Northrop Frye on Myth

The Journal of Religion, 82 (2002), pp 164-6


Ford Russell , Northop Frye on Myth: An Introduction (New York & London: Garland Press, 1998)

Please note that the published version was severely truncated for reasons of space. Here I have taken the opportunity of restoring the original text. (LC)

When the name of Northrop Frye is mentioned in departments of English these days, it is usually by way of a warning about the perils of trying to emulate George Eliot’s Mr Casaubon, compiling a ‘Key to All Mythologies’. This seems rather odd to me, given that it was Frye more than most who was responsible for the consolidation of contemporary literary theory. Perhaps he is the father whom younger academics have to overcome, outdo and then studiously ignore. Certainly, it is noticeable how little his central work, Anatomy of Criticism, is referred to in any detail these days, and how often his general contribution is dismissed in the knowing parentheses of a conference paper. For those trying to teach the relation between mythology and literature, and between the Bible and literature, however, the debt is incalculable; and the Anatomy, read in conjunction with his later work, The Great Code, is indispensable.

Ford Russell is probably right to focus on the former text, since it is very much Frye’s Summa. Taking his cue from Kierkegaard, he argues that in order to understand the Anatomy, we have to see its author as deliberately moving out from the aesthetic towards the religious dimension. What he does not add, though he may be said to assume, is that simply as an exposition of literary theory it is consistently elegant, engaging and enlightening. I recall Frye once being characterised as a ‘high priest of clerical obscurantism’ (ironically, in a tedious tract which was full of Maoist mumbo-jumbo); but surely it is the least mystificatory of works? Nobody who has read the Anatomy can fail to have gained confidence in his or her reading of literature. Consider how bracing it would be to discover, after many months of wrestling with the paradoxes of The Trial or The Castle, that all Kafka’s work, ‘from one point of view, may be said to form a series of commentaries on the Book of Job.’

The question that is begged, I suppose, by Russell’s decision to present Frye as a theorist of myth rather than critic, is whether Frye’s own urge towards the totality of a religious vision tends to diminish the literary examples he gives. Much hinges on his definition of literature as a ‘displacement’ of mythology. The problem is that, while this suggests that myth is an external referent which precedes and explains the literary text, Frye wishes to maintain the autonomy of literature, seeing ‘the order of words’ as self-referential. The way round the problem is to argue that, though the literary presupposes the mythic, which informs it, it is characteristic of literature to adapt the underlying narrative and symbolic patterns so thoroughly that they cease to be allusions and they become conventions. However, while this may solve the problem, and though this is indeed implicit in Frye’s criticism, it leaves the Anatomy looking like a mere exercise in critical classification. Indeed, it might even be possible to say, adapting his own summation of Kafka, that his entire theoretical output ‘from one point of view, may be said to form a series of commentaries to Aristotle’s Poetics.’ However, as Russell argues, far from offering an objective and rather lifeless catalogue of modes, genres and imagery, Frye is really interested in demonstrating the capacity of literature to regenerate and extend the mythic source. Not only that, but his own work, inspired by this capacity, and guided by the understanding that the creative and the critical are complementary, itself constitutes a mythic narrative.

If we are ourselves given to categorisation, then the kind of myth favoured by Frye would seem to be the apocalyptic – which is fitting, after all, since we know from the last book of the New Testament that ‘revelation’ stands opposed to ‘mystery’. In saying so, we should bear in mind, however, that his understanding of apocalypse owes as much to his reading of the ‘secular scripture’ of literature as to the ‘great code’ of the Bible. In the glossary to the Anatomy the word ‘apocalyptic’ is defined as follows: ‘The thematic term corresponding to “myth” in fictional literature: metaphor as pure and potentially total identification, without regard to plausibility or ordinary experience.’ Of course, the glossary is there to give the whole enterprise a business-like air, and should not be taken to embody the spirit of the text. For, however briskly it deals with matters of fiction and of figure, we must surely agree with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur when he affirms, in a memorable essay on Frye, that the Anatomy as a whole is more than an ‘arid taxonomy’ of literary forms because it is ‘written under the sign of the Apocalypse’. That is, it is a genuinely visionary work which transcends mere formalism. Russell acknowledges the importance of this judgement, and in the last two chapters he ranks Frye with Ricoeur himself, as a theorist concerned with neither the naive recovery of the power of myth (as in Campbell’s work), nor a calculating reduction (as in Freud’s), but with its imaginative recreation. In Ricoeur’s own terms, we pass beyond both ‘recollection’ and ‘suspicion’ to ‘affirmation’. Myth ceases merely to offer an explanation of the world, either ‘true’ or ‘false’: it offers a narrative model of exploration. If myth is alive and well in our time thanks to literature, it is not as an inert body of predetermined meanings, but as an adventure of imagination that owes much to Biblical typology, with its temporal and dialectical promise.

