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The Deptford Trilogy

For the fantasy novels by Robin Jarvis, see The Deptford Mice.

The Deptford Trilogy is a novel trilogy by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies.


The trilogy consists of Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975). The series revolves around a simple act—a young boy throws a snowball at another, but it misses its intended target—and the effect this act has on a number of characters.

The Deptford Trilogy has won praise for its narrative voice and its use of character. Fifth Business, in particular, is considered one of Davies' best novels.

The trilogy takes its name from the fictional small village of Deptford, Ontario, based on Davies' native Thamesville. Davies takes a different viewpoint in each of the novels, and approaches each in a different style. The sometimes eerie tone and unconventional literary devices have evoked some to identify the series as a precursor to slipstream fiction.[1]

The main characters of the series have come by twisting paths from their simple village—and each carries a secret that crosses the lives of the others and drives the plot forward. The greatest secret is one that the reader is not even aware of until the close of the last book, but which finally answers questions about the relationships among several major characters.

Fifth Business

Main article: Fifth Business

Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstable (later Dunstan) Ramsay, a male schoolteacher who grows up in Deptford, a fictional town in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. The novel takes the form of a letter Ramsay writes to the headmaster of the school, from which he has just retired. He recalls how as a boy, he ducked the fateful snowball intended for him. The snowball hit a pregnant woman who happened to be passing by; she gave birth prematurely as a result. This incident has affected Ramsay's life, and the novel tells how he comes to terms with his feelings of guilt. Intertwined with his story is the life of Percy Boyd 'Boy' Staunton, Ramsay's boyhood friend who threw the snowball, and who later became a wealthy businessman.

The Manticore

Main article: The Manticore

The Manticore is the story of Boy Staunton's only son, David. David Staunton undergoes Jungian psychoanalysis in Switzerland. During his therapy, he tries to understand his father and his relationship to him. The novel is a detailed record of his therapy and his coming to understand his own life. It sheds new light on many of the characters introduced in Fifth Business, including Dunstan Ramsay, who happens to be in Switzerland recuperating from a heart attack.

The Manticore won the Governor-General's Literary Award in the English language fiction category in 1972.

World of Wonders

Main article: World of Wonders

World of Wonders is the story of Paul Dempster, the child whose premature birth was caused by the snowball, who has grown up to be Magnus Eisengrim, a famous magician. Eisengrim is to portray Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin in a television movie. During lulls in the filming, he recounts his life, including the incredible obstacles he has had to overcome, and elaborates on his career as an actor traveling through Canada in the early 20th century. Dunstan Ramsay is again in attendance, and more insight is gained into the characters of Fifth Business.

Key characters

Dunstan Ramsay

Dunstan Ramsay is the narrator of both Fifth Business and World of Wonders (although in World of Wonders he is not the main character of the plot). He also appears as a major character in The Manticore, and appears as a supporting character in several other novels by Davies. Ramsay is a gentle schoolmaster with surprising depths and is probably the stand-in for Davies himself. (Since Davies has said [2] that the main business of a writer is to be an enchanter, a weaver of spells, a magician, it is likely that Dempster/Eisengrim is in some sense a stand-in for Davies as well.) Ramsay counsels his students to write in "the plain style", as Davies does—to highlight the story rather than the writer. Ramsay also appears in the novels What's Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus of Davies' Cornish Trilogy, and in the later novel The Cunning Man. Although irreligious, Ramsay is fascinated by Christianity, especially the lives of the saints, and writes several well-regarded treatises on saints in his lifetime.

He is at times compared with Saint Dunstan and his struggle with Satan.

Magnus Eisengrim

Magnus Eisengrim is one of the names taken on by Paul Dempster. Like several of the main characters in Davies' novel, Paul undergoes a symbolic rebirth which is accompanied by a name change. It is eventually revealed that this name is derived from that of Isengrin, a wolf in the stories of Reynard the Fox.

On December 28, 1908 Paul was born prematurely soon after his mother is hit in the head by a snowball from Percy Boyd Staunton. This has unusually adverse consequences for the mother, as she is driven insane by the mishap. Paul is then raised by his strict and religious father but runs away from home and is taken by the World of Wonders troupe, where he is abused, but learns the skills of a conjuror. This moment in his life is also significant in that it recognizes his first change in alias, that of Faustus (a name later translated into Faustina, both female assistants to Eisengrim).

After several years, Paul becomes the understudy of a famous, aged English actor. Working as his stunt double, Paul slowly adopts his personality and appearance and almost assumes his persona.

Paul (now known as Magnus Eisengrim) tells this story to his co-workers while they are working on a movie of Robert-Houdin.


  1. ^ Broderick, Damien (2000); [1] Transrealist fiction: writing in the slipstream of science, p.33
  2. ^ as quoted in LaBossiere, Robertson Davies: A Mingling of Contrarieties

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