Canon John Tallis

(creator: Madeleine L'Engle)

Madeleine L'Engle
Canon John Tallis, usually called Tom (after the 16th century composer), is, in the first three books described below, a middle-aged Anglican priest, with portly body but "piercing grey eyes", who was previously attached to the diocese of Giibraltar, and is now "with St Paul's in London", but he could not be called over- pious. Indeed he seems to carry out few religious duties beyond conducting the odd burial service. He comments that, "It isn't the people who think they're atheists that worry me. It's those who think they're religious".

He is "completely bald, even to having no eyebrows, and had the look, somehow, of an extremely intelligent teddy bear". It turns out that his odd appearance results from his time in Korea when, as an army chaplain, he "not only withstood torture himself, but he helped the men with him to stand up against it .... They used electric shock on him and it was so strong that it killed all his hair follicles, and it almost killed him, but he didn't betray his men." However, he is still a good shot with a gun and can fly a plane.

He gets on well with teenagers who soon recognise him as trustworthy and "very avuncular". He speaks fluent, if classical, Spanish, and has multinational connections, with a Phi Beta Kappa key, suggesting he had once gone to an American university, as well as a French Legion d'Honneur ribbon. We are also told he had had a wild time in Paris in his student days. "He's a perceptive old boy" who can also be "brusque, stern, businesslike, formidable". It turns out that he has worked for Interpol and has become an international trouble-shooter and sleuth.

When he overhears a bishop describing him as "the coldest human being I've ever run across .... He's so busy being a sleuth he's forgotten he's a priest", he thinks, "No. That is something I never forget. But would the words have hurt so, had there not been a grain of truth in them?"

He plays a minor but important character in three novels written for teenagers, making his first appearance in The Arm of the Starfish (1965), in which 16-year-old Adam goes off to a Portuguese island to spend the summer working as a lab assistant for a renowned scientist whose work (involving the regeneration of starfish and then, perhaps, of people) is highly secret. He is soon befriended by the scientist's six children including Poly aged about 12, whose godfather turns out to be the enigmatic Canon Tallis, who seems to whistles the 16th century Tallis Canon as a sort of code. It is no wonder that Adam (and the reader) soon get totally puzzled. Dramatic events seem to happen on almost every page and there are plenty of sinister goings-on to keep teenagers interested. But whether anyone could believe a word of it is another question. Just look at the characters' names: Polyhymnia, Typhon Cutter, with his beautiful but sinister young daughter Kali, and Dr Eliphaz Baal (although disappointingly that turns out to be a misprint for Ball). But it makes an intriguing story.

The Young Unicorns (1968) is, we are told, aimed at readers of eleven and over. It is set in New York and features Dr Austin, who is working on a unique form of laser micro-ray, and his young family, together with their two friends, Emily who had been mysteriously blinded in an accident, and Dave who had once been a member of a vicious gang but whose aim in life was now (rather surprisingly) to protect and help Emily. There is a suspicion that Emily's accident may have had something to do with the unique form of laser micro-ray on which Dr Austin was working. Nothing can be proved, but evil plotting (even involving a mysterious genie) develops in the sacred precincts of the ancient and beautiful cathedral where Canon Tallis just happens to be visiting his old friend, the Dean. Just as well, when the Bishop himself starts behaving so oddly. The only people who don't seem in to get involved are the local police. But who needs them when Canon Tallis is around?

Dragons in the Waters (1976) has the most interesting plot of the three. 13-year-old Simon is being taken by sea by his newly found cousin, Forsyth Phair, to Venezuela to return a family heirloom, a portrait of Simon Bolivar, to its rightful place. But then cousin Forsyth (whom Simon had always distrusted) is found murdered on the boat and the portrait is stolen. There are even attempts on Simon's life too, but he has made friends on board: Poly and her younger brother Charles (whom we also met in the first book and who has convenient dreams that break through barriers of space and time). They and their scientist father go on to help Simon confront the terrible dangers that threaten him.

This seems to be written for older teenagers than the previous books as the characters are not quite so entirely oblivious to sex. Poly, now 14, even has her first kiss (though not from Simon!) and she declares that she is “gorgeously happy".

Although there is no other use of dialect, Simon has the disconcerting habit of keeping on saying yawl instead of you all. This is an unnecessary distraction. However, there are realistic-sounding portrayals of life among the so-called primitive Quiztano natives whom Simon comes to respect, leading up to a remarkably unlikely ending in which he decides to stay with them for the rest of his life!

The characters on board ship come to life as interesting individuals, including old ex-cathedral organist Emmanuele Theotocopoulos (whom we also met previously and is known to the children as Mr Theo) and it is he who summons Canon Tallis for help. It all gets very exciting, and young Simon and Canon Tallis end up marooned in the jungle, left to fend for themselves. The two of them cope remarkably well, even managing to fend off the attack of a wild boar with spears carved by the Canon.

It is Simon's old aunt, who has also managed to make her way to the native village in the wilds of Venezuela, who seems to be speaking for the author when she refers to "the Great God Science. It has failed us, because it was never meant to be a god, but only a few scientists understand that." Usually, though, the author keeps her own religious beliefs to herself, and you never feel you are being preached at. Indeed she described herself as just "a writer struggling to be a Christian".

Canon Tallis makes his last and very brief appearance in the adult novel Certain Women (1992) when he is described as a “bald young priest" who serves in the nearby Cathedral. Presumably all his spying days are still in front of him! Anyway, all he does here is make a brief visit to a woman who has lost her baby promising to make baby Wesley "my intention" when he celebrates the 7.15 Eucharist the next morniing. It's not the Canon Tallis of the previous books!

Even in the other books, Tillis never became a fully developed or rounded character - but he was certainly an intriguing one.

Madeleine L'Engle (1918 - 2007), whose baptised name was Madeleine L'Engle Camp, was born in New York City but, as her parents could not agree about how to bring her up, ended up with many governesses and boarding schools including one in Switzerland. She graduated cum laude from Smith College. She married the actor Hugh Franklin and published her first novel, A Wrinkle in Time, in 1962. She went on to write some 50 books for children and adults. She was given numerous awards and several doctorates, but became very immobile in her final years, after suffering a brian hemorrhage in 2002. She was an Episcopalian who believed in universal salvation so, although her books won many awards, they were not welcomed by all Christian groups. She had a son and a daughter as well as an adopted child.

She explained that the character of Canon Tallis was modelled on that of Canon Edward West of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, where she had been an official volunteer librarian. He had become her spiritual adviser and friend. Oddly enough, even when writing about Canon West in her non-fiction books, she continued to call him Canon Tallis, because he preferred the fictitious name. Of course, in real life he was not an international sleuth, and the long discussions he had had with the author about her own personal beliefs play no part in the fiction. It seems an unlikely sort of tribute, as, on the face of it, the two of them sound so different.

The author has her own website, currently (April 2011) being redeveloped. There is interesting information about her books on the Tesseract site and about her on the St Antony Messenger site, as well as numerous mentions elsewhere.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


The Arm of the Starfish cover
This cover of the first book was designed to appeal to young readers.
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