The Magic of the Tarot & The Hero’s Journey

Wizards+sample1 The Major Arcana of the tarot deck consists of 22 cards, each one representing a different archetype. The Fool, who is placed before them all at zero, is the representative of the Querent whose journey begins when he or she steps out into the blank page of the unknown and has a series of 21 adventures, before coming full circle back to the place he or she started from, those 21 adventures the richer and more worldly-wise for the experience.

The Hero’s Journey, which for many writers provides the structure upon which they hang their stories, represents the same passage through the archetypes as that of the Major Arcana, the Hero reluctantly stepping out in a state of unknowing, having adventures, and coming back having succeeded or failed in the tasks they have presented to him, but always the richer for the knowledge and experience. The Hero’s Journey is usually structured in a series of 9, 12, 17 or even the full 21 archetypal stages, depending on how long the narrative of the story being told happens to be, and the preferences of the author. It’s not an exact science, nor should it be, just an aid to the imagination.

It all started in Hollywood in the 1940’s when a mythologist called Joseph Campbell was working as a screenwriter. He was trying to create the instructions for a foolproof blueprint to manage the increased demand for writing screenplays, one that would considerably speed up the process. He wrote what is now referred to as “The Memo That Started It All” (Vogler, C, 1998, CA), and in it Campbell sets out the 12 stages in the Hero’s Journey.


Whence came the Inspiration?

In the late 1960’s, Campbell produced a book called “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” (Campbell, J, 1968, PUP ), in which he expanded the number of stages of what he called his “monomyth” into 17, probably due to the increased interest in the Hero’s Journey from novelists and their need to create stories that were longer than the average screenplay. Since then there’s been much written about the Hero’s Journey – and, for those of us who create them, for the Heroine’s Journey –  but the most significant contributions come from Christopher Vogler in his “The Writer’s Journey” (Vogler, C, 1998, CA). Vogler takes the journeying hero one step further, if you’ll pardon the pun, and presents it as a process in which plot and character are combined, with 7 archetypal characters appearing in a plot that’s given 12 stages of development in 3 acts. Here’s some diagrams that might help at this point:

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These diagrams have the 12 stages of plot development talked about above

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These two have 9 & 17 stages, respectively – if they’re too small to read just Google 12 Step Hero’s Journey, and you’ll find plenty you can!

Hmm, all this talk of 7 this and 12 that, not to mention 22 & 9 of the other: is anyone thinking of the Zodiac at this point? Or the 12 step programme for kicking every known vicissitude, along with the 7 deadly sins? A rosary novena – that’s something Roman Catholics do in 9’s, for the uninitiated. Or maybe even how many letters are in the worlds main alphabets? The Major Arcana of the Tarot is not alone in its parallels to the world’s myths, legends and deeper spiritual meanings. Well, that’s mythology for you: numbers are important to people, always have been; man, and woman, is constantly trying to make sense of his or her Universe, find his or her  place in it, and keep the beasties out of it. And long may he and she continue to write stories about it in his and her quest for understanding. It’s no accident that all the worlds major mythological systems are composed of the same cosmic keys and archetypal structures. They’re keys and structures that come from the collective unconscious, the shared memory that’s in each and every one of us, imprinted into our DNA, and which connects us all to each other.

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Here are three pictures that say more to me about shared memory than the proverbial 1000 words: JRR Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit”; a medieval image of Merlin; Joseph Campbell’s book “The Power of Myth”

