As promised, here is the 2nd and final part of my exploration of The Fool’s Journey and how the archetypal and mythical elements, and the universal imagery of the Major Arcana of the Tarot can be helpful for writers in developing character, world and story. Please read Part 1 first.
If you feel the need to take notes, might I recommend my printable Tarot journal?
The Fool’s Journey (11-21)
At the end of Part 1 of The Fool’s Journey, we left our hero on the Wheel of Fortune, trying to recognise their weaknesses, and use them to decide on their purpose and direction in life. Next comes…
Strength is number eight in the Waite-Smith deck, but its place as the eleventh card brings the character face to face with their first true test of inner strength. It follows on from the Wheel of Fortune by applying pressure to the character’s weak points. The character must “tame the beast within”, accept their shadow side, and welcome their anima or animus. However, it’s important to note that the woman in both the Waite-Smith and the Marseille deck is taming the lion, not by brute force, but through an understanding of the lion’s nature.
Outward signs: A spirit animal, a wild animal needing to be tamed, another character who is in some respects the hero’s opposite.
Possible pitfalls: Pride, a hardened heart, mercilessness.
Feeling in life: Living life to the full, a passionate attachment to life, showing your claws when necessary.
1. What happens to try the character’s weakness and test their strength?
2. What is the shadow side that they need to accept? Why is it difficult for them to do so?
12. The Hanged Man
This card represents an existential crisis. This is when the character questions the purpose they took on in the Wheel of Fortune, and in fact, the whole journey up to this point. While unity lies at the motionless centre of the wheel, and the struggle of daily life on the outside, the character stuck in this stage is the hamster running along the inner surface of the wheel. Their whole experience of life is turned upside down, and until their perspective shifts to match their experience, they will be kept suspended. This is where Banzhaf considers Dante’s Divine Comedy begins: “Midway upon the journey of our life…”, although in Campbell’s arrangement, it falls in the second column, ‘Age’.
Campbell considers the Hanging Man a symbol of “indifference to social approval,” and being dead to public opinion. No story typifies this better (in my opinion), than Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man. Nevertheless, the Hanging Man’s face is calm, and there’s a halo around his head, suggesting that this state can be overcome, even if it is only a preparation for the next card – Death.
Outward signs: Something or someone hung, or held upside down, a revolution.
Possible pitfalls: Being caught in a vicious cycle, getting “hung up”.
Feeling in life: Repeating experiences like a broken record, mid-life crisis, inability to get out of your own way, having your patience tested.
1. What causes the character to question their purpose or their way of life?
2. What mistakes does the character keep repeating?
Death is a card that engenders fear, and the sooner the character learns to accept that fear instead of spending all of their energies trying to avoid the inevitable, the better (at least for them, perhaps not for story tension). Death requires something to be left behind. While this will feel like a hard sacrifice for the character, they will never make it while they’re carrying around “dead weight.”
How to cope with such radical change? Campbell writes: “What is required is the finding of that Immovable Point within one’s self, which is not shaken by any of those tempests which the Buddhists call ‘the eight karmic winds’: fear or pain, desire for pleasure; fear of loss, desire for gain; fear of blame, desire for praise; fear of disgrace, desire for fame.”
Outward signs: Bones, corpses, a wasteland, katabasis.
Possible pitfalls: Dying of fear, collapse.
Feeling in life: Ending, the search for peace and renewal, leave-taking.
1. What is the sacrifice the character must make?
2. Why is it impossible for the story to continue until this sacrifice is made?
3. How does the character try to avoid this sacrifice?
4. What are the consequences of the transformation brought by Death?
Between the violence of Death and the Devil, stands the serene figure of Temperance. Banzhaf casts her as the guide to the underworld, and writes that the guide has always been there, but unseen and unheard. This reminds me forcibly of the deaths in The Amber Spyglass (which I talked a little about in this post about the night-sea journey). In feeling, it also seems akin to the Emily Dickinson poem:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
The challenge of Temperance is to find a middle ground between being dead to physical existence (Death) and being chained to it (Devil) by our vices or excessive passions. This is the key to making it out of the underworld alive.
Outward signs: A guide, a light in darkness, unnatural stillness.
Possible pitfalls: Following false influences, ordinariness.
