Canon John Tallis is a major character in the young adult novels of Madeleine L'Engle, appearing in four books. The character is based on L'Engle's real-life spiritual advisor, Canon Edward Nason West of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
An Episcopal Canon, Tallis defies conventional expectations about how priests behave. Somewhat brusque in manner, he is tough-minded and not at all pious - that is, he does not make a show of his faith, but instead takes action in service of what he believes to be right. The character is comparable to G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, with a bit of Ian Fleming's James Bond thrown in. In his first three appearances especially, Tallis provides both spiritual leadership and insight into the realms of crime and international intrigue.
The character Canon Tallis appears in the following books:
In The Arm of the Starfish (1965), protagonist Adam Eddington first sees Tallis at JFK Airport, accompanied by twelve-year-old Polly O'Keefe. Adam is immediately warned against him by Carolyn "Kali" Cutter. She identifies him as a real priest attached to the diocese of Gibraltar, but also calls him a "phony". Despite the apparent innocence of a priest and a child seen eating ice cream together, and Adam's impression that Tallis resembles an "intelligent teddy bear," Adam is left with a vague distrust, mixed with curiosity. He soon has reason to take Kali's warnings more seriously, as Canon Tallis intervenes in a mysterious, somewhat sinister manner when Adam is detained in customs in Madrid. Apparently English, Tallis nevertheless carries an American Phi Beta Kappa key, and wears a French Légion d'honneur ribbon. Adam eventually learns that Canon Tallis, a trusted friend of the O'Keefe family who gave Polly her unusual name (Polyhymnia), has worked with both the American Embassy and Interpol. A chaplain and prisoner of war during the Korean War, Tallis is said to have helped his men to withstand torture, but the experience caused him to lose all his hair, including his eyebrows.
In The Young Unicorns (1968), Canon Tallis has recently arrived at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York after the events of The Arm of the Starfish. Here he meets Vicky Austin and the Austin family, along with their friends, blind piano prodigy Emily Gregory and the son of the cathedral's janitor, Josiah "Dave" Davidson. Tallis advises and helps to protect the children as they are drawn into a mystery involving a street gang called the Alphabats, a mysterious Genie, and the bishop's strange behavior.
In Dragons in the Waters (1976), Polly O'Keefe wants her father, Dr. Calvin O'Keefe, to enlist the assistance of Canon Tallis after Simon Renier's impostor cousin, Forsyth Phair, is murdered. Dr. O'Keefe is reluctant to do this, so an old friend of Tallis's from the cathedral, Emmanuele Theotocopoulos (better known as Mr. Theo), calls him instead, summoning him from London. Simon meets Tallis when both are kidnapped by a corrupt local policeman and stranded in the Venezuelan jungle. Tallis gives Simon good advice that enables Simon to save both their lives. During this book, Polly and Charles O'Keefe call Tallis "Uncle Father," a nickname picked up and used by Simon as well. Polly says of Canon Tallis, "He knows everybody in Interpol and Scotland Yard and everything. He's not really a detective, but whenever there's big trouble he gets called in to help." At the time of the book, Tallis is said to be "living quietly as a canon of St. Paul's."
Canon Tallis is a minor character in Certain Women (1992), one of L'Engle's adult novels. Described as "a shy, bald young man", he assists at the wedding of Emma Wheaton and Niklaas Green in a flashback scene at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Emma later attends church there, especially when Tallis is preaching.
Canon Tallis is based on L'Engle's longtime friend and spiritual advisor at St. John the Divine, Canon Edward Nason West, who died in 1990. L'Engle was writer in residence at the cathedral during the second half of West's long tenure there: he was with the cathedral from 1941 to 1981; she arrived in the early 1960s. To preserve West's privacy during his lifetime, L'Engle referred to him as Canon Tallis in her non-fiction as well as her fiction, beginning with the first of the Crosswicks Journals, A Circle of Quiet (1972). In that book, after referring to West as Tallis several times, she explains that he "walked, unexpected, into J.F.K. Airport when Adam Eddington was waiting to fly to Lisbon." Tallis is thus one of two "inadvertent exceptions" to L'Engle's usual practice of not writing about an "actual person," because "the character could not do anything that the person, as far as I understand him, would not do." The book in which Tallis first appears, The Arm of the Starfish, is dedicated to Edward Nason West.
The name is a reference to composer Thomas Tallis, who composed the Tallis Canon. Because of his namesake, Canon Tallis is nicknamed Tom or Father Tom.