“The Tarot will teach you how to create a soul.”
- the Master from Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain
Most people will admit that there’s something magical about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. But what makes it so freaking magical? Is it because it’s a Tim Burton movie? Does a certain amount of weirdness automatically make something magical? Is it because Paul Reubens went on to play Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies and Loki in The Avengers?
No, the magic comes from something else. Get ready to have your freakin’ mind blown.
The magic comes from the tarot. To those of you who aren’t in the know, the tarot is more than just a deck of cards where you get together with a group of friends, then someone pulls the Death card, then you spend the rest of the night fighting off masked killers who take you down one by one during a night of endless terror. The tarot is, among other things, a sequence of cards that use archetypes to map the major plot points of a life – or a story. The tarot goes beyond rational planning, which is exactly why there are no cards labeled School, Job, Unhappy Marriage, Unwanted Child, Undeserved Promotion, etc. It’s the framework for a magical story.
Believe it or not, the story of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure follows the major arcana of the tarot, card for card. It’s eerie, it’s sequential, and it’s crazy as hell.
Zero: The Fool
The movie begins with a dream sequence in which Pee-wee is in a bike race. Every biker wears a number, and Pee-wee wears the number zero. This is important because the Fool is the first card of the tarot, but it is labeled as card number zero. It’s the ultimate beginning. Pee-wee is designated as the Fool archetype.
But how can that be? Pee-wee’s no fool! He’s a smart dude who’s always on top of things, even though he’s a huge weirdo!
That’s because in the tarot, or in any fairy tale, the Fool archetype doesn’t represent stupidity; it represents innocence. Pee-wee is a paragon of innocence. That’s why his home is filled with toys and he has no idea what to do about Dottie’s constant advances. The Fool archetype isn’t strong or smart, but he always comes out on top because of his innocence and his immunity to evil. The only thing the Fool knows is that he knows nothing, and that is the beginning of wisdom. The Fool doesn’t look at the world through the same filters as a Democrat, a Republican, a Christian, a science-loving atheist, or even a person who makes it a point of pride to “think outside the box”.
The Fool is nothing, but he’s also everything. He’s pure potential.
One: The Magician
The next card in the deck is the Magician, he who uses his powers to master something. Soon after the beginning of the movie, Pee-wee makes his way to a magic store, where some doofus sells wares that defy description and bend over our perception of the real world. Pee-wee loves this shit. From his perspective, the guy who owns the magic shop really is a magus.
Two: The High Priestess
After Pee-wee drops a bunch of dough at the magic shop, he goes to the bike shop and meets Dottie. She seems to be his girlfriend or love interest, although Pee-wee has no idea that that’s the case. Dottie is, of course, the High Priestess, who represents the female aspect of the divine. The High Priestess is all about emotion, the mystery of woman, divine power that supersedes logic and rational thought, etc. As such, Pee-wee doesn’t know it, but his real journey is probably about becoming the sort of man who can “become one” with his opposite in the female divine, which he does by the end of the movie even though he never rationally planned for that to happen.
Three, Four, and Five: Let’s Gloss Over These
These next three cards are a little weak. Sorry. At this point, when I was watching the movie and my occult symbolism Geiger counter was losing the signal, I began to lose faith in my theory. That was dumb, but you’ll have to be patient as I fumble my way through these next three cards. And yes, I realize how absurd it is to request for “patience”, seeing as this piece is about the occult framework of a thirty year old movie and is directly competing for attention against animated gifs of bouncing breasts.
Anyway, Pee-wee’s beloved bike is stolen, and he goes to the police for help. He speaks to a lady cop, who represents the third card in the major arcana, the Empress. The lady cop does very little besides give us a hard-assed look. Next we meet the Emperor, symbol of earthly power and authority and root of patriarchy, in the father of Pee-wee’s rival, the spoiled rich kid Francis. For reasons I can’t quite understand, Francis is represented by the next card, the Hierophant, the authority who stands between man and god. The only thing that truly links Francis with the Hierophant is the fact that we see a quick shot of Francis sitting on a throne with two giant tusks on either side of him, which mirrors the two pillars on either side of the Hierophant. The Hierophant can represent belief, tradition, conservative power; perhaps his embodiment in the character of Francis means that Tim Burton believes that the God of the establishment is bat-shit insane? Or maybe childishly cruel and sadistic?
Six: The Lovers, Reversed
The Lovers card is next, and it shows the great conflict in this story… because it’s reversed. The Lovers are all about divine union, but in the next scene of the movie we see that Pee-wee is utterly alone. He’s lost his bike and he’s been abandoned by God. He wanders the streets as a lost soul, hated by the world. A gang of louts attempt to accost poor Pee-wee, but Pee-wee turns to them and hisses like a wounded animal. They see the scar on his soul and they flee in terror. They know better than to dick around with someone who’s been cursed.
Seven: The Chariot
Pee-wee finally gets his act together and sets out on his quest. He knows where to go and knows what he has to do. The Chariot is all about everything lining up for you so that you can ride out and conquer. Nobody can get a damn thing done if it’s not in the stars for them to do so, but when everything is in its proper place, a person can plow over anything and take what they want. That’s how it goes when Pee-wee hitchhikes a ride with a convict in his chariot.
Note that a lot of decks have Strength switched with Justice; for the purposes of this Pee-wee piece, we’re going to use Justice as card eight, though not all decks do.
So Pee-wee is riding in his chariot, then he gets stopped by the cops. They’re looking for the convict he’s riding with, so Pee-wee has to really play the Fool in order to avoid being forced feet-first into a meat grinder.
Nine: The Hermit
Pee-wee loses his chariot and is thrown into the wilderness, an uncivilized place packed so tight with animal life that one wonders if Pee-wee can even rightly be called alone. We can, though, because Pee-wee cries out, “I’m in the middle of nowhere!”
Ten: Wheel of Fortune
Pee-wee is picked up by Large Marge. We hear the tale of a legendary trucker who was the pride of the road, but who lost it all in a terrible, body-destroying, soul-shattering vehicular accident. Such is the Wheel of Fortune: King of the hill one day, drowning in the ditch the next, and vice versa.
Again, remember that we’re using a deck that have Justice and Strength placed in an uncommon formation.
The Strength card depicts a small woman who controls a powerful lion not by strength of arms, but by grace and not freaking out in general. In terms of our story, Pee-wee meets a lady of uncommon sophistication who dreams of visiting France. She just so happens to be married to a raging brute who looks like Paul Bunyan and has all the self-control of GG Allin. Unfortunately the Francophile lady loses her control of her pituitary case of a husband, the Strength card is reversed, and Pee-wee gets chased around and nearly clubbed to death.
Twelve: The Hanged Man
Pee-wee hangs in a state between life and death, a martyr at the crossroads, as he is forced into an endless sing-a-long with some ding-a-ling on a train obsessed with and enchanted by some of the most banal music imaginable. The Hanged Man is a card of inner reflection, neither bad nor good, but definitely promising a resurrection to come.
Pee-wee finally comes down from the cross and reaches his final destination – the Alamo! As soon as he reaches the basement, he will be reunited with his bike and all the many facets of his shattered self will be unified. Except…
There is no basement in the Alamo.
Pee-wee is forced to face the death of all the illusions he holds dear as his quest seemingly ends in failure. He has lost the trail of his bike; only Death is real; the Long Dark Night of the Soul begins.
Pee-wee’s soul is reawakened by the power of Texas! The Temperance card is all about health, healing, the unification of seeming opposites, and transcendence. In our story, we see a crazy scene in which Pee-wee reconnects with friends from his past who help give him the strength to continue his journey – this time without any rational map! – and then the world comes alive as Pee-wee is chased around, becomes a rodeo cowboy, gets knocked out and revived, etc.
Pee-wee’s back, baby! With one foot solidly planted on earth and the other foot in the mystical waters of the unknown, his quest begins again.
Fifteen: The Devil
Pee-wee finds himself in a rough bar populated by a biker gang known as Satan’s Helpers. The Devil card is all about debauchery, hedonism, excess, and we see all of those things, plus a hint of danger. Pee-wee gets picked on and threatened with a severe beating but, like the enchanted Fool that he is, he uses his inability to freak out and his love of good times to not only get out alive, but to make some friends as well. If Pee-wee had been a hardass or a cynical know-it-all with a shit-eating grin, he would have gotten a severe ass-beating. Fortunately, the innocent Fool always wins.
Sixteen: The Tower
The Tower represents ultimate disaster, turmoil, upheaval, and it plays right on time when poor Pee-wee flips his motorcycle, eats a fistful of dirt, rips his colon open on a nail hanging from a street sign, and ends up in the hospital. He is subjected to a terrifying array of nightmares in which the thing that he considers most holy, his beloved bike, is ruthlessly crushed and a legion of demons laugh at him.
Poor Pee-wee! Will his troubles never end?
Seventeen: The Star
The Star is hope, the light at the end of the tunnel. Pee-wee is at his lowest point when he wakes up in the hospital… but then he immediately sees a TV show that reveals the location of his long-lost bike! Pee-wee is suffering from internal bleeding and several of his limbs smell like rotten meat, but his heart is alight with joy because now he knows what he must do.
Eighteen: The Moon
The moon is the card of deception and mystery, appearances trumping reality, and masks hiding true identities. So it is that Pee-wee finds himself in Hollywood, the center of Mammon, where illusion is king and movie magic is commonplace. As if to stress the illusory nature of the Hollywood movie studios, one scene shows a tough-looking Star Wars stormtrooper speak with a voice like a bitch while a fine-looking lady sounds exactly like a man with an enormous pair of balls. How can this be?! It is beyond understanding.
But Pee-wee bravely enters this carnival house of mirrors. He can no longer trust his senses, so he must stay true to the only thing that’s real: His love for his bike and the eventual unification of his identity.
Nineteen: The Sun
Pee-wee reclaims the lost piece of his soul, his beloved bike, and the sun rises like a glorious wad of burning gas! Harsh winter thaws and life explodes in an orgy of unrestrained shouting and donkey-kicking as Pee-wee rides around like a madman chased by security guards, Santa Claus, Godzilla, and a bunch of other intense bull crap. Everything is completely out of control. Our brave hero can’t be stopped! He’s grasped the great power that was stolen from him, but was his all along, and easily smashes through every half-assed obstacle that is thrown in his path. He is Voltron reunited, the Avengers assembled, the Power Rangers morphed, all of that.
Now, I know the pet store on fire kind of seems like a Tower situation. When I was mapping this stuff out, I kind of remembered that being the case, but it isn’t so. It’s really just another obstacle, which Pee-wee overcomes through bravery and innocence, just like all the other obstacles he overcomes. Way to go, Doctor Herman!
At the end of the world, all souls stand in judgment before the Almighty. Pee-wee is captured and some godlike corporate executive looks down on Pee-wee from his throne, as pissed as can be. Pee-wee is shown a film reel that details all of his deeds. Not all of them are good. He is surrounded by guards and the atmosphere is tense as balls. Nobody would even dare to fart in this room for fear of complete annihilation. If Pee-wee had proven to be a shitty person or a smarmy little ass-wipe, he would have been thrown to the dogs. As it is, his supreme innocence shines through. He is rewarded!
Twenty-One: The World
If card zero, the Fool, is pure potential, then the World is all things made manifest, with everything in its proper place. Our hero has made the journey through the tarot, created or reconstructed his soul, and found his place in the World. At the end of the movie, Pee-wee is reunited with all of his old friends and enemies, the tale of his life is retold through a film within a film (with a few flourishes thrown in for good measure), then Pee-wee reunites with the divine feminine in the form of Dottie and the two ride off together so that another generation can be created and the process can be repeated.
Conclusion: Return of the Fool?
Our amazing journey through the tarot with Pee-wee has ended. Now we have to ask ourselves whether or not all magical stories follow the path of the tarot, with all its strange markers and beyond-rational concepts, or did the makers of Pee-wee intentionally create this film as an occult ritual aligned with the tarot from the start…?
Some of you might be thinking that you can take any movie and make comparisons with the tarot. I know, I know, it would feel good to take a shitty movie, draw a few parallels, and thus prove that the world is a dreary, non-magical place created through accident and sustained by brutish, uncaring means. That sort of nonsense can’t be done, though, without a lot of dishonesty. I’ve looked at other stories; they don’t fit the template, or at least not nearly as well as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Seems to me that the only rational thing to do is to accept the irrational and take magic in stride without getting all bent out of shape about it.
Otherwise, let the flamewars begin!
Special Note!: If you liked this, and you believe in supporting starving writers, why not check out my epic Demonworld saga? It’s getting great reviews. It just needs a little more exposure! Click here to see humanity’s struggle in the distant Age of Capricorn. The reviews alone are worth a visit!