________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 21. . . .June 12, 2009.


Robertson Davies: Magician of Words.

Nicholas Maes.
Toronto, ON; Dundurn Press, 2009.
221 pp., pbk., $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-55002-872-0.

Subject Headings:
Davies, Robertson, 1913-1995.
Authors, Canadian (English)-20th century-Biography.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.





As had been the case with his Salterton Trilogy, Davies filled his novel /Fifth Business] with autobiographical elements. The town of Deptford was based on his hometown Thamesville, to the degree that the layout of each was a perfect match. Ramsay’s attempts to instruct Paul in magic were drawn from Davies’s own experiments as a boy: like Ramsay, Davies possessed a clumsy set of hands. The Madonna that Ramsay spies at the battle of Passchendaele is identical to the statue that Davies purchased on a trip to Austria. ...

The most powerful autobiographical component, however, was Ramsay’s certainty that the realm of mystery, spirit, and awe co-exists with the more ordinary realm of science, law, work, and pragmatism. Just as Davies believed that Jung’s collective unconscious and archetypes explained human initiative and destiny, linking everyday experiences to religion, art, mythology, and literature, so Ramsay discovers that magic and a more mythic and less factual approach to history, together with saints and their inspiring tales of faith and miracles, provide a powerful foundation for human endeavour and identity.

Nicholas Maes, a high school history teacher and university lecturer in classics, has produced a balanced biography of Robertson Davies that has the potential of introducing this "lion" of Canadian literature to a new generation of readers. In addition to detailing significant events in Davies’ life story, Maes provides plot summaries of Davies’ novels and consistently develops his thesis that his novels are heavily influenced by events and people from his own life. Thus, Davies’ childhood fascination with magic, his lifelong love of the theatre, his early interest in Freud and later of Jungian psychology and archetypes, are all mirrored in his writings. So too his experiences as a student at the exclusive private school Upper Canada College (UCC), his hometown of Thamesville, ON, and his long tenure as founding master of Massey College and professor of literature at Trinity College at the University of Toronto are all noted and parallel manifestations in his work pointed out. Maes even borrows two angelic characters, Maimas and Zadkiel, from What´s Bred in the Bone, to introduce each chapter with a dialogue that serves to sum up the biographee’s tale thus far in the biography.

     William Robertson Davies was born in 1913, the third son of Rupert and Florence Davies. By this time, Rupert had become a successful newspaper man capable of financing his youngest son’s education at UCC, and later at Queen’s University in Kingston and then Balliol College at Oxford, from whence he graduated with a B.Litt. and produced a thesis that was subsequently published as Shakespeare’s Boy Actors in 1939. Davies’ love of the theatre led to a brief career as a jack-of-all-trades and actor in London at the Old Vic Theatre under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie. There, he met and married Brenda Newbold. Unfit for military service due to poor eyesight, Davies, with his bride, returned to Canada and the newspaper business, but Davies, unable to focus solely on journalism, also embarked on a career as a playwright.

     Two volumes of editorials that he wrote under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks were published in the late 1940s by Clarke, Irwin & Co., the firm that also published a number of his plays. Arguably, his plays were modestly successful. When he turned his pen to crafting novels, however, Davies reinvented himself as a masterful creator of complex literary works that earned him a place in the canon of Canadian literature. The Salteron, Deptford, and Cornish trilogies earned Davies a wide readership on both sides of the Atlantic. The Cunning Man, his last finished novel, appeared in 1994 to lukewarm review, one year prior to his death.

     Like most of the biographies in Dundurn Press and the related YYZ Publishing "Quest Library" series, Robertson Davies relies on secondary sources and the subject’s own writings. It includes the customary chronology comparing events in the subject’s life with noteworthy events in Canada and the world, an assortment of appropriate black and white photographs, a useful index that has subentries under heavily indexed names and other qualifiers that will add to the usefulness of the book for research, and a bibliography of Davies’ main works and the secondary sources consulted.

     The book makes extensive use of imagined dialogue; however, Maes relies upon this narrative technique a little much and takes some additional liberties to excess, for example by recreating a Dear John letter from Davies’ first love, Eleanor Sweezey, and later by imagining Davies’ last thoughts upon his death bed. Despite these shortcomings, Robertson Davies: Magician of Words is a good introduction to the man and his work. For very advanced readers, Judith Skelton Grant’s authorized biography, Robertson Davies: Man of Myth (Viking, 1994) remains the definitive biography of this talented, elitist Canadian.


Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation Librarian and liaison for English, History and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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