When I first spotted this for sale, I thought of it as The Scrawled Dondorf. It haunted my dreams, crept into my thinking when I had other more important things to attend to. The urge to own something so unuseable and unshuffleable. If any deck cries out for retirement (couched in plush velvet), this is it. How exhausted, how drained of all magic, how wrung dry and sated it looks. And that is why I love it. Will it grant us one last gasp, I wonder? And if so, what can it tell? Such a change from the usual decks we come across shrouded in shrink-wrap, clean and pasteurised. Of course it’s the grubbiness I love; something battered and decrepid, filthy, taped-up and limping, corners broken like butterfly wings, an overturned inkwell having spilt onto The Tower card and dyed it blue. Did somebody place a cup of tea on The Mountain card? Yet what I love most of all is that it bears messages. By all accounts, this is a Dondorf from the late 19th Century, maybe 1880 (it is the earlier “export” edition that has Frankfurt spelt Francfort) and someone took it upon themselves to write divinatory meanings on the cards. The deck turned up in Budapest but the writing on it is in German. And it is old writing, old German. I do not read German but it appears from those who have seen just a few cards that the writing may be a version of already existing rhymes and not something entirely random or made up “intuitively” by the reader. The Dondorf is without a doubt – as I have said before to anyone who will listen – my favourite Lenormand. I don’t really feel the need for any other pattern. The Dondorf is enough. It has all the graciousness required of 19th Century cartomancy and none of the naive folkishness. The quality of the engraving is good enough to grace the drawing room. It doesn’t embarrass itself with awkwardness. The cards have a unity, a homogeneity that many other decks of the period lack. No scrawny Child card here or prehistoric, mechanical Birds (I am thinking of the Wüst here). There is something languid and charming and utterly well-rounded about the Dondorf. The perspective stands up to scrutiny. The Dondorf company used to market it as the one true Lenormand. I believe them.
But that writing. Why does it mesmerise me so much? As one who has always had a morbid love of old documents – diaries, old love letters, anything that allows curlicue words to communicate with us beyond the grave, to speak to us directly across the centuries – this deck captivated me from the start. But there didn’t seem to be anyone else interested (nobody bid) so maybe it’s only me (I thought). It was one of those cases of – Shall I? Shalln’t I? – almost bought it then almost didn’t. I was stalking the deck for a couple of weeks before I recognised that I simply had to have it. And the fact that Lauren Forestell, sharing my excitement, spoke of the possibility of maybe tidying the cards up a bit and pushed me over the edge; I could have a working version but also be able to look at the originals up close. She wouldn’t restore them as such, certainly not clean them, just give a little cosmetic retouching, replacing broken corners, smoothing the frayed edges. As the deck stands, it is too fragile to use. Having a useable version to be able to read with was something that the two of us discussed, but then there must be others who are interested in using a deck like this. What was (in my mind) the Scrawled Dondorf became for Lauren the Destroyed Dondorf as she started working on scans.
But that writing. It is the writing that makes the deck. I have been reading a book about Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England, now no longer in existence (burnt down in 1939) and in my mind the deck and the haunting became curiously linked. Spirit writing appeared on the walls at Borley during the tenancy of the unstable Marianne Foyster, eerie scribblings on the stair wall ; “Light mass prayers… Please help get”…. My mind involuntarily associated the beautiful handwriting on this deck with the spirit writing and haunting at Borley, something cursive from beyond the grave. And even before the deck arrives I find myself convinced that this deck comes with a ghost. Don’t they always, these old, well-used decks? Haunted by the vibrations of fevered shuffles, querents hands cupped in anguish. Something is trying to speak to us. How odd the way our mind merges things.
As it wings its way in this direction, I have time to let my imagination run away a little. Keep an eye open here on the Game of Hope site. It should be available some time soon. And I shall post here once the original has arrived and I have had time to inhale a little of its spookiness.