Ok, so we’ve explored where Campbell’s Hero’s Journey came from, but how does it fit with each writer’s practice? Well, I can only really speak from my own experience, not having conducted a survey on everyone else’s. So, here goes: For years I wrote from what in the writing community they call “the seat of your pants”, abbreviated to the beautifully (not) descriptive noun “pantser”, which always reminds me of a German tank regiment, complete with silly picture of a tank crew sitting proudly in their tank wearing nothing but their boxers, which are imprinted with the slogan “Keep Calm & Fill YOUR Tank” under the pointing finger of exhortation that the British draft board used to such large effect in enlisting troops for WW1. Bit of a mix of nationalities, wars and metaphors there, but it’s my imagery, so it’s allowed on my blog. I don’t really like the term “pantser” as it sounds vaguely smutty and rather vulgar, but the conjured imagery gives me a private little snigger every time I read it. When I ran out of things that had happened to me to write about, along with the need for wholesale catharsis on such a scale, I started writing my completely fictional material. This was far more  dependent on my intellectual experience rather than on my need for therapy, and it was at this stage in my own journey that I discovered the “outline”!

The “outline” lives at the opposite end of the writer’s psychological spectrum to the “pantser”, and is very definitely in territory inhabited by the Hero’s Journey. At its most extreme it’s a highly structured skeleton made up of books, parts, chapters and even scenes, all mapped out with short synopses, to guide the writer in military precision through the otherwise labyrinthine pattern of their latest literary offering. If you also happen to use Scrivener upon which to produce your manuscripts, you’ll immediately understand how it works so well for “outliners”! Some writers say this structure is the only way to write; some decry it madly. I like to create a good detailed outline – yes, on Scrivener – to start with, to get the inspiration flowing and to act as an aide memoire, then add any more inspired musings that decide to flow over. Inspiration is a Fickle Mistress, once She shows up it’s best NOT to remind Her that you’ve got an Outline and that you don’t wish to step outside The Plan! I do plan quite meticulously to start with, but once I get down to it the imagination takes over in the most interesting of ways, while the plan just sits there getting on with what it does best, which is to make sure my next scene is safely outlined with pre-requisite synopsis for my next day’s work, without me actually having to think about it; sometimes I wonder who actually wrote what’s on the page when I’ve finished. What I’m not terribly good at on my own is plotting, and my very best man-friend Simon and I have a very interesting system regarding plotting, but that’s for another blog post, I think.

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Where the Outline method of writing, the structure of the Hero’s Journey, and the Major Arcana of the Tarot blend together in Perfect Unison is at the point where your Subject Matter has taken on a Life of its Own and wants to become Three sub-Books within the Same Cover (Lord of the Rings did that, so you’re in good company if your Subject Matter is telling you this!) of your carefully outlined single book. This is what happened to me. But it wasn’t a catastrophe trying not to happen, it was a blessing that it did, because the most wonderful thing happened. It actually became three books in one, each having 7 stages of development, thus taking the Heroine through 21 stages of development in total, the whole story drawing inspiration massively from the Fool’s Journey through the Major Arcana of the Tarot, and of course I was able to Outline it perfectly, and tame that Fickle Mistress of Inspiration so that the Flow … Umm, hang on a cottony-white-pickety-fencey moment! I’ve only outlined one of those three books so far, and I’ve only written 10,000 words in four scenes … you see where that inspiration can take you if you’re not really careful, right to Never Never Land without a return ticket! Now, that’s why we have an Outline! Well, it is about Merlin, perhaps it’s Magic. Of course it is, this blog’s not called Tally’s Magic Tales for nothing …


Right, I’ve spent entirely too long on this post for the day, I really ought to get down to the fun of filling out some of those 7 archetypes and their 12 stages of development. I do hope you’ll regale me with your own experiences of the Hero’s Journey, even if it’s only to say that you’ve never heard of it, don’t like it, or that it’s providing you with the lifestyle of Mrs Croesus and your wardrobe’s full of the shoes and handbags that prove it, with pictures, of course!

Brightest Blessings as always,

Tally 🙂

PS: If you want more detailed information about the Hero’s Journey, the mythology, psychology, how to use it for your own journey through life, and a lot more besides, I’ve found a wonderful blog that really goes into it in great depth. This is the url: … so off you go and meet Reg Harris!

PPS: And don’t forget to fill in the Subscribe box there on the right so that you’ll get automatic updates for new posts!

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