The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
By Alix Wilber
"Who killed Boy Staunton?"
This is the question that lies at the heart of Robertson Davies's
elegant trilogy comprising Fifth Business, The Manticore,
and World of Wonders. Indeed, Staunton's death is the central event
of each of the three novels, and Rashomon-style, each circles round
to view it from a different perspective. In the first book, Fifth
Business, Davies introduces us to Dunstan Ramsey and his
"lifelong friend and enemy, Percy Boyd Staunton," both aged 10.
It is a winter evening in the small Canadian village of Deptford, and
Ramsey and Boy have quarreled. In a rage, Boy throws a snowball with a
stone in it, misses his friend and hits the Baptist minister's pregnant
wife by mistake. She becomes hysterical and later that night delivers her
child prematurely, a baby with birth defects. Even worse, she loses her
mind. The snowball, the stone, the deformed baby christened Paul
Dempster--this is the secret guilt that will bind Ramsey and Staunton
together through their long lives:
I was perfectly sure, you see, that the birth of Paul Dempster, so
small, so feeble, and troublesome, was my fault. If I had not been so
clever, so sly, so spiteful in hopping in front of the Dempsters just as
Percy Boyd Staunton threw that snowball at me from behind, Mrs. Dempster
would not have been struck. Did I never think that Percy was guilty?
Indeed I did.
Boy, however, "would fight, lie, do anything rather than admit"
he feels guilty, too, and so the subject remains unresolved between them
right up until the night Boy's body is found in his car, in a lake, with a
stone in his mouth. The second novel, The Manticore, follows
Staunton's son, David, through a course of Jungian therapy in Switzerland,
while World of Wonders concentrates on Magnus Eisengrim, a renowned
magician and hypnotist with ties to both Ramsey and Boy Staunton.
When it came to writing, three was Davies's favorite number. Before the
Deptford books, he wrote The
Salterton Trilogy (Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, A
Mixture of Frailties), and after it came The
Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the
Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus). Excellent as these and Davies's
other novels are, The Deptford Trilogy is arguably the masterpiece
for which he'll best be remembered, as the combination of magic,
archetype, and good, old-fashioned human frailty at work in these novels
is a world of wonders unto itself, and guarantees these three books a
permanent place among the great books of our time.