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World of Wonders
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One of the most ambitious works of fiction of the twentieth century, Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy reaches from rural Canada to the Swiss Alps and introduces a cast of characters as varied and fascinating as any in recent literature. It is a work of towering intellect, exploring ideas of good and evil, history and identity, truth and illusion, art and mysticism, and much more. But at the center of each of the three novelsFifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wondersis a theme that connects the trilogy’s many intertwining stories: the need to recover a genuine experience of the marvelous, a sense of wonder, in a world from which it has been all but banished.
Each of the main characters in the three novelsDunstan Ramsay, David Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrimnarrates his life story. And in the course of each of these interrelated stories, we find a common desire for a mythical or magical world that exists within the confines of ordinary, rationalist, desacralized modern society. In Fifth Business, Dunstan Ramsay, history teacher and hagiographer, finds access to the marvelous through his study of saints and their miracles. He delights in “pointing out the mythical elements that seem to . . . underlie our apparently ordinary lives” (Fifth Business, p. 38), and feels certain that Mrs. Dempster, the mother of Paul Dempster (aka Magnus Eisengrim), whom others consider morally degenerate and mentally deficient, is in fact a saint. David Staunton, a highly successful criminal lawyer, embodies a thoroughly rationalist belief system. As a law student he takes his teacher’s advice and puts his “emotions in cold storage.” He eliminates from himself all the messy feelings that so often get his clients into trouble. Nevertheless, after his father’s sudden and mysterious death, he undergoes Jungian analysisand a perilous descent to the underworldto reconnect both with his emotions and with humanity’s mythic past. The trilogy’s most enigmatic character, the magician Magnus Eisengrim, both enacts and elicits a sense of wonder, as he satisfies “a hunger that almost everybody has for marvels” (The Manticore, p. 242). Indeed, Magnus’s greatest work of magic is his own self-transformation, from a shy, abused, and outcast boy growing up in a small Canadian village to the greatest magician in the world. He is an exemplar of what his friend and manager Lisel calls the “Magian World View,” which prevailed in the Middle Ages and which is based on a “sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world” (World of Wonders, p. 293).
Around this central theme, Robertson Davies spins a story, or rather a multitude of stories, that illuminate the human condition with uncommon brilliance. The novels themselves, written with extraordinary wit, charm, and intelligence, are wonders to behold. In this sense, Davies not only points his readers to a world of marvels and mysteries, he gives us one.
Robertson Davies (1913–1995) had three successive careers during the time he became an internationally acclaimed author: actor, publisher, and, finally, professor at the University of Toronto. The author of twelve novels and several volumes of essays and plays, he was the first Canadian to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- Dunstan Ramsay feels compelled to write his autobiography after reading a patronizing portrait of himself in the school newspaper, in which he is presented as “a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose” (p. 5). He feels the piece depicts him as a man who never had a life outside the classroom. How does Ramsay present himself in correcting this account? In what ways does the novel show the depth and complexity of character that lie beneath the clichés we quickly, and sometimes dismissively, use to sum up the lives of others?
- Ramsay titles the chapter dealing with his war years “I Am Born Again” (p. 58). In what ways does the war change him? Why does he vow, after returning home, to “live henceforth for my own satisfaction” (p. 79)? What is the most life-altering experience he has during the war?
- Padre Blazon asks Ramsay about the significance of Mrs. Dempster: “What figure is she in your personal mythology? If she appeared to save you on the battlefield, as you say, it has just as much to do with you as it has with hermuch more probably” (p. 165). Why is Mrs. Dempster so important to Ramsay? In what ways has his interaction with her changed the course of his life? Why does Ramsay think she is a saint?
- Dunstan Ramsay is fascinated by what he calls “a world of wonders”: saints, mythologies, miraculous events. “Why do people all over the world, and at all times,” he asks, “want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?” (p. 186). How would you answer these questions?
- David Staunton’s therapist tells him: “I am going to try to help you in the process of becoming yourself” (p. 57). In what ways is David not himself when he begins therapy? What must he do to become a more integrated, authentic person? To what extent is this therapeutic process successful for David? How has he changed by the end of the novel?
- David has a dream in which he appears as a manticore, and Dr. von Haller tells him that “the Unconscious chooses its symbolism with breath-taking artistic virtuosity” (p. 150). What does the manticore symbolize for David? Why is he able to dream of it even though he’d never heard of the creature before?
- Discussing his “autobiography,” which Ramsay has written, Magnus tells David that “because I satisfy a hunger that almost everybody has for marvels, the book is a far truer account of me than ordinary biographies,” even though he admits it is largely invented. He claims it is truer to the “essence” of his life than a more factual account would be. Why would an invented story be truer to one’s essence than a more strictly accurate story? Is it true that we “hunger for marvels”? Why is Magnus able to satisfy those hungers? Has David given a “true” account of his life?
- At the end of the novel, Liesl takes David into a cave, and getting back out proves to be a terrifying experience. Later that night, David feels “reborn” (p. 259). What is the significance of this episode? What is it about the cave that is deeply relevant to David’s relationship to his father and to the bear that he dreamed of early in his therapy? Why is this an apt way to end the book?
- Magnus is raised by a religious zealot father and a mother made feeble-minded by his own birth. He is abducted by a traveling magic show, raped and exploited for seven years. How is he able to overcome these dramatic early misfortunes? What providential helpers does he meet along the way? What character traits enable him to triumph as he does?
- Near the end of the novel, Magnus says: “Everything has its astonishing, wondrous aspect, if you bring a mind to it that’s really your owna mind that hasn’t been smeared and blurred with half-understood muck from schools, or the daily papers, or any other ragbag of reach-me-down notions” (p. 321). Why would going to school or reading newspapers ruin one’s ability to see the wonder of the world?
- The mystery of Boy Staunton’s death goes unsolved, though Ramsay, Magnus, and David Staunton all have their theories about who was responsible. Which of them seems closest to the truth? How would you explain the cause and circumstances of his death? Why does he place the stone on his tongue?
- What kind of friendship do Magnus, Liesl, and Ramsay share? What do they offer each other? What makes Liesl such a compelling and unusual character?
- Ramsay, David Staunton, and Magnus all tell their life stories in novels of the Deptford Trilogy. What is Robertson Davies saying about the autobiographical impulse and the act of narrating the story of one’s own life? What motivates these characters to tell their stories? What does telling their stories do for them?
- What major themes run throughout the Deptford Trilogy? How are these themes treated differently from novel to novel?
- Describing his room at the Savoy, Ramsay observes that “there was an Art Moderne fireplace with an electric fire in it which, when in use, gave off a heavy smell of roasted dust and reminiscences of mice” (World of Wonders, p. 143). In what ways is this sentence typical of Robertson Davies’s style? In what other sentences or passages do you find examples of Davies’s extraordinary combination of wit, elegance, and imaginative brio?
- Looking back on his life at the end of World of Wonders, Magnus says that if Boy Staunton “hadn’t hit my mother on the head with that snowballhaving hidden a rock in it, which was dirty playI might now be what my father was: a Baptist parson in a small town” (p. 308). What myriad consequences follow from this one act? How does this act affect the lives of all the main characters? In what ways does this stone underlie the action of each novel in the trilogy and connect them?