Saturday, August 11, 2012

Worlds of Wonders: On Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy, Children's Fantasy, and Paranormal Novels

Last week, I finished World of Wonders, the third book in Robertson Davies's marvelous Deptford Trilogy. I wrote the following about it on Goodreads:

I picked up a battered mass-market paperback copy of Fifth Business off the street in May, on the simple principle that I had heard good things about it and it was free, and then I stuck it in my bag as lightweight (sizewise) reading for a trip to Arizona in June. These were both excellent spur-of-the-moment decisions -- the very kind of tiny choices that Davies writes about here as influencing our whole lives.

If Boy Staunton hadn't thrown the stone...
If Dunstan Ramsey hadn't ducked...
If Mrs. Dempster hadn't been hit, and given birth prematurely to her son Paul...

Thus do these four people's fates entwine. But while the trilogy does focus on the inner characters that impel our choices -- like Boy's native cruelty and Dunstan's natural passivity -- it also pays great honor to the unknowable in those characters and in the world around them:  the mysteries of our psychology, and of what some of these characters would call fate and others God. Everyone was fully drawn and alive on the page, and Davies's prose crackles like the Swiss mountain air in which much of The Manticore and World of Wonders are set. My favorite remains Fifth Business, which combined the focused narrator of the second book with the wide-ranging story of the third, and at less length than either; but all three were wonderfully mind-opening & refreshing to read.

A friend on Twitter told me Robertson Davies is "the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Canada," and that seems right. 
There was one passage in particular in World of Wonders that stood out to me, and I wanted to write it out here both for the sharp beauty of its prose and the wisdom of its thought:
[Oswald Spengler, an early 20th-century historian] talks a great deal about what he calls the Magian World View, which he says we have lost, but which was part of the Weltanschauung--you know, the world outlook--of the Middle Ages. It was 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. It was a readiness to see demons where nowadays we see neuroses, and to see the hand of a guardian angel in what we are apt to shrug off ungratefully as a stroke of luck. It was religion, but a religion with a thousand gods, none of them all-powerful and most of them ambiguous in their attitude toward man. It was poetry and wonder which might reveal themselves in the dunghill, and it was an understanding of the dunghill that lurks in poetry and wonder. It was a sense of living in what Spengler called a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness.

This was what [Character X in the novel] seemed to have, and what made him ready to spend his time on work that would have maddened a man of modern education and modern sensibility. We have paid a terrible price for our education, such as it is. The Magian World View, in so far as it exists, has taken flight into science, and only the great scientists have it or understand where it leads; the lesser ones are merely clockmakers of a larger growth, just as so many of our humanist scholars are just cud-chewers or system-grinders. We have educated ourselves into a world from which wonder, and the fear and dread and splendour and freedom of wonder have been banished. Of course wonder is costly. You couldn't incorporate it into a modern state, because it is the antithesis of the anxiously worshipped security which is what a modern state is asked to give. Wonder is marvellous but it is also cruel, cruel, cruel. It is undemocratic, discriminatory, and pitiless.
The trilogy was written in the 1970s, and I would venture that now, as a culture, the "civilized" Western world is farther from the Magian World View than we have ever been. . . . The omnipresence of communications, and particularly of those services that encourage us to share our every thought and feeling almost before we've actually had it -- and then reward us for doing so with more attention, more stimulation -- stamp out wonder by leaving very little time to experience it for itself. At the same time, those communications make us aware of how large the world is, and often how scary, how many threats there are to our small and vulnerable selves -- and this too discourages wonder, by activating our fight and flight instincts above our imaginations and ability to stand still.

Of course my mind also turned to how this might apply to children's and YA fiction of the present day, and particularly fantasy, as that has long been the genre that most encouraged the retention of wonder in children. . . . When A. S. Byatt wrote about the Harry Potter books in 2003, before the release of Book 5, she accused the series of lacking this sense of "the numinous" -- a charge that I think Ms. Rowling disproved by the end of the series. (I would agree with Ms. Byatt that the books' strengths lie in their affirmation and celebration of domesticity, which is one of the reasons The Casual Vacancy, with its village politics focus, should be terrific.) As Ms. Byatt notes, Susan Cooper's and Ursula K. LeGuin's novels possess wonder in great quantities; so too do Kate DiCamillo's, and Erin Bow's Plain Kate. In realistic fiction, Sara Zarr's books get at the mysteries that are inside of us as human beings, and the wonders we and grace can work, while the narrators of Martine Murray's The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley and How to Make a Bird both stop to marvel at the world around them, seeing it in a true and wonderful way no one else does. Davies's description of "a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness" could well apply to many children, especially in the pre-twentieth-century world, and much of the best writing for young readers both acknowledges the reality of that darkness and encourages that fragile light.

At the same time, many YA paranormal novels are, to some extent, the anti-wonder:  They take these strange and thrilling creatures like vampires and werewolves, beings that are by definition bloodthirsty, savage, otherworldly, and turn them domestic -- creatures that are tamed, that want to be like us, that are on our side. I'm sure someone has written a paper about how this mirrors the development of young adults themselves, taking the selfish impulses of the child and hormones of the teenager and smoothing them into the outward-looking maturity of the adult. . . . And I cannot and would not say this development is a bad thing. But when the paranormal craze was at its height, with a manuscript with a new variation on these tropes landing on my desk every week, I found myself longing sometimes for paranormal that didn't make domesticity the highest value, that had a little more wildness and wonder in it -- something with the carnality (in all senses) of Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves (and the brilliant, disturbing prose too). Maggie Stiefvater is perhaps the best practitioner of this kind of paranormal:  not stopping to smell the roses, but the blood.

Of course not every book has to have Ms. Byatt's cherished numinousness, fantasy or not; comfort is just as important and valuable in a reading life as this sense of the wild within us or without. But I'm grateful to Mr. Davies for making me think about this subject, and I hope to find more wonder all around.


  1. interesting, interesting - thanks! Margo Lanagan gets that blood more than roses quality, too, at least in *Tender morsels* and *sea brides* (Brides of rollrock island). I think i like this distinction a lot, actually; the paranormal blood/roses difference. it's not a strict binary, but a tendency, and one that helps me think more clearly about these books.

  2. I also read "Fifth Business" because of the number of people I met who raved about it. Not sure it ever reached bestseller status though, despite the word of mouth.
    I like the idea of aiming for wonder and the numinous - in almost any kind of fiction.

  3. Very interesting post, I will be thinking about this all day. Thank you! (Found you via a twitter link, so glad I did, now to go explore your blog!)

  4. Interesting post, Cheryl! I absolutely adore Robertson Davies -- I recommend the Cornish trilogy, as well, especially the middle book, What's Bred in the Bone, which is one of my all-time favorites.