Feeling in life: Being forcibly dragged along, conformity, level-headedness, health.
1. Who or what guides the character through the (real or imagined) underworld?
2. How does the character tread the middle path after the loss they suffered in Death?
15. The Devil
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – C.G. Jung
The Devil represents the dark side of the anima/animus, as depicted by the chained lovers. However, Banzhaf notes that the chains are so loose that it would actually be easy for the lovers to escape, if only they were aware that they had been imprisoned, and by what. Furthermore, this bondage doesn’t come about because of some inherent evil, but because we attribute certain characteristics to our shadow self and expend our energies in ignoring, shunning, and disparaging it.
Often this manifests in a way that entices the character to act in complete contradiction to their deepest values. For example, killing to save lives, lying to appear honest, torturing people into believing in a merciful deity, etc.
Outward signs: Taking up arms to keep the peace, using the people you love for base gains, a scandal, a seducer.
Possible pitfalls: Being enslaved by the shadow side, leaving the true path, intemperance, lust, power struggles.
Feeling in life: Slavery, addiction, being taken captive, being seduced, doing things you don’t want to do, betraying yourself.
1. What aspects of their shadow self has the character been suppressing?
2. What enslaves the character?
3. How does the character betray all that they have been striving for?
16. The Tower
The destruction of the Tower is the sign that the old world has become too confining. All towers, whether the ivory tower, Rapunzel’s tower, or the Two Towers, eventually come to signify the limits of the ego and its divisiveness.
The Tower is the stage at which the character can show a side of themselves that no one would have suspected existed. It is the sign that you can achieve the unthinkable, as Luke does when he hits the impossible target. The destruction isn’t the annihilation of the Death Star, but Luke’s belief in the targetting computer over the power of the Force.
Banzhaf notes that the more self-important, arrogant and proud we are, the harder the Tower falls. It requires us to re-evaluate all of our world-views, opinions and limitations, and although this can feel like the end, it’s actually the beginning of a greater connection to the universe.
Outward signs: An explosion, a breakthrough, the revelation of a new self, becoming visible.
Possible pitfalls: Defeat, collapse.
Feeling in life: Chaos, insecurity, surprise changes, escape.
1. What ideas are limiting the character’s view of the whole?
2. How can the character destroy these ideas in the most sudden, violent way possible?
3. How do others react to seeing the character’s hidden (and unsuspected) side?
17. The Star
Now we come to the three cards that represent a gradual lightening and emergence from the underworld: the Star, the Moon and the Sun. The worst is now behind our hero, although their work isn’t done. The Star is there to guide them to the next stage.
The Star represents a respite after the narrowness of the Tower and the violence of its destruction. It brings a sense of inner and outer calm and abundance. The card depicts the water of life, which, Banzhaf says, is valuable more by virtue of its inaccessibility than its properties. As in Fantasia, it lies at the boundaries of the kingdom, but this is the inner kingdom of the limitless unconscious.
The hero learnt the laws of the material world in Justice, and now it’s time for them to learn the laws of the cosmos.
Outward signs: A guiding light in the dark, a safe place to make camp, finding fresh provisions after a long journey.
Possible pitfalls: Forgetting the present while focusing on the future, being lost in daydreams, becoming complacent.
Feeling in life: Trust for the future, rejuvenation, youth.
1. How does the character rejuvenate after their hard work in the Tower?
2. What abundant provisions do they enjoy?
3. How do they adjust to their new freedom of the world-view that was destroyed in the Tower?
18. The Moon
The Moon represents a strange, changeable landscape that can easily confuse and trap the hero. Lyra in Lord Asriel’s house at the end of Northern Lights is in just such a place.
Although the character has triumphed, they must still navigate the dangerous return journey back to the ordinary world. The underworld is tricky and enticing, and can easily entrap the hero for eternity, as it does with Persephone. Are the dogs in the card guarding the way in or out?
The hero must extricate themselves from the temptations of the underworld, return to the world of the living and bring with them the elixir of life, if they are to succeed fully. The Moon is the greatest threat to losing their true name, but to characters who are prepared and who are adept at traversing their inner landscape, it is also the greatest opportunity. This is the test of whether a character is truly the master of two worlds, and can cross and recross the treacherous threshold.
