Tarot deck review: Stolen Child Tarot by Monica L. Knighton

My sister knows me quite well. So well, in fact, that when she purchased a Tarot deck from Etsy for my birthday, she picked one that I’d never heard of before and that I find absolutely brilliant. So brilliant that I want to share it and urge you to check it out, too.

Monica Knighton has created the Major Arcana for this deck based on the William Butler Yeats’ poem “Stolen Child Tarot,” and she is still working on the Minor Arcana (which you can support here via Patreon). So it’s not a full deck yet, just the Majors. It’s a limited edition beautifully printed on fine card stock and packaged in carefully folded, sturdy packaging.

Striking and Eerie

Stolen Child Tarot: The playful Fool and the treacherous Devil

Stolen Child Tarot: The playful Fool and the treacherous Devil

The lovely and eerie Yeats poem tells a tale of fairies seducing human children away from the hardships of life. The poem contains gorgeous nature imagery—“Till the moon has taken flight; / To and fro we leap / And chase the frothy bubbles” (which you can see reflected in the Moon card below)—and chilling escapist promises—“Come away, o human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” (There’s also an excellent tabletop role-playing game Changeling based on this very idea, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Knighton’s deck with its rich, striking colors and intriguing combination of children, nature, and magic does an excellent job of capturing both the playfulness and the treachery of the Yeats poem. She captures perfectly the world he describes, where the magical mixes with the human in a far-off Neverland. In fact, speaking of Neverland, her style reminds me strongly of my favorite illustrator of children’s stories, Trina Schart Hyman (whose illustration of Peter Pan happens to be tattooed on my back).

I find this rendition of the Hermit absolutely intriguing.

I find this rendition of the Hermit absolutely intriguing.

I like the fact that Knighton chose a fanciful, yet slightly eerie poem as the inspiration for this deck; too often decks about fairies or children err on the side of only being light and bright. In order to capture all aspects of the Tarot—which represents all stages of life—the deck’s designer has to be willing to go a little dark, and this deck does that, although not excessively so. For example, there’s something fascinating and unsettling about this Hermit. I definitely get the sense of the human merging with the natural world—animals and plants—to depict life lessons. And of course it has to be children who stumble into this magical world, as they’re the ones closest to the natural world.

Not Just a RWS-inspired Deck

The deck is striking because of how powerfully she captures the essence of the Major Arcana, as well. While sometimes clearly inspired by Rider-Waite-Smith imagery, more often than not, Knighton sets up her own scenes for the cards, giving us a new way of seeing something familiar.

The Moon is instantly recognizable.

The Moon is instantly recognizable.

The cards are neither labeled by name or number (something which I appreciate) because you just have the image to work with. When they arrived in the mail, they were out of order in their little package. I immediately began sorting them, trying to figure out which card was what, and that process of discovering the deck on my own was tremendous fun. (Of course Knighton sends you a “Field Guide to the Stolen Child Tarot” as a PDF, which my sister sent me the next day. But I highly recommend trying to order the cards on your own when you first encounter them.)

Some I figured out right away, like the Moon; others delighted me when I suddenly had the eureka realization of what they were, like the Chariot (she’s riding a tortoise!) and Judgement (it’s rebirth!). 

The Chariot and Judgement

The Chariot and Judgement

I was stumped by this until I read Knighton's description of Temperance.

I was stumped by this until I read Knighton’s description of Temperance.

And others stumped me completely, like this card, which turned out to be Temperance. But then, after reading her explanation, which describes the frog as balancing land/materiality and water/spirituality because of its amphibious nature, I had the forehead-hitting aha! moment.

Finally, there were some I had to guess about, which I could sense what they were, but didn’t know why. For example, I was so sure that this was the Lovers card, without knowing why. Her explanation of it, based on the role that bats play in flower pollination, is again quite thoughtful.

The Lovers

The Lovers

Androgynous Figures

In addition to its compelling gorgeous artwork and thoughtful reinterpretation of the Majors, there’s another important reason this deck speaks to me, too. Like many other Tarot readers who are queer or feminist, or who just don’t view gender through a strict dualistic lens, I have struggled a lot with what can seem like the heavily gendered nature of Tarot images. In many decks, three of the four court cards of each suit are male, and many of the archetypal Major Arcana figures are male, too: the Hierophant, the Hermit, the Chariot, etc.

In my own process of learning Tarot, I eventually learned to disassociate the masculine from the male and the feminine from the female, and identify all Tarot cards as positions available to everyone: Yang/masculine energy simply encompasses traits that society has labeled “masculine” and ditto for feminine/yin energy. So when the Tarot tells me to be the Knight of Wands, I ask myself how I can channel my inner frat boy. And when it tells me to embrace the Empress, I ask myself how I can focus more on receptivity and passivity in a situation.

It can make readings for others a bit more difficult, though, especially as I always ask people to tell me where they are in each card. When I’m reading for female querents, for example, sometimes they cannot identify with the male figures in the card; they cannot see themselves as the Knights or Emperors, because they do not see female or gender-neutral figures reflected back at them through the Tarot. Which then further enforces the idea that yang energies are only open to men, which is, of course, not true.

The Empress and the Emperor

The Empress and the Emperor

The Stolen Child Tarot eliminates all this hard work you have to do to neutralize or downplay the traditional gender stereotypes lurking in the Tarot by depicting animals and mostly sexless children, and yet in no way does this make the figures unrelatable or distant. The emotions in the cards are clear. The Emperor and the Empress, the cards that I think of the most gendered in traditional Tarot decks, are a polar bear and a brown bear, both defending their young, taking a stance. In this case, Knighton uses seasons to depict the difference in their energies. The Emperor’s cold polar-icecap world captures the distance and standoffishness of the Emperor in comparison to the inviting, flowering springtime of the Empress’s world (also emphasizing this card’s reproductive receptivity).

Finally! A gender-neutral Judgement card.

Finally! A gender-neutral Judgement card.

My favorite example of gender neutrality in this deck is Judgement, which is actually one of the most gendered cards of traditional RWS decks in that it depicts a nuclear family—man, wife, and child—rising from their coffins for rebirth. Here it is instead a gorgeous, gender-neutral butterfly awakening to a new world from its chrysalis. It perfectly captures the essence of Judgement: The figure’s up-turned face is looking towards the heavens from where it has heard the call to wake up to its own transformation. Not all the cards are 100% gender neutral, but androgyny does win out in this deck’s representation.

The only possible critique I have of this deck is that many of the human figures are very light skinned, and while there’s the occasional character who could be identified as Black, Asian, or mixed race, it has the problem that so manyTarot decks do—unless they specifically are working against this, such as the Afro-Brazilian Tarot or Tarot of the Ages—that people of color are few and far between. However, there’s a chance that Knighton will incorporate more inclusivity in her upcoming cards, the Minor Arcana. And like I said, not all human figures are lily white.

This caveat aside, this deck is a gorgeous, primarily gender-neutral deck that rethinks the Major Arcana in complex and interesting ways. Especially if you’re into the natural world and fairies and want something fairy-inspired other than your usual skimpily dressed women pouting like Scarlet Johannson, this may be the deck for you. As soon as I received this deck, I signed up to support Knighton’s further work on this. On Patreon, she links previews of the Minor Arcana she’s already finished and it looks pretty damn epic.

Check it out on Etsy or support it on Patreon.

© Mia Fitzroy | 2015

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