Robertson Davies: Magician of Words.


232 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-1-55002-872-0
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


The Quest Library series of books provides biographical accounts of distinguished Canadians designed to appeal to young adults while offering reliable information at a serious level. Robertson Davies represents an unusual challenge for such a format. To put the matter bluntly, the author has to explain complex novel-trilogies to students with limited attention spans, place in context a writer whose life covered almost the whole of the twentieth century for readers lamentably ignorant of even recent history, and to arouse curiosity about an author who wrote with elegance and wit in a contemporary generation that shows little ability to recognize either.


Nicholas Maes attempts to achieve these ends in several ways. He devotes 36 pages (over 16 percent of the whole) to a history of major historical events, even though they bear little immediate relation to Davies’s subject matter. He invents conversations between Davies and others which, though based on factual evidence, invariably fail to ring true so far as tone is concerned. In addition, each chapter is introduced with an imitation of the framework of What’s Bred in the Bone in which the Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas discuss the effects on his life of Davies’s guardian angel instead of Francis Cornish’s. Unfortunately this is not explained at the outset and will puzzle those unfamiliar with the novel. Moreover, another frame story extends one of Davies’s recorded nightmares even to his last moments, which no one can possibly know.


Above all, “Magician of Words” is a promising subtitle, but draws attention to what is only occasionally illustrated in one-line epigraphs from the books. Davies’s verbal characteristics are never discussed in any detail.


All this is a great pity because the book has been well researched, and (though the bibliography omits the two volumes of letters) is generally accurate. I get an uneasy feeling, however, that the genuinely inquiring young readers who encounter it will sense some kind of unwelcome condescension in the approach, and the rest won’t be interested anyway. Davies appeals to a very particular taste, which may well be inherent rather than implantable.


Maes, Nicholas., “Robertson Davies: Magician of Words.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 13, 2024,