World Of Wonders
by Robertson Davies
The book " World of Wonders" by Robertson Davies is a
character study based on Davies' belief that things of the
spirit are more important than worldly concerns. The book
is about a group of people who listen to their illusionist
friend tell his life story. It is centered around the
development of the character's personalities, histories,
moral characteristics, and flaws, and most of all, the way
they react with one another.
The characters are divided into two sets; the ones that
actually exist in the story, (i.e. the friends of the
illusionist) and those who exist in the history of the main
characters and are described by the illusionist, Magnus
Eisengrim. The characters are further subdivided by their
degree of importance. The main characters are Magnus
Eisengrim, Dunsten Ramsay, and Liselott Vitsliputzli.
This book is seen through the eyes of Dunsten Ramsay who is
born in Canada of Scottish descent. He is a constant
stabilizing force in the somewhat confusing happenings of
Magnus Eisengrim's story. This man is a humble (in contrast
to Magnus) and conservative figure who does not strive for
power and fame like others in this story. He is content
listening to the incredible tale of Magnus' life, without
getting upset or fazed by the opinionated view with which
the story is delivered. Nor does he constantly argue with
whatever is said. Basically, he on the outside, a
relatively simple and happy man, who strives not for
control, but for knowledge in and out of his field of
As one delves deeper into the character of Ramsay, one
begins to understand what really motivates him. Just like
the rest of the characters in the story, he has had his
life-long squabbles and arguments. He is not as totally
free from shame as one is originally led to believe. His
life-long disagreement with the character "Boy Staunton"
regarding events leading up to the premature birth of
Magnus, escalates to the point where it looks as if he
contributed to the suicidal death of Staunton.
Overall, Dunsten Ramsay is a character good enough for the
point of narrator, but really rather boring with regards to
enrichment of the story.
Liselott Vitzliputzli, generally referred to as Liesl, is
another dominant character. Growing up in Switzerland,
with her rich grandfather, she acquired a disease causing
one to become exceedingly large. Her personality began to
reflect her unusual height and through a series of events,
she became uncontrollable and totally barbaric. It was
only Magnus, who was able to reform her while working for
her grandfather. The character of Liesl exemplifies the
outgoing, opinionated, yet gentle and understanding female.
She can at times be extremely stubborn, especially when
dealing with finances (being very rich).
Liesl is the "mistress" of both Dunsten Ramsay, and Magnus.
The three share a large mansion in which Liesl is clearly
dominant. Liesl was the administrative side of the Soiree
of Illusions, the fantastic show in which Magnus starred.
Liesl tends to be extremely frank, especially with those
she knows very well (i.e. Ramsay and Eisengrim) but can act
this way to strangers, or new friends as well (i.e. the way
she acts toward Roland Ingestree).
Overall, Liesl is Magnus Eisengrim's female counterpart.
She holds the necessary part of the skeptic and sits at the
side, jumping in whenever she feels it important, not
Magnus Eisengrim is the leading character in this book. He
is by far the most dominant of the characters due to a
course of life-shaping events; some good, some terrible. He
was born in Debtford, Ontario to a religious family, eighty
days prematurely (due to strange circumstances regarding
Boy Staunton). Early in his life, he was kidnapped by a
second rate carnival conjurer and forced into sexual,
physical, and mental submission. For years inside the great
idol Abdullah, working as the mechanism for the con, he
practiced sleight of hand and the repair of watches. For
eight years he toiled in this way until his captor died as
a result of his morphine addiction. Through a set of
strange circumstances, Magnus ended up in the theater
troupe of Sir John Tresize, whom he immediately adopted as
an idol. His part was to play that of a stunt double as he
looked much the same. He learned to move, speak and act
like Sir John. In a sense he became Sir John Tresize, an
actor of great note. During this time, he began to rebuild
his battered self-esteem and self image and once again
became proud of himself. After Sir John's death, Magnus
became a restorer of old clocks for a museum. Eventually,
he ended up working for the grandfather of Liesl, repairing
the collection of antique toys which she had smashed in a
fit of anger and frustration. Through hours of work, Magnus
not only fixed the toys, but also humanized Liesl.
Following this, he and Liesl formed the Soiree of Illusions
and formed it into a successful show. Years later (the time
the book is set) Magnus portrays the role of Robert Houdin
in Jurgen Lind's Un Hommage a Robert Houdin. This
eventually results in him finally revealing his life story,
in an attempt to create a subtext to the film.
