Although I stopped doing deck reviews eons ago, every so often a deck lands on my tarot table that sparks my curiosity. The latest, The English Magic Tarot, was one of those. The English Magic Tarot (Weiser Books) is a stunning, vivid deck that immediately draws you in. The art feels straight out of a graphic novel and the writing in the companion book is both intelligent and poetic. Although the images have a vintage feel, the interpretations provided are perfect for the modern age. I think every tarot lover might enjoy working with this deck.
As I examined the cards, I began to wonder: what is the story behind this deck? Why “English Magic” and what the heck is English Magic anyhow? I decided to reach out to the creators (Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley and Andy Letcher) and find out.
Can you explain what English Magic is?
Andy writes: English magic is a distinctive, local branch of natural magic. It has evolved through many iterations, from prehistoric times to the present day, and freely blends high and low magic. One constant is that it regards the cosmos as animate, and our place in the world as significant. It calls us to rediscover a magical connection with the land upon which we happen to live, whether that be England or elsewhere. It supposes that through practice and study (not least, of the tarot!) we can attain a greater understanding of the disparate parts of the self, and the magical connections that permeate the universe. Through English magic we can attain a state of gnosis and true knowledge of the world.
Natural magic assumes that the world is full of forces, or connections of cause and effect, that happen to be hidden or ‘occult’. In learning to manipulate those connections (for example, by making the right talisman or performing the appropriate ritual) the natural magician can send change coursing out through the world and so affect the way things unfold. Divination, through a system like the tarot, is seen as a particularly good way to discover these occult forces, with each reading serving as a kind of ‘snapshot’ of the divine energy as it manifests in the world.
English magic is simply the English dialect of a language that’s shared by all human cultures. It is our particular, regional way of doing it. It stands to reason that if magic is natural, then it will be shaped by the land it belongs to and the language and culture of the people living there.
How did this deck come to be?
Rex writes: I first became interested in the tarot aged eighteen when I had a reading from a gypsy woman in St. Ives. Twenty years on I was struck by the accuracy with which she had foretold my life. I bought an old Pamela Colman Smith deck and was given a Frieda Harris deck and studied both intently. I loved the stories the tarot told me. It was like reading an ever-changing comic book.
Later I co-wrote and drew the comic book John Barleycorn Must Die (together with Howard Gayton) and it featured a tarot deck. I knew then that I wanted to create my own deck, and that’s when the English Magic tarot was born.
All the images came to me through magical means. I meditated on the cards’ meaning using a drum beat to induce a trance state… sometimes dancing… sometimes prone. When I had received the “image,” I broke my trance and drew what was in my mind. I then inked the images and handed them over to Steve for colouring, and to Andy to write the book.
Steve writes: My life is full of art, creativity and a deep interest in psychology. Meeting with Rex in Chagford, thirteen years ago, becoming friends and spending hours talking on the themes of consciousness, magic, image making and more, it is hardly surprising to me that The English Magic Tarot came into the world. After we collaborated on other projects, he approached me with the beginnings of a set of drawings for a tarot deck saying “ Would you work with me on this? I believe you are the person to colour this deck of cards.”
I accepted the challenge in a heartbeat. With a lifetime immersed in painting, I tried to use my skills and experience to do the cards justice. I’m very familiar with the powerful effects of colour on the mind and the heart. Getting it right was paramount. Masterful draughtsmanship and beautiful colour can move me deeply. To create these effects within others was my aim. I wanted to achieve this with Rex’s wonderful black and white artwork. I hope therefore that this collaboration brings about these things. I also hope the completed artwork now known as The English Magic Tarot will touch others and speak for itself.
What was the creative process like? How did you work together as a team?
Rex writes: I met with Andy many times over six months or so to talk about Tarot, card meanings and magic in general. Andy would then go off and write, and I gave him complete freedom to follow his inspiration. As I understand it, he wrote the book in a garden shed overlooking Dartmoor.
Steve and I met to talk about the colour pallette but after that colouring was entirely Steve’s domain. There was just one colour change in “The Devil”. It had to do with the colour of his goat legs. However, I’m saving that story for another time.
The three of us would meet every couple of weeks for a chat about how we were doing with the work, but it was mostly to stay in touch and usually ended up with what films we’d recently seen. I’m very keen on cafes so many of the more social meetings were held in the towns coffee shops.
I like working with people where everyone has the freedom to add their own creative input. It means that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.
Steve writes: The trust Rex and I have in each other’s artistic abilities is borne out in this deck. He is a consummate draughtsman and he has confidence in my painting abilities. Each drawing delivered was talked about; each set discussed. The deck as a whole was pondered over. His knowledge of the subject is great. Then I worked on a palette for the whole deck, experimenting with the psychological effects of combinations of colour and tone until I had it just right. We all live in the same small town on the edge of Dartmoor so Rex would drop by almost daily and get exited by how individual cards were looking. The excitement grew as each card began to “sing.” Then we would go to a café to talk more.
Andy writes: As a practising Druid, with an interest in the tarot that goes back to my childhood, I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the EMT. Largely, my contribution has been to write the book, but I also had a small input regarding the cards.
Rex wanted there to be an overarching theme, something to do with English Magic that tied the deck together. To that end I devised a riddle, and if you look closely you will see that buried in the cards are clues, signs and pointers that do point to an ‘answer’ – not buried treasure alas, but a mystery that I hope will delight users, and lead them to look at the cards again and again.
When it came to writing about the cards, I met with Rex and we discussed what each meant to us. Then I secluded myself away and wrote. Often I was surprised by what came out. The cards certainly spoke to me. This is the method we advocate users to adopt: allow the cards to speak.
My favorite card in the deck is Judgement. What are your personal favorites – and why?
Rex writes: The Page of Wands. She reminds me of an old girlfriend, not a care in the world. Off she goes, flying over a wall of fire on her steed of choice. Arms and head thrown back. She’ll never land! She’ll fly on into space. Anyway…!
Steve writes: When you become so intimately close to artwork sometimes it is difficult to have a favorite. However one card above all rises for me. Death… so beautiful I could cry.
Andy writes: I can’t help it but I am always drawn back to the Fool. Imagine my delight and surprise when I saw that Rex had given the Fool in the EMT my face. What an honour!
How can readers use this deck to make magic in their lives?
Rex writes: The magic comes from simply shuffling the cards and creating a spread. That in and of itself is an act of magic. By doing so you are making a declaration. You’re stating, “I am a Magician. By this action I am accessing all that is. My questions will be answered by the story I tell this day”. The landscapes, skycaps, fauna and flora. The people. The ebb and flow of the shapes, the colours, will power your magic. Listen! The cards will speak to you. Their story is your story. Tell it as one.
Andy writes: Both Rex and I agree that the tarot is a tool with which to take charge of the stories you tell about your life. The tarot as the endless story. We are all dealt a hand by accident of birth and upbringing but to change your story is the greatest act of magic there is. Steve, I think, prefers a more psychological approach, and that illustrates why the tarot is so rich a tool – the point is not to find the ‘correct’ approach but the approach that works for you.
Steve writes: As a catalyst for the exploration of one’s inner world, consciousness/ sub consciousness and how we were, are and can be, in this wonderful Universe, The English Magic Tarot I hope is… magical.
About the authors:
Rex Van Ryn is an “English Magician” who has worked as a story board and comic book artist on numerous films and publications. He is best known for the graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die.
Steve Dooley has produced paintings for London galleries for thirty years. He has also painted murals and trompe l’oeil in privately owned castles and chateaux around the world.
Andy Letcher is the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom and numerous scholarly articles on paganism, shamanism and folklore. He has been a practicing Druid for twenty years and gave his first tarot reading aged eleven.
So there ya go, people. A great new deck that you might enjoy working with. Check it out and see what you think.