Llewellyn's Classic Tarot is a very readable fresh take on the Rider-Waite symbolism. It's been re-illustrated in a colourful, vivid and approachable style by Eugene Smith, where each card appears in a sharper focus and closer to real life than in the traditional deck.
One of my favourite aspects of tarot is how the familiar symbolism can be constantly re-imagined, re-illustrated and re-interpreted. In Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot, the publishing house Llewellyn and American artist Eugene Smith have taken the classic Rider-Waite symbolism and made it more immediate, more atmospheric and more approachable.
Going through the deck, my first impression is that characters in each card feel closer to us as the reader, and the lack of borders gives each card a more spacious and less cramped feel. Rather than the sometimes theatrical feeling of the Rider-Waite, where scenes can give the impression of being performed, in this deck we feel like we’re simply observing the scene as it takes place.
I especially like the use of colour and weather appropriate to the mood of the card. The sky and light in the Ace of Wands has the crispness of dawn. The Three of Swords is set in a bleak landscape studded with gnarled trees, dark skies and pouring rain. The woman in the Eight of Swords stands blind-folded in the rain, her feet in the mud. The craftsman in the Eight of Pentacles is a blacksmith, indoors in his workshop. The Hermit is in motion, climbing an icy mountain with snow swirling in the air around him. The sky in the Six of Wands has a pink tinge, giving the feel of success after a long day.
The cards are a comfortable size for shuffling and handling (7cm by 11.7cm) and borderless but for the strip at the base with the title. The suits are the traditional Cups, Swords, Wands and Pentacles and the court cards are Page, Knight, Queen, King. The backs of the cards have a repeated diamond tile pattern, alternating red roses and white lilies.
The 256-page companion book that comes with the set, Llewellyn’s Classic Companion, has been written by Barbara Moore. It offers some basic tarot information for the newcomer to tarot – history, characteristics of a tarot deck, correspondences and reversals – then quickly moves on to the card explanations. Each card is illustrated at full-size in black and white, and accompanied by keywords for upright and reversed positions, astrological and elemental correspondences, and a list of symbols explained in a brief phrase, followed by an informal explanation in a paragraph or two. The back of the book also provides some introductory info on how to read tarot cards, and a few sample spreads.
Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot is an ideal set for the beginner, drawing on traditional tarot symbolism but presenting it in a more visually appealing way. It’s also a useful addition for the more advanced reader who works with Rider-Waite style decks and enjoys seeing the familiar imagery re-interpreted – much as I do.
The Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot deck is a RWS clone in that it draws strongly on the images of that deck and retains all the same card titles. However, there are enough subtle and not-so-subtle differences to give the Llewellyn’s Classic its own character. It could serve well for those who don’t like the RWS deck but want to learn and use its meanings and symbolism.
This deck feels friendly and warm; it doesn’t set out to be impressive like (say) the Illuminati or Ciro Marchetti’s art. It’s a standard size, easy to hold for most people. The cards have a light gloss finish and are slightly slippery to shuffle, but it’s not a big problem. The card stock is on the thin side, as Llewellyn decks nearly always are. The backs are a tiled rose and lily pattern which somewhat resembles a tablecloth, but that’s still way better than the ho-hum backs of the standard RWS and Universal Waite.
The best points of this deck for me are (1): it’s borderless, with only a dark blue strip at the bottom for the title. (2) The colors are naturalistic: gone are the sulfurous skies used too often in the RWS. The tones are also well-balanced; never too bright or too wishy-washy. Throughout the deck, the artist Eugene Smith has cleverly used color to express the mood of each card. For example, the bright and radiant Ten of Cups as compared to the somber tones of the Three of Swords and the subdued Five of Cups. The Star has a peaceful twilight glow. (3) All the images are clear, well-composed and coherent in style; uncluttered, yet with enough details to assist interpretation.
The accompanying book written by Barbara Moore is another plus. After a short intro to tarot, she gives a brief description of each card, including the symbols that appear and a good-sized B&W reproduction. She also gives tips on how to do a reading, six spreads and a useful suggested reading list. It’s not a thick book, but Barbara has the gift of packing a lot of meaning into a few well-chosen words.
In terms of changes from the RWS, here are some of the most obvious ones: The Magician and the Emperor are depicted in a nature setting similar to that of the Empress. The Hierophant stands in an open-air temple; in the background behind him are waterfalls and green hills. The High Priestess image has been widened from that of the standard RWS. We can see more of the water behind the pillars, and the veil behind her (decorated with a pomegranate tree) is much shorter.
Instead of arriving on horseback, Death (a ragged-robed skeletal figure carrying a tattered flag) hastens on foot toward his victims. Climbing the mountains sandal-shod. The Hermit approaches the viewer face-on. The Chariot appears in a desert setting; one sphinx is sitting, the other stands.
The one departure from RWS imagery that bothers me is the extra cup depicted as a constellation in the sky of the Eight of Cups. It might be meant to indicate that the figure in the card is seeking something beyond the abandoned eight cups—perhaps the image of an ideal or unearthly cup—but to me this detail belabors the interpretation and is nothing more than a distraction.
All in all, I believe the Llewellyn’s Classic
Tarot will remain a popular deck among Tarot students,
readers and collectors. The cards and book together are
enough to get a beginner going, while those who are
already familiar with the RWS will find it a breeze to
read with. It’s certainly a keeper for me.