Deck Name: Wonderland Tarot (1st ed)
Creator: Christopher Abbey
Artist: Morgana Abbey
Publisher & Year: US Games Systems, Inc, ©1989.
Availability: Find the second edition (2017) of this deck from https://www.usgamesinc.com/The-Wonderland-Tarot-in-a-Tin.html?category_id=4
How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go? Are you mad as a hatter and able to work with a tarot deck that shifts suits completely? You may know the cast of characters that appear on these cards, but you’ll be surprised by how they speak. The color palette for Wonderland Tarot (1st ed) is vivid and striking, but the most gripping aspect of working with this deck is the interesting ways that the imagery diverges from RWS variants. The illustrations are very textural and highly detailed in selective ways that create movement in each composition. The figures retain the Victorian-era clothing that is a hallmark of Alice in Wonderland, yet they appear in this deck even larger than fiction. You are invited to peer through the looking glass of your intuitive be-ing and accept the challenge of navigating the space between knowing + seeing. Can you tell when the roses have been painted red?
The first edition of Wonderland Tarot from 1989 comes in a flap top box, while the second edition from 2017 comes in a tin. I have the first edition, and somehow the box is still in relatively good shape — even though it’s almost as old as me, and celebrated its 30th birthday this year…probably a tea party at the Mad Hatter’s cottage. A very merry un-birthday to you! And you! But, I digress…and we all know how Alice tends to get fussy with too much digression or foolishness. As I was saying, the box from the first edition Wonderland Tarot that I inherited was kept in near pristine condition; only the corners from that box are slightly dented/rounded and starting to show signs of wear. However, as per my usual personal preference, I keep this deck + its booklet in a bag because I find it more convenient to use and carry in my on-the-go-bag. I imagine the second edition tin version is equally great to use — although I cannot speak to that as I have never seen it in person.
In terms of the little white booklet that accompanies this deck, there are some interesting divergences from other LWBs. After a brief description of the author/creator’s experience with the source materials, and a couple of paragraphs explaining the deck, the Major Arcana appears on page 5. Here, the characters’ stories from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are interwoven beautifully with tarot lore. This is as the author states, “the heart and soul of the tarot [deck]” (pg 4). The author has done something truly wonderful in articulating the overlapping mythos between Lewis Carroll’s characters and tarot archetype. Under each heading is a description of the illustration work — which sometimes radically departs from RWS iconography — and the card meanings. The written meanings are fairly orthodox to the RWS booklet messages, but with their own particular languaging and bit of flair thrown in for good measure. This isn’t a copy, but it is an approximation; an interpretation of materials the author clearly reveres. What I’d hoped to see with this unique blend of RWS + Wonderland is that methodology used in the Major Arcana carried throughout the rest of the deck. It is not. The booklet entries for the Minor Arcana are much briefer, and do not include any description of the imagery that appears on the cards. They consist of short sentences and key words. Again, I cannot speak to the second edition of this deck, as I have not seen it; but in the first edition, it feels like much more emphasis and development is in the Major Arcana.
Vivid colors are framed with ample line-work in the illustrations of this deck. Indeed the focus in the imagery seems to be an attempt to strike a balance between highly detailed black line drawing and large color blocks. It all works together to create movement in the illustrations — the viewer’s eye travels around the images from depth of detail to color swathes and back. And so even in the cards where the figures are drawn close-up in a tight viewing field or background, like V The Hierophant, there is still depth of field available and noticeably accounted for. To my eyes, the illustrations appear like pen + ink drawings with markers to supply the colors; however, the author states in the accompanying guidebook that the artist’s “pen and paint have made the entire deck come alive with color and feeling” (pg 4, my emphasis). The artist’s use of texture on garments and objects is what really enlivens these images. Cross-hatching is the primary method of creating texture, as well as overlapping fine-line work to show folds, layers, and forms (3-d objects, as opposed to shapes which are 2-d). The color palette ranges primarily in the BOLD spectrum (think of that 8 pack Crayola markers box!) with everything from lime green to lemon yellow, crimson to sienna, and indigo to mauve. The illustrations tend toward heavy use of the primary colors — red, yellow, and blue, and this creates a sort of continuity between frames/cards. Here, I think the use of the large color blocks makes this aspect more visible as well.
Let’s talk about representation for a moment, shall we? There are several facets of the way the tarot’s characters are embodied in this deck that I really enjoy seeing. They are: the anthropomorphized animals figures — a hallmark of the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland + Through the Looking Glass narratives; and the distorted proportions of the human figures — which make them appear cartoonish and surreal, again right at home in Wonderland. However, the figures retain one of the unfortunate characteristics of their Victorian-era origin story: they are all fair-skinned white people. Even the caterpillar, who in the 1951 Disney film version of the story has a blue creature’s face, is given a whitened humanoid face in this deck. And so, while the 1865 novel is very much a product of its time, the 1989 version of Wonderland Tarot had the opportunity to decide not to follow the white rabbit, travel down a different path, and potentially include everybody. It did not set enough places at the tea party, and is regrettably an exclusive affair.
As clearly stated on the box for Wonderland Tarot, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) provide the foundations of character formations in the deck. Both are Victorian-era British novels that, despite the controversy surrounding these works and their creators, have maintained a wide-readership and countless adaptations over the past century and a half. Not to go too far down the rabbit-hole, but as many people are surely aware Lewis Carroll has been viewed through 20th century eyes as a probable pedophile; and the original illustrator, John Tenniel, was a blatant racist and supporter of imperialist Britain’s colonial agenda to subjugate India. In no uncertain terms, these source materials are fraught with dehumanizing qualities and complicated historical contexts — to say the least. However perilous the lives and histories of the original creators, these were clearly not the intentions of the creators of the Wonderland Tarot deck. The author, Christopher Abbey, leaves their “Final Thoughts” on the last page of the booklet saying, “In my cosmology, all religions are valid…and no one’s beliefs should be ridiculed. I would not ridicule the beliefs of others, nor would I expect anyone to ridicule mine.” He signs off to the reader in “Peace,” (pg 31).
Also of note, as it drives the stylistic elements of the tarot deck, is the artist John Tenniel’s original illustrations done in a distinctly German Nazarene style — which, as I described above, emphasizes heavy black outlines, detailed line work, and color blocking. Although Tenniel’s 1865 and 1871 illustrations appear in black and white, the artist for Wonderland Tarot makes ample use of color. An additional inspiration to the deck is drawn from Tenniel’s use of the grotesque imagery to embody the surreal. The grotesque elements of the deck appear in the juxtaposition of animal heads on human bodies, distortions of proportion, and unrealistic use of perspective — these are fundamentally bold story-telling devices used in visual form. They set the tone of the piece and disorient the viewer through pleasant and unpleasant means.
Wonderland Tarot (1st ed, 1989) is an unforgettable romp through a world gone mad as a Hatter, spritely as a March Hare, and as mysterious as a hookah-smoking Caterpillar. When using this deck will you, too, turn into a butterfly? It’s entirely possible. The historical context of the novels which this deck is based on are problematic — there’s no way to escape that. It’s blatant and unfortunate. However, I think the creators of the Wonderland Tarot have made a considerable effort to focus on the aspects of these stories and characters that have enchanted generations of readers. Namely: the surreality and psychedelic dreamscapes, the metaphors and mysteries, and the existential quandaries at the heart of being human. While the first edition of this deck is no longer available, US Games Systems, Inc. reissued it in 2017 for a second edition that comes in a collectible storage tin.