Lori's Book Nook

The Manticore & World of Wonders

I’m going to put these two on the same page, as we’ll probably find that we can discuss them together. Here are some questions from the Penguin Reading Guide for the trilogy:


  1. David Staunton’s therapist tells him: “I am going to try to help you in the process of becoming yourself” (p. 57). In what ways is David not himself when he begins therapy? What must he do to become a more integrated, authentic person? To what extent is this therapeutic process successful for David? How has he changed by the end of the novel?
  2. David has a dream in which he appears as a manticore, and Dr. von Haller tells him that “the Unconscious chooses its symbolism with breath-taking artistic virtuosity” (p. 150). What does the manticore symbolize for David? Why is he able to dream of it even though he’d never heard of the creature before?
  3. Discussing his “autobiography,” which Ramsay has written, Magnus tells David that “because I satisfy a hunger that almost everybody has for marvels, the book is a far truer account of me than ordinary biographies,” even though he admits it is largely invented. He claims it is truer to the “essence” of his life than a more factual account would be. Why would an invented story be truer to one’s essence than a more strictly accurate story? Is it true that we “hunger for marvels”? Why is Magnus able to satisfy those hungers? Has David given a “true” account of his life?
  4. At the end of the novel, Liesl takes David into a cave, and getting back out proves to be a terrifying experience. Later that night, David feels “reborn” (p. 259). What is the significance of this episode? What is it about the cave that is deeply relevant to David’s relationship to his father and to the bear that he dreamed of early in his therapy? Why is this an apt way to end the book?


  1. Magnus is raised by a religious zealot father and a mother made feeble-minded by his own birth. He is abducted by a traveling magic show, raped and exploited for seven years. How is he able to overcome these dramatic early misfortunes? What providential helpers does he meet along the way? What character traits enable him to triumph as he does?
  2. Near the end of the novel, Magnus says: “Everything has its astonishing, wondrous aspect, if you bring a mind to it that’s really your own—a mind that hasn’t been smeared and blurred with half-understood muck from schools, or the daily papers, or any other ragbag of reach-me-down notions” (p. 321). Why would going to school or reading newspapers ruin one’s ability to see the wonder of the world?
  3. The mystery of Boy Staunton’s death goes unsolved, though Ramsay, Magnus, and David Staunton all have their theories about who was responsible. Which of them seems closest to the truth? How would you explain the cause and circumstances of his death? Why does he place the stone on his tongue?
  4. What kind of friendship do Magnus, Liesl, and Ramsay share? What do they offer each other? What makes Liesl such a compelling and unusual character?

18 Responses to "The Manticore & World of Wonders"

These books really reflect Davies’ fascination with Jungian psychology.

I’d like to address the question about the significance of David’s experience in the cave — what do you think about it?

I’m just finishing World of Wonders now and will be back soon with a few comments. New laptop has been taking up most of my free time lately.

Was David’s ‘rebirth’ tunnel in the cave meant to so obviously represent the ‘birth canal’? I hope not.

I think the tunnel & cave are more than that — what he experiences is a truly primal fear, something he, as an intellectual lawyer, has never felt, or allowed himself to succumb to. Throughout his analysis, he is always thinking. He’s thinking about his life, his dreams, his emotions…Why did Liesl take him to the cave in the first place? She wanted him to feel something, to experience something the way an early human would have.

At least that’s my take. The whole birth canal idea is there, yes, but that would be the symbolism in any cave/womb, tunnel/birth canal. That’s the beginning, but if it were so simple, Davies would be easier to read.

I love it when, after the cave incident, Leisl says to David…

“I think you have learned something, and if that is so, I’ll do more than be your friend. I’ll love you, Davey. I’ll take you into my heart, and you shall take me into yours. I don’t mean bed-love, though that might happen, if it seemed the right thing. I mean the love that gives all and takes all and knows no bargains”

What an amazingly generous and demanding offer!

True, unconditional love. It’s more than sex, it’s more than loyalty, it’s more than tolerance of one’s foibles…Leisl’s definition is as good as any!

Totally conditional love, I would say. An extremely demanding and challenging sort of love “that gives all and takes all and knows no bargains”.

Not the sort of love most people are cut out for.

And I would say that this is the type of love and friendship that Ramsay, Leisl and Magnus share.

I guess I didn’t think the word unconditional out to thoroughly. In terms of what it means as a type of love — where if you love someone unconditionally, you accept all aspects of them, good or bad. Davies is, I believe, ramping up that definition to something altogether…thicker.

And yes, Ramsay, Leisl & Magnus share it. I agree on that point.

Okay, so what did happen to Boy Staunton?

Did he kill himself? Why? Did Magnus kill him? Why? How?

