Teaching us the tarot's Major Arcana
with reference to Death Note -
its story-telling, plot and the symbolism
therein - here is
Death Note News columnist
~ This time zeroing in on
the Trumps though Death Note
and The Fool tarot card
For a start, it is the only card to bear a Hindu-Arabic number - zero - if it carries one at all. The rest of the Trump cards are counted in Roman Numerals: I, II, III, IV and so forth. This remains true regardless of where it sits in the tarot deck - for The Fool has been known to wander from the prequel to the end of the Major Arcana (no. 22); or else in between. Sometimes even drifting over into the minor arcana, where it sits outside any of the suits too.
The Fool is not numbered in Roman numerals with the other Major Arcana, because it doesn't really matter where it's positioned. It's omnipresent; fitting in everywhere, and nowhere.
Even while seen as something apart, The Fool tends to play a part in proceedings, and can take a myriad of forms. This includes the environments, situations or states of mind that are nominally governed by any other card in the Tarot deck, but is especially true where the Major Arcana are concerned.
Many of which are found with Death Note's narrative. But first...
What are Tarot Cards? What Do They Signify? Whom Do They Serve?
'Arcana' means 'secrets' or 'mysteries'. It's plural. One secret, one mystery, would be arcanum. The Major Arcana are the big ones, known only to a select few. The Minor Arcana is where the humdrum of ordinary things are hidden; far more accessible by the masses in society. The latter make up the suits in common playing cards, which anyone can use.
This is where you'll find the minutiae of minor mysteries and everyday miracles - birth, death, love, hate, money, loss, friendship, family, long-time sickness, health, happiness, fear and all those other small things that may be found on any urban community sprawl. They make up reality, but they don't make it.
The former aren't in your average poker pack. You can't use them to deal a hand in Blackjack or Snap. They aren't a game for just anyone to play.
That concealed in the Major Arcana is the domain of privilege - which means 'private law' - the preserve of rulers and the elite. Their secrets and mysteries describe the process by which reality is formed; the building blocks for the creation and definition of a new world order.
For example, the commoners may have all the babies they like, and learn the arcana of childbirth. But it is their priests, law-makers, and leaders of the moral majority who tell them whether having that baby was alright. Stepping out of line can mean social ostracisation, imprisonment, that infant taken from you or anything else which asserts control by those who have dominion over this particular realty; who own the domain or real estate.
Who shape this realm's reality.
'Tarot' means 'colour' or 'illustration'. Collectively, these cards paint a picture of the human world in which we live, its society, hierarchy and all the rest. While the minor arcana tells the story, the context is made from the major. That's the arcana to illuminate the blocking blocks; point out the strings to pull; and fill in the fine detail with colour. Those privy to the ways of the Major Arcana get to become Gods of the New World - or at least try.
Which is pretty much the story at the heart of Death Note too.
New God Challenges the Death Note World's Current Arbitrator of Reality
The Fool and the Fall in Death Note
The story begins and ends with the fall. Or Fool. It's the same word really to describe a similar state of being.
To know that we are ignorant, we first need to topple from our lofty ideals; our sense of understanding all the world about us has to shatter, or be shaken enough to make us grasp for more. Otherwise, we'd simply continue in our comfort zone, never seeking to fundamentally alter reality and not once straying from our safe, secure domain into the great unknown.
We create Fools of ourselves.
Stepping out to seek our fortunes (even if it's simply starting on our first day at work); striving to educate ourselves (though that may merely be attending classes at school), in acceptance of the fact that we don't yet know what we don't know, and things once learned cannot be unlearned, they will change the way we view that sphere of universe forever; searching for truth, or enlightenment, or definition, or the results of lab experiments, whatever we research or seek to find out might change the nature of reality, not only for ourselves but all others too.
As Newton discovered, when he foolishly pondered the meaning of that falling apple. Do you know Gods of Death love apples?
We choose to become the Fool, blindly stepping off the cliff-edge precipice into the discovery abyss, whenever we willingly risk the changing of our reality. We fall asleep; we fall in love; we fall for temptation; make landfall; fall out of line; fall down the rabbit-hole into a land where everything seems crazy.
And that takes courage; it makes us fool-hardy ('hardi' from the old French meaning 'bold').
The Fool at the beginning of the tale knows nothing, but bravely walks turns away from the mastered and familiar anyway, though it means the loss of his (or her) world. The Fool at the end of the tale does the same, but this time with a smile.
It was worth the tomfoolery enough to do it all again.
There's No Fool Like an Old Fool
Death Note's Royal Road Tarot Journey
The most famous part played by The Fool is as the subject in The Fool's Journey Through the Major Arcana, also known as The Royal Road.
