The Fool’s Journey (Part 1)

The Fool's Journey - the archetypal story of the Tarot's Major Arcana

What is the Fool’s Journey?

The ‘Fool’s Journey’ is the term coined by Eden Gray to describe the story of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Unfortunately, Gray’s own account of the journey is merely a rushed appendix to A Complete Guide to the Tarot, and in the absence of an “authoritative” version (if it isn’t a fool’s journey in itself to look for anything definitive about the mysterious Tarot), I haven’t been able to find a cohesive explanation, especially one that would aid us as a writer. There are, of course, many interpretations of the Major Arcana that are fascinating, but the sources that have inspired me to write this post for my fellow writers have been those that bring together myth, symbolism and psychology.

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Joseph Campbell on the Major Arcana

In this lecture he gave in 1971 and 1975, Joseph Campbell is handed his first ever Tarot deck (the Marseille Tarot in the first incomplete lecture, and the Waite-Smith deck in the latter), and interprets the Major Arcana with the easy grace brought by a lifetime of studying symbols and myths. He reminds me of Lyra reading the alethiometer. :)

Note: I’m sure the numbering of Campbell’s lecture hasn’t escaped you either. ;)

Campbell has a short essay in Tarot Revelations in which he details the same points as he does in the lecture. It’s interesting that he doesn’t draw a parallel with the monomyth. Instead, he sees in the Major Arcana, a progressive hierarchy inspired by the Minor Arcana’s correspondence to medieval estates. Instead of simply moving from one card to the next in order, he divides the cards into four columns, each of which represent a ladder to be climbed by the person over the course of that particular stage of life (Adolescence, Maturity, Age and Decrepitude, as borrowed from Dante). I think the structure becomes weaker as it reaches the fourth and fifth levels, but it’s still a welcome change to the usual linear or cyclical ways of visualising the Fool’s Journey.Joseph Campbell Tarot Spread

Hajo Banzhaf on the Fool’s Journey

Hajo Banzhaf, in Tarot and the Journey of the Hero, is also perplexingly silent on the archetypal ‘Hero’s Journey’. He cites Sallie Nichols’s Jung and Tarot as his main inspiration. Nevertheless, in essentials, the Fool’s Journey and the Hero’s Journey are one and the same. Campbell says in his lecture that he regards the Tarot as a myth, and reads it as such.

In essence, there’s no difference between images and letters, except that we’re trained from birth to understand the system governing the order and denotation of letters, while something like ✭ is left more open to interpretation. Perhaps for this reason, a tool like the Tarot deck or the motifs of mythology can help us escape our institutional conditioning, and explore greater depths of meaning in our worlds.

Hajo Banzhaf’s diagram is similar to the key in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in that it’s arranged in a counter-clockwise circle with the light and dark phases of the journey marked, but instead of starting at the top of the circle, Banzhaf’s hero begins at the right (east). I think this is because the Magician depicts the dawn (the “Golden Dawn” for Waite and Smith), and the Lovers, which fall at the top with the sun shining above them, depict noontime. However, Banzhaf leaves the return journey – consisting of the Sun, Judgement and the World – out of his cycle. You can find a table comparing the various stages of The Hero’s Journey, The Fool’s Journey and The Writer’s Journey in the One Page Novel Course Workbook in the Coterie Library.

How to use the Fool’s Journey

The “possible pitfalls” and “feeling in life” are mostly excerpted from Banzhaf, but the “outward signs” are my own collations.

  1. The possible pitfalls are very useful for adding conflict to your story;
  2. the feelings in life are the things that might be going through your character’s head,
  3. and the outward signs are external events of objects that can represent that stage of the story.

My recommendation is to use the Fool’s Journey for inspiration and brainstorming, rather than for developing a plot or outlining. It’s far more powerful for suggesting solutions than for suggesting structure (as is true for Tarot in general).


  1. If your story is lacking conflict, find the card which best represents your character and use the “pitfalls” list as a starting point.
  2. If you aren’t sure what your character is thinking at a certain point in the story, find their corresponding card and explore the “feelings” list.
  3. If you need more events in your story that relate to the current stage it’s in, find the corresponding card and brainstorm ideas using the “signs” list.
  4. If you don’t know what your character should do next, find which card their current state corresponds to, and use the exercises to brainstorm scenes for the next card.
  5. If you need the influence of a particular card in your story, consider creating a character who fulfils those functions and makes use of similar symbols.

