The Cunning Man

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The American edition of Robertson Davies’ The Cunning Man marked the novelist’s final publication before his death in December of 1995. A full, rich novel, The Cunning Man deals with two of Davies’ favorite subjects—medicine and religion. These two subjects combine at the beginning of the book in the sudden and shocking death of a priest who collapses as he is celebrating Communion. The protagonist, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, investigates the causes behind the death of Father Ninian Hobbes, who died in front of the high altar at St. Aidan’s Church while celebrating Communion on the morning of Good Friday. At the outset, Dr. Hullah has no idea what his investigation will uncover—a common situation in many of Davies’ novels. Was Father Hobbes’s death caused by stress or old age or poisoning or did he die in a state of religious ecstasy? Throughout the novel, Davies reveals his own ironic humor, or, as he calls it, “Drye Mocke.”

The Cunning Man treats many of Davies’ familiar themes. The novel’s underlying theme involves Davies’ belief that religion and science, poetry and medicine, theater and psychoanalysis connect at a kind of meeting place where none of these disciplines is quite sufficient without the others. Dr. Jonathan Hullah, called by his friends “the cunning man,” realizes that this belief provides the foundation of his medical practice and is responsible for his success in diagnosing and treating disease. With Hullah, Davies has created a wise man, a village know-it-all.

Hullah is an expert diagnostician, a quality he shares with his author. Like a physician, Davies can look at a character and known what ails him and why. He is interested in why some people survive with a minimum of diseases and others are patients and sufferers throughout their lives. With the creation of Samuel Marchbanks, his first alter ego, Davies was somewhat unorthodox. Freed from conventional restraints, Marchbanks could be cantankerous, outspoken, ribald, sagacious, or silly, tailoring his moods and purposes to the situation and occasion. Davies himself has Marchbanks coyly comment that, as an editor, Davies was somewhat unorthodox. Through Marchbanks, Davies was allowed to entertain, goad, and challenge his readers. Using well-developed personae—from Marchbanks through Humphrey Cobbler, Dunstan Ramsay, Simon Darcourt, and The Cunning Man’s Dr. Jonathan Hullah—Davies created characters whose attitudes and opinions sprang from cosmopolitan and individualistic premises. The use of these personae freed Davies to write critically or whimsically about human folly in general and the limitations of the Canadian state of mind in particular.

Jonathan Hullah was reared in Sioux Lookout, a small township nearly two thousand miles northwest of Toronto. His father managed a mine and his mother led the life of a good Christian, serving her fellow man. As a boy, Hullah almost died of scarlet fever. His life was saved by Mrs. Smoke, an Indian medicine woman. After pitching her tent on the lawn of the Hullah home, Mrs. Smoke performed some unusual native ceremonies in which the tent shook and some animal cries were heard. After a night of these ceremonies, young Jonathan recovered. His experience left him with a lifelong interest in alternative medicine, particularly the powers of witches and cunning men.

Hullah leaves his home to attend Colborne College in Toronto. There, he finds friendship with Brochwel Gilmartin, son of a prosperous newspaper publisher, and Charlie Iredale, a professor’s son who chooses to become an Anglican priest. After Hullah graduates from college and begins his career in medicine, he maintains his ties to these college friends. During World War II, Hullah serves overseas in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Upon his return to civilian life in Toronto, he builds a successful medical practice and finds his niche among the unconventional parishioners who attend St. Aidan’s Church, a “high” Anglican congregation. The shocking death of St. Aidan’s priest, Father Ninian Hobbes, demands Hullah’s attention. In the course of his investigation, Hullah comes in contact with Esme Barron, a young and...

(The entire section is 1721 words.)