Outward signs: A changing landscape, a narrow gateway, a difficult crossing.
Possible pitfalls: Being lost in the enchanted forest, losing sight of the destination, becoming enslaved by fear.
Feeling in life: Anger, frustration, mistrust, nightmares, fears, longing.
1. How is the return journey different to the outward journey?
2. How do past landmarks take on new meaning and new danger?
3. What are the temptations that make the character want to stay instead of returning home?
19. The Sun
The Sun is the stage at which the character finally leaves the underworld of adventure and returns to the light, ordinary world. Looking back from this vantage point, the character realises that the enormous difficulties they just wrestled with actually boil down to a simple solution; that they would have triumphed much sooner had they not complicated the problem.
Now their task is to begin readjusting to the ordinary world, and reconciling the change in their inner world to the lack of change in the outer world.
Outward signs: Blinking against the light, waking up, watching the sun rise.
Possible pitfalls: Clichés.
Feeling in life: Feeling carefree, freedom, joie de vivre, lightness, fun, enjoyment.
1. How does the character re-emerge into the ordinary world?
2. How has the character changed, and how has the world stayed the same?
3. How does this cause conflict for the character and their allies?
The Judgement card represents a final test of the character’s worthiness to be the bearer of the elixir of life. If, by some chance, a false hero has managed to come this far, this is the stage at which they will be discovered and sent back to the underworld.
On the other hand, for the true hero, Judgement brings resurrection; a revitalising influence that is the final, freeing reward of their long journey.
Outward signs: Being reunited with loved ones, a return to life and vitality, verdure returning to a barren land, an arrest, a trial, a condemnation, an execution.
Possible pitfalls: To fail at cheating (for the unworthy hero).
Feeling in life: Feeling free and at peace.
1. What is the final test the character must undergo to prove their worthiness?
2. Why is the test easy for worthy characters to pass?
3. How can unworthy characters be discovered and punished?
21. The World
The World in the Rider-Waite deck is the inverse of the Hanged Man. One reason for this is that the World is the resolution of the readjustment brought about in the crisis of the Hanged Man.∇
The World brings unity to the opposites that have been battling for supremacy over the hero throughout their journey: dark & light, good & bad, action & inaction, male & female. This isn’t because the world is suddenly free of strife, but because the character has accepted and dealt with both sides of the duality and thus earned freedom from them. However temporary this freedom might be…
∇ For those of you who are following my One Page Novel formula, the World and the Hanged Man represent the Resolution and the Shift respectively.
Outward signs: A coronation, a homecoming, something in perfect balance.
Possible pitfalls: None.
Feeling in life: Joy, profound satisfaction, a feeling of finally being home.
1. How does the World give the character the ability to disseminate their wisdom (or the “elixir of life”) far and wide?
2. What makes the unity of the World fragile? What might urge the character into another Fool’s Journey (and give you an opportunity for a sequel)?
One final revelation about The Fool’s Journey, and indeed about any archetypal journey, is that their writers insist that certain stages of the story need to be taken in the prescribed order. A character can’t skip building the ego during the “daytime” arc without facing the later consequences: material lack in the ordinary world and possibly ostracism. Furthermore, an underdeveloped ego is not as great a challenge to abandon in the underworld, and whenever the sacrifice is small, so is the subsequent reward.
Banzhaf ends with the image of life, not as a ladder to be climbed, as in Campbell’s medieval hierarchy, but as a spiral, each revolution of which represents another Fool’s (or Hero’s) journey, but each taking place on a slightly higher level. Whether this spiral is moving ever-inward, or ever-outward, or like a (mortal) coil, simply spinning around itself, is for each hero to realise for themselves.
- Eden Gray, A Complete Guide to the Tarot
- Joseph Campbell, Tarot Revelations
- Joseph Campbell, ‘Tarot and the Christian Myth’ (Audio Lecture)
- Hajo Banzhaf, Tarot and the Journey of the Hero
- ATA Tarot Card Meanings
- The Illustrated Key to the Tarot by L.W. de Laurence
- Sallie Nichols, Jung and Tarot (UK / US)
Image Credit: Jesters Playing Cochonnet by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala.