The King of Swords: A Study in Impartiality

Once upon a time I was doing a deep dive into the subject of the “facing” (aka “gaze” or “regard”) of the human figures on the tarot cards. Facing is often seen as showing where the focus or attention of a card falls outside of its normal span of control, usually conveying an impulse to engage with circumstances in that direction. Although it has general utility in discerning the aim of the “players” in an interpersonal drama, I sometimes apply it on those rare occasions when I use a court card chosen by the querent as the “significator” in a Celtic Cross spread. In this paradigm, a figure gazing or gesturing toward the viewer’s left is frequently considered to be oriented toward the past and, when looking or pointing in the opposite direction, to be intent on the future. I found this distinction to be particularly relevant in the Celtic Cross to indicate whether the querent is mired in unresolved past issues or ready, willing and able to move forward into the future.

In examining the court cards of the Waite-Smith deck (this may not be true for other decks), I found that all of the cards have either a full or partial “left-or-right” orientation except the King of Swords, who faces straight out of the scene; the closest he comes to directionality is in canting the blade of his sword toward the viewer’s left, so I use that as a form of gesture or posture implying sensitivity to prior conditions. This King is usually described as a “judge” but he is not nearly the “inquisitor” that the Queen of Swords is. I might see him more as a judicial scholar interested in the history of case law than as a fire-breathing dragon terrorizing the halls of criminal justice. That’s the Queen of Swords’ territory; she is looking implacably toward the viewer’s right with her head above the clouds and her cold gaze on emerging trends, sharply alert for anything approaching that might deserve a dose of her not-so-tender mercies. I can almost hear her saying “Make my day!” as she raises her imperious hand to summon the next victim toward her eager sword.

I would rather have this King on the bench for my trial than the King of Wands, who might be too peremptory in his judgment; the King of Cups, who might behave kindly but is professionally disinterested; or the King of Pentacles, who might doze off during testimony. The King of Swords looks like he’s wide awake and engaged, fixed on the present and making no concessions to either nostalgia or airy supposition. A keen intelligence is implied by his demeanor and a fine discretion by his casually poised sword, one that bodes well for a fair hearing. All he asks is that you meet his honest mediation with the same degree of integrity and commitment to truth. In my previous essay on the Swords court I had this to say about the King, and it is worth repeating:

“Although he bears the exalted title of “King,” in his role as an adjudicator this ruler impresses me more as a feudal lord meting out regional justice, passing judgment on which peasant farmer gets the lion’s share of the slaughtered cow, or which rustic suitor gets to marry the swineherd’s daughter. Although he may look regal, he’s not afraid to hike up his trouser cuffs and wade into the fray (especially if there are facts and figures to chew on). Although described as “delicate” by Mathers and Crowley, I think what is meant is “refined,” like polished steel that cuts all the better for it. This King is not someone to trifle with or underestimate. In a reading, he encourages careful consideration of all aspects of a situation, followed by decisive action. There is neither time nor place for second-guessing, and clemency is not an essential ingredient in the deliberation, although absolute fairness is. This card can describe a situation awash in minutiae that demands meticulous sifting and weighing to get at the crux of the matter. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words.”

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