Mister Myth

Words With Power: Being a Second Study of ‘The Bible and Literature’

by Northrop Frye
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 342 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion

by Northrop Frye
University of Toronto Press, 88 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935–1976

by Northrop Frye, edited by Robert D. Denham
Peter Lang, 416 pp., $72.00

Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974–1988

by Northrop Frye, edited by Robert D. Denham
University Press of Virginia, 386 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Here are the final works of a major critic, product of an unusual combination of gifts and convictions. He was a Canadian, a Christian, a priest, and something of a sage. As Auden wrote of Yeats, he has become his admirers. Northrop Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on July 14, 1912, and died in Toronto last March. He received his primary and secondary education in Moncton, New Brunswick, entered Victoria College of the University of Toronto in 1929 as a student of Philosophy and English, and studied Theology at Emmanuel College, Toronto. Brought up as a Methodist, he was ordained in the United Church of Canada, a church formed in 1925 by union of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches of Canada.

Frye’s earliest publications, now collected in Reading the World, were heterogeneous. He wrote about anything that came along: the Jooss Ballet, Chaplin’s films, music, Canadian art, Wyndham Lewis, the state of the world. He appears to have been born with a talent for certitude:

Delius’ paganism is honest enough, with none of the hankering for a cloudily catholic religion which inspires the theosophies of Holst and Cyril Scott, and, like most paganism, it is centered on an ideal of physical dignity.

But such interventions were relatively easy pieces. Frye’s hard-earned work began with the publication of Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947).

In that book Frye insists that Blake is neither a madman nor a mystic but a visionary:

A visionary creates, or dwells in, a higher spiritual world in which the objects of perception in this one have become transfigured and charged with a new intensity of symbolism.

To understand Blake as visionary, according to Frye, one must try to understand how he read the Bible, “and to do this properly one must read the Bible oneself with Blake’s eyes.” Frye never doubted that he could so read it: he wrote Fearful Symmetry upon that conviction. In The Double Vision, published in 1991, he claims that his early training helped:

In Methodism, even of the episcopal variety to which my family belonged, there was an emphasis on religious experience as distinct from doctrine and on very early exposure to the story element in the Bible. Such a conditioning may have helped to propel me in the direction of a literary criticism that has kept revolving around the Bible, not as a source of doctrine but as a source of story and vision.

Story and vision became Frye’s preoccupation as a critic. Blake’s reading of the Bible and—an experience nearly as provocative—his reading of Paradise Lost remained for Frye decisive evidences of an imagination at once poetic and critical.

The word that relates story and vision in Frye’s vocabulary is myth. A myth is a certain kind of story, told over and over again for the benefit of the community to which it is addressed; as Christians receive the story of the birth, death, and resurrection …

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