essay by Brittany Matter
Accompany the Knight of Swords' journey through Gael Bertrand's A LAND CALLED TAROT and experience a tarot reading like no other.
A LAND CALLED TAROT is ripe with tarot symbology that inspires questions and a search for meaning. The story opens with the Knight of Swords and his llama-like horse and together, you traverse a mythical world of animal-human hybrids, changing settings where mood-filled colors evoke uncertainty and intrigue, portals that reveal unknown places, and unusual characters pop in and out with curious motivations.
Bertrand's story is as consuming as our journey through life. It's easy to see yourself in the Knight of Swords, traveling through an unfamiliar world, encountering strange customs and characters. Even while walking in the Knight's shoes, or alongside him, his journey poses a rare challenge. I found myself pouring over panels multiple times and felt there was a puzzle to solve. At first, I thought the storyline wasn't entirely linear. Bertrand's use of Roman numerals throughout the issues are seemingly out of order, but then I remembered, from my knowledge of tarot cards, some decks use Roman numerals. Light bulb moment! Bertrand's story could be a tarot reading, and he expertly weaves clues throughout it that suggest this is the case and that there's much more to the characters and their experiences.
So, if you are a lover of tarot, symbology or both, this book was made for you! If you are a novice to tarot, the story opens a door into a fascinating rabbit hole of wonder. Either way, it's clear by the level of detail throughout the story that Bertrand researched the card game and methodically included its history and occult background. Of course, most books are open to interpretation, but when you look into tarot's history, it shows how deep Bertrand went to build his all-encompassing world.
At its core and in unromantic terms, Tarot started as a recreational card game with rules. Each card portrays imagery, symbols, numbers, and/or suits. Where it concerns occult tarot, it's less a pastime and more of an experience that takes ostensibly disconnected things in life and makes meaning out of them. The artwork, the card's placement, and its orientation are essential to understanding the experience and it's the same in A LAND CALLED TAROT.
Some characters are direct translations of the cards themselves, like the appearance of the Bateleur or the magician, portrayed as a frog who can shape reality. Tarot's Magician card is exactly that, a magician with absolute power who is a master of elemental tools. The arrival of this card signifies to the player that they have untapped and unlimited potential with resources in front of them. When the Knight encounters the frog, the moments they share encapsulate what it means to have power and what tools they have to use it.
Back to an occult-based reading: The person performing it provides insight into the symbolism of each card, and in this case, that person is Bertrand, though it could be the reader or a combination of the two. The interpretation of the reading is up to the individual player. This kind of tarot is shrouded in mysticism and is popularly used by psychics. When it comes to the esoteric varieties of the game, the search for meaning in it parallels our journey in life and it's ever present throughout Bertrand's tall Tarot tale.
Just as imagery is vital to tarot cards, so is Bertrand's artwork to the story he's telling. I'd compare the overall experience with his art to the moment in Mary Poppins when the characters jump into the sidewalk chalk drawings -- the art expands something flat into a whole world of possibilities.
The art itself drives the story mostly without text, and it's inviting, reminiscent of Miyazaki, Moebius, and a hint of Brandon Graham, but with a lively animated feel that's Bertrand's signature. His cartoon-like drawings are friendly, and the immediate inclusion of animal-human hybrids is the first clue into understanding his land called Tarot and possibly what deck inspired him. These hybrids lay the foundation of a mythos, probably Greek in origin, which Bertrand explores in a variety of ways that prove satisfying.
How does Greek mythology tie into tarot? In its early history, the decks portrayed Roman and Greek Gods. Remember Bertrand's use of Roman numerals? They are the second clue. It was French suited tarot decks that used Roman numerals and paired them with mythological heroes. Their periodic placement sandwiches each section of the story and confirms a tarot reading is present. It also guides or predicts the Knight of Swords' path ahead. Aside from including numerals, the only other text that occurs is at the beginning of each issue and it's in French. This text is the final clue that the deck Bertrand applies in the story is the Tarot of Marseilles which straddles recreational and divination purposes. These signs are just one piece of Bertrand's puzzle in A LAND CALLED TAROT.
I've read this book a few times, and I'm still wrapping my head around Bertrand's fantasy universe and its genius portrayal of the intricacies tarot embodies. It's a mind-bending experience, chock full of easter eggs and nuance, and for me, inspired a lot of research and free online tarot readings. The Knight of Swords' journey towards discovery, in particular, reminded me to be unconventional when faced with the unknown. A LAND CALLED TAROT expands the hidden depths of tarot and blows the proverbial wide open to the role we play in it. I hope you enjoy connecting the dots throughout the tale as much as I did.
A LAND CALLED TAROT is available now.