The Great Code: The Bible and Literature
by Northrop Frye
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 261 pp., $14.95
The Art of Biblical Narrative
by Robert Alter
Basic Books, 195 pp., $13.95
Evans-Pritchard once wrote, having in mind the fog in which, so he thought, the discussion of primitive religion had been plunged by Frazer, Durkheim, Marett, and others, that anyone who wanted to do fieldwork on this topic ought to have “a poetic mind which moves easily in images and symbols.” Such a prerequisite seems even more obviously needed for the study of the Bible. The materials in the Biblical writings (the Bible, in what I have to say about Frye’s book, is the Christian Bible, the so-called Old and New Testaments, with the apocryphal—deuterocanonical—books, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, I and II Maccabees, and others) include most of the traditional kinds of oral and written work: epic, chronicle, folk tale, myth of origin, epithalamion, songs of exile, collections of proverbs, letters, biographies, proclamations of salvation, apocalyptic visions.
Put together in the King James Version, they are the most widespread cult object in North America, for they rest on or near every bedside table in hotel and motel. New vernacular translations of the original Hebrew and Greek continually appear and are bought in great quantities. What it all amounts to is hard to determine. University teachers report (Professor Frye confirms the report) that their pupils—sometimes their younger colleagues—don’t know the content of the Bible and don’t know how to read the perplexing volume. Off-the-cuff references, in lectures, to Joseph and his wonderful coat, the deliverance from Egypt, the theophany of the burning bush, the suffering servant of Isaiah, the parable of the laborers of the eleventh hour or the prodigal son, Paul’s shipwreck on the shores of Malta, rarely produce a response. We know there are those who scrutinize the text for news of the coming of Antichrist and Armageddon; but we may think this has a lot in common with the hunger for fantasies (worlds in collision, flying saucers, babies possessed by demons) and the vogue of such follies as palmistry and astrology.
The ignorance of the highly intelligent seeking an advanced education in the humanities presents the universities with a technical problem, namely, how to make the body of literature in English intelligible, for Langland, Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Hardy, Henry James, Joyce, cannot be fully grasped and valued by readers who have no serious acquaintance with the Bible. (For example, The Wings of the Dove draws its pattern of feeling and not simply its title from Psalm 55: “For it is not an open enemy, that hath done me this dishonour: for then I could have borne it…. But it was even thou, my companion: my guide, and mine own familiar friend…. The words of his mouth were softer than butter…: his words were smoother than oil” [Book of Common Prayer version].)
Northrop Frye meets Evans-Pritchard’s requirement. He has “a poetic mind” and is as well the most ingenious and comprehensive of the formal critics writing in English today. As a systematic thinker about the theory and practice of his own art …