The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies


It was a mention of him by Tony that prompted me to read Robertson Davies, but I began with The Rebel Angels because it is the first in the Cornish Trilogy and What's Bred in the Bone is next and I did read that a million years ago and have no memory of it other than a vaguely positive feeling. So now I'll read the trilogy and set down my thoughts about it.

Though I was conscious that the author is Canadian, when I began The Rebel Angels, I kept thinking it was set in Oxford or Cambridge, such a Anglophile he is. The characters live the university intellectual life recounted by two alternating narrators. One is a brilliant and beautiful student of 23, Maria Magdalena Theotoky, who is enamored with Clement Hollier, a faculty member she works with and the other is a clergy/faculty member named Simon Darcourt. Parlabane, a mooching and dissolute former scholar/former monk and Urquhart McVarish, a despised and dispicable faculty member make up the other main characters. 

Though he knows Maria loves his friend Hollier, Darcourt, the old confirmed bachelor is crazy for Maria. He finally manages to tell her, and she says though she loves him and would be willing to have an affair, she would not marry him. "And you, Simon dear, would come into bed as my Rebel Angel, but very soon you would be a stoutish Anglican parson, and a Rebel Angel no more." So, you ask, what is a rebel angel, and why is that the name of this book? 

Maria explains to Simon that the apocryphal Book of Enoch describes angels who betrayed the secrets of heaven to men and were thrown out. "…they came to earth and taught tongues, and healing and laws and hygiene — taught everything — and they were often special successes with 'the daughters of men'. It's a marvellous piece of apocrypha, and I would have expected you to know it, because surely it is the explanation of the origin of universities." And later she continues, "…the Rebel Angels showed Him that hiding all knowledge and wisdom and keeping it for Himself was dog-in-the-manger behaviour….So don't, Simon dear, don't rob me of my Rebel Angel by wanting to be an ordinary human lover…" If you want to read a bit about the two angels mentioned, Samahazai and Azazel, you can read the paragraph titled "Lust" on this website about the Fallen Angels.

There are many diverse strands to the tale, including the story of Maria's gypsy mother who has knowledge of old ways that Hollier wants, the importance of roots (your antecedents) in creating your crown (what you become), and the story of Parlabane's miserable life and stunning end. The story-telling is riveting and the language, well, I think my vocabulary is inadequate to express it.

Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels, Viking Penguin, 1981, 326 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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