The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies

About the Title
About the Author
Author Interview
Discussion Questions
Related Titles

Note: This guide is meant for an adult audience.


One of the joys of Robertson Davies' fiction is its easy commerce with the full sweep of western culture from the ancient Greeks to the present. Another is its vigorous, talky characters, whose challenges, exhilarations, defeats, and ultimate destination are bodied forth in telling details. And a third is an old-fashioned, attention-grabbing theatricality. The Cunning Man is as broadly learned as its predecessors, as replete with vividly realized characters, and as dramatic in its presentation.

The declared subject of the novel (which shares several major figures and events with its immediate predecessor, Murther and Walking Spirits) is the cultural life of the city of Toronto in the years before and after World War II – or rather, that of the small area around St. Aidan's Church. Here "The Ladies" – the minor artist Miss Pansy Freake Todhunter and her friend the sculptor Emily Hart-Raven – resided and entertained the artistic community at their "Sundays." We learn about what happened through Miss Todhunter's letters to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth back in England, and through Dr. Jonathan Hullah, who is stirred to record his reminiscences by a young journalist, Esme Barron, who is herself bent on writing a series of articles about The Toronto That Used To Be. Miss Todhunter is especially good at conveying the peculiar mixture of accomplishment and parochialism that characterized the cultural life of the period.


Dr. Hullah, the story's chief narrator, takes the view that to understand a city's cultural past it is necessary to understand the people who created it. And so he tells the life stories of a number of the key figures, and provides capsule histories for many others. The life he explores most richly is his own. His account makes it entirely plausible that he should introduce many of the novel's learned references. He is comfortable with the thinking of Paracelsus, Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, and Sir William Osler, and refers easily to a wide range of novels and poetry. Without saying so directly, he makes it obvious that he himself has been a major contributor to The Toronto That Used To Be. So too was his old schoolfriend, Charlie Iredale, priest of St. Aidan's, passionate high Anglican and lover of its ritual and fine music. But Iredale's life had gone off the rails, and he was exiled to a minor parish, slid into alcoholism, and, after a brief period of reprieve, into death.

The Cunning Man is Davies' 11th novel. In it he has drawn once again on his seemingly inexhaustible hoard of intuition, formidable memory, and astonishing erudition to produce a truly entertaining story.


Robertson Davies (1913-1995) was born in the village of Thamesville, Ontario (the Deptford of three of his novels), where he lived for five years. His parents were remarkably like those of Brochwel Gilmartin in The Cunning Man – great readers, talkers, and singers, but unhappy in their marriage and eager to win his allegiance.

His father's newspaper interests took the family to the town of Renfrew (the Blairlogie of What's Bred in the Bone), and then to Kingston (the Salterton of his first trilogy and of his most recent two novels). He attended Upper Canada College in Toronto (the original of Colborne College), Queen's University in Kingston, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he took his B. Litt. in 1938. He then joined the Old Vic Company for two seasons, acting bit parts, teaching theatre history in its school, and doing literary work for the director. In 1940 he married Brenda Mathews, who had been a stage manager with the Old Vic, and returned to Canada.

He was literary editor of Saturday Night magazine in Toronto until 1942, then editor of the Peterborough Examiner. Until the mid-fifties he threw his considerable "leisure" energies into theatre, writing and directing plays for the Little Theatre and for several professional companies. In 1963 he left the Examiner and became Master of Massey College in the University of Toronto (the original of Ploughwright College in The Rebel Angels). At the university he taught in the English department and the Drama Centre until he retired in 1981.

Reading the works of Jung in the fifties and sixties changed Davies' outlook and had a strong impact on his writing. Where earlier he had turned away from the images and ideas that rose unbidden in his dreams and visions, he now opened himself up to them. And he came to accept and value his intuitions. He came to see the novelist and playwright as givers of shape to the archetypal material rising from the unconscious. As a result he ceased to write novels that were essentially comedies of manners with distanced, cool, analytic omniscient narrators. Starting with Fifth Business, he began to write fictional autobiographies or confessions in which the underlying presence of the archetypes is palpable.

His many works include not only plays and the novels that won him international renown, but criticism, belles lettres, stories, and speeches. He was awarded the Governor General's Award (for The Manticore), the National Arts Club (New York) Medal of honour for literature (1987), and was made Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1967), a Companion of the Order of Canada (1972), an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters – the first Canadian to be so honored – (1980), and in 1986 Honorary Fellow of Balliol. The honorary degrees he particularly treasured are those from Trinity College, Dublin (1990) and from Oxford (1991).


This conversation took place shortly before Mr. Davies' untimely death on December 2, 1995.

You have talked about the way your novels Fifth Business and The Manticore began to take shape with the appearance in your imagination of a vivid image. How did The Cunning Man get its start?

Well, it didn't get a start in quite such a determined way as that, but it was an idea which had been in my mind for many years, which was the transformation of the city of Toronto from being quite literally a colonial capital to being a metropolitan city – and the changes that had taken place, particularly in the world of art, and what had been gained and also a few things that had been lost in the process.

Were "The Ladies" – your lesbian artists – based on Frances Loring and Florence Wyle as the Globe and Mail's critic claimed?

No, they had their origin in two artists I knew in England who were people of a type which has always interested me. They had a lot of talent but not quite enough to make the grade in a strong way. I've seen people like that here in Canada, and I thought that in their complaints about the country and their feeling about it could be reflected a lot of the change that was taking place which I wished to describe, and which evinced itself among other places in the city churches. They changed from really rather devout nonconformist churches and ritualistic Anglo-Catholic churches to churches now where – well, my daughter Rosamond is conducting some seminars in one United Church and a woman said to her quite seriously, "You know it's very interesting to have somebody come here and talk about God. We never talk about God in church." To an extraordinary extent Christianity has become a kind of social work, and the mystical and contemplative side of it has been rather swept under the carpet for literally hundreds of thousands and probably millions of people.

When did you actually encounter the Toronto of the thirties and forties and fifties that your journalist Esme Barron writes about and your central character Dr. Hullah recalls? You've lived here only since 1963.

I was a schoolboy in Toronto [from 1928 to 1932]. I was very much aware of what was going on in the artistic world then because a lot of the masters at Upper Canada, particularly the music masters, were deeply involved in it. So we heard a lot about it and, in a very modest way, participated in it, because we were let go to rehearsals of the Toronto Symphony and saw the development of theatre at Hart House, and it caught my imagination.

Were you drawn to high Anglicanism at the time?

Yes, I was, because I was very interested in the music. You see, one of the people we looked up to enormously was Healey Willan. He made St. Mary Magdalene a church that was famous far beyond the bounds of Toronto and of Canada as a great place for Gregorian chant and early English service music, some of it sung in Latin. The ritual that went with it was fascinating to someone of my theatrical leaning because it was a show, but it was a show in order to evoke a sense of worship and of otherness and of a mystical approach to religion. You certainly didn't get that in Calvin Presbyterian, the church which I went to under the direction of my school, a very good church, excellent preacher, good services, but dry as a biscuit. St. Mary Magdalene was a plum pudding of a church.

Are you doing anything connected with music at the moment?

I have written the libretto for an opera which is being composed for the Canadian Opera Company by Randolph Peters, a western Canadian. He's a very cultivated, able chap. I've heard some of the music that he's writing and it's witty and charming. The theme of the libretto is The Golden Ass. It is about a man's transformation from a self-delighted fool through the humiliation of being enclosed in the form of an ass into a more realized and intelligent and bigger person.

You refer to Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy again and again in The Cunning Man. Why does it appeal to you?

Sir William Osler, a great humanist as well as a terrific doctor, said that it was the greatest book of psychiatry that had ever been written by a layman, unbeatable for depth of interest and just sheer wondrous curiosity about mankind. And that's true. I was fascinated with it from my schooldays and have taken pleasure in it all my life. Old Burton's idea was one which he doesn't directly attribute to Paracelsus, but it was Paracelsus's idea, that it's no use talking about the liver and the lungs and so forth, they are your liver and my liver, and your lungs and my lungs, and they are never exactly the same in any two people, and that you've got to find out your person and find out his feelings and his spirit and, Paracelsus would have said, his soul, if you're going to be able to do him any good. Apparently Paracelsus was a very remarkable healer but he was, like Osler, a charismatic healer.

Murders and suicides happen frequently in your stories. Murther and Walking Spirits began with a murder and so does The Cunning Man. What draws you to write about the deliberate ending of a life?

Well, you see, for 20 years I was a journalist. I became aware that there was an awful lot of suicide that was never identified as such because it was thought to be disgraceful. And it occurred to me that probably more deaths were murder than was commonly admitted. And that some of the murders were prolonged and dreadful in a marriage. People talk about being nagged to death and I think some people are. And it is a two-way thing. Men can make their wives feel so unworthy and so wretched that the poor creatures just more or less shrivel up. I think that this is murder, too, of a very vicious kind. And I'm always extremely suspicious of hunting accidents, like the one in The Cunning Man where the man who had been used to guns all his life suddenly shot himself while he was cleaning a gun. He needed to do that.

Characters in The Cunning Man refer to the soul, to saints, to the various kinds of prayer, and you yourself are a religious man. Have your beliefs changed as you have grown older?

