Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels is an engaging and energetic novel with a vigorous sense of humor. The novel reads quickly and never feels weighed down by ideas or seriousness. This is deceptive.
Davies gives us a novel populated by Medieval and Renaissance scholars. Their intellectual landscape is thus not unnaturally populated by Paracelsus and Rabelais, two constant figures in the dialectic of the novel. Of the two, Rabelais seems the most significant. He is a figure frequently claimed by both sides of the numerous arguments in the novel. He provides a lens through which we see into the characters a bit more deeply than they might hope. Parlabane and McVarish make him a model of vulgarity and misogyny, or perhaps more accurately, misanthropy. To Hollier, he represents an object for his own academic ambition. For Maria and Darcourt—and Davies—he is a model of the best sort of scholar, as we hear from Maria:
Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning’s best justification. Not the only one, but the best.
It may be wrong to include Darcourt here—as a priest scholar, his greater reference is St. Augustine:
Conloqui et conridere et vicissim benevole obsequi, simul leger libros dulciloquos, simul nugari et simul honestari.
In Maria’s translation:
Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions.
This erudite amusement is a hallmark of everything I have yet read by Davies, and it is tempting to think that the best part of what Davies gives us in this novel is Davies, himself. Davies is more wise than a mere intellectual, and more alive than a modernist. He brings with him the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and with these life fuller than which we are accustomed today.
What we get from Davies is not a hair shirted historicism, but a sense of wholeness for a consciousness which is fermented in the broadness of human experience. Maria says of Hollier that he studies the Middle Ages because they are truly middle—a vantage from which he can look backward to antiquity, and forward to our post-Renaissance present. This dynamic of looking backward and forward, contrasting each with the other, is at the very heart of The Rebel Angels, a book which makes attractive Paracelsus’ “second paradise.”
The striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world.