Roald Dahl’s canon of stories encompass so many strange worlds and colorful characters, it’s tempting to try knitting them together into a cohesive roadmap of his fictional universe — a Grand Unified Theory of Dahl, as it were. However, while some of the author’s stories do sync up with each other, we’re mainly stuck navigating the blind alleyways of the Dahliverse by feel.
This is where the tarot can help — in more recent years, the ancient divination system has provided a handy way for artists and readers to probe their favorite stories for deeper meaning, drawing (often quite shaky) associations to the archetypes and classical symbolism of antiquity.
A tarot deck’s 78 cards divide everything — even awareness itself — into smaller and more manageable chunks, conveniently sorted by number or element. Stretched like a skin over another reality (fictional or otherwise), they reveal the places where our lived experience overlaps with the myths and stories humans like to tell about ourselves.
A complete Roald Dahl tarot deck might not be possible — or even terribly useful — but in honor of the author’s birthday, we’re amusing ourselves by assigning some of his key figures to a smattering of Major Arcana cards. While we swear there’s a method to our madness, if you have different ideas about who deserves to be on which card, by all means let us know in the comments below. (After you’ve sized up the offerings, meet your Roald Dahl Tarot Card match by clicking the roulette wheel at the bottom.)
Willy Wonka | The Magician
Just try describing Dahl’s candy-making wizard without using the word “mercurial.” It can’t be done! Historically the figure pictured on this card was not a ceremonial magician, but a common street performer — a juggler, or tightrope walker. Wonka is a delicious blend of both: single-mindedly pursuing confectionery perfection like some kind of mad medieval alchemist, while simultaneously putting on a show that keeps the focus on him. In which case, all that magical candy is just the delightful byproduct of getting to watch a genius working at the height of his powers.
The Grand High Witch | Priestess
Little is known about the Grand High Witch — the real star of The Witches — except that she’s extremely powerful, and her outward appearance is just a beautiful skin stretched over a terrifying, mystical reality that most humans aren’t prepared to contemplate. As the High Priestess, she is situated at the crossroads between worlds, like the Pythias at the Oracle of Delphi, broadcasting transmissions from the other side. These manifest in our world as dreams, visions, and uncanny perceptions that we ignore at our own risk.
Mr. & Mrs. Fox | The Lovers
Dahl’s book focuses more on the exploits of the male half of this dream team, whereas Wes Anderson’s flawless film adaptation spends more time dwelling on what it’s like to be in a committed relationship with someone so… well, fantastic. The Lovers is popularly (and thus, perhaps too hopefully) interpreted as a harbinger of true love, marriage, and other hair-raising possibilities that sound desirable to us from a safe distance. This version plays up that initial, primal moment of attraction and curiosity, a moment bursting with potential, in which neither party’s individuality is compromised. It can also signal a difficult personal choice waiting to be made — one which pits your loftiest principles against more “earthly” concerns (yes, that’s a euphemism for sex).
The Peach | The Chariot
A grim-faced youth rockets toward the horizon in a golden chariot — that not only serves as a description of The Chariot, it also happens to be the plot of James and the Giant Peach. This card represents a radical departure from reality as it’s been presented by authority figures (benevolent or otherwise). It’s time to test your autonomy by setting your own goals, taking careful aim, and then harnessing a thousand seagulls to carry you there. Should be no sweat! This card usually hints at a victorious outcome.
Matilda | Justice
Telekinetic wunderkind Matilda could just use her abilities to improve her own situation, but instead she begins righting wrongs wherever she sees them, demonstrating powers of conscience and intelligence that most of the adults in her world have yet to grasp. As Justice, her decisions loom large over the fates of others; meanwhile, embodying this classical virtue requires her to seek out that delicate boundary between selfishness and selflessness, and make sure all her judgments are issued from that place.
