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Deck Review: Key to the Kingdom

I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of The Key to the Kingdom deck and book set at a used bookstore last month. The Key to the Kingdom is a transformation deck* designed and illustrated by Tony Meeuwissen and was first published in 1992. So I was pretty excited to find the complete set and unopened!

There was even a little brochure for a contest by the publisher! Solve the riddle found in 14 of the cards and mail in your answer. Sadly for me, the contest ended in 1994. But I’m still enjoying working through the riddle! I’m chipping away at it here and there in the studio… some of the references are somewhat obscure so it’s a work in progress.

Meeuwissen was comissioned by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to design a set of court cards (Jacks, Queens, and Kings) based on traditional nursery rhymes. Meeuwissen went above and beyond and completed 53 designs (a standard 52-card deck plus a joker) over three years. Each card is paired with a rhyme. 

The Ace of Hearts starts off the individual card listings in the book. “I’m a little butterfly / Born in a bower, / Christened in a teapot, / Died in half an hour.” A lovely red butterfly sits heart-shaped with folded wings. The Ace of Hearts is often associated with love and romance in traditional cartomancy, so the fleeting and fragile nature of the butterfly’s life can reflect either a jaded philosophy on romance or more of a seize the moment sort of attitude.

The Ace of Spades features a beautifully spotted black spider hanging from its silk. “If you want to live and thrive / Let a spider run alive.” The book claims that this rhyme “reminds us that a London card-maker was actually sentenced to be hanged for forgery at a time when this card doubled as England’s duty stamp.” (The individual they are referring to was Richard Harding d. 1805) The duty stamp** they are referring to was from the 17th century in England. King Charles I introduced the idea, but in 1711 Queen Anne (featured on the Queen of Spades in this deck…) extended the law and it lasted until 1960. The Ace of Spades is traditionally known as “the death card.” Here the Spade is formed by the spider’s body which is decorated with markings resembling a cross and perhaps two doves flying above it.

The Ace of Hearts meets the Ace of Spades in the Joker card. Here the butterfly has been trapped in the spider’s web and the spider is in the act of grabbing hold of the butterfly. The colors have been reversed (fitting for the topsy-turvy nature of the Joker), the spider is now red and the butterfly is a somber black. Perhaps implying that Death triumphs all in the end.

From what I can tell the Ace of Spades spider makes one more appearance in the deck: The Queen of Spades. “I am Queen Anne, of who ’tis said, I’m chiefly famed for being dead.” The Queen of Spades shows what appears to be a tombstone with a dodo bird carved into it. The tombstone is decorated with a golden crown and the Ace-of-Spades spider has spread its web artfully around collecting various symbolic dinners. The date barely visible is 1714. Queen Anne Stuart of England did die in August of 1714 and the dodo bird is estimated to have gone extinct sometime between 1688 and 1715. The spider hangs down to become an earring on the dodo bird; the spider’s web trails back making the dodo-queen’s long hair (or possibly a train); the butterfly caught in the web is a hair bow. There are two other insects caught in another section of the spider’s web, but I am having difficulty making out what they are.

Meeuwissen is clearly passionate about rhymes, riddles, and enigmas; The Key to the Kingdom deck and book are packed with esoteric references, nods to art history, visual and literary puns, and card-making history. Unpacking even a portion of the references in this deck will take a good deal of study time with these cards.

This is a beautiful deck. The bold eye-catching images make it a difficult choice for game play when quick identification of a card is an advantage. I think it would be a really interesting deck to work with for cartomancy and contemplative practice. However, reading with the deck will require spending some time with it, getting to know it’s language a bit more. And it definitely has some quirks to work around. The card backs are not a mirrored image and therefor you won’t be able to read randomized reversals (cards that appear upside down in a reading without conscious selection). Reading with this deck could be really rich and layered, I think… but it definitely requires that you spend some time really getting to know these cards. Overall this is a fascinating deck and I’m looking forward to gradually unlocking some of its mysteries.

*Transformation decks are playing cards that artistically incorporate the icons on the pips into an illustration of some kind. The first known transformation deck was published in 1803.

**There is a whole fascinating history to card rankings and politics related to the Ace of Spades, but essentially the stamp duty was a tax imposed on cardmakers by the government. When the tax had been paid the highest ranking card in the deck was stamped with the government seal showing it to be a legal deck of cards.

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