In 1972, renowned Canadian author Robertson Davies published The Manticore
, the second novel in his Deptford Trilogy
series. Centered on the son of a major character from the first series novel, The Manticore
follows the attempts of an outwardly successful but psychologically stymied middle-aged man to come to terms with the death of his larger-than-life father through the convolutions of Jungian analysis. The novel is divided into two parts: the first two-thirds are a diary that the protagonist keeps during his treatment, while the third narrates what happens to the man after a year’s worth of therapy. The critically acclaimed novel won the prestigious Governor-General's Literary Award.
David Staunton is doing well in his career as a defense attorney in Toronto. He doesn’t have much of a personal life, but keeps whatever bad feelings this occasions in him in check by drinking a little too much. But after his father, the eccentric billionaire Boy Staunton, is found dead in his car at the bottom of a harbor with a pink granite in his mouth, David finds himself on the verge of a breakdown. The death is ruled a suicide, but David believes that his father has been murdered.
After he goes to see a magic show and is unable to stop himself from screaming, “Who killed Boy Staunton?” in the middle of one of the acts, David flees from Canada to Zurich, Switzerland where he starts Jungian therapy with Doctor Johanna Von Haller.
As Johanna guides David through analysis, the novel lays out how Jung’s theories of the unconscious mind work in practice. Jung thought that dreams, myth, and folklore were the best way to mine the unconscious mind, which he believed couldn’t be accessed through experimental science. Instead, the unconscious had to be approached indirectly by combing someone’s imagination for meaningful symbols. The goal of Jungian analysis is to come face to face with one’s own unconscious, thus becoming a full individual, a self who is “the archetype of wholeness and the regulating center of the psyche.”
Through his conversations with Johanna, David starts to piece together how the people in his life have affected his sense of self. He realizes, for example, that the reason he has led an almost sexless life is that his overbearing father had a prodigious sexual appetite, going so far as to orchestrate David’s own first sexual experience. At the same time, he confronts his hero worship of his father, which is why he hasn’t been able to accept that his father’s death was a suicide.
David also thinks through his connection to his weak-willed but beautiful mother, Leola, who died when David was a teenager. Leola ended up marrying Boy Staunton in spite of the fact that Dunstan Ramsay was the love of her life (the narrator of Fifth Business
, the first novel of the series). David realizes that the reason that Dunstan was a kind of de-facto father for him when Boy was absent might be because Leola and Dunstan might have been having an affair – and that David might well actually be Dunstan’s son.
The therapy considers other figures from David’s life, dividing these into male and female influences. Female influences have been mostly tinged with negativity: his manipulative sister Caroline, his girl-that-got-away Judy Wolff, his governess Netty. Meanwhile, male figures have primarily been father stand-ins: Dunstan of course, David's high school morals teacher Father Knopwood, and his Oxford law don Pargetter.
Finally, Johanna takes David through the mysticism that tends to accompany Jungian analysis. He creates and re-creates himself as first an anima, then a persona, and finally, he finds his own archetype. In his case, it is the creature that haunts his nightmares – a manticore, which is a medieval monster with the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion.
After a year of psychoanalysis, Johanna tells David that he has completed the first half of what he set out to do. The next phase, should he choose to go on with therapy, will be to fully understand himself as an individual “self.”
As David is pondering whether to continue working with Johanna, he travels around the Swiss Alps. In an odd coincidence, he bumps into Dunstan, who is now retired and has been traveling around with a magic show. With Dunstan is Liesl Naegeli, the heir of a Swiss watchmaker whose acromegaly has made her oddly tall and given her disproportionately large features that David finds initially repellant. However, the force of her charisma and the strength of her personality attract David, who notes that she is deeply unlike most of the other women he has interacted with.
Dunstan and Liesl invite David to join them for Christmas at her family’s resort. When he arrives, he finds that they are in the company of the magician whom Liesl works with – Magnus Eisengrim, the very same magician whose show David had disrupted by yelling about his father. Initially, David finds himself tormented by Eisengrim’s presence and the unyielding conviction that the man was somehow responsible for Boy’s death.
Nevertheless, over the course of Christmas’s symbolic rebirth, David finds himself tolerating and even finding positive qualities in Eisengrim. In the process, he accepts that his father killed himself. The ending implies that David’s ability to be objective about Eisengrim is the completion of the process Johanna described – he is now a “whole” human who can keep his feelings disentangled from other people.