The Rider-Waite Tarot deck is still one of the most popular Tarot decks, despite the fact that it was first published in 1910.
Originally developed and designed by academic and mystic A. E. Waite (1857-1942), he commissioned London artist Pamela Coleman Smith (1878 -1951) to provide the cards’ artwork.
Referencing his Freemasonary studies and as a member of the Golden Dawn, Waite encoded into his Tarot esoteric symbolism that makes it a good deck for both beginners and advanced occult students.
For many Tarot card readers, this deck is the starting point for their Tarot studies.
‘Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot’ is a re-interpretation of Waite’s original Tarot artwork and ideas. There have been several decks by the name of ‘Classic Tarot’ or ‘Tarot Classic’. This one was redrawn by Eugene Smith and the version that I put through its paces here is the boxed set edition that contains a full 78-card deck and an accompanying book.
The cards measure 70mm by 117mm and are a comfortable size for shuffling with average-sized hands.
As per the original Rider-Waite deck, all the cards have unique pictures on them.
The backs of the cards are not terribly attractive. They show a blue design that reminds me of early 1970s wallpaper.
All of the Major Arcana cards in ‘Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot’ are of distinctive styling. The use of color gives them a slightly ‘ageing’ feel that is rather effective.
To my mind, the Waite cards are occasionally a little overly vibrant in places so I welcome this slight toning down.
Of the 22 cards, some of the artwork is in keeping with Waite’s original design. This includes cards such as THE SUN, THE DEVIL, THE TOWER, and THE FOOL.
On the other hand, some are marked departures from the original designs and are somewhat radical re-interpretations. These include DEATH, THE EMPRESS and THE CHARIOT.
My initial impressions of these changes is very positive. A lot of thought has gone into these cards.
As well as these examples, some of the Major Arcana cards of this ‘Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot’ adds significantly to Waite’s designs. These include THE HERMIT, WHEEL OF FORTUNE, THE MAGICIAN, THE LOVERS and THE HANGED MAN. You need to see these cards ‘in the flesh’ to get a true idea of just how gorgeous they are!
Next up: the sixteen Court Cards.
These follow the traditional King, Queen, Knight and Page format.
In the case of the Knights, I liked the sense of motion and the reflection of elemental basis each presents. The Knights of Swords and Wands reinforce the sense of motion, while their counterparts of Pentacles and Cups are less so.
The rather less motivated and ‘seated’ Kings also work well—though there are a few odd discrepancies with the slightly erroneous use of color and elemental attributes.
Each of the four Queens are attractive but the same odd use of symbolism appears.
For example, a Ram’s head as symbol of the fire sign Aries appears on the Queen of Pentacles’ throne.
The Pages rely heavily on their background environments to convey their elemental variations. This works very well. And, once again, it is a major improvement over the original Waite deck, where the difference between certain court cards, and the Pages in particular, is not evident.
The author of ‘Llewellyn’s Classic Tarot’ has maintained the traditional designations of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles for the suits.
Generally, they work well from a visual perspective.
However, I disliked all of the Aces. With perhaps the exception of the Ace of Swords, they fail to express their elemental bias sufficiently to make them distinctive from one another.
The rest of the minor arcana works extremely well though. The extra attention to detail that the authors have introduced to them brings a real sense of aliveness that was missing from Waite’s original design.
In the past, some of his interpretative meanings have either been missing from the cards or they have been rather ambiguous.
This is not the case with the Classic Tarot. The producers have really sought to design each card with its own sense of uniqueness.
The Book: ‘Llewellyn’s Classic Companion’
The 255-page accompanying book is well produced and has a classy feel about it.
It begins with an introduction to Tarot basics, a brief history of the cards and a commentary on Tarot deck structure.
Chapter two features each Major arcana card with their keyword, reversed meaning, scene description and its astrological and elemental associations. These are pretty universal to most Tarot books of this type.
What makes this book particularly useful is the meanings of many of the primary symbols that appear on each card. These add immeasurably to your understanding of the cards’ meanings and offer a much broader context to interpret a spread.
As far as the actual interpretational meanings of the cards go, this is one area where the publisher and authors have, thankfully, parted company with Waite’s original ideas.
Anyone who has struggled to learn the Tarot from Waite’s’Key to the Tarot’ booklet will know what I mean—but, in its defense, his meanings are well over a century old. Time and people move on!
In later sections of the book, there is further brief guidance on how to learn the cards and to perform a reading. In particular, this includes help for Interpreting collections of cards with the same pip values, which is useful.
The manual closes with a short collection of good quality speeds and related books on the Tarot.
In brief, this is what I thought of these cards.
What I liked:
- Lack of borders to the cards
- Clear title font style and color
- Wide variety of faces and expressions
- Odd flashes of humour and joviality
- Nicely curved corners to the cards
What I Did NOT Like:
- Occasional transgressions of Tarot symbolism
- Ineffectual Ace cards
- Slightly poor quality or weight to the cards
Frankly, I do not think that the perfect Tarot deck has yet been created but I would have to admit that this one comes pretty close.
If you told me that this was your favorite deck of all time, I would thoroughly understand but Tarot deck design is such a personal affair—what works well visually for one reader is garish or offensive to another.
Is this a better deck than Waite’s original design?
Yes, I would say that it is.
The cards of the Classic Tarot are more reflective of Waite’s original occult ideas and esoteric leanings than the publisher of the original deck (Rider & Co.) were able to produce.
Over the years, several authors have tried to re-color and restyle Pamela Coleman-Smith’s original cards to make them more in-keeping with modern tastes.
Where so many of them have failed in the past, this deck succeeds in spectacular ways.
All in all, Barbara Moore has created a thunderously good Tarot deck and equally impressive accompanying manual. It is, therefore, slightly sad that the ‘ship has been spoiled for want of a hap’eth worth of tar’.
Normally, this would be a terrific deck for a beginner but it is somewhat let down by the quality of the card stock used in their production.
After only a short period of use, the cards were bending and distorting—and I consider myself a light and skilled shuffler. I would imagine that, in the hands of a rather cumbersome beginner, these cards would have a limited shelf life.
Despite the slightly inferior quality of its production, this deck and book set is probably one of the best products currently available for anyone looking enter the world of Tarot.3/5
Note: Card examples courtesy of the artist’s website, visit eugenesmithillustration.com.