This is a theme, or plot device that is so ubiquitous in popular culture - Death Note included - that it will need be tackled separately next time. The Fool's Journey fuels most major block-busters (plus sequels, and trilogies; rinse and repeat for a series). It certainly warrants a whole article devoted to it here!
Yet in synopsis, it may be read like this: a person ignorant of the world, or at least the bigger picture affecting their lives, encounters somebody/something which broadens their horizons, or else knocks them out of their comfort zone. Forced to face that reality changing thing, our protagonist embarks upon some kind of quest, journey, mission and probably a steep learning curve as well. Their story touches those states of being or realms governed by each of the other Major Arcana cards in succession. They arrive at the end changed utterly. No longer unknowing, nor innocent, and certainly not ignorant, they are likely to be the masters/mistresses of this new world. The one great expert to whom everyone else refers.
We're all looking at you, Luke Skywalker. Frodo Braggins. Harry Potter. Light Yagami. Mello. Matsuda. And a dozen other Death Note characters.
Every time an individual in the manga is shaken from their foundations, made to alter their perception of reality and/or diverted from their ordinary lives, they have stepped upon The Royal Road of the Fool. They are entering the unknown and everyone they meet will have a profound effect upon changing them in some way - teaching, empowering, feeding, directing or sending them into untold danger.
Some, like Near, take the path laid out before them to cover the eventuality that they may one day have to take it. That's still a Fool's Journey of sorts, but its purest essence is more fully concentrated in those who forge new paths. Not only not taken by others before, but pathways which previously never even existed.
The true Fools are those who disdain the known to step out over the cliff's edge into uncharted territory. That first step is how they ultimately gain mastery over this domain, becoming its foremost authority with that single first cry of doing this 'my own way'.
Light Yagami and the Fool's Descent into Unreality
His ignorance was blunted with a perusal of the rules written inside. After about three seconds worth of dismissing it all as a foolish prank, he decided to be that Fool. Testing out the pages to see if someone really would die. I mean, what's the worst that might happen? Yep, what it said on the packet, or in this case, fly-sheet. So Light continued using it, stepping foolhardily into the dark unknown, though he had no idea what it might mean for himself personally.
In fact, his best guess was that the shinigami would come for his soul, like the Death Note's usage was some Faustian pact. Not at all literally - though it might as well be - Light was willing to sign a contract with the Devil, in order to journey yet further into the reality shaking conventions of this strange new book.
Did it send him insane? That's another reading of The Fool - the madness inherent in losing all sense of that otherwise universal conviction that all share the same reality. We don't. Nurture, nature, the quicks of physicality and all those myriad personal influences, not to mention perspective, mean that none of us receive the same data, nor interpret it simultaneously and in the same way. Nontheless, pretending that there's one dominion of the real (or royal) shared by all keeps us from straying onto such foolish pathways.
Light Yagami typifies the Fate of those who do. With no-one to bounce his new reality off, but a semi-divine being who previously had no data to exist, Kira slips ever further into unreality. Until he can't even see what everyone else judges to be real. In his arrogance, he over-reaches his own domain and the resultant mistakes lead Mello and Near right to him, lending proof to their case.
Until finally, ranting without sight of any objective reality, Light attempts a secondary fall - this time from grace, as espoused by his task force, and from secrecy, in letting his veil of truth slip. As he made his confession - I am Kira! And also God of this New World! - he sparked a seismic shift in the perceptions of most there present. Confirming not only the reality of the Death Note, shinigami and all, but also his prolonged part its usage.
No wonder they shot him. Thus precipitating his third and final fall, from existence and being into Mu.
The Fool in the sense of 'an empty-headed Fool' now embodied nothingness. Back to the beginning again.
The Fool as L'Excuse or Reason - Tricking Reality as a Game Changer in Death Note
There's a state of play involving the Fool which only turns up in the French Tarot. It's called l'excuse - the excuse, the reason or the trick. Herein the usage of the Fool forces a move to be made (or a previous move to be cancelled out).
This Fool exerts momentous influence over the contours of the game, or the shape of its reality; causing major players to act or else nullifying whatever the powerful just inserted into play. Rendering their move meaningless; nothing. Yet personal power remains elusive for The Fool in l'excuse. They don't have to be ignorant, wise, mad, sane or anything. The force they impose emanates from the mere fact of their existence.
Think Sayu Yagami in the desert. Taken and held by the Mafia, her stance as the helpless Fool causes Soichiro to relinquish the Death Note, thus nullifying power in its possession for the Japanese Task Force. It forces Kira to have to contend with Mello - recognizing him as a challenger for a start - whilst giving Mello more in his hand to play.
