumps, and the Dark Tower series (4) is no exception, but King also hints at an association between his Tarot and the suits of the deck used in the same series for playing a game called Watch Me (DTI 34; DTIV 17, 72, 171, 563; DTV 559; DTVI 17), evidently a kind of poker with multi-handed, two-handed (DTIV 408), solitaire (DTVII 336), computer enabled (DTIII 366), and chip inclusive (DTVI 627) variations. (5) The Watch Me deck suits include hearts, spades (DTI 34), diamonds (DTIV 171), and wands (DTVI 18), rather than the expected clubs. In a line added to the revised edition of The Gunslinger King refers to cups and wands, (6) which not only converts the suit hitherto called hearts into the cups now familiar in North America primarily as a Tarot suit, it also reinforces the existence of wands--also familiar today primarily for its Tarot association--as a Watch Me deck suit. Wands are also mentioned in a game in which the winner "had built Wands, the high run, and the card on top was Madame Death" (DTVI 18). (7) As "the high run," wands have more power or status than the other suits. (8) The ominous appearance of the Death card is an effective, if also familiar, trope associated with Tarot and, as this paper shows, with Roland. The identification of the card as female, however, seems to disassociate it from Roland and the Dark Tower divination deck, and generally makes the connection between the Dark Tower Tarot and the Dark Tower Watch Me deck somewhat ambiguous. …

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