Robertson Davies: The Manticore (1972)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011 (1983)
To live is to battle with trolls
in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write: that is to sit
in judgement over one’s self.
— Henrik Ibsen, extract from a letter, quoted twice in the novel
David Staunton is a criminal lawyer, trained to operate in logical fashion; in a moment of crisis he acts on impulse to seek help, only to find himself plunged into a world in which he has to access parts of himself, parts where rationality has no part to play.
Among so many other things The Manticore turns out to be an exploration of two different ways of apprehending reality: the Platonic modes of Reasoning and Understanding or, as the protagonist comes to know them, the Jungian concepts of Thinking and Feeling.
This novel follows on immediately where Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business left off, in the aftermath of a magic show in a Toronto theatre. In a drunken outburst from the auditorium David publicly demands to know who killed his father, ‘Boy’ Staunton. The enigmatic answer leads him to an analyst in Switzerland: here he delves into the labyrinths of his mind and the caverns of the Alps; here he observes the Comedy Company of the Psyche and examines the figures in the Cabinet of Archetypes, all in a bid to reach the understanding that has eluded him so far.
A bald outline of Davies’ novel does it little or no justice: 250-odd pages largely describe David’s psychoanalysis by Frau Doktor Johanna von Haller in Zürich. But this is an ingenious way to tell a story as over a year of sessions we get to learn a lot about David’s life, his motivations and his hang-ups, and about the circumstances surrounding the career and apparent suicide of his father. We also meet many of the characters from Fifth Business but because David is the narrator here instead of Dunstan Ramsay we get different perspectives and new insights into them, yet in a manner that doesn’t presuppose we have read the earlier book.
What is so delightful and satisfying about the narratives is that we the readers are allowed to make our own connections between narrative facts and symbols, between Reasoning and Understanding. One way to appreciate these links is to consider the same archetypes that David is asked to consider during his analysis. As we all know, Jungian archetypes are the roles we project onto real people in our lives: as Jaques in As You Like It says, “one man in his time plays many parts” and that is certainly the case here.
David’s earliest Friend turns out to be his teddy bear, Felix (Latin for “happy” or “lucky”), and along with David’s first name being Edward (“Ted”) and the national beast of Switzerland being a cave bear, it is just one of the correspondences that form part of a chain of being for David. Equally there are resonances galore for other archetypes — the Shadow, Anima and Magus — and when it comes to the Persona (“mask”) we are inevitably reminded of a disturbing yet farcical incident concerning a death mask and a corpse.
I should mention the novel’s pervasive animal imagery which, as well as the bear, includes the heraldic lion and unicorn, the wolf, the fox and, of course, the manticore of the title: this hybrid is a beast with a lion’s body, a human head and a barbed tail that can ‘shoot’ quills like a porcupine, and is a composite image rich in symbolism. As David is advised, the manticore is “not a whole man, or a whole lion, or a merely barbed opponent” so it’s significant that David’s dream suggests that it is in fact he who has such a multivalent personality.
I don’t want to create the impression that The Manticore is merely playing with ideas to entertain and intrigue us. Here is a cast of interesting and complex characters who interact with each other and assume recognisable personalities. David’s relationships with his immediate family (sister, father, mother, stepmother, nanny) feel authentic, and his friends, acquaintances and even clients are all recognisably individual because their flaws as well as positive qualities are very evident. David is aware of some of his own faults and failings too, all the more so when he undergoes analysis.
How, despite some seemingly fantastical aspects, does The Manticore have the ring of truth? That may be because Davies has invested so much of himself in his protagonists. For instance, Dunstan Ramsay’s initials are simply the author’s, but reversed; Dunstan and David ultimately hail from Deptford, named after the area near London’s River Thames and inspired by Davies’ own hometown of Thamesville, Ontario. And the author himself was born in 1913, exactly halfway between the birth years of Dunstan (1898) and David (1928), just another in the string of correspondences between real life and fiction.
The Manticore is a powerful novel because it speaks truth as well as concocting fantastical edifices, because it reveals insights even as it spins mysteries. While Fifth Business concerned itself with hagiography, legends and magic shows this sequel focuses instead on psychoanalysis, myth and drama. Dunstan’s creed was that
… history and myth are two aspects of a kind of grand pattern in human destiny: history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it.
— ‘David against the trolls’ §3
David, Dunstan’s pupil, took this epigram to heart and so too, I believe, should we.
3/20 in my 20 Books of Summer reading, number 8 on my list
Read also in anticipation of Lory’s Robertson Davies reading week scheduled for the end of August