Yet Sayu herself never has a say in this. She is played as the foolish excuse, her presence shifting the balance of power, thus opening up the potential/actuality of a new reality. But she personally - as with The Fool card in French Tarot - never gains dominion over her world. She remains the property of whomever holds her. First herself/her family/Japan; then Mello and his Mafia family; before returning to her father's custody, a traumatized shell of the lady she was before.
Sayu as l'excuse becomes the Mad Fool - or in her case shell-shocked fool - by the end. Yet ironically, that puts her beyond the reach of influence. She's too catatonic to take any media on, thus cannot be swayed into any reality by those who would delineate it for her.
By becoming lost inside her own head, Sayu finally controls her own reality, but not that of others. Excepting her Mother, for whom Sayu continues as l'excuse - the powerful Fool's tricks recreating Sachiko's life as one wherein she has to now care for a mute and unresponsive daughter.
Death Note and The Fool's Unreal Road
There's an inverse Fool's Journey in the tarot too. A shadow path equally prevalent in stories around the world, yet rarely recognized as such.
The Fool should be silly, ignorant, innocent or insane in Western perception today. Though we talk blithely of the Wise Fool, and pass about adages concerning the 'wisdom of babes and fools', the mainsteam imagination shrinks from what that might imply for the Journey.
All-knowing Fools become sinister in our stories instead. The horror movie clown, or the supernatural smiling thing, no longer allowed to simply be.
In a typical Tarot deck, The Fool is usually depicted as a young man or a jester, walking near the precipice of a cliff with a dog alongside.
Frequently he is holding a haversack over a shoulder with one hand while the other holding a rose aloft.
The haversack is a symbol of the Wise Fool. It represents wisdom acquired in a past life or on a previous journey, which are carried along to new experiences.
The Wise Fool can be viewed as an underlying driver of a narrative. In this aspect, he would not be considered the protagonist or main character. Instead, the role played is one which knowingly impacts one or more of the other 21 roles represented by the Trump cards as he encounters them.
Ergo the sage, old Fool has more control over the direction a narrative takes than might be readily apparent.
In Death Note, The Wise Fool is represented by Ryuk. The only reason we have this story told is because Ryuk was bored. Without much logic, planning or reasoning, Ryuk decided to follow his desire - represented by the rose held by the tarot card Fool - just to be entertained.
He was along for the ride, and for him, everyone else involved were incidental.
Jester in a Pack of Cards; The Fool One Step Removed
Some old tarot packs still refer to The Fool as The Jester.
Ordinary playing card decks certainly do - The Fool in the guise of The Jester being the only trump card to make it into an otherwise clean sweep of just the minor arcana.
Jester may incur visions of a silly man in dual coloured clothing, prancing around a medieval court with a bladder on a stick, and bells. That's how he's presented in most playing cards, and often how The Fool of the Major Arcana dresses too.
Tarot cards tend to be based on those images fixed during the medieval period. That's what jesters had become. But it wasn't always thus.
Jester means 'to tell a story'; one who 'recites'. Earlier medieval definitions matched the minstrels or troubadours more closely. A jester then was just another name for someone who travelled about singing the epics and romances. Informing the people of their history; reminding the mighty of their past.
The noun form is 'gesten' - 'recite a tale' - or 'geste' - 'exploit, inspire action'. Suddenly he seems less innocuous, doesn't he? Good job he was reduced merely to telling jokes.
Oh yeah! The alternative name for The Jester or The Fool is The Joker. Often the name that sticks in poker packs and other such gaming decks.
Joker is a shortened version of 'joculator', aka a professional jester or minstrel. And 'joke' originally meant 'to speak, utter or express'; it gained its later connotation via satirical songs, those which ridiculed powerful individuals. People laughed in derision and that veneer of power was dented. The laughter stuck, and so did the danger, though no longer necessarily in the hands of professionals alone.
The Jester/Joker card in the minor arcana teaches us that we can all be Fools now. We too get to tell the story and judge the mighty. Why so serious? Because we can.
The Role of The Fool in Tarot, Life and in Death Note
As wild card, it has partial immunity to the wiles and ways of the Major Arcana. Standing aside, yet also part of the minor arcana, so unable to be dismissed out of hand. Despite the fact that the Fool will not, can not, or else alone decides when and where to, view the world as written by its creators of reality. And that is dangerous insofar as it places a crack in the veneer of the real, which could fracture the picture entirely. Or else may breed revolution or dissent.
It has always been the province of kids and Fools to tell the Emperor that he wears no clothes.
Unwittingly or not, the Fool commands the story. Acting as its fail-safe, in madness, ridicule, wit or slap-stick, this card can bring about the fall of all pretenders to power. Worse still, the Fool could simply walk away, consigning the disregarded erstwhile God to nothingness. Dissolving into the essential arcana that which allowed him/her/it to arise.
Any tale or testimony needs two fundamental elements to stick - someone or thing to tell it; another to hear and take it on board.
The Fool may be both, sometimes simultaneously. In one guise story-teller; in another an audience member to be convinced to enter this new reality; buy into its vision and scope, then keep coming back for more. To embrace a novel (or manga) universe, as if it was real and what happens within it matters. And that, in itself, may be the story too, as Death Note proves.
Can Light Yagami regale those worldly Fools with enough bravado, soaring rhetoric and righteous judgement, for them to accept him as their God?
Or will the natural river flow of his listeners decree, 'no, you're just a murderer' instead?
Thus sounding a death knoll on all credibility and demolishing Kira as no arbitrator of reality. The denunciation far more fatal than a mere gunshot fired from Matsuda's gun. That act itself a Judgement, signifying that Near's vision of what's really going on now trumps that of Light Yagami.
Finally, Ryuk as Death God steps forward in his secondary position as Wise Fool within the limitations of this world. Here to trigger the fail-safe on Light's folly, and to initiate his Fall.
Wiping the slate clean for a new contender to come and fill the power vacuum. To turn the cards and begin their bid to rewrite reality according to their own lights. A new chapter, with a new Fool setting out to traverse the Royal Road, erecting a brand, new house of cards.
An old story, retold in endless repetition, as so many movies, books and real life tales attest, for the hope of world dominion always lures the foolish onto a journey through the Major Arcana.
While The Fool as Joker watches from the audience masses of the minor arcana; and awaits the penultimate moment, wherein Judgement lies in the whim of those fools still paying attention. Anyone can lead, but without those prepared to follow, their pretensions fade to Mu.
Why else do you think US presidential candidates spend $40m and more on their campaigns? Those spellbound foolish Americans demand their spectacle, just like everybody else, and those seeking to impress them need to pay enough entertainers to ensure that everybody sing their song.
Never Trust the Story-teller, Only the Story: Fools from the Bardic Tradition
Tarot cards arose in their modern from the medieval period, when Jesters and Joculators (Jokers) represented all that remained of the once proud Bardic System. A branch of Druidry subsumed under Christianity; the staple of the old, crushed, Celtic courts. Much of this tradition - tarot and bardic alike - came from France, where the groves of the Bretons and Gauls once dotted the land, and the great Romances bloomed.
An elite then who knew the dangers inherent in bards - who wove better stories then them in songs and recited tales, who could speak on behalf of people and spread dissent - hence doing all to reduce their power. Edward I, for example, had over 500 Welsh bards killed, when they refused to sign praise-songs to him on their harps. Others across the old Celtic lands of Europe followed his lead, if not his scale.
Most simply froze them out. Not giving them a platform to sing at their hearth. Give or take those who could be trusted to toe the line. The rest wandered about as minstrels, denounced from throne and pulpit alike, and the foolish congregations by and large turned against them.
Skip forward a century or so, and the drip-drip of reduction in stature has allowed courts to keep 'jesters', who tell 'jokes' that are simply ridiculous instead of pointing ridicule at their sire. Thus the Fool became silly, idiotic, without the power to sting. Sort of. The harp of my country survived - how about yours?
And this, I think, is the final point about the Fool. He exists everywhere because he is legion. He's included in the tarot, because he - or the idea of him - is still a threat. All who tell and hear stories are the Fools, and that power could never be reduced. All hail the story-tellers. Bards and Fools all.
The True Fools of Death Note
Of course, the Fools we talk of here are the story-tellers: Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata; and those who heard their tale: you, me and the whole Death Note fandom. We fell for it big-time and wouldn't let them fail. Within the confines of this story, we judged them Gods of this manga universe; instigators and arbitrators of canon. In our minds and imaginations at least, their Death Note domain became real; its creators had (re)written reality.
For evidence, just see the widespread rejection of the belated canon-directed colouring for Matt. He's got brown eyes and brown hair, Death Note fans were informed, a decade after the fanon colouring had been fixed. You're wrong, a few louder Fools yelled back at the Mangaka Gods. But most simply said nothing at all. Just pretended they hadn't heard a thing, and continued to colour Matt with blue/green eyes and bright red hair. The shift denoted nothing and faded into nothingness.
But on balance, the reality Ohba-sensei and Obata-sensei wrought remained. It was enough to win them The World.