Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Cunning Man

The Cunning Man 

by Robertson Davies

Cunning men, wizards and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind. . . .
   The body's mischiefs, as Plato proves, proceed from the soul: and if the mind be not first satisfied, the body can never be cured.
    Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

Robertson Davies is more than just a good storyteller. He is a literate storyteller who fills his novels with references to literature, music, art and science and does so in an engaging way while creating characters that are so interesting that it is difficult to put the book down. At least that has been my experience and my only regret is that I have read so few of his novels.
The Cunning Man is a clever story, part mystery, part bildungsroman, part family saga and a bit of a romance, that keeps you reading to find out how the life of Jonathan Hullah, the cunning and wise doctor at the center of the book, will turn out and how those of the characters whose drama fills his life will also conclude. The doctor is a cunning man in the sense used by Robert Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, a seventeenth century compendium of information about the subject of melancholy. Thus the cunning man is a sort of wizard who is as much a doctor of the soul as he is a doctor of the body. From Dr. Hullah's early days learning from a wise Indian woman called Mrs. Smoke through his years in medical school and as medic in the army he develops both expertise in traditional medicine and sometimes mysterious abilities to look into his patients' souls. The result makes for a unique career. Throughout the story the reader is treated to the differences between high and low church Anglicanism, how one deals with a journalist in the family and, most of all, how the cunning man spins his web of masterful medicine through it all.

The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies. Viking Press, New York. 1995

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