Warning: This spread takes 16 cards. It is a HUGE spread. EPIC. In the truest sense of the word. Which is probably appropriate given the subject. Either way, this is going to be a long post.
Hello, everyone! Happy belated new year!
As some of you know, I’m not only a tarot enthusiast but also the proud creator of a universe in which a trilogy(soon to be plural) takes place. The Tales of Esper Ravenwood went along very smoothly, perhaps due to the fact that the eponymous character is a Bard, but in that smoothness, I encountered a problem. When I was done with the final book, Lightbringer, and conceptualizing the first book in the coming trilogy, Runesong, I realized that I really had no idea how to actually plan a story. No, really. I had my main character – Rowan – and I had some idea of what he did for a living, but I had no idea what his story was. So I looked and looked for a way to plan this dang thing, from brainstorming to filling in formulas to what-if-ing, but I still had only small amounts of a clue. Then I found a 15-stage graphic of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” somewhere on google, and realized that I had a hankering to do a massive tarot spread. And thus, this gargantuan thing was born.
I am currently in the midst of editing Runesong and writing the second book, which is still refusing to tell me its name, and I realized I needed both a plan for the third book, Winterdream, and a way to show off my snazzy new Shadowscapes tarot deck. So, without further rambling, the Hero’s Journey Spread:
I told you it was huge.
This is what the cards look like all laid out, nothing flipped over, so you can see how the parts work. Here’s a brief explanation of the big parts:
- The middle “card” is actually the deck, which, when flipped over, reveals a potential or main theme of the story. This can also just be a card, but I find that flipping over the entire deck lends a different sense of purpose to it. Fitting of a theme or macro-concept. (yes I know the two aren’t interchangeable, shhh.)
- The five cards in the left arch of the oval represent the “separation” or “departure,” usually from normal life and the reality they have come to know and love. Basically it is an unexpected turn of events that forces the character to cast off assumptions or connections, or perceptions.
- The five cards at the bottom of the oval represent the “initiation” or the “descent into darkness,” which is where the character is both presented with a new reality and a path they may have to fight through in order to get to the other side in one piece. The long and arduous road through Act 2 teaches the character something valuable, something that they’ll have to use in the next part.
- The last five cards represent the “return to reality,” or “reintegration,” which really ends up testing the mettle of whomever goes through this journey. This is do or die time, and if the character doesn’t make it through the return, they often end up worse than they were when they started, rather than better. Most stories with a happy ending generally have the character make it, but in tragedies… not so much.
The spread could, I suppose, be simplified down into one card for each of the big parts, particularly if you’re not someone who is inclined to spread cards all over hither and yon, but I do prefer to get more into the details in order to get more ideas off of which to springboard. On that note, I’m going to try my best to avoid spoiling my own book, here, but I suspect that the actually work will change significantly from the original concepts, so, don’t worry if you are inclined to read it, eventually. With that, let’s begin looking at specific details.
Card 0 – Theme: Six of Wands
The Theme is a concept that presides over all of the story. Perhaps it is a kind of running gag of Fate, or a lesson that the protagonist needs to learn, or something of that ilk. My theme was a strong message (to me at least) of “what goes up must come down… and there’s nowhere to go from here but down.” This was an easy one for me to work out several other potential meanings as well. For example, the main premise of this story has always been, in my mind, the protagonist’s decent into madness. This made me think, “what if he comes out on top at the end?” Or, “what if he finds power in chaos?” Perhaps he’ll end up on top of the world, but at what cost? There are many ways this theme could go, especially when thinking in both the broadest terms possible and the tiniest detail.
Card 1 – Home: Six of Cups
The Home is the setting, and the situation, that the protagonist has come to accept as “normal,” whether they like it or not. This can be family, friends, career, love, or lack thereof any of those things. Our hero starts out with pretty much everything he needs… but dang is it ever lonely. Somehow, he feels very disconnected from his family, and finds comfort and company within, and through a rather, shall we say, “shady” group of individuals. I really clung to the image of the “imaginary friend” that seems to appear in this card.
Card 2 – Call to Adventure: Four of Cups
The inciting incident, the horrific accident, the thing that makes everything else happen, happens here. This “hero,” however, is called away not by fanfare, or some twist of Fate, but by boredom. Sheer, unadulterated boredom. He feels stuck in his life and wants something exciting to happen to him, like it did for his two siblings, or his parents. Despite having everything, he wants more.
Card 3 – Refusal of the Call: Queen of Pentacles
Sometimes the idea of leaving everything that has become precious is painful, and the hero turns down the offer for something greater. Think Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of the Hobbit. However, our hero doesn’t so much deny the call as much as it is denied him. By his mother. Come on, mom. Really, all she wants to do is protect him, because she’s seen the shenanigans his older brother has gotten into, and she doesn’t want to even chance the idea that she’ll lose her baby. Which, he is, in a way, being the youngest in the family. Much to his chagrin.
Card 4 – Supernatural Aid: Ace of Cups
Having refused the call, something has to happen in order to get the hero going again. This can be supernatural aid, or supernatural interference, depending. In this case, it is more like interference, as something big starts to make some serious ripples in the calm waters of our hero’s life. In this story, this is where things that were once unseen, or imaginary, suddenly have more worldly bearing than anybody would like, and things start to get real.
Card 5 – Crossing the First Threshold: Three of Wands
The moment when Bilbo runs out the door, waving his signed contract in the air, shouting about adventures. This is the entrance into a new reality, and in our hero’s case, a new world entirely. His threshold is, like Bilbo’s, a literal one, as he passes through a Gate and into a place he’s never been. And he ends up a long way from anywhere useful, if the image on the card is to be believed.
Card 6 – The Road of Trials: Five of Wands
This begins the hardships, and can last for a long time. It is the kinds of challenges the protagonist will face in the entire rest of Act 2, if not the entire rest of the story. For our hero, it is an uphill battle trying to find his place, both literally and figuratively. Given the location on the last card, part of the battle may be one against the elements, if he is completely unprepared to face them. He’ll be up against perhaps improbable odds, but he’ll struggle through them anyway.
Card 7 – Meeting the Soulmate: Six of Swords
The word “soulmate” can be a little deceiving in this case. In Runesong, for instance, the person we meet at this point ends up not being a whole lot more than a sharp slap in the right direction. Sometimes, it can be a literal soulmate, but sometimes it may just be an ally for the journey. In the case of our protagonist, the person he meets ends up pulling him out of his rather precarious situation, much to the chagrin of this “savior’s” crew, and against his better judgement.
Card 8 – Overcoming Temptation: Three of Swords
Something happens here that tries to pull the protagonist off the path, perhaps an escape from the trials, or an illusion of a better direction, but it’s up to them not to take that new path, or, failing that, to deal with the consequences. In this case, the temptation is to run from the constant harassment of our supposed ally’s crew. Given, however, that our hero doesn’t really have anywhere to run to, he ends up withdrawing internally to try to tune out the constant pestering. So, he doesn’t run, exactly, but he doesn’t resist the temptation completely, either.
Card 9 – The Big Picture: The Tower
Usually, this is the part where all of the pieces start clicking together, and the protagonist realizes, or begins to realize, something crucial about the journey. Maybe they even begin to learn their lesson. However, this can also be the part where things the hero has failed to do before have consequences come home to roost. In our case, something especially terrible happens. Suddenly, our hero has had enough of running, and decides, for better or worse, that it’s time to fight back, and in doing so, stuff gets real all over again, and he realizes what kind of power he actually has.
Card 10 – The Ultimate Goal: The Star
This is the place where the hero makes a dedication to a cause, realizes what it is they really want, and really lets their purpose on this road sink in. In our protagonist’s case, however, all he really wants is a break, and maybe a little hope. Since he’s stepped into this world, it has been one thing after another, and most of those things have sucked. He wants a light in the darkness… and finds one in the last place he expects.
Card 11 – Refusing to Return: Ace of Wands
Now, having learned their lesson and made their dedication, the hero is likely to want to stay in this new place of peace, comfort, and understanding that they have. For whatever reason, the return to where they are most needed is often denied. In our hero’s case, the offer of return comes in the form of a family member who had finally found him, and wants to bring him home. He literally refuses to return home, and ends up trying to escape from said family member. Which doesn’t end well…
Card 12 – The Chase: Five of Swords
A race against time ensues, and the protagonist realizes that they can’t stay where they are any longer. This would be the part where Rohan is literally racing to Gondor’s aid, despite the wishes of Denethor. The family member that our hero was trying to escape from before ends up backing him into a corner, and from there, the hunter becomes the hunted. Our hero does not react well to being chased and harangued, after his time in Act 2, and he takes it out on his pursuer. Probably violently.
Card 13 – The Rescue: Five of Pentacles
The proverbial damsel is very much distressed right now, and Gondor is very much in need of an extra few dozen pairs of spectral hands. Our hero, after turning on his own blood, is in need of rescuing from himself, at this point. He has dug himself into a hole of despair and regret, and the only one who can dig him out of it is the “light in the dark” that he found before. This person tries at least two approaches: one being gentle, like the butterfly, and one being more like the thorny rose bush. I don’t know about you, but I know which one makes me jump faster.
Card 14 – The Final Threshold: Eight of Cups
The calamity is upon us! The final battle is at hand! The last final of high school is sitting on the desk! This is the boss battle, the final piece of the puzzle, the last step to the goal. In our hero’s case, this last step involves not a battle, but a question answered. It is a difficult question, to be sure, but the answer ends up being something along the lines of, “everything you need is within arm’s reach… if only you’d reach out and take it,” which results in him finding exactly what he’s been looking for this whole time: something to take away the boredom, and something that gives him hope.
Card 15 – Master of Two Worlds: Six of Pentacles
The hero finally returns home, a changed person, having conquered the challenges laid out for them. They have learned a valuable lesson, gained a powerful skill, or collected a helpful treasure. Sometimes all three. In our protagonist’s case, he has learned much about the world he now inhabits, about himself, and of what he is capable. He has realized that he has the ability to change the world, and when he asks for help, from his “light in the dark,” he does indeed receive it. Thus begin his plans for a new world. Gee, doesn’t that always end well?
Now, I believe some congratulations are in order, because you just made it to the end of this longer-than-usual ramble. Good job! And thank you for taking the time to read it. Also, thank you to the creator(s?) of the Shadowscapes tarot deck, they are wonderful, beautiful cards that really resonate with my current state of being, in a way that the Elven tarot has ceased doing for me. Don’t worry, that deck now has a new and probably better home with my sister. But thank you so much again for reading, feel free to use this spread or the concept thereof in your own workings, and I will see you all again soon!
– Ej the Exuberant Hermit