The Fool’s Journey

0. The Wandering Fool

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’

The Fool is the hero of the Major Arcana. Eden Gray (after Waite) considers the Fool an everyman character, who progresses through the cards in their order from the Magician (1) through to the World (21). The Fool is unnumbered. He is, in fact, the first and ultimate “zero to hero”. The Fool is how we begin and how we end, from our childish wobbles and gibberish to our drooling dotage. The Fool carries a bindle, marking his vagrant state, and because the card is unnumbered, it is usually considered (like the Joker in modern decks), “moveable”. This is particularly clear in Campbell’s interpretation, where the Fool doesn’t have a place in the hierarchy, but is the card that moves up the four estates.

The archetype of the wise fool is a well-established one both in literature (Shakespeare’s Fool in King Lear, Wamba in Ivanhoe, etc.) and in world religions, representing the dichotomies between wisdom and learning, beginner mind and monkey mind, ji-hokkai and ri-hokkai. “Either he knows nothing or he isn’t using the knowledge he has,” writes Banzhaf.

It’s important that the hero of the Major Arcana isn’t a superhuman, an alpha male, or a world-saviour. The Fool is the younger brother, the child, the outcast, the weakling, the underdog, and the wildcard. Marie von Franz equates the Fool with the Jungian inferior function:

“Wenn man die einzelnen Fälle studiert, kann man sehen, daß die minderwertige Funktion dazu neigt, sich in der Art eines solchen “Narr” Helden, eines göttlichen Narren oder idiotischen Helden zu verhalten. Er repräsentiert den verachteten Teil, aber auch den Teil, der die Verbindung zum Unbewußten aufbaut und daher den geheimen Schlüssel zur unbewußten Ganzheit in sich trägt.” Marie von Franz, ‘Die inferiore Funktion’ in Pscyhotherapie

“If one studies the individual cases, one can see that the inferior function tends to behave in the way of such “fool” heroes, holy fools, or idiot heroes. It represents the despised part, but also the part that builds a connection to the unconscious and therefore carries in itself the secret key to the unconscious whole.”

The Fool is the Major Arcana’s hero because he is the character most open to change, most in need of change, and most worthy of change by virtue of being guileless and (perhaps naively) unafraid of making mistakes. As E.M. Forster put it, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

The Fool’s Dog
Banzhaf interprets the dog as warning the Fool to watch where he’s walking; he seems blissfully unaware that he’s at the edge of a cliff. In the Marseille decks, however, the dog is clearly attacking the man – notably clawing at the thigh, which is usually where the Fisher King is wounded by a spear.

Barking dogs often herald strangers, but dogs also bark to welcome their masters. When Odysseus finally returns home, his dog is the only one to recognise him in his disguise, although the animal’s response also puts him in danger of discovery. Hence, I consider the dog a perfect symbol of Tolstoy’s suggestion that there are only two types of stories: a stranger comes to town, or someone leaves on a journey.


1. How is your hero a wise fool?
2. What is a symbol of their home?
3. How will this symbol gain new meaning when the hero returns home after their long journey?

The Heavenly and Earthly Parents

Banzhaf casts the Magician and the High Priestess as the hero’s “heavenly” parents, in contrast to the Empress and the Emperor who are the “earthly” parents. I think it’s very useful to cast the two sets of parents because these two pairs of cards clearly mirror each other, and represent two sides of the same coin. However, it’s important to remember that these archetypes are based on myth, not on cultural stereotypes or gender roles.

Many heroes and heroines have two sets of parents. Lyra has her real “heavenly” parents who died in an airship accident, and her “earthly” guardian, Lord Asriel (as well as her gyptian nursemaid and Fader Coram who could also be regarded as her “earthly” parents); Harry has his deceased (“heavenly” or “spiritual”) parents, Lily and James, while the Dursleys are his “earthly” parents. The motif is even more common in myths and fairytales where a royal child is often fostered by commoners for protection against a prophecy, curse, or evil step-mother, as is the case, for example, with Oedipus, and Snow White.

1. The Magician

The Magician uses the way of the intellect to uncover spiritual secrets; he is an active seeker of knowledge and clarity. He is depicted holding a wand and making the hermetic sign meaning, “as above, so below”.

He is also controlling all four symbols of the Minor Arcana (the Jungian four functions), which Campbell considers as meaning, “that any path of life well followed may lead to an opening of the spiritual door, of which he is the guardian.”

Outward signs: A juggler, conjurer or magician, an adept, a bookworm.
Possible pitfalls: Megalomania, being a charlatan, omnipotence.
Feeling in life: Tapping into huge reserves of power, feeling in charge, confidence, a Faustian thirst for knowledge.


1. Who is the initiator of your character’s current way of life?
2. Do they have a “heavenly” Father? If yes, what is their relationship like?
3. Does your character tend more towards the empirical or the mystical? What conflict does this dichotomy cause them?

2. The High Priestess

The High Priestess is the feminine counterpart of the Magician; she represents the mystical path to spirituality as opposed to the intellectual. Her approach is passive, inwardly-directed, and in no way inferior or less effective to that of the Magician. In fact, any assumption that it could be is probably just a symptom of our cultural bias.

