Historians differ on the origin of tarot cards. Most believe that Egypt was the first to use similar images and symbols. Tarot is also represented from the early Greek, Roman, Norse and Indian cultures to the Italian and French medieval courts. The first clear reference to tarot is based on an Italian sermon from about 1500 A.D. (Pratesi). Regardless of origination, it is agreed that many civilizations -- ancient to modern -- have commonly used the tarot to divine the future. It is not unusual, then, to see references of these cards in literature. Writers integrate it into their plot; poets use it as imagery. Italo Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies provides an excellent example of tarot not only used within the plot, but as a narrative metaphor. He weaves his narration around a group of medieval travelers staying at a castle who find themselves incapable of speaking. Wanting to communicate with each other, they begin to experiment with the tarot. The characters tell their stories of how they reached the inn by laying out the cards and relying on the images to represent the stages of their journey. Calvino's book, however, is much more than a sequence of short stories. He uses the tarot cards as a unique means of storytelling, what he called his "machine for telling stories."
To better understand Castle of Crossed Destines, it is helpful to know something about Calvino's background. He wrote this book in 1973, after he had already established himself as a novelist who experiments with imaginative fables. Calvino was born in 1923 in Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba, of Italian parents and moved to Italy in his youth. After studying at the University of Turin and Royal University in Florence, he was drafted into the Young Fascists in 1940. He fled and sought refuge in the Alps, where he joined the Communist Resistance. His first novel, The Path of the Spider in 1947, depicted the resistance movement in a neorealistic manner as seen through the eyes of a young boy. The work is noted for its fable-like narrative twists. His next book, The Visconte Halved, marked the author's movement away from common war themes. It told the story of a man cut in half by a cannonball during the Turkish-Christian war. The novel provoked a heated debate on the use of such realism by the Italian Communist party.
In the 1950s, Calvino published fantastic tales that wavered between allegory and fantasy. He wrote The Rampante Baron, in which an 18th-century baron's son climbs a tree and spends the rest of his life in various treetops. His next book, The Non-existent Knight, was much more in the fantasy realms. Calvino said about his style:
After forty years of writing fiction, after exploring various roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. (Calvino)
Much of Calvino's writings, and especially Castle, is indicative of the nouveau roman, the new novel that was popular in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s that tried different ways to alter the normal narrative approach and of exploration. "The nouveau roman, its rhythmic monotone punctuated by novelistic fragments, is not just about literary games, but about life attitudes, and the same can be said of Calvino's work" (Markey 97). His works reflect the alienation, disorientation and ennui" of man (Stoltzfus, 118). Calvino's literature is also about spiritual homelessness in today's society. The theme of the wanderer, "a central image of our times," thus becomes an informing metaphor in much of the author's last works (Stolzfus 118-119).
The Castle, explains Morkey (98), is unique at both the technical and fictional levels. As fiction, it offers a scathing parody of the traditional tale of the hero's quest. However, Calvino reverses the usual story by "juxtaposing its uplifting message against the dilemma of postmodern man's downhill slide and dubious life choices" (Morkey 98). Technically, it must be read and reread at many different levels. For, beneath the fiction "lies a wealth of technical innovation ... " (Morkey 98). Calvino created 16 different tales that are completely different, yet interwoven, in their details.
Each of the adventures including the introduction in Castle start out as an apparently typical approach to the traditional hero's journey: "In the midst of a thick forest, there was a castle that gave shelter to all travelers overtaken by night on their journey: lords and ladies, royalty and their retinue, humble wayfarers" (3). Just as the heroic warrior, the travelers in these stories are tested and endure trials and misfortunes.
By using tarot cards as a metaphor, Calvino goes even farther in his storytelling. He also makes his tales come alive in a visual sense. The symbols of language are mixed.
In the "Notes" section following the novel, Calvino says, "I publish this book to be free of it: it has obsessed me for years. I began by trying to line up tarots at random to see if I could read a story in them. 'The Waverer's Tale' emerged; I started writing it down; I looked for other combinations of the same cards ... I thought of a book, and I imagined its frame: the mute narrators, the forest, the inn; I was tempted by the diabolical idea of conjuring up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck" (126). As the book developed, and as it was as finished, Castle, would have "a Shakespearean pastiche with Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear; I didn't want to lose Faust, Parsifal, Oedipus ... " (126-127)
In the "Waverer's Tale," Calvino, for example, focuses on what is right and wrong in society. A person must make choices in life; even not choosing is a choice. The story includes a young knight (Knight of Clubs) who cannot make decisions, as well as Eight of Cups and Ten of Clubs who are next to The Lover. The knight flees his home town, because he cannot choose between the two brides. On the road, he must continually make choices. When he cannot decide what to do at a crossroads, he first looks to his horses. When that does not work, he flips a coin. If it lands on edge, he leaves the answer to heaven. That does not work, either. Even when he meets the angel-devil in the City of God, he learns nothing.
At the end of the story, the knight's situation has not changed. He is still the same indecisive individual. Only his hair has become prematurely gray from his ordeal (63). He meets the man who was to marry the bride not chosen, who has been unable to marry due to lack of choice. The storyteller asks if the two will see meet again. The other man responds: "Hanging from a gallows different from the one you have hanged yourself. Farewell."
Nearly at the end of Castles, even the narrator decides to review his own story through the cards. After discarding numerous tarot, he finds himself left with the Knight of Swords, the Hermit and the Juggler. This is how he envisions himself and can explain his life without words to the other travelers: "Along paths of ink the warrior impetuosity of youth gallops away, the existential anxiety, the energy of the adventure spent in a slaughter of erasures and crumpled paper" (104). However, in the next card, he is dressed as an old monk, "isolated for years in his cell, a bookworm searching by the lantern's light for a knowledge forgotten among footnotes and index references" (104-105).
Yet more than these cards, he is left with the first and, perhaps, the only one depicting his true life: "a juggler, or conjurer, who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, interchanging them, achieves a number of effects" (105). His problem, he explains, is finding the right balance between being a hermit and enjoying his private space away from society and being free to go into the world. He congratulates himself on coming to this decision, but then sarcastically refutes it, saying, "Thus have I set everything to rights. On the page, at least. Inside me, all remains as before" (111). The roles of the warrior and the intellectual remain incompatible.
Literature, Calvino believed, should not take on "the task of confirming what is already known, or maybe of provoking in a naive and rudimentary way, by means of the youthful pleasure of freshness and spontaneity." These tasks, however beneficial they may be, necessarily relegate literature "to a function of consolation, preservation, and regression." A more vital role for a literary writer, he argued, is to "guarantee the…