The Golden Ticket | Fortune
Only five children in the world will get to enter Willy Wonka’s factory — those sound like insurmountable odds, but as Charlie’s family members insist, he has the same odds as anyone else. In that sense, Fortune is the great equalizer: the successful are laid low, the forsaken are raised up. Most of us spend our lives riding round and round on Fortuna’s wheel, terrified to get off before we’ve reached the highest of heights, but all too aware that the next spin could grind us into the mud (or in Wonka terms, dump us in the incinerator). The Golden Ticket represents the intoxicating allure of a dream dangling just barely out of reach — one that all humans will instinctively grasp for, even when we know our hands will more than likely be left empty.
The Enormous Crocodile | Death
There’s just no reasoning with a crocodile! While the reptile in Dahl’s picture book never successfully devours any children, he pursues his goal with an almost elemental ferocity, disguising himself in many forms to sneak up on unsuspecting kids. Most people know that the Death card doesn’t actually foretell mortal danger, but hints at inescapable transformations. Even changes for the better may seem scary and painful from a distance. As John Berryman wrote, “We must travel in the direction of our fear.” No one’s expecting you to voluntarily feed yourself to the Enormous Crocodile, but you must reconcile yourself to the fact of his existence before setting out into the underbrush (or even riding the seesaw).
George’s Marvelous Medicine | Temperance
What happens if you start blending together every element at your disposal? The results can be potent, toxic, and wildly inconsistent… but that’s magic for you. As Temperance, young George embodies another classical virtue — one which characterizes mixing disparate ingredients as the ultimate path toward transcendence and self-control. Shocking and unskilled though his methods may appear, George’s intuition-based experiments produce results that are indistinguishable from success.
The Great Glass Elevator | The Tower
Wonka’s elevator should be a thing of wonder, but the incongruence of its high speeds and fragile-seeming construction makes this a hellish ride for kids and grownups alike — and that’s before it rockets into outer space, a destination where you’d want as many assurances as possible. As our Tower, the elevator provides a glimpse into how individuals react to being thrown into chaos. What’s left of yourself when all your previously-held notions about reality are suddenly stripped away? We experience this as a crisis, though it’s usually far from the end of the adventure. Even so, it’s interesting to note that Dahl himself had intended to write a followup to Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator — and only finished one chapter.
The Phizzwizard | The Star
The Golden Phizzwizard is the ultimate fantasy that the BFG is capable of imparting unto slumbering human beans: an incredibly pleasurable dream tailored to your heart’s most fabulous desires. Standing in for The Star, it points you toward the most inviolable and irrepressible speck of the Self that beckons to you in the darkness, even when all seems lost. As such, it also represents an image of yourself at your very best — one which certain people may already see when they look at you, despite how dull or inconspicuous you may feel. Go on and give yourself permission to dwell among your dreams and fantasies for a while: self-reflection is a necessary component of self-expression!
The Everlasting Gobstopper | The World
It was introduced by Dahl as just one of many magical treats, but the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” turned the everlasting gobstopper into the Holy Grail of candies, as well as the ultimate morality test for grabby little children. Designed for children with “very little pocket money,” the gobstopper can never be diminished in size or flavor. In our pleasure-obsessed real world, such an item takes on mythic proportions. The World card signals our arrival at the end of a full cycle of evolution, a high point from which we can observe past, present, and future with equal clarity. For an all-too brief moment, the riddle is solved, the battle (if not the war) has been won. Here, have a candy, you deserve it! Make it last as long as you can.
Roald Dahl | The Fool
Given the number “0” in the tarot’s Major Arcana, The Fool typically comes first or last in the deck. All the other cards are believed to be contained within this one foppish figure — whether seized by divine madness or merely seeking his own amusement, The Fool is an avatar for mankind’s silliness and the inconsequential nature of even our most urgent concerns. As the source of so many playful fantasies — by turns alarming, grotesque, poignant, and uproariously funny — Dahl himself is the perfect figure pin for our Fool card. His journey through writing became ours through reading; in that light, his fanciful voyage is still far from over.
Now, which card calls to you today?