Undoubtedly the last third of Russell’s book, dealing with Frye’s mythopoeia, his debt to scriptural hermeneutics and his affinities with Ricoeur are the most persuasive. But readers will certainly have earned the pleasure of this persuasion by the time they get to it. This is not necessarily to say that Russell introduces too much extraneous material beforehand. After all, his very thesis is that, if we are to count Frye as theorist of myth rather than as critic, we have to match him point by point with his predecessors in mythography; otherwise, the final liberating insight will seem gratuitous. Thus it is that we get a sequence of chapters comparing him to Frazer, to Spengler, to Jung and to others. Of the cases just mentioned, it is only the last which might stretch credulity: the process of ‘individuation’ is perhaps too violently yoked to the heterogeneous model of Frye’s total mythos. As to the first two: reminding us judiciously that Frye is attracted to both because they give him a metaphor upon which to expand – the seasonal cycle – he points out helpfully how Spengler’s tragic emphasis on descent is able to be supplemented by Frazer, who offers Frye his complementary emphasis on ascent, thanks to the reviving god of vegetation. Moreover, the conjunction of Frazer and Spengler is relevant in that, if one saw humanity as moving from Dionysian myth to Apollonian rationality, and the other made the reverse conclusion, both are useful to Frye, who wishes to play off the two forces, presenting them as incorporated by, and subordinate to, Christianity. As Ricoeur asserts, and as Russell confirms, the whole point of Frye’s visionary criticism is to use the cycle as an analogy for the apocalypse. The parallels between the genres of romance and irony and the seasons of summer and winter themselves stand for the larger, cosmic categories of the celestial and infernal.

Because Russell has committed himself to giving a thorough account of the immediate sources of Frye’s theories of myth, we are given a much more detailed exposition of Cassirer’s philosophy of ‘symbolic form’ than of William Blake’s radical, apocalyptic Christianity, even though, as one will gather from the above, the latter is the more influential on Frye’s vision. This is perhaps justified by the fact that enough was made of that influence by Frye himself, who in his interviews so frequently and modestly declared that the Anatomy was really just a way of making sense of the cosmology of one poet. Again, it does help to have spelt out clearly Cassirer’s Kantian position: that the world is effectively made possible for human beings by virtue of innate disposition – if not by the ‘categories’, then by the capacity for ‘symbolism’. For the reference to Kant is only another way of registering Frye’s roots in the era of romanticism. Like Blake, he seems to believe that the world is constructed as much as given – if not by the ‘categories’ and if not by mere ‘symbolism’, then by the mythological imagination itself.

This would, of course, have been a different book had the author decided to treat Frye’s work as ‘a series of commentaries on the prophetic books of William Blake’; it would certainly have had to be a lot longer, to the point of being unwieldy. Passing remarks indicate that the author knows it is possible to see Blake as anticipating more or less every main principle of each of the modern theorists he cites – Freud, Jung and Cassirer being the more obvious examples, with Frazer and Spengler implicitly anticipated also. But situating Frye in relation to those listed is a task that someone had to perform eventually, and we may be grateful to Russell for undertaking it.

Certainly, his documentation by no means detracts from his central thesis, that the originality of Frye’s own myth is to identify the ‘ideal reader’ as hero, and to place him in the setting of an ‘intertextual universe’, where his task is to reach the still centre of the ‘order of words’, and so attain the point of epiphany where he has comprehended the whole and knows himself to be both shaper and container of a mythologised world. This narrative mode of understanding is clearly set out by Russell, at which point in the book one cannot help but remind oneself that Frye is never likely to be forgiven by contemporary theory. It is not that his ‘ideal reader’ is male (Frye uses the patriarchal pronoun, just as all his commentators feel obliged to do), but that his apocalyptic desire is for a totality that is more than (though certainly not less than) textual. This is to commit the cardinal error of privileging significance over signification. Frye could be accommodated were he to confine himself to supplementing Aristotle, but he puts himself beyond the pale by seeing all the literary imagery of the West as culminating in a sacred revelation.

Russell, indeed, suggests with some ingenuity that, if Frye’s ultimate debt is theological, it is not even the intellectually acceptable scholasticism which is his source, but rather the deeply unfashionable thinking of the patristic era. Adapting Origen, Frye envisages the reader as dying to the letter of the text (literal reading) and reborn to the spirit (mythic reading). Moreover, this death-and-rebirth process gains its resonance from association with some of the most central of Christian terms: incarnation, atonement, resurrection. Such terms are embarrassing for a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’.

This book will be welcomed by those working across the boundaries of literary theory, mythology and theology. But it also stands as a defence of Frye as a radical Christian thinker in his own right, fusing narrative and doctrine. It takes its place alongside the several volumes in Robert Segal’s valuable series, ‘Theorists of Myth’.


Laurence Coupe