By Robertson Davies
New York: Penguin Books, 1988
472 pages
ISBN # 0-14-011433-5

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2004

Since I have several reviews of Davies' work I have set up a page to collect my comments and other links to Davies' work

For those who, like me, have read the first two volumes of this trilogy, The Rebel Angels and What’s Bred in the Bone, we are greeted with four quite familiar characters: Marie Theotoky, Arthur Cornish, Clement Hollier and Simon Darcourt, and, as ever, the missing but much discussed Francis Cornish. We are also treated to the return, even if in lesser roles, of Maria’s gypsy mother, Mamusia and her uncle Yerko.

Please note: one does not need to read the trilogy in the order originally presented:

Nonetheless, to have done so and now come to this third volume, one is reassured to run into “the old gang” in the first chapter.

A rich new character (if not always likable), Hulda Schrankenburg, (called Shrank) is introduced early on, and this reader was immediately intrigued with her and much pleased with author Robertson Davies.

The novel centers around a grant proposal which Shrank sent to the Cornish Foundation. As a major project for her PHD in music composition, she plans to finish an opera by ETH Hoffmann. This is the same Hoffmann who wrote the famous Tales of Hofmann which Jacques Offenbach turned into his own famous opera.

The Cornish Foundation board – the old gang mentioned above – plus a couple newcomers, gets carried away, not only granting Shrank’s proposal, but planning to stage the opera in full.

There are two minor plots concerning a manuscript of John Parlebane, who killed himself in “Bone” and a return to the Francis Cornish painting of The Marriage at Cana.

I won’t detail any of the plots; they are too complicated and deserve to be read, not revealed in brief. However, it does seem worth noting that two themes which pervade and drive the novel are the subtitle of Hofmann’s opera – “the magnanimous cuckold” and the theme that “the lyre of Orpheus opens the door to the underworld of feeling.”

Within the treatment of both these themes are clever parallels between the version of King Arthur’s story which Simon Darcourt uses for the libretto he creates for the Shrank/Hofmann opera and the contemporary cast of characters.

Robertson Davies is at his best. He writes with a mixture of psychological insight, a strong touch of the occult and proto-rational, and tells great stories with excitement, suspense involving captivating twists and turns. He juggles several minor themes beneath the main plot with incredible skill and believability. A masterful storyteller.

I never seem to tire of Davis, and can’t wait to tackle his even more famous “Deptford Trilogy.”

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett