Reading Robertson Davies: The Cunning Man

Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man (1994)

For this year’s Robertson Davies Reading Weekend, I wanted to revisit Davies’s last novel — which, of course, he could not have known to be the last; he had begun to draft a new novel at the time of his death, so it seems he intended to at least complete his final trilogy. But with this reread, I was struck by how as if in valediction it seems to be a sort of compilation of “greatest hits” of RD. It has music and art and theatre; it has Toronto and Salterton and a backwoods Ontario town; it has references to Freud and Paracelsus and obscure Victorian drama; it has Scots and Celts and Anglo-Catholics, saints and artists and scholars and journalists and scientists and priests, and even a cameo appearance by Dunstan Ramsay, a central character from the Deptford trilogy.

It could seem that this would add up to an uncomfortably derivative sort of Davies stew, but he is too good a storyteller for that. The mix gels around its central character, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, who quickly pulls us into his distinctive life story and its defining question: Can a doctor be a humanist?

In another case of literary cross-pollination, that happens to be the title of an excellent lecture by Davies that is included in the nonfiction collection The Merry Heart, and its theme is played out in fictional form here. The lecture was given in 1984, the novel published in 1994 — so it’s clear this was a topic that occupied the author for some time.

The results are likely to puzzle some, anger others, and resonate with some, like me, who believe that the body is more than a very complicated machine, and that there are mysteries which can’t be uncovered with a scalpel or a brain scan. Hullah’s medical education includes his own early healing by a Native American woman who calls on mysterious “helpers” and thus gives him the fascination that becomes his medical calling. He goes on to witness a painful operation on a school friend who becomes ill when forcing himself into an examination he knows he’ll fail.

“It wasn’t his body that was betraying him, and it wasn’t possible for his mind to bully his body into subjection. It was something else, some more profound and radical Charlie that was trying to keep him out of a contest in which he would certainly be hurt.”

Who is this other self that calls up the very thing our conscious minds most rebel against, and manifests it in a physical form that we cannot ignore? In the course of a career that includes service in the coroner’s office and as an army doctor, Hullah comes to believe it is the signature of Fate in human life. “Mankind, it appears to me, seeks gloves with which to clothe the iron hand of Necessity, and these gloves he calls diseases.” An interesting, if somewhat disquieting idea, in these times of disease and fear. What is the necessity we are covering up, and how shall wholeness be restored when we don’t want to look at our full, uncensored selves? In the novel, the question is left open, but it drives the art of a healer such as Hullah.

The book is not all grim medical philosophy, by any means. As mentioned, there is also a strong dash of art and religion; Hullah hones his humanism with an amateur theatre company that does a memorable version of Faust, and he rents his office facilities from the “Ladies,” an artistic couple who have fled an unwelcoming England for the wilds of Toronto, holding a weekly salon that is the talk of the town. (They are the ones who name him the “cunning man,” an old term for a wise man or sort of village shaman). Their house is on the grounds of an Anglican church that provides another dimension to consider, as Hullah’s childhood friend, now a priest there, has whipped up the music and ritual to a very high level, and has become obsessed with saints. Is it all another form of play acting? Or is there something more behind all of that?

Entertaining and erudite, the novel absorbed me in spite of its rather awkward framing device — Hullah’s memories of the Toronto of the past being solicited by a young female reporter who later marries his godson, characters from yet another Davies novel, Murther and Walking Spirits. Into this format are wedged garrulous letters from one of the Ladies to her friend Barbara Hepworth, and Hullah’s musings about the medical questions in works of fiction (what did Little Nell really die of, and so forth). It’s a little unwieldy, and starts to fall apart towards the end, losing energy as does the aging doctor himself.

So it’s not my favorite Davies novel, but I did enjoy it, and find it a worthy end to an impressive career. I’m glad I read it again this year, and I’ll no doubt visit it again in the future. The questions it raises are ones that I’ll be working on for a long time.

Are you reading a Robertson Davies book this weekend? Be sure to let me know which one, and what you thought.


6 thoughts on “Reading Robertson Davies: The Cunning Man

  1. A lovely review, Lory: it whets the appetite without giving too much away, my favourite kind of review! Lovely too to hear that many of his favourite themes make an appearance. By the way, I wonder if the emigrée ‘Ladies’ in this novel were influenced by his knowledge of the Ladies of Llangollen, a pair of Irish lesbians who made their home not too far from the Davies mansion of Fronfraith Hall in Montgomeryshire in the late 18th century and who were visited by the literati of the day. RD must have at least heard of them during his brief time there.


    1. I think it’s quite likely there is a connection there. Davies shamelessly mined the past (and the newspapers) for his books, but always with his own inimitable twist.


  2. I’ve gotten migraines because I was putting myself under too much stress and viruses because I wasn’t sleeping enough, but I think those are choices I made without thinking, rather than Fate.


    1. I don’t think you’re in disagreement with Dr. Hullah’s version of Fate — it is not something separate from ourselves, but exactly those choices we make without thinking. That can cause quite a lot of illnesses. (As I also well know. I get migraines too.)


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