Yes, they have. I was fed, at an early age, the so-called Shorter Catechism of the Presbyterian church, which is full of admirably phrased and succinct answers to some very, very difficult religious questions. As I have grown older I have expanded that kind of answer and I now feel a sort of recognition of the whole of life as involved and intermingled, not simply "wonderful wonderful" humanity running the whole show and forgetting about the extraordinary worlds of insects and animals and the life of trees, in which I have become intensely interested, and that of plants. I literally never meet anybody who ever talks about God as something other than a kind of big man. I think God is a wondrous spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, but only interested in men as part of a giant creation which is pulsing with life.

People say, when a relative dies: "Oh, how could God have taken her away so young and with so much before her?" God doesn't give a bugger about how young she is. He probably isn't noticing particularly. That's just the way a lot of things happen. A lot gets spilled, you know, in nature. When you look at what's going on out there now, those trees are dropping seeds by literally the hundreds of thousands and millions, and one or two of them may take on. I think that that is the way that God functions. He doesn't care nearly as much about individuals and individual fates as we would like to suppose. But by trying to ally ourselves with the totality of things, we may get into tao, as they say in the East, and be part of it, really take part in it, and not just regard ourselves as a kind of miraculous creation and the rest just sort of stage scenery against which we perform.

What about Evil?

Well, you see, Evil, if you look at long stretches of history, you are astonished at how often extraordinarily evil things have outcomes which cannot be regarded as Evil. They are part of evolution. They are part of the destruction and, in human terms, despair and wretchedness, which seem to be necessary in getting on with the greater job of keeping the universe going. Of course, I do believe that there is a power of Evil and a reality of Evil and that you just have to do your uttermost not to get caught up in it and abandon yourself to it, which people sometimes do. It's hard for me to believe that that fellow Bernardo, for instance, had not, in medieval terms, sold his soul to the Devil.

You have said that none of your trilogies were planned to be such at the beginning. Have you ever speculated about why your novels have always eventually emerged in groups of three?

Well, I don't honestly know. It is just that I become very much interested in a group of characters and in an atmosphere which I wish to pursue and explore further. That is what I am doing at the moment with the third volume to follow The Cunning Man. It is going to be a rather muddled trilogy if people want to consider it a trilogy because, quite frankly, I think that Murther and Walking Spirits isn't a very successful book. I tried to do more than I could manage in it. But some of the things that are in it I've tried to work out in The Cunning Man and I'll try to work out in the third novel.

It's interesting to know what a writer chooses to read. What book has especially caught your attention in the last year or so?

Oh. It's never one book. It's many books. But a book I am re-examining because it lays a lot of the foundation of the novel that I am going to write is Spengler's Decline of the West. And I am reading also Toynbee's History, not the ten volumes, but the compressed job. And that's a very interesting thing to do because both of those great men with their extraordinary knowledge of history and their brilliantly understanding minds end up fretting and fussing and stewing themselves about Russia and neither of them foresaw the breakup of Communism. It is a fascinating and truly Shakespearean warning – that the very wisest don't see at all. Time and chance happen to everybody and they happen to them because it's left their books slightly, not foolish, but wrong, at the end.


"This is a wise, humane and consistently entertaining novel. Robertson Davies's skill and curiosity are as agile as ever, and his store of incidental knowledge is a constant pleasure. Long may he continue to divert us." –The New York Times Book Review

"One of his most entertaining and satisfying books.... Davies composes a kind of fictionalized grand opera, replete with emblematic characters, archetypal plotting, soulful arias and much sparkling repartee." –The Washington Post Book World

"The Cunning Man is a delight, a novel that travels 70 years of history on its own swift feet, a book of love and wisdom, loss and irony." –Boston Sunday Globe

"Urbanity, wit, and high seriousness, mixed by a master chef." –Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Wonderfully funny, poignant and never less than totally engrossing... Davies' clear-sighted humanism, irony and grasp of character are on vivid display."
Publishers Weekly

"Davies' embracing energy and his eye for the telling detail drive this...crafty, wayward and engrossing tale." –San Francisco Chronicle

**** – One comes to the end of The Cunning Man reflecting on the sheer pleasure of reading a novel by a writer who has lived a full life...and one who has read and thought about everything from Jung and male bonding to medicine and art. What delight to be again in the hands of a master storyteller." –Detroit Free Press

"Davies deftly combines metaphysics, magic, and modern medicine to tell a contemporary story with ancient roots...a splendid intellectual romp as well as an absorbingly literate novel. Davies at his best." –Kirkus Reviews


  1. The story of Dr. Hullah's life and times emerges in reaction to a series of interviews with the young journalist Esme Barron. What does she add to the story? What happens to shift Hullah from his initial mistrust of her to "love"?

  2. The Cunning Man turns on Father Ninian Hobbes' death. The event is recounted at length three times, at the beginning by Dr. Hullah, in III:18 in a letter by Miss Todhunter, and in IV:21 by Charlie Iredale, and it is referred to more briefly again and again. Why is the old priest's death given such prominence?