What do you think? [and anyone can answer…I’ve got at least 2 or 3 people a day searching for ‘Fifth Business’ or ‘Boy Staunton’…]

Yes, the more the merrier.

I think Staunton decided to kill himself when Magnus said the word ‘abdicate’ and it reminded him of his old hero, the Prince of Wales. Also, Staunton didn’t want to grow ‘old’, indeed had no idea how to. Rather pathetic character all round.

Keep in mind that our perception of Staunton is all through the eyes of Ramsay — the man who really ‘doth protest too much’ about not being jealous of him, or of his son — the one in therapy to deal with his self-perception raised in the shadow of Boy.

Magnus is telling the story, we’re getting it through the filter of Ramsay’s perception (I mean, he’s been our filter for two whole books)…Why does anyone commit suicide? Staunton’s reasons are probably as complex as anyone else’s — and a successful suicide never really leaves their full reasoning. Why did he put the stone in his mouth? Was death really the simpler option for him?

I never liked the character, but then, we’re not supposed to like him.

No, Staunton is set up as a fool from the very first page of Fifth Business.

But you are quite right that we are only seeing Staunton through the eyes of Ramsay. Do you think that his obsession about people someday proving a point with “Ramsay says” refers to the solution of Boy Staunton’s untimely death and not, as he would have it, to the life of Magnus Eisengrim?

Something I wanted to comment on about World of Wonders that I hadn’t noticed previously – Leisl is a totally silent character until the very end. And it also isn’t until then that any mention of her physical deformity is mentioned. I wonder how this would strike people who read it without having read the first two books in the trilogy.

Oh, Az! I hadn’t noticed that! Liesl is a completely present character throughout that book — I am totally conscious of her in the room, listening…I had never realized that she didn’t speak!


Give me a moment to digest that.

But why did Boy Staunton commit suicide?
And how does the word ‘abdicate’ lead him to perform this act?

Monica, thanks for stopping by, and asking a question. Problem is, you’ve asked the one question that is never answered to anyone’s satisfaction! :p

Davies does not make it easy for us — because it is never easy to know why someone kills him/herself. We can guess, blame ourselves, blame others, think we know…but we never do. With Boy, we think it’s because he was afraid of growing old (he’d always been “Boy”), because he was suddenly feeling the guilt of the stone in the snowball, because he had never really loved his first wife, nor his second…Really, who knows?!?

If you’ve ever read the Cornish trilogy, you’ll see how masterful Davies is at keeping each person’s life separate — the second book, What’s Bred in the Bone, is all about one character, and his very interesting life, all from his point of view. In the first book, The Rebel Angels, we see his death of old age from the point of view of his friends, as they sort through his enormous amount of cryptic belongings (and there’s a lot more happening as well, of course). In this book, Cornish is just this art collector, the central thread of his rather mundane death is what brings the other characters together, interacting in what is the meat of the book. The second book is a wonderful surprise.

In the third, one of the characters is trying to piece together Cornish’s life story for a biography…and there we sit, the readers, thinking “Oh, you’re getting it wrong! There’s so much more to it!”

Davie’s didn’t write Boy Staunton’s story from Staunton’s p.o.v., so we can have nothing but speculation about why he killed himself.

“And how does the word ‘abdicate’ lead him to perform this act?”

Because Boy Staunton’s lifelong hero was the Prince of Wales who later abdicated to be with his one true love, a commoner divorcée called Wallace Simpson.

When it became clear to Boy that he was backed into a corner – his very strong-willed second wife had made all the arrangements for Boy to become the next Governor General (Queen’s representative) – he couldn’t think of any way to get out of it other than suicide, which no doubt seemed a cowardly and shameful way out to him. But if he thought of it as ‘abdicating…’

Thanks, azahar. My answer assumed that Monica had made the more obvious connection, and was asking, like I do, “But WHY?”


Is there a ‘why?’ after the (*ahem*) obvious connection? He had no inner strength of character to grow old gracefully – he was looking for a way out. He was given the sort of reason a shallow and vain man would latch on to as a last resort.

🙂 Sure, ‘obvious’ in the sense that it’s the explanation our narrator (narrators?) gives us, over the course of the books (having read them again in quick succession, I’m finding that they’re blending a little in my recollection!). I still think Davies left us with enough doubt to be realistic — that the sometimes pat answers biographers come up with to explain their subjects’ actions are often too easy.

Why did Boy kill himself? Only he truly knows why…and he’s fictional.

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Book Discussion Pages

Here on the Book Nook you can discuss: The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, as well as the next two books in the Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders, and if that's not enough for you, see what's up on the forums at BookTalk.org!
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