Campbell suggests that the Magician and the High Priestess, “might be read as representing, respectively, the Animus and the Anima, complementary images of the ideal male in the psyche of the female and female in the psyche of the male.” As her place below the Lovers in his arrangement implies, she is the initiator of the estate of spiritual love.

Outward signs: Loss of consciousness, waiting, turning the other cheek, taking part in a ritual, allowing oneself to be guided blindly.
Possible pitfalls: Escapism, doubt, indecisiveness.
Feeling in life: Letting go, trust in the universe, inspiration, feeling loved, peace, going with the flow.


1. What is the character open to and expectant of?
2. Do they have a “heavenly” mother? If yes, what is their relationship like?
3. Who represents the character’s anima or animus?

3. The Empress

The Empress is the power of nature, as opposed to the Emperor who represents the manmade or artificial. She can be a source of abundance, creativity, nourishment, and life but at the same time, she can bring about the destructive forces of natural disasters.

Campbell considers the Empress as representing the maturation of the spiritual love of the High Priestess.

Outward signs: A feast, a mother, an artist, going shopping.
Possible pitfalls: Uncontrolled growth, changeableness, inconsistency.
Feeling in life: Creative flow, feeling alive, understanding the cycles of life, belief in abundance.


1. How does your character embrace life?
2. Do they have an “earthly” mother? If yes, what is their relationship like?
3. Are they in tune with nature?

4. The Emperor

As the Father figure, the Emperor is the source of authority and responsibility. While he may at times seem overbearing or critical, he provides the disciplining influence which is the essence of all learning and spirituality. He isn’t opposed to the feminine, or to life. In fact, the Ankh he holds in his right hand represents the life force as a combination of the male and female energies.

Outward signs: An authority figure, being told to try harder, being given a routine or schedule, being drafted, a (verbal or physical) beating.
Possible pitfalls: Obstinacy, perfectionism, strictness, hard-heartedness.
Feeling in life: To be aware of responsibilities, being cruel to be kind, a realistic outlook, seriousness, being given constructive criticism.


1. How does your character approach their responsibilities?
2. Do they have an “earthly” father? If yes, what is their relationship like?
3. How do they struggle with discipline or authority?

5. The Hierophant

The Hierophant is the teacher of religious mysteries and the first suggestion of the underworld of adventure. This, according to Banzhaf, is represented by the fingers of the Hierophant’s right hand: the three fingers pointing upwards symbolise the visible world, while the curled fingers symbolise the hidden world. The five fingers as a whole are the “quintessence”. The hero must travel through both the (conscious) visible world, and the (unconscious) hidden world to find what is essential.

Outward signs: A truth-teller, a blunder, an invitation.
Possible pitfalls: Hyposcrisy, world-weariness, “guru-ism”.
Feeling in life: Faith in the divine, profound experiences.


1. What character might work as a Hierophant to urge your character to discover the world that they’re ignoring?
2. What is visible in the character’s world?
3. What is hidden?

6. The Lovers

Having realised that there is a world beyond that which they had conceived, the hero must now decide whether or not to leave home and hearth and search for it (in the visible or invisible world). The hero makes this decision with a light, pure heart, and with the best intentions. Banzhaf describes it as a happy union of will and passion, but it can also be the choice between vice and virtue, as the biblical imagery in the Waite-Smith deck attests.

This card depicts a pair of lovers because even after the teachings of the Hierophant, love is the ultimate driving force that allows us to make a change. It is also often love that draws us away from our own family for the first time. While this card may feel like the ultimate goal and the end of the road for the character, needless to say they still have a long journey ahead of them. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, this is only the decision to accept or refuse the call to adventure. Finding, in another person, what you lack in yourself, is only the beginning…

Outward signs: An object of desire, arguments with parents or guardians.
Possible pitfalls: Intemperance, excessive joy.
Feeling in life: Butterflies, fearless decisiveness.


1. How does the experience of love force the character to make a choice between their current life and the life they might have?
2. How do they describe the choice to themselves? Are they accurate?
3. What are they afraid of leaving behind? How does their desire outweigh this fear?

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7. The Chariot

The decision made in the Lovers card has spurred the hero on to leave his home and set off in search of adventure.

“Plato, in his Phaedrus, in his famous image of the chariot drawn by two steeds, ‘one of them noble and good, and of good stock, while the other is of opposite character, and his stock opposite’, writes of the necessity to control and coordinate the two; while Dante’s Virgil, at the fourth stage of the Purgatario, delivers a lecture on the two effects of love, the one exalting, the other degrading.” (Campbell, Tarot Revelations)

The Chariot represents the pull of opposites. The Charioteer’s job is to keep the two steeds or sphinxes in check, so that neither overbears and topples (or wrecks) the chariot. The horses in the Marseille deck are blue and red, symbolising the body and the soul respectively, while the sphinxes of the Waite-Smith are black and white, with each containing the other’s colour like the yin-yang symbol. This is because everything contains its opposite, and if we examine a binary closely enough, we always find evidence that subverts the binary (c.f. Deconstruction). Or as Banzhaf puts it: “every time we are certain that we have discovered an evident truth, we can, at one and the same time, be certain that it is not the truth.”

Outward signs: A new form, or clothing symbolic of a new function; provision of a vehicle; setting out on a journey.
Possible pitfalls: Arrogance, impulsiveness, intemperance.
Feeling in life: Optimism; desire for motion; being poised; increasing awareness; maturity; the first, intoxicating phase of the road trip, before reality begins to leak back in.


1. What are some signs or symbols that the character has been chosen as the hero of the story?
2. How does the character set off on the adventure? What spurs them on?
3. How does the character struggle to keep their two steeds in check?

8. Justice

This is the card that is switched with Strength in the order of the Waite-Smith deck. Banzhaf replaces it as number eight because, according to him, Justice marks the point of separation with the ordinary world. In the monomyth, this is when the hero reaches the first crossing. The figure of Justice represents the old laws the hero is leaving behind and the new laws (of the new world) that are drawing them into their power. The character must be ready and willing to take on responsibility, but unlike the choice of the Lovers card, Justice, with her prominent right foot, represents a more considered, rational approach.

Outward signs: Lifting the sword of power, training montage, a schedule/roster/plan of action.
Possible pitfalls: Being a know-it-all, prejudice, slyness, overconfidence.
Feeling in life: Fairness to others, making intelligent decisions, just rewards.


1. What are the rules of the old/ordinary world that the character is leaving behind?
2. What are the rules of the new/adventure world? How do they differ? How do these differences cause problems for the character?
3. What responsibilities must the character take on? How do they feel about it?

9. The Hermit

With the single digit cards ends the Fool’s sojourn in the realms of light. From now on they are in the dark underworld of adventure. This is the beginning of the inward journey, and for this reason requires some solitary reflection.The hero may hide in a cupboard, or they may go on a night-sea journey.  In this sense, the Hermit is a manifestation of the character. They’ve travelled a long way from The Fool card, where the mountains on the summit of which the Hermit now stands, were far in the distance.

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But the Hermit can also appear as another person, often a Helper who provides the character with a protective talisman for their crossing. However, Banzhaf points out that even the external Hermit is a manifestation of the hero, the conscious gift of the unconscious.

This is also where the character learns their true name. It may be part of the revelation of the heavenly parents, who are often kept secret from the hero. Unfortunately, as Banzhaf writes, finding our true name isn’t the end of the battle. Henceforward, our work in life will be to stay loyal to it and not to betray it.

Outward signs: A hideaway/den/nook, a protective figure, a symbolic gift.
Possible pitfalls: Strangeness, feeling like an outsider, being too concerned with the other world, disenchantment.
Feeling in life: Clarity, inner peace, standing up for yourself, finding yourself.


1. How and where does the character seek peace and quiet?
2. How are they provided with a talisman for the journey ahead?
3. How does the character discover their true name? What does it mean to them?
4. What does this period of solitary reflection reveal to the character?

10. The Wheel of Fortune

Banzhaf describes the commandment of the Wheel of Fortune thus: “Seek the treasure that is hard to find!” This is the card that clarifies the character’s goal, and what truly provided me with an epiphany in Banzhaf’s reading was his suggestion that our life’s work is not to pursue what you (or your character) is good at. On the contrary, the figure that speaks to the character from the Wheel of Fortune is the one that demands more attention. It’s their weaknesses that have sent the character on this Fool’s Journey in the first place, and until they’re strengthened, the character will keep encountering the same problems. If one of the character’s four parents is branded as an “evil step-mother”, then the character’s work is to stop shunning them, and instead uncover the truth about their relationship. There may also be other universal or personal archetypes recurring in their life, and bringing their own teachings. In the Waite-Smith deck, the figures in each corner all hold books which disappear in the World card, when they’ve reached a holistic understanding. But at this stage, they still have a lot to learn…

Outward signs: Missing treasure, a nemesis/enemy/shapeshifter.
Possible pitfalls: Fatalism, misunderstanding your life’s purpose.
Feeling in life: Unpleasant learning experiences, resistance.


1. What is the character seeking?
2. What are the weaknesses they must improve before they can reach a resolution?
3. What figure symbolises this weakness in the character? How does their interaction highlight this weakness?