  3. Interspersed through the third section of the novel are letters written by Miss Pansy Freake Todhunter ("Chips") to the English sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Chips and her companion, Emily Raven-Hart, observe The Toronto That Used to Be using the standards they had absorbed in Britain. Consider what the letters add to the story.

  4. Contrast Davies' view of Toronto's cultural life in the thirties, forties, and fifties with the cultural life of a mid-sized U.S. city during that period.

  5. Dr. Hullah has Emily Hart-Raven sculpt a four-foot tall version of the caduceus, the symbol of medicine, for the wall at the entrance to his clinic. This, we are told, is "Hermes' walking-stick with two snakes curling around it." Why does Hullah specify a pair of Massassauga rattlers? Why does Davies link this Greek mythic symbol to Canadian Indian lore?

  6. The first section of the novel describes a discussion at the Curfew Club at Colborne College, where the supporters of religion (Dunstan Ramsay and Charlie Iredale) confront the advocates of science (Evans). Why does Davies include this scene? Where do you think Hullah stands?

  7. At the end of this scene Dunstan Ramsay argues that "The truly historical view was not a tale of man's progress from barbarism or superstition to modern enlightenment, but a recognition that enlightenment had shown itself in the long story of man in a variety of guises, and that barbarism and superstition were undying elements in the human story." How is this observation evinced by the novel?

  8. As readers of Murther and Walking Spirits know, that novel begins with the murder of Esme Barron's husband, Connor Gilmartin. There, the man who killed Gilmartin eventually confesses to Hugh McWearie, just as, in The Cunning Man, Charlie Iredale eventually confesses to Jonathan Hullah. In a scene near the end of The Cunning Man McWearie and Hullah exchange secrets, each confirming what the other suspected. What makes us accept their insights? Why is this scene so satisfying?

  9. In the last section of The Cunning Man, Dr. Hullah, now 65, decides to give his life fresh interest by engaging in a new form of literary criticism. He will "apply modern medical theory to the notable characters of literature" and call the resulting book The Anatomy of Fiction. This project produces a series of "Notes for ANAT." each one a literary excursion inspired by something in the main story. What effect do these literary asides have on you as the reader? Do they distract you from the main story? Are they in some sense part of the story? Does Davies want a slower pace and if he does, why? And does he carry you with him?


If you loved The Cunning Man, you'll want to read these other books by Robertson Davies, also available in paperback from Penguin:

Murther and Walking Spirits

After he is murdered by a colleague, Connor "Gil" Gilmartin must spend his afterlife sitting beside his killer at a film festival, viewing the exploits and failures of his ancestors.

"[Davies has] never been more wicked or wonderful." –The Los Angeles Times Book Review

The Deptford Trilogy:
Fifth Business, The Manticore, World of Wonders

Who killed Boy Staunton? Around this central mystery is woven a glittering, fantastical, cunningly contrived trilogy of novels full of myth, history, and magic.

Also available in single volumes:

Fifth Business 0-14-016794-3
The Manticore 0-14-016793-5
World of Wonders 0-14-016796-X

The Cornish Trilogy:
The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus

Woven around the pursuits of the energetic spirits and erudite scholars of the University of St. John and the Holy Ghost, this dazzling trilogy lures you into a world of mysticism, historical allusion, and gothic fantasy that could only be the invention of the inimitable Robertson Davies.

"A trilogy that stands as a major fictional achievement." –The New York Times Book Review

Also available in single volumes:

The Rebel Angels 0-14-006271-8
What's Bred in the Bone 0-14-009711-2
The Lyre of Orpheus 0-14-011433-5

The Salterton Trilogy:
Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, A Mixture of Frailties

What Anthony Trollope did for 19-century Barsetshire, Robertson Davies has done for 20th-century Canada in his hilarious and wonderfully shrewd Salteron novels.

"Sterling entertainment." –New York Times

Also available in single volumes:

Tempest-Tost 0-14-016792-7
Leaven of Malice 0-14-0167890-7
A Mixture of Frailties 0-14-016791-9

High Spirits

Davies' 18 charming ghost stories "stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets."

For Further Reading

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth
A Biography

Judith Skelton Grant

Drawing on interviews with Davies himself and his family and friends, and unprecedented access to notebooks, family papers, diaries, and correspondence, Judith Skelton Grant creates a lively and compelling biography of one of the 20th century's most beloved novelists. This long-awaited portrait of a Grand Old Man of international letters is "a great artistic adventure...carried off with wit and aplomb." –Ottawa Citizen

Available in bookstores from Viking

Brought to you by
Penguin Young Readers Group.
Penguin Young Readers Group

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