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Tarot Symbolism and the Dark Knight

Updated on November 21, 2010

The modern playing card deck is derived from the tarot deck (the minor arcana) and the joker card derived from the major arcana The Fool (the court jester). As an occasional tarot reader, it did not take me long to connect The Dark Knight's Joker to the jester. The court jester had the comedic liberty to insult and challenge as desired. The jester did cross lines but was whipped, not executed. The jester was to challenge everything, beyond any sort of reasonableness.

The Joker in the Dark Knight struck me immediately as an interesting and particularly dark interpretation of the fool archetype. The Joker challenges power, society, life, and human nature. But like the jesters of old, these challenges are hollow until there is someone who has to answer to them and the Joker finds his missing half in Batman.

Before I continue, I must mention that I found the imagery in the Dark Knight sufficient to actually make a deck. I can't distribute it for copyright reasons but I'd like to do readings so I can test the temperament of the deck. I offer these readings for free until I've had enough practice. Contact me.

Note: The Tarot symbolism discussed here is a personal interpretation of the Rider-Waite deck. Some complications arise because the major characters all have multiple cards for different facets of their character. I will deal with them as they come up.

The Tarot Suits

The suits: the four suits of the tarot deck indicate four levels of society in the medieval world. The wands were agricultural, the swords military, the cups religious, and the pentacles mercantile. Obviously there's no farming in the Dark Knight, so I adapted the legal system for the wands suit. The wands suit is much guided by reaping the rewards of hard and honest effort. This is not unlike our contemporary legal system, where each charge warrants a trial that proves an individual guilty before being sentenced. In its paperwork and procedure it can be every bit as trying as living off the land and every trial is an investment hoping to bear fruit. In this case the fruit is justice.

Wands: Physically, the wand is a pillar or a beam, the ground work for society. Yet it can be burnt or broken. Its own stiffness can become a detriment as well. In the Dark Knight, there are two sides to the staff: the courts and the police, represented by Harvey and Gordon respectively. The movie features all the ups and downs of the wands suit. Harvey's prosecutions are an attempt to put everything back on the foundation of law. The law's frequent need for Batman's intervention shows the wand's stiffness. The law's tenacity often meets apparent success (albeit often due to Batman) from the result of hard labor successfully achieved.

Swords: the Dark Knight is an action film and there is no lack of swords imagery throughout the film. The Joker, Batman, Gordon, Two Face, and the mob are all tied up in it. Swords is a suit of conflict and direct action (not always physically violent, but directly confrontational). Unlike a staff, a sword has a hilt at one end and an edge at the other--in conflict one party will get the hilt, and the either will get the edge. The sword also stands for short sightedness. Against the hydra each swing brings only more heads.

The most prominent swords characters are Batman and the Joker, (though Two Face deserves consideration). Batman is a vigilante, a character who can work outside the law when the law desires it (The Dark Knight movie had a great conflict between means and ends that is present in the relationship of wands to swords). Meanwhile the Joker plays a similar role for the mob (the outsider that can attack the opposition). The Joker shows his swords nature by unleashing so much violence that Gotham is overwhelmed. Batman answers these challenges with more force (the sword tendency) until at last it becomes apparent that the Joker's true weapon is insight (into Two Face). This is characteristic of the sword, striking the ineffective target. Only a thoughtful response (giving up Batman) can win in the end.

Cups: the cups stand for inspiration, wisdom, and love. Yet in the Dark Knight there are conflicted by the kind of inspiration marked by Rachel and Alfred and the inspiration marked by the Joker. The cup or chalice is fundamentally different from a wand or a sword: its power is its negative space, its ability to bear some other object. It stands for objects that have been found, not forced. Rachel's love stands out clearly here. On some level Bruce is forcing on Harvey the hero role of Batman, something Rachel disregards in her engagement.

Meanwhile, the Joker lets lose his own truths onto the world in cup like fashion. In nearly every action or "plan" the Joker concocts always there is the message that you cannot control life. Life brings suffering to the good and the wicked, and its unpredictable nature means no plan is safe. (In short, any cup can be spilt). Feel free to drink from your cup while you can.

Pentacles:the pentacle consists of two objects: a five pointed star and a circle enveloping the star. The star itself is a symbol of the dominion of thought or spirit. The bottom four points represented the four elements and the symbol shows the four elements transcended in the fifth point (this is the origin of the word quintessential). This star is surrounded by a circle. The circle itself is reminiscent of a coin. Occasionally the word coin is substituted for pentacle, if the substitution is called for. The pentacle is the symbol of the merchant, It represents not only wealth, but the practical knowledge and rational investments that allow one to gain wealth. The Dark Knight is full of conflicts/squabbling over money so that the pentacles are well represented. the major character in the Pentacle suit is Lucius Fox.

Lucius Fox is presented with the challenges of running Wayne Enterprises from a business perspective while attending to providing Batman the technology he needs to fight crime. Lucius' strength is reason. He is presented practical problems from Bruce and deals with them as they come. His inventions demonstrate what is possible with practical thinking and investment.

There is of course, another side to this coin (sorry). Money represents power. Reason is a guide of how to use that power. But while on the one side we have the creative inventor, we have the crime lord on the other. How different is the film's mob meeting different from the board at Wayne Enterprises? They are both groups of people discussing their interests. It is this understanding that thrusts the Joker, a figure of chaos, into this suit because he understands that getting what you want is not a question of money but power. The weakness of pentacles is that when reason and finance are disregarded, they have no power.

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This discussion of Tarot symbolism is the tip of the iceberg as far as the Dark Knight is concerned, but I've gone into enough detail. The Dark Knight really does have enough for me to have made a 78 card deck. Unfortunately I can't produce it for copyright reasons but I want to do readings with it to see how it works. I reserve the right to stop this offer whenever I feel like (or deny a reading to hasslers) so if you really want to get a reading just shoot me a line.


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