Magnus is an extremely stubborn, strong-willed man. He
enjoys humiliating others and then mauling them wolfishly
and crushing them into submission. The character of
Eisengrim is not that of a nice kindly old conjurer but
that of a very refined and proud actor. Through a series of
these metaphorical eating of people (meaning totally
devouring their character, and taking all the traits to be
one's own), Magnus' character is multi-faceted. He is Sir
John Tresize; acting as a noble British actor; he is Mungo
Fetch, the name given to him while he was in servitude to
Willard the second-rate conjurer; he is Paul Dempster, a
religious boy from a small country town in Canada. All this
leads to making Magnus Eisengrim a very complicated but
extremely convincing dominant character.
The three just mentioned are the major characters in the
book. The story is centered around their reactions to the
occurrences in the story. These three characters are
further developed by their relationships to the supporting
characters in the story.
Roland Ingestree is the man who is the backer of "Un
Hommage a Robert Houdin." He is a brilliant financier and a
very disagreeable, stubborn man. Throughout the story, he
and Magnus have a raging argument regarding Magnus'
relationship to Sir John Tresize. Ingestree is able to see
what really occurred between Magnus and Sir John and Magnus
do not like it. They further disagree regarding certain
events in which Ingestree was inovlved during Magnus' time
with the theater group.
Magnus' powerful side is most clearly evident in his
dealings with Ingestree and they constantly fight. This
character brings out the most hostile reactions from Magnus
as Ingestree is himself a wolf (not quite to the degree of
Magnus or Boy Staunton). Whenever these men clash, it is up
to Liesl or Jurgen Lind to put a stop to the quarrel.
Jurgen Lind is the pacifist (along with Ramsay) in this
group of characters. He seeks only to increase his
knowledge and understanding of the star of his film and the
motivating forces behind his performance as Robert Houdin.
Jurgen Lind is a great man of patience and is a man slow to
anger, yet quick to act upon his anger. Once he has been
set off, the offending party can expect to be shut up
totally or face the wrath of an even more fired up Finnish
film director. Lind often steps in when Ingestree and
Magnus argue and manages to convince the two to stop their
squabbling and allow Magnus to continue his revelations.
Kingohvn (no first name given) has little mention in the
book. He is the absent-minded obsessive in this story. He
knows and cares only about lighting and related topics and
how to create effects on the screen. He worked closely with
Lind and Eisengrim on "Un Hommage a Robert Houdin."
Kinghovn often blurts into the conversation with some
semi-relevant remark, usually having to do with lighting.
This can often lead to the cooling of the tempers of the
characters involved in the latest dispute by giving them
time to consider what they are saying.
The final set of characters to be mentioned are those from
the tale of Magnus Eisengrim's life. I only feel it
necessary to describe the people mentioned in the subtext
of the film.
Sir John Tresize was one of the foremost actors of his day.
He dazzled audiences with his incredible ability to portray
the chivalric hero. However as his style began to fade to
newer more popular types of acting, Sir John maintained his
stance and held it until he retired. Sir John was one of
the most influential people in the life of Magnus Eisengrim
and the first Magnus "devoured". As Magnus learned to be
Sir John on the stage, Magnus also became Sir John in
reality. Eventually, after a hard misunderstanding
regarding a tribute to Sir John's teacher, he died
(Ingestree speculates that this was due to Magnus eating
him, and I tend to agree).
Sir John was the epitome of the strong, well-mannered
knight of old. He maintained his stature in real life as
well as on the stage far past the time when an ordinary man
would have failed. His uncanny ability to assess a
situation and realize what was going on and what he should
do, allowed him to convey his message to the audience like
The character of Boy Staunton is not mentioned (except
briefly at the beginning) until very far through the book.
He is actually not mentioned to Lind, Ingestree, and
Kinghovn in the subscript, yet his suicidal death is
debated by Liesl, Ramsay, and Magnus.
When Boy Staunton was a child, he threw a snowball with a
rock in it at Dunsten Ramsay and missed. The rock/snowball
ended up hitting Mrs. Dempster (Magnus' mother) causing her
to become mentally ill and to have Magnus prematurely.
Ramsay has never forgiven Boy Staunton for this act and to
the end of the book carries his disdain for him. A
life-long conflict between the two is finally epitomized at
the revelation that Ramsay didn't unduly influence the
suicidal death of Boy Staunton.
The character of Staunton is that of another wolf. He
himself devoured those in the way to his expected path.
This caused his relationship with Magnus to be extremely
tense as they were both trying to crush each other into
submission. They constantly grapple in an attempt to
determine who shall prevail. In the end it is Magnus who
outlives Staunton and Magnus successfully wins their dual.
Overall, I have found the characters in this book
unbelievably convincing. The relationships which Davies
creates are only to be created by a master such as Davies.
The intertwining goals and fears of the characters create
an incredibly intense and convincing novel. Eisengrim,
Liesl, and Ramsay, and all those supporting them, are could
" walk" right off the page into reality.
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