Cards of Marseilles

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La Maison Dieu

The Tarot de Marseille is the name given to a certain set of cards which can be used to reveal the past and foretell the future. Originally printed in the 18th century, its roots may go back as far as the 16th. Originally, the deck was meant for playing games, but the esoteric use of the cards quickly came into fashion. The cards consist of four suits - Wands (Bâtons), Cups (Coupes), Coins (Deniers) and Swords (Épées). These are numbered and correspond in some degree to normal playing cards. There are however additional face cards peculiar to the Cards of Marseilles, called trumps which depict strange figures, among them the Fool (Le Mat); the Moon (La Lune); Justice (La Justice); the Hanged Man (Le Pendu); the World (Le Monde); the Wheel of Fortune (La Roue de Fortune); the High Priestess (La Papesse); the Hermit (L'Ermite); The Tower (La Maison Dieu) and The Emperor (L'Empereur).

John Childermass possesses a deck of these cards, despite the disapproval of his master Gilbert Norrell, who candidly detests them: "Telling fortunes with picture cards - it is everything I despise!"[21] From this we may perhaps infer that Mr Norrell dislikes the cards because they form part of that tradition of magic which he is so anxious to disparage, namely that done by fairies and by John Uskglass - a tradition whose practices are not susceptible to being tamed and codified in conformity with Mr. Norrell's cherished principles of modern English magic.

The cards Childermass uses are ones he has drawn himself from a set borrowed from a sailor he met in Whitby, who himself procured them in the Italian port of Genoa. Due to their rough and ready origin they have some defects of appearance, but Childermass is skilled enough in their use to employ them successfully on at least four occasions - once when he discovers Vinculus had already made plans to leave London before Mr Norrell's attempts to drive him away, and again to discover something more about the nature of Book of Magic Vinculus claimed to possess[21]; once more when he notifies Murray of the existence of two copies of Strange's book (Norrell's and Strange's copies); and once when at Hurtfew Abbey he discovers Henry Lascelles has intercepted an item originally intended for him[63].

A surprising event connected with the particular Cards of Marseilles owned by Childermass occurs in the Pineapple tavern when, after he has read Vinculus' fortune and Vinculus has failed to read his, Vinculus then attempts to lay out the cards to reveal Mr. Norrell's fortune. One by one each of the cards as it is turned over becomes the Emperor card, though Childermass is sure his deck contains only one. The image of the Emperor moreover alters until it resembles a dark king attended by a large raven - in short, it becomes the image of the Raven King. This alteration is never satisfactorily explained, Childermass later dismissing suggestions that Vinculus had somehow surreptitiously changed his own cards for another deck. In the absence of that explanation, the only conclusion can be that the change was due to magic.

During the scene in the Pineapple tavern a spread of tarot cards is laid out by Vinculus for Childermass. Vinculus is unable to read them, and although Childermass states that the cards describe his life he does not give an explanation of what the cards meant to him. An attempt to read these cards, and to understand what Childermass saw in them, has been made here.