When you’ve written over a 100 books on spirituality and divination two things can happen: you either have the experience and knowledge to write a kick-ass Tarot beginner’s book that actually holds up in the stack of ever growing beginner’s titles. Or…you write something that is obligatory, boring, a dime a dozen, repetitive or focused on myth, so a newbie better stick with the well-known books. I took up Sasha Fenton’s rereleased* Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards. A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Tarot to find out which one it is.
Sasha Fenton is definitely not a newbie when it comes to tarot. The writer, who started out as a divination consultant, reading the cards, the stars and palms, has about 45 years of tarot card reading under her belt. According to Amazon she published around 125 books. Despite her advanced knowledge, her titles are always focused on helping out beginners in the subject – at least that is the intention.
Easygoing & suit-stories
Fentons Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards. A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Tarot, re-released by Weiser Books this time, is one of those titles. According to the blurb of the paperback Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards is an accessible and easy guide for tarot novices. And indeed: from the very first page that is what you get. Sasha Fenton is a talented writer, whose work is enjoyable during a cup of tea, just before bed, or to pick up while you have your tarot spread in front of you. There’s nothing fancy about it, it is exactly the easy and accessible style the marketing department of Weiser Books proclaimed.
The first part of the book is the obligatory history chapter, the so-called guidelines & procedures of reading a tarot deck – like buying, shuffling and the myths surrounding silk-wrapping and reading for yourself. Part 2 is where the practical begins and where the book gets interesting for those who want to read the cards.
Fenton introduces every suit in a great way. Each of the symbols in the minor arcana is given an every day life event to show emotions, possibilities and circumstances, linked to certain cards of that suit. Where a lot of beginners books aptly explain that cups belong to water and the emotional aspects of life by giving a few keywords, Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards actually does that and more. It builds on that by giving you a story about quitting, searching for, finding and acquiring a job, making the nuances of each arcana set, relatable in one example. It is one of many things that show Fenton is not only a great writer and teacher, but that she knows what she is talking about.
Her chapter on the court cards will help out anyone who still struggles with the ‘people’ in the tarot. A true newbie will be put directly on the right path with this ‘most hated part’ of the tarot deck (according to many). Her characterization of the courts and the way she positions them in each suit is definitely interesting. Fenton, like most readers nowadays, reads the courts as events and situations – the meaning pages show that too. I personally liked the fact she gave the traditional ‘people’ approach anyway, but explicitly added she does so with hesitation.
Reading the courts as people was devised way before (European) card readers had ever seen a person of color f.e. and you’d have to be a true psychic to see which court is a person if more than one appears. You can still do so, but perhaps use your own characterizations. The old idea has the Queen of Swords being a bitter, divorced and cold woman who is always white-blond or black haired (I am none of those things, despite identifying with madame Swords). My personal tarot experience is that a lot of those old meanings can work…but simply when the card is reversed or when looking for the shadow-side.
Traditional, modern and alternative
The part of the book that starts to explain the Major Arcana and later on the Minor Arcana meanings shows you that Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards is a mixture of traditional and modern interpretation. Fenton obviously favors her modern ones, with here and there a lovely fresh take on the cards, but uses – and therefore offers – the traditional meanings as an option for those weird readings when the cards don’t seem to make much sense.
While it is smart to remember Fenton’s warning about the limitations of old methods and meanings, I doubt anyone will mind they’re mentioned with every card. They can still be useful at times. Sometimes they’re written as “Tradition has it…” and on occasion they also end up in her ‘alternative suggestion’. While she says those latter interpretations are rare, they were definitely a source of wealth for me (The Ten of Wands as Business Travel, wow!). Oh, Fenton shows reversed meanings too. If you weren’t planning on reading Rx you could always use those as the shadow-sides of the cards.
While it is good tarot practice to come up with your own personal interpretations for the cards along the way Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards really comes with a great amount of very good and useful meanings for the tarot cards. They don’t necessarily limit you in reading the cards yourself. That’s because, like many of the better ‘How to’ books she doesn’t simply provide ‘just’ keywords and key sentences, but tells a little story of possibilities you can use as a basis to build on.
By the way, Fenton does not provide the standard meanings for Waite-Smith I have come across so very often. Will there be none like that in the book? Sure there will. But what I thought was very striking were the interpretations of each tarot card, ‘prophecy additions’ that could only come from years of fortunetelling experience. Where most (beginner’s) books on tarot offer the symbolic options and possible events, these interpretations are closer to simple every day life circumstances and quite detailed at that. A few examples are: The Moon as mother-issues and health problems, The Empress as living in the country and dining, The Hanged Man as growing up. And then a few cards (minors) that would lead us to things like car trouble, redecorating the house, plumbing trouble, hobbies, paying off debts and more.
Spreads & linking
Like most beginner’s books Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards has a few spreads to help you on the way. In this case two small chapters, where the spreads are divided by general (looking at several themes, year overviews et cetera) and focused ones (specific problem). Most are at least 6 cards, but there are all well-known and ‘well-tested’ basics. The only ‘huh?!’ for me was the Tree of Life spread. Not really a beginners item one would think. Indeed, the accompanying text obviously shows she expects someone to already know Kabbalah before they work with it. An explanation on the sephira you won’t find.
The addition of a chapter on linking the cards is a real good one. This is overlooked so much by other authors, while it is the problem beginners in tarot reading suffer the most – other than reading courts. It even inspired an author-duo to come up with diagrams and a complete book to help you out in that area, remember?
Fenton gives a few, but a few very good, tips to help anyone on their way with linking the cards. The different techniques can be used alone or together. The great thing about these techniques is that they are also applicable when reading other type decks, like a Tarot de Marseille, because they’re very focused on combining certain details and embellishments. An example reading ties it together and makes it come alive.
Timing, the elements in the suits, how to actually do a reading and what to do with failed ones (how to prevent them), plus a few very handy appendixes make up the final part of the book. Up until now I was pleasantly surprised. Too bad that ending contained a not so pleasant surprise too. Actually, a disappointment. With a lengthy career like Fenton’s you can expect her to know all tarot readers are different, plus the fact ‘dumping’ your personal beliefs onto a tarot newbie can limit them.
She isn’t the first author to do it, but with what I had been reading until so far I was still amazed she wrote readers ‘must’ cleanse their decks and ‘should’ do a reading like x, or it won’t be a good one. Not only could the latter make starting e-mail readers (f.e.) very nervous, but cleansing off energies is a belief. There are thousands of readers out there not doing it, without any issue. It might be a small downside to this book and it can be easily ignored luckily. But after reading many, many, many posts by tarot beginners on forums, completely insecure because of all the myths and ‘must-haves’ stuffed in their head, that little sword-y knight in does roar ;-).
Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards is an ideal starter book for tarot readers. With her easy going writing style Sasha Fenton makes it a joy to read her tips. Tips that vary from providing traditional and modern interpretations of each cards (while not being afraid to point out the limitations of traditional takes), how to link the cards, read those ruddy courts and work with numbers. A few decent spreads and appendixes are the icing on the cake.
Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards is a treasure kit of wisdom when it comes to reading the cards. It’s a shame the author felt it necessary to put ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ in there that revolve around her personal beliefs. They won’t help a beginner read the tarot. But if a newbie reading this review can remember to simply follow their own beliefs and what feels good to them, I guess my work is done. More roads lead to Rome…or Milan in this case ;-). In all other regards Fentons book is a stellar guide to have with you when you take your first steps on the tarot path. The Fool’s Journey has never looked simpler.
|Author or artist||Publisher||Publication|
|Sasha Fenton||Weiser Books||June 2017|
*Previously published in 2002 by Sterling Publishing Co. Inc New York and in 2009 by Zambezi Publishing Limited in Devon UK.