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The Manticore Reader’s Guide

By Robertson Davies

The Manticore by Robertson Davies


Questions and Topics for Discussion

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 novels—Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders—is 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 novels—Dunstan Ramsay, David Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrim—narrates 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 analysis—and a perilous descent to the underworld—